Joe Arridy's, execution has become very controversial in recent years because it is the subject of Deadly Innocence? a book written by Robert Perske. Perske is a well-known opponent of the death penalty. Arridy, #19845, was convicted of participating in the brutal murder and rape of a 15-year old Pueblo girl named Dorothy Drain on August 15, 1936. Dorothy’s sister Barbara, 12, was home with her at the time and both girls had been hit in the head with the blunt edge of a hatchet. Their parents returned home after a night out to find Dorothy dying and Barbara in a coma. The hatchet was found in the home of Frank Aguilar #19578, and he was arrested on August, 20, 1936. Pueblo Police Chief Grady believed all evidence clearly revealed Aguilar was the murderer.
Joe Arridy was arrested in Cheyenne Wyoming on August 26, 1937 for vagrancy and was interviewed by Cheyenne Sheriff George Carroll for an hour and a half. At the end of the interrogation, Carroll called Grady and said he had a man who was involved in the Drain murder. Carroll said Arridy was certainly mentally retarded and his story changed several times but Carroll was certain of his involvement. The Wyoming State Tribune labeled Arridy as a "feebleminded moron." Arridy's view of the murder changed each time he talked about it. Arridy's varied descriptions of the murder were printed in The Pueblo Chieftain on several occasions. In one of his many descriptions of the crime Arridy said he was with a man named Frank. This information was used against Aguilar who signed a confession on August 31, 1934 admitting to killing Dorothy Drain. At no time in his trial or in his confession did Aguilar mention Arridy. Robert Perske questions Arridy's participation in the crime and implies that if he was there he did not participate in the murder. Based on his confession, Aguilar was sentenced to death and executed on August 13, 1937.
A trial was held to determine Arridy's sanity. It was determined he was competent to stand trial because he knew the difference between right and wrong. Judge Harry Leddy sentenced Arridy to death on June 25, 1937.
Arridy had spent most of his life in and out of institutions. He was often on the road alone and was unable to support himself. According to Perske the time he spent on death row was the most secure he had ever felt. Warden Best gave him a red toy train for Christmas and he had three square meals a day. Arridy spent eighteen months and seven days on death row happily playing with his toy train. The prison officials and the community of Cañon City began to petition for a life sentence for Arridy, who had no understanding what a death sentence was. Several discussions with the press and fellow prisoners have been recorded displaying his lack of understanding. The following discussion was recorded on December 1, 1938.
"Don't you (Arridy) want to be killed?"
"No, I want to live, I want to live here with Warden Best."
"Don't you want to go back to the home in Grand Junction (an institution he ran away from six years earlier)."
"No, I want to get a life sentence and stay here with Warden Best. At the home the kids used to beat me."
"Would you rather be here Joe?"
"Yes I want to stay here, I can't get in trouble here...."
"Do you remember after the little girls were killed, you ran to the train, and they arrested you in Cheyenne, Wyoming?"
"No, I don't remember that. But I remember the judge wanted to kill me."
"You know what it means to go to the gas house, don't you Joe?"
"Yes, they kill you there. But I don't want to be killed. I want a life sentence and stay here all the time."
When the Cañon City community decided to fight to overturn Arridy's death sentence for life in prison, citizens of Pueblo were outraged and, although Arridy received a stay of execution in 1938, the effort to save him was finally determined by the Colorado Supreme Court. The final vote in the Supreme Court was four to three and Arridy was executed on January 6, 1939. Best said, "He was the happiest man ever on death row."
Roy Best and Father Albert Schaller accompanied Arridy to the gas chamber. Schaller had tried to explain to Arridy what heaven might be like, including playing the harp. Best asked Arridy if he still planned to raise chickens in heaven. Arridy replied, "No, I would like to play the harp like Father Schaller told me I could."
The following excerpt is from The Pueblo Chieftain published on January 7, 1939:
The doomed youth (Arridy was 23 years old) was grinning as he entered the gas chamber and prison officials began preparing him for execution in a small room off the steel execution chamber.
While Arridy's prison-style blue shirt and pants were removed, Father Schaller and Arridy repeated the Lord's Prayer once more—with just two words at a time. (According to the Pueblo Chieftain Arridy could not remember more than two words at a time.)
Arridy stepped into the gas chamber still grinning, and immediately sat down in the second of the three chairs in the small room. He was clad only in a pair of white shorts and socks.
The grin left his face when the black bandage was placed over his eyes. He seemed puzzled, but the grin returned when Warden Best took his hand and reassured him.
The guards then proceeded to quickly strap him into the chair. His arms and legs were drawn tight to the steel chair and a wide belt was strapped across his chest and caught behind the chair. All of the officials left the execution chamber except Father Schaller, who with tears in his eyes, took Arridy's hand and bid him good-bye.
Then the priest left the chamber and the steel door closed.
Perske, Robert. Deadly Innocent? Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.
Whitmore, Julie. A History of Colorado State Penitentiary, 1871-1940. Canon City, CO: Printing Plus Press, July, 1983.
Vigil, Karen. "Death Penalty Foes Speak Out." The Pueblo Chieftain, Star Journal Publishing Company 1996, Vol. 29, Number 103.
LHC = Local History Center, Cañon City Public Library, Cañon City, Colorado.
MCP = Museum of Colorado Prisons, Cañon City, Colorado.
1 MCP: Photograph of Joe Arridy, #19845, Execution Photograph Album.
2 MCP: Photograph of Frank Aguilar, #19578, Execution Photograph Album.
3 LHC: Photograph of Joe Arridy giving toy traing to Angelo Agnes, January 6, 1939.
4 LHC: Photograph of Joe Arridy and Warden Roy Best.