Joe Arridy was the happiest man on death row

See also: Eddie Ives's botched execution and replacing the noose with the gas chamber

Joe Arridy didn't ask for a last meal. It's doubtful that he even understood the concept.

He was 23 years old and had an IQ of 46. He knew about eating and playing and trains, things you could see and smell and experience. But abstractions, like God and justice and evil, eluded him. The doctors called him an imbecile — in those days, a clinical term for someone who has the mental capacity of a child between four and six years old, someone considered more capable than an idiot but not quite as swift as a moron.

The newspapers of the 1930s had other names for him. "Feeble-minded killer." "Weak-witted sex slayer." "Perverted maniac."

Found wandering the Cheyenne train yards, Joe Arridy promptly confessed to a notorious Pueblo murder — and other crimes he couldn't have committed.
Found wandering the Cheyenne train yards, Joe Arridy promptly confessed to a notorious Pueblo murder — and other crimes he couldn't have committed.
Sheriff George Carroll called Arridy insane — but changed his opinion at trial; a jury took 28 minutes to find Frank Aguilar guilty of killing Dorothy Drain and sentence him to death.
Sheriff George Carroll called Arridy insane — but changed his opinion at trial; a jury took 28 minutes to find Frank Aguilar guilty of killing Dorothy Drain and sentence him to death.

Like Ricky Ray Rector, the lobotomized Arkansas killer who told his executioners that he was saving a slice of pecan pie in his cell "for later," Arridy had trouble grasping the finality of what was about to happen to him. The mystery of death had baffled much deeper thinkers than Joe Arridy. How could he be expected to fathom the ritual of a last meal?

So when they told him he could eat what he wanted, he asked for ice cream. Lots of ice cream. Ice cream all day long. Ice cream and his toy train — that was Joe's idea of fun.

Hour after hour, day after day, Arridy would reach through the bars of his cell and send his wind-up train chugging down the corridor of death row in the Colorado State Penitentiary. Other condemned prisoners would reach out from their cells, cause diversions and train wrecks and rescues that made Arridy laugh, then send the train back to its delighted owner for another go-round.

But on the last day, the day of ice cream — January 6, 1939 — the train's busy schedule was interrupted by a farewell visit from Joe's mother, aunt, cousin and fourteen-year-old sister. His mother shuddered and sobbed. Dry-eyed and perplexed, Joe stared at her. Then the women left, and Joe returned to his train.

That evening, the warden, Roy Best, and the prison chaplain, Father Albert Schaller, dropped in to prepare Arridy for the journey ahead. Minutes earlier, the Colorado Supreme Court had denied a final petition for a stay of execution by a vote of four to three, and Governor Teller Ammons had ordered Best to proceed with the sentence. Father Schaller told Arridy that he would have to give up his train, but he'd be swapping it for a golden harp.

That was fine with Joe. He doled out his favorite possessions on the spot: the train to another prisoner, a shiny tin plate to Warden Best, a toy auto to the warden's nephew.

Best, Schaller and Arridy began the slow walk to the gas chamber, located on a hill above the penitentiary. There was no last-minute call for pardon from the governor's office, a call that could have saved the life of Joe Arridy — and saved the State of Colorado from committing one of the most shameful executions in the nation's history.

The call didn't come that night. It wouldn't arrive for another 72 years.

********

In the spring of 1992, a friend sent Robert Perske a copy of "The Clinic," a long out-of-print poem by an obscure poet about a forgotten execution. It began:

The Warden wept before the lethal beans

Were dropped that night in the airless room

The poem went on to describe a doomed man who did not weep, but simply played with his toy train. "The man you kill tonight," the warden writes, "is six years old. He has no idea why he dies."

Perske had grown up in south Denver and served as a Navy radio operator in World War II. After the war, he'd become a Methodist minister and worked for eleven years as a chaplain at the Kansas Neurological Institute, an institution for children with intellectual disabilities. As efforts to end the warehousing of the disabled gained momentum in the 1960s and 1970s, Perske became a self-described "street-court-and-prison worker," advocating for this vulnerable population's right to live in the community. He also became deeply involved in challenging false confessions from mentally disadvantaged suspects, admitting to crimes they had not committed.

The poem about the train haunted Perske. Had there actually been such a case? He tracked down the poet, Marguerite Young. She told him that, yes, the poem had been inspired by a newspaper article she'd read, but she couldn't recall the details. After some additional sleuthing, Perske was stunned to discover that the execution had taken place a hundred miles from where he grew up. He had been eleven years old when the "lethal beans" — cyanide pellets, plunged into acid to produce a deadly gas — dropped for Joe Arridy.

Arridy was from Pueblo, and he'd been found guilty of one of the most horrific crimes in the tough steel-mill town's history: the rape and ax murder of fifteen-year-old Dorothy Drain, the daughter of a prominent local official and granddaughter of a former state legislator. News accounts described how Arridy, an escapee from a home for the feeble-minded, had confessed to the attack, re-enacted it for police at the crime scene and fingered his partner, Frank Aguilar, a Mexican immigrant. Both men got the gas for their deeds. Then the story faded from the headlines, replaced by fresh atrocities.

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
8
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
24 comments
dudleysharp
dudleysharp

Alan:


You write: "Like Ricky Ray Rector, the lobotomized Arkansas killer who told his executioners that he was saving a slice of pecan pie in his cell "for later," "


A few years back I called Arkansas doc about this. They had no idea what I was talking about.


I suggest it never happened.

The_Yeti_Knows
The_Yeti_Knows

Nothing like glaring injustice and blatant State sanctioned murder of a convenient scapegoat to remind us of how ludicrous the past can be.

Too bad that future generations will tell some similar stories of how backward we've become, tolerating hatred daily, allowing for freedom of speech and expression at the expense of dignity... protecting our outdated right to bear arms at the expense of countless victims of senseless coldblooded( theatre) murder.. Yes... we've come a long way... precisely an inch... coincidentally the length of my friend pikeman's acorn.

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

I would like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with your real name/town. If that's okay, let me know at patricia.calhoun@westword.com.

strangerthan_thou
strangerthan_thou

i've been following this story. it's so sad. i'm glad that i don't live in that time, since i also have mental handicaps that would be easy to exploit. good to put this story to rest, especially with the advances we've had in mental health and services in colorado in the past few years. we should always remember our past before we forge forward into the future. 

Mission Supports
Mission Supports

As noted in this must-read article, Texas executed Marvin Wilson, an inmate with an IQ of 61, just last month. The verbal descriptions of "moron" or even "diseased germ plasma" may not be as prevalent today, but the indifferent attitude toward those who have intellectual and developmental disabilities still certainly exists. Thank you Alan Prenergast for exposing this historic injustice toward a segment of our population who need the support of our community more now than ever.

RevBF
RevBF

Awesome story! Sometimes it's interesting to dig up these accounts about the judicial system and notice that it's very rarely changed over the course of hundreds of years. With the new social media platforms - we ourselves are also very much involved in modern day witch hunts. The innocent until proven guilty via popular opinion is far too relevant. Why defend someone who's so unpopular if you're trying to push your own career and agenda? The ideals are very much prevalent still...unfortunately. God bless America... 

aljohn
aljohn

Hopefully this will happen to our own local "imbecile" Corey Donahue AKA Donkey Hotay.

 

Zing!!!

dleonetti
dleonetti

Great Job Alan! Wish you could have got the Frank Aguilar fire in there; we just couldnt track it down. It was a train wreck on all sides, but beautifully written.

Juan_Leg
Juan_Leg

I most definitely see where you are going w/ this & I couldn't agree more !!!

I don't care if they compile a million charges , what's RIGHT is RIGHT !!!!

Evita Chase
Evita Chase

I wonder if this is where Stephen King found his inspiration for The Green Mile?

teddiroberts1313
teddiroberts1313

should have said, There is no better man than Robert Perske, and Joe Arridy.

teddiroberts1313
teddiroberts1313

It was such an honor to be involved with Joe's story.  There is no better man then Joe Perske

 

 

teddiroberts1313
teddiroberts1313

It was such an honor to be involved in Joe's story,  He should have never died, the injustice back then was so bad... But thanks to Gov. Ritter, he gave us all an education about the truth. 

 

Legen Dairy
Legen Dairy

He was innocent. Didnt deserve to die.

ghadaway
ghadaway

This story is about my uncle Joe. He was my mother's brother. I never knew about this until after she died this past May, she never talked about her family.

alanprend
alanprend

 @dleonetti Thanks Daniel. I did just recently locate a clip dealing with the fire, some months after Aguilar's execution. His widow not only refused to take his body but abandoned his children. But that's a story for another day...

dleonetti
dleonetti

 @ghadaway

 Cant wait till we meet up in Pueblo, I am trying to finalize a date and time to have breakfast and then motor up to see Joe in Canon City.

alanprend
alanprend

 @ghadaway Thanks for commenting. Did your mother ever mention her other brother, George, who apparently also suffered as a result of this case? I would be very interested in knowing what happened to him.

charenton_
charenton_

@GavotteAndBowel really good! I'm weirdly fascinated by true crime tales.

 
Loading...