Giving Llandudno their condemned meals
I was asked to deliver a writing workshop to the amicable and talented Llandudno & District Writers’ Club on Wednesday. I chose Characterisation because I’d seen an exercise given by Peter Guttridge and Laura Wilson at the Winchester Writers’ Conference a few years ago during which they gave me an experience I’ll never forget. They handed out photographs of condemned prisoners and we had to reason through character clues from those meals. It was surprisingly difficult to find copies even though I’d discovered the originals came from The Observer from a book review by Alex Hannaford on Confessions of a Death Row Chef by Brian Price (2004). Luckily, Laura sent me a copy of her photos then I mined the web for the backgrounds to those and many more prisoners and their crimes.
Generalising I found that the less intelligent ordered the most high-carb meals. Possibly as comfort foods, going back to their happier childhoods? Maybe although many murders had extraordinarily rubbish childhoods. The higher the intelligence, the less was requested for their last meals until I offered pictures of a blank plate to those puzzled Llandudno writers. ‘Nothing comes of nothing’ quoted one aspiring Shakespeare but in fact the blank plate speaks volumes. A metaphoric statement for example against the way the State was to eliminate his life – Ted Bundy, who’d confessed to killing 30 women yet estimates put the real number at 400.
In Houston, Larry Wayne White strangled a 72-year-old woman then stabbed her with a sharpened screwdriver. Twenty years later, in May 1997, after the usual lengthy and despairing period of appeals, he was executed by the state of Texas. For his last meal, White requested liver and fried onions, tomatoes, cottage cheese, and a cigarette.
Two hours later, he was injected with sodium thiopental, which sedates, pancuronium bromide, which collapses the lungs and diaphragm, and potassium chloride, which stops the heart. He was dead within seven minutes. Apparently he’d enjoyed his meal but the last smoke of the condemned man was banned in Texas penitentiaries, under the thoughtful aegis of George W. Bush, on ‘health grounds’.
Photo K shows the meal of an atypical case. Ricky Lee Sanderson (38) 1998 was gassed for the murder of 16-year-old Sue Ellen “Suzi” Holliman of Lexington on March 14, 1985
Sanderson requested a special but odd last meal. He could have asked for a slap-up meal, the best the prison could conjure. Instead, he chose a honey bun. In his final statement he said: “Yeah, about the last meal I do. I didn’t take that because I have very strong convictions about abortion and with 33 million babies that have been aborted in this country, died for no reason, I’m dying for a deed I did and I deserve death for it and I’m glad Christ forgave me. Those babies never got a first meal and that’s why I didn’t take the last, in their memory. I’m just thankful God has been gracious to me. That’s it.” Perhaps he should have no last meal at all since that would more closely relate to those aborted ‘babies’ but at least it showed he had empathy of some sort. Sanderson had a terrible upbringing. He was beaten, had to scrounge for food and watched his father sexually abuse his 6-year-old sister.
So, did the Llandudno writers get something out of the exercise? Judging by the discussions spilling onto the street afterwards, they will, hopefully, find inspiration to create three-dimensional and colourful characters in their writing. The Llandudno group are amicable and discerning. They must be since several bought the SF Escape Velocity anthology I edited this year. See here.
My workshop on characterisation is available, along with me, for any half day – for a reasonable fee. Thanks to Literature Wales, who funded that day!