The Tragic Story Of “The Happiest Prisoner On Death Row”

Joe Arridy was a good-natured child growing up, but as he grew older his parents noticed something was wrong. By first grade he couldn’t keep up with the lessons, and the principal asked his parents to keep him at home. The tests Joe took as part of his school evaluation revealed he could not correctly identify colours, explain the difference between a stone and an egg, or repeat a sequence of four numbers.

In his late teens, Joe was admitted to the Colorado State Home for Mental Defectives at Grand Junction, where he spent most of his life. With an IQ of 46, he was frequently beaten and taken advantage of by the other boys at the state home. In August 1936, he and a couple of others decided to hop on a train that routinely passed by the home. They took the train all the way back to Joe’s hometown of Pueblo, a 24-hour trip.

That week, the town was whipped up into a frenzy. Two teenage girls had been attacked in their own home. Dorothy Drain, 15, had been raped and killed with a hatchet, while her sister, 12, had barely survived a savage beating. Their father, who had been out that evening, came home to find them both on Dorothy’s blood-soaked bed. The younger daughter, Barbara, was in a coma, and a funeral service was held for Dorothy. Everyone was on the lookout for what the newspapers were calling a “perverted maniac”.

Unlike the other boys, Joe hadn’t returned to Grand Junction, instead choosing to wander the railroads alone. The police found him in Cheyenne, some 200 miles away from Pueblo, and took the boy in to see the Sheriff. Carroll, something of a celebrity in those parts, and frequently courting the attention of journalists, believed their might be some connection between the wandering man and the murders that had occurred in a nearby town. After hours of interrogation, Joe willingly confessed to the murder.

Sheriff Carroll called Pueblo’s Chief of Police Arthur Grady, and told him “We are holding a fellow here who says he killed the little Drain girl in your city”. Grady was bewildered, because they already had a suspect, Frank Aguilar, in custody. Aguilar had recently been fired by Riley Drain, the victims’ father, and when they searched his home a hatchet that matched the victim’s wounds had been found, as well as material from their home.

This seemingly open-and-shut case was drastically changed when Joe was brought into the mix. According to Carroll, Joe had met Aguilar on the street and they both had decided to attack the girls together. “He’s a nut – he can’t even read or write – and he’s told us two or three different stories,” Carroll told Grady, “But he seems to know all about the Drain murder”.

Before he had been charged, Carroll announced to the press that Arridy was the killer. Joe’s claims were contradictory, as he claimed to have killed others who were still alive, and said he used a club until he was told the murder weapon was an axe, at which point he changed his story to match it. Aguilar denied ever meeting Joe, telling the officers he had never seen him before. But after further interrogation, he eventually relented to the pressure. In a series of blunt yes-no answers to leading questions, his confession implicated Joe in the crime, and they were both taken to court.

Barbara Drain, who had begun to recover from her injuries, identified Aguilar as the man who had attacked her, but wasn’t asked to testify against Joe. Another boy from the home said that Joe didn’t arrive until August 16, the day after the murder, but his testimony wasn’t recorded. The defence pushed for a verdict of innocence by reason of insanity.

Three state psychiatrists were brought forward, positing that Joe had the mental age of six and that he was “incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and therefore, would be unable to perform any action with criminal intent”. The judge decided to side with the opinions of four lawmen instead, who had claimed he was capable of understanding his actions. Carroll was one of these four, despite telling reporters Arridy was “unquestionably insane” prior to the trial.

Joe’s elaborate confession was recited from memory by Carroll, who had received the $1000 reward for catching him. The confession wasn’t recorded or witnessed by anyone else. The superintendent of the Colorado State Home, Dr. Benjamin Jefferson, claimed Joe was well-behaved, but highly suggestible and vulnerable. He was often taken advantage of by the other boys, and would confess to stealing things, such as cigarettes, even when he clearly wasn’t the culprit.

When Joe was questioned, he revealed that he didn’t know who Dorothy Drain was, nor Frank Aguilar. He didn’t know who Franklin Roosevelt or George Washington were. He didn’t know what a hatchet was, or why he was in court. On the strength of the Sheriff’s testimony, he was charged with the crime alongside Aguilar, and sentenced to death.

Joe spent his time on death row playing with a toy train and car given to him by the prison warden, Roy Best. Joe would polish his food plate and use it as a mirror, talking into it and making faces. He was well-liked by the guards and prisoners, and when he sent his wind-up train off down the corridor other prisoners would reach out from their cells, causing diversions and wrecks to make him laugh, before sending it back his way. The warden called him “the happiest prisoner on death row”.

When asked if he would want to return to the home in Grand Junction, Joe told a reporter, “No, I want to get a life sentence and stay here with Warden Best. At the home the kids used to beat me…. I never get in trouble here.”

Frank Aguilar was executed in 1937, but due to the efforts of attorney Gail Ireland, Joe was given nine stays of execution. The 10th appeal failed, and Joe was sent to his death. “He probably didn’t even know he was about to die,” Best said, “all he did was happily sit and play with a toy train I had given him”. When asked about his execution he showed “blank bewilderment”, telling the warden “No, no, Joe won’t die”.

For his last meal, he requested ice cream. The priest who gave him his last rites told him he would have to give up his train, but he would be swapping it for a golden harp. He gave his toy car to the warden’s nephew, and the shiny plate to the Warden. On his way to the gas chamber, he gave his train to an inmate he had befriended, telling him “I want to play the harp like the padre told me”.

In January 1939, at the age of 23, Joe Arridy was taken to the gas chamber. As one paper reported, he “walked to his death with the faith of a child, made no struggle.” He was slightly nervous, but smiled when the warden held his hand reassuringly, before he was left alone in the chamber. Hydrogen cyanide gas flooded the cell, Joe took three deep breaths and died. Warden Best wept.

In 1995, Robert Perske, an advocate for the disabled, published a book that made the case for Arridy’s innocence. “I’ve worked on a lot of miscarriage of justice cases,” said Perske, “and the trial, conviction, and execution of Joe Arridy is the worst miscarriage of justice I’ve ever seen.”

After a numerous other attempts by supporters over the years, including a group named The Friends of Joe Arridy, attorney David Martinez was able to construct a 400-page appeal for the posthumous pardoning of Joe Arridy. In 2011 the appeal was delivered to Governor Bill Ritter’s office and the official pardon was finally delivered, 72 years after his death.

“Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history,” Ritter said, “It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.” The Friends of Joe Arridy added the date of the pardon to his gravestone, along with the epitaph “Here lies an innocent man”. A toy train was placed atop his resting place.

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