This week's cover story, "The Happiest Man on Death Row," examines the 1939 execution of Joe Arridy, a Pueblo man with an IQ of 46, for a murder he probably didn't commit -- and the twenty-year battle by author Robert Perske to clear his name. Although the miscarriage of justice in Arridy's case is shocking, his time in the state pen (where he was allowed to play with his toy train) was an oddly gentle period in his short life, and his death by asphyxiation in Colorado's gas chamber was swift -- unlike the fate of many of his predecessors on death row.
Arridy was the seventh prisoner to die in the state's gas chamber, which had enough seats to accommodate three customers at once. Colorado had only started using cyanide gas to administer the death penalty in 1934, and the newfangled contraption was widely regarded as a "painless" alternative to the prior method, hanging -- a practice that dated back to frontier days.
The problem with hanging, state officials had discovered, is that it isn't easy to instantly snap someone's neck with a simple noose and gravity. Even with increasingly sophisticated scaffolds, traps and counterweights, there are too many variants involved in the procedure, including the weight of the prisoner, to guarantee a tidy result. More often than not, the procedure left the condemned man dangling and writhing, slowly being choked to death, rather than a clean kill. There had been some memorable miscalculations by the executioners, and the hanging of Eddie Ives had been the worst of the lot.
Ives, a barber and burglar, had been convicted of the fatal shooting of a cop after Denver police crashed an illegal booze party on Curtis Street. (A second officer was wounded in the 1928 shooting, only to be slain a few days later by a nurse at Denver General Hospital who happened to be his spurned lover; Denver's scandal-crazy dailies pumped that case into a Roaring Twenties version of "the crime of the century," as detailed in my 2003 feature "Love Crazy.") He managed to stall his execution for months by pretending to be insane, dipping his chow in the toilet in his cell and babbling in strange tongues.
After that ploy failed and he was pronounced sane, Ives won another delay when a riot at the state penitentiary gutted three cell houses and left twelve dead, including seven guards. One of the casualties was Jack Eeles, 77, who'd been the prison's hangman for thirty years.
Ives, who weighed only eighty pounds, had a longstanding belief that he was going to beat the noose. "Hell," he reportedly told a Denver detective years before he got the death sentence, "they couldn't hang me if they wanted to. A noose couldn't crack my neck. I'm too small to spring the trap."
But time ran out for Ives on January 10, 1930. He was escorted to the gallows, the noose tightened around his neck. A guard pulled a lever that sent a weight hurtling down a chute. The weight was supposed to pull the rope taut; then the prisoner would break his neck as he fell through the trap. But Ives was too light. As the weight fell, he went hurtling toward the ceiling. The rope jumped off the pulley and Ives fell to the floor, gasping for breath.
"You can't hang a man twice," he said.
But they did. According to one witness, it took three attempts. Ives was strangled for 23 minutes before he was pronounced dead. At that time, the executions were closed to the press, but word leaked out of his slow and excruciating demise. "Colorado has one of the most ghastly hanging machines possible," Thomas Tynan, a former warden for the penitentiary, told the Rocky Mountain News. "More than half of the men executed have not been hanged at all. They have strangled."
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Colorado continued to use the rope for another three years -- more than a dozen executions, some of them almost as gruesome as Ives's death. Then the legislature decided to switch to gas. That method stayed in place for more than thirty years, until the 1967 death of Luis Jose Monge, who killed four members of his family to cover up his own sexual abuse of them. It was the last execution performed anywhere in the country before a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that put the death penalty on hold well into the 1970s.
By the time Colorado got around to another execution in 1997 -- its 93rd since achieving statehood -- the gas chamber had been replaced by lethal injection. The recipient was Gary Lee Davis, the only killer the state has managed to kill in the past four decades. Look for more on Davis in this space.
More from our Colorado Crimes archive: "Joe Arridy: Pardoned long after his execution, mentally impaired man gets online props."