Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row

Joe Arridy Was the Happiest Man on Death Row
Jay Vollmar

Page 8 of 9

Best not only rebuilt the prison, he remade it, according to his own hard-nosed ideas about discipline and rehabilitation. He pushed for better sanitation, silent periods, individual cells, prison industries, an array of privileges that could be used to reward good behavior. He preferred to flog convicts who misbehaved rather than send them to solitary confinement. He befriended (and all but adopted) some of the prison's most vulnerable inmates, including Jimmy Melton, who'd been tried as an adult for murdering his sister when he was twelve.

Arridy was one of Best's special cases. The warden brought him picture books, a battery-powered toy car — and, toward the end of his stay, the toy train. "Joe Arridy is the happiest man who ever lived on death row," Best told reporters.

The twenty months Arridy spent in Best's domain were unlike anything he had known before. Taking their cue from the warden, the guards didn't harass him. The other condemned men humored him and put up with his games. They didn't call him a feeb, a pervert or, worse, a diseased germ plasma. Perhaps he reminded them of the children they had once been. To others, it may not have seemed like much of a life, but it was something like acceptance.

Yet when Bob Perske retraced those last months of Arridy's life, he couldn't help feeling that his subject had become a kind of afterthought in the Drain investigation, collateral damage in someone else's scheme. He had been required for a specific purpose, to provide a confession implicating Aguilar, and now he was expendable.

"They needed Joe to get Aguilar," Perske says. "But you couldn't unring a bell. Once they had what they wanted, people just gave up on him."

One man did not give up. Prominent Denver attorney Gail Ireland agreed to take on Arridy's appeals at the request of Ben Jefferson, the superintendent of the state home. Correspondence between the two reveals that both men were convinced of Arridy's innocence; but as a legal strategy, Ireland's briefs didn't contest "the fact that Arridy was present when the crime was committed." Instead, Ireland challenged the finding that Arridy was sane. A man who is mentally incompetent cannot adequately defend himself at trial, Ireland argued, and cannot be legally executed in such a condition.

Ireland obtained nine stays of execution. The Colorado Supreme Court found his arguments intriguing, but, as Justice Norris Bakke opined, their job was to interpret "the law of the state as it now is, not under what we wish it might, or should, or may be at some time in the future."

Arridy was less impressed. He scarcely looked up from his toys when told of the reprieves. He didn't seem distressed when the petitions eventually failed, either. Death was not real, the way the train was. (Headline from the Chieftain: HE DIES FRIDAY BUT LAUGHS TODAY.)

Eleventh-hour appeals for another sanity hearing and for clemency from the governor failed, too. The day of ice cream arrived, and Arridy was persuaded to give up his train and say prayers with the chaplain, who recited slowly, two words at a time, so Arridy could repeat after him: "Our Father...who art...in heaven..."

The little man shook hands with the other doomed men and handed out his toys. A sparse crowd watched him head to the death house, flanked by Best and Father Schaller. Riley Drain had vowed to return to see Arridy executed, but he didn't attend. Outside the chamber, Arridy was stripped to his socks and shorts. He smiled as the guards strapped him to the chair and Best patted his hand. Then he was alone in the room.

The gas swirled up from beneath the chair. He took three deep breaths and died.

Warden Best wept.


With few exceptions — Best, Ireland, a small circle of family and clergy and people of kindness and courage — the citizens of Colorado weren't inclined to mourn Joe Arridy. A Denver Post editorial likened the execution to a mercy killing: "He never could have been anywhere near a normal human. Alive, he was no good to himself and a constant menace and burden to society. The most merciful thing to do was put him out of his misery."

For some, the misery didn't end there. George Arridy was kept in a state institution for years, despite his plaintive written pleas and demonstrated good behavior, out of fears about the public uproar that would result if the "high moron" brother of an executed killer was allowed to run loose.

Although colleagues had warned him that taking on the Arridy appeal might blight his career, Gail Ireland went on to serve four years as Colorado's attorney general. Roy Best enjoyed a long and popular reign as warden before getting suspended for whipping prisoners in 1952. He was acquitted of embezzlement and civil-rights violations but died shortly afterward. George Carroll grabbed his last headline in 1961, when he expired at a Cheyenne rest home.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast