Friends of Joe Arridy
By Rob Warden
With the mind of a six-year-old, Joe
went to the gas chamber, smiling
Warden Roy Best would tell anyone who asked, “Joe Arridy is the happiest man who ever lived on death row.”
That was understandable.
Born in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1915, Joe Arridy — his given name was Joe, not Joseph — had an intellectual disability and, too often in life, first at school, then on the streets of Pueblo, and later at an "institution for the mentally handicapped", he was the brunt of jokes and cruelties both petty and dangerous.
He was twenty-two when he arrived at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City under a sentence of death for the rape and murder of a fifteen-year-old Pueblo girl — a crime to which he confessed but almost certainly did not commit.
Aware that Joe had the mind of a six-year-old, other men on death row were kind to him and Warden Best, known as a tough man, gave Joe a little wind-up car and a toy train to play with.
Oblivious to the fate that awaited him, Joe found the contentment he had lacked since early childhood.
* * *
Joe’s parents, Henry and Mary Arridy, had emigrated from Syria to Pueblo, a city of 58,000, where Henry worked for the Colorado Fuel & Iron Works. The Arridys lived in Bessemer, a section of tiny bungalows crowded with C.F. & I. families and owned by the company. Joe, an only child, was good natured, well-formed physically, and content to play at home. His cognitive challenges escaped notice for a long time. But he couldn’t keep up when he entered the first grade and, at the start of second grade, the principal asked Joe’s parents to keep him at home.
Joe stayed at home for the next three years, playing, as a small child does. In 1923, the Arridys had a second child, George, and the following year a third, Amelia. With three children to support, Henry Arridy seems to have forsaken work in the steel mills for bootlegging. Joe was growing fast and, with Henry in and out of jail and Mary unable to handle him, Joe was not well supervised. Although he was quiet, passive and very much a loner, Joe spent many hours wandering around Pueblo.
In January, 1926, Henry, feeling great frustration about what to do with Joe, asked neighbors for advice. They helped him to go before the Pueblo District Court and Joe was committed to the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives at Grand Junction. Nine months later, Henry began missing his son. So he successfully petitioned a judge for Joe’s release. Joe resumed his wandering around Pueblo. In September 1929, Joe, then fourteen, was cornered by some older boys. A probation officer happened along and removed Joe from the situation.
That afternoon, the probation officer wrote a letter to the superintendent of the Colorado State Home that resulted in Joe’s being returned there. “He is one of the worst mental defective cases that I have ever seen,” the probation officer wrote. “I picked him up this morning for allowing some of the nastiest and dirtiest things done to him that I have ever heard of … The boy MUST be returned. The people of the neighborhood are indignant as they are afraid of the boy and think he never should have been turned loose.… I cannot understand why boys of the mentality of this one are allowed to return home.” On a separate sheet the probation officer enumerated Joe’s myriad moral digressions, among which were “manipulating the penis of Negro boys with his mouth” and “allowing ‘nigger’ boys to enter the ‘dirty road’ with their penis.” The report ignored the obvious aggressiveness of the gang. Instead, it only focused on the utter disgust that most citizens felt for persons with intellectual disabilities in those days.
It was not a good time to have an intellectual disability in America. Eugenics, a pseudo-science promoting the improvement of the human race through controlled breeding and sexual sterilization, was at its zenith. Its credo, grounded on the false assumption that "mental deficiencies" were passed from one generation to the next, thus polluting the human gene pool, was supported by prominent persons. Among them were H.G. Wells, Emile Zola, and George Bernard Shaw. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld a Virginia involuntary sterilization law in the case of Carrie Buck, a supposedly intellectually disabled daughter of a supposedly intellectually disabled mother whose own mother, Carrie’s grandmother, also supposedly had an intellectual disability. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote for the eight-one Supreme Court majority in that case.
Against that backdrop, Joe Arridy arrived back at the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives, where boys and girls lived separately and all staff members were trained to watch for a "perverse habit" called masturbation -- and to do everything to stop it. Even so, Joe's institutional files contained not one single statement about his sexual behavior, good or bad. Absolutely nothing in the records suggested that he was inclined to commit crimes of the sort that would land him on death row in Cañon City.
* * *
The Union Pacific Railroad tracks passed close to the Grand Junction Home of the Mentally Defective, and sometimes boys hopped freights. On August 9, 1936, Joe and three cohorts hopped one for Pueblo, a twenty-four-hour trip. When they arrived, Joe wandered around the freight yard while the other boys explored the town. When the three returned, they found Joe, and the four of them hopped another train back to Grand Junction. On August 12, Joe’s travelling companions surrendered, but not Joe.
His whereabouts for the next eight days would forever be unknown — he was incapable of telling — but on August 20 he showed up in the railroad yards in East Cheyenne, Wyoming. There he approached Mr. and Mrs. Glen Gibson, who ran a Union Pacific traveling kitchen car. Joe offered to work for food, and the Gibsons put him to work washing dishes.
Joe stayed with the Gibsons and their crew when the car moved nine miles east to Archer, but on August 26, when the car had to move further east, Joe couldn’t continue because he wasn’t an authorized employee. That afternoon, Mrs. Gibson drove him back to the East Cheyenne railroad yards. A short time later, Joe was arrested by railroad detectives and turned over to Laramie County Sheriff George J. Carroll.
* * *
At fifty-six, Carroll had fashioned himself into a legend.
In 1928, after one of his deputies was gunned down by the Barker gang outside Cheyenne, Carroll gained national attention by joining a federal-local posse that tracked the gang through several states over six weeks. According to a profile of Carroll in the Cheyenne Eagle, the posse “succeeded in eliminating twenty-two members of the gang — including Ma Barker — either by bullets or jail sentences.” Carroll’s reputation was further burnished in 1933 when he and a Wyoming highway patrolman found the hideout of a gang that had kidnapped Claude K. Boettcher II, heir to a Denver fortune, and negotiated his release.
Always accommodating, Carroll was a favorite of reporters, but when he got his hands on Joe Arridy the biggest story in the Southwest was not in Cheyenne but in Pueblo — Joe’s hometown, 199 miles south of Cheyenne.
* * *
On August 2, 1936 — a week before Joe Arridy hopped a freight out of Grand Junction — Mrs. R.O. McMurtree, fifty-eight, and her aunt, Sally Crumpley, seventy-two, were asleep in their Pueblo home when they were savagely attacked by a hammer-wielding intruder. The older woman died of skull fractures, but her niece survived. Then three blocks away on August 15 — when Joe was AWOL from the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives — Dorothy Drain, fifteen, and her sister, Barbara, twelve, were attacked in the same manner, about the same time of night, as they slept while their parents were at a charity dance.
Because of the similarity of the crimes, it appeared that both were the work of the same man, although in the latter attack his weapon was not a hammer but rather an instrument with both blunt and sharp edges, perhaps a hatchet.
Dorothy Drain died of a three-inch long slash behind her ear that cut into her brain. She had been raped. Barbara, who had not been raped, suffered blows to her head from the blunt edge of the instrument, but she survived.
A $1,000 reward was posted and suspected sex criminals were rounded up all over the Southwest. In Englewood, south of Denver, an escaped patient from the Pueblo State Hospital was shot to death while allegedly resisting arrest.
* * *
Eleven days after Dorothy Drain was raped and murdered, Joe Arridy, an escapee from an insane asylum with a record of perverse sexual behavior, sat in the office of the wily Laramie sheriff, whose first question was “Where you from, son?”
When Joe said “Pueblo,” it aroused both Carroll’s lawman and political instincts.
Not only was Carroll familiar with the Pueblo crimes, he was a friend of the chief of police there, J. Arthur Grady. The year before the two had their picture taken at a convention of police officials in Atlantic City.
An hour and a half after he began talking to Arridy, Carroll called Chief Grady and told him, “We are holding a fellow here who says he killed the little Drain girl in your city.”
Grady would later say that he almost dropped the phone in surprise.
Carroll continued. “He’s a nut — he can’t even read or write — and he’s told us two or three different stories. But he seems to know all about the Drain murder, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is the man you want.”
One reason Grady was surprised was that he thought he already had the killer locked up. For six days, Grady had been holding a man named Frank Aguilar, trying to shake a confession out of him.
A thirty-five-year-old native of Mexico, Aguilar had worked for — and been fired by — Riley Drain, a Works Progress Administration supervisor in Pueblo and father of the girls. Aguilar was drawn to Grady’s attention and arrested because, despite having been fired by Riley, he showed up at Dorothy Drain’s funeral, on August 20, and seemed to be acting suspiciously. When officers searched Aguilar’s house, not bothering with the technicality of a warrant, they found a hatchet that the local coroner thought matched the Drain girls’ head wounds.
While Grady had evidence against Frank Aguilar, but no confession, Carroll had a confession from Joe Arridy, but no evidence — a situation that was about to change.
After several telephone calls between the chief and sheriff over some three hours, lo and behold, Arridy was able to provide details of the Drain crime that were in line with the facts uncovered by Grady’s investigation. Pueblo County District Attorney French Taylor and two detectives set out by car for Cheyenne.
Grady had kept Aguilar a secret from the press, preferring not to make an announcement of an arrest until he had a confession. Public reticence, however, was not Carroll’s style. As soon as Carroll could piece together a coherent narrative, before Taylor and the Pueblo DA and detectives arrived, he told reporters in Cheyenne that he had a confession in the Drain case. He gave an extensive interview to The Pueblo Chieftain, which spread it all over the next day’s issue. Among other things, Carroll told the paper, Arridy had committed the crime “just for meanness.” After the first interrogations in the evening, Carroll told reporters that Arridy confessed to beating the girls with a club. The next morning, after communicating with the Pueblo police, Carroll said that Arridy changed his story by saying he beat the girls on their heads with a hatchet.
After Arridy was taken to Pueblo — without anyone bothering with any technicalities of extradition — French Taylor grabbed a few headlines of his own. Although Carroll had presented Arridy as acting alone, the Pueblo DA told The Chieftain, “From his story it seems another man is implicated and we have requested his arrest. I feel sure this man can be located.”
Taylor’s optimism was, to say the least, more than prophetic, since the man had been in the Pueblo jail for a week. But Carroll was a tough act to out-publicize. He gave The Chieftain a detailed account of how he got the confession out of Arridy. Carroll’s account, said the paper, “was eloquent testimony to his shrewdness in drawing a fairly coherent statement from the feeble-minded youth whose warped brain responded clearly on only one subject — women.”
In the meantime, the Pueblo cops conveniently found a witness who placed Joe in Pueblo the day of the Drain crime. The witness was Saul Kahn, a pawnbroker, who claimed that a man who gave his name as “Joseph Arridy” — not Joe’s name — bought a cheap pistol from him. How Joe, who never had any money and who didn’t know how to count, paid for the gun would never be explained, nor would a gun be found.
And the theory that Joe and Frank Aguilar acted together was strengthened, supposedly, when the two were brought face to face in Chief Grady’s office and Joe blurted out, “That’s Frank.”
Joe, of course, was admitting to anything anyone wanted him to, including the murder of Sally Crumpley in Pueblo and an attack on a woman in Colorado Springs.
Aguilar maintained his innocence through five more days of grilling, but finally, on September 2, fifteen days after his arrest, he confessed. His confession, unlike those given by Joe, was taken down by a court reporter. On the night he had raped and killed Dorothy Drain, said Aguilar, he overheard a couple of men mention that Riley Drain and his wife were going to a dance, so he went to their home, watched them leave, and went in and did the crime.
Aguilar cooperatively included Joe in his account of the events whenever Taylor suggested it, such as:
Q: When you met Joe, then you and Joe talked about going up and attacking these girls, is that right?
A: Yes sir.
Aguilar said he hit “the big girl,” Dorothy, on the head and then began the sexual assault. “The little girl,” Barbara, woke up during the assault and said, “Get out,” and he hit her on the head. Taylor asked what he did after he hit Barbara.
A: Finished what I was doing.
Q: You finished what you were doing, you finished assaulting the big girl?
Q: When you got up from finishing assaulting the big girl what did Joe do?
A: I got out on the side.
Q: Then Joe assaulted the big girl, didn’t he?
Q: After Joe got through assaulting the girl what did you do to her?
A: I hit her.
After the crime, Aguilar said, they split up and he never saw Joe again.
Then he went home and washed and hid the hatchet.
So the official theory of the murder had become: A homicidal sexual deviate, who had once worked for Riley Drain and had seen his daughters, decided to invade their house one night after overhearing Drain and his wife would be out. On the way, however, he met a stranger with an intellectual disability — who also turned out to be a sexual deviate — and decided to include him on the fun. After beating, raping, and murdering together, they never saw each other again.
* * *
Frank Aguilar was brought to trial on December 15, 1936, four months to the day after the murder of Dorothy Drain. If his confession had not guaranteed his conviction, the testimony of Barbara Drain, Dorothy’s little sister, certainly did.
Barbara, who had fully recovered from her head wounds after two weeks in a coma, testified that she awoke the night of the murder and saw the face of a strange man.
“What did you say, if anything?” asked French Taylor.
“I told him to get out.”
Taylor asked if she saw the man in the courtroom. She said yes. When asked to identify him, she walked across the courtroom, stood in front of Aguilar, and pointed at him.
Taylor rested the prosecution case
That night Aguilar admitted to his attorney he was the murderer. The next day the attorney asked the judge if he could change his plea to insanity. The judge said no, and the defense rested its case.
The jury came back with a quick guilty verdict.
Barbara Drain had not been asked whether a second man had joined Aguilar in commission of the crime
* * *
Joe’s court-appointed attorney, C. Fred Barnard, initially entered a plea of not guilty on his client’s behalf but withdrew it and entered in its place a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Under Colorado law at the time, the latter plea entitled Joe to a separate jury trial on the issue of his sanity before he could be tried for murder.
The sanity trial opened in February 1937 before Pueblo County Judge Harry Leddy, who explained to the jurors that their task was to determine whether Joe was legally sane. Barnard seemed to have an unusually strong case. At the request of none other than Pueblo County District Attorney French Taylor, three state psychiatrists — alienists, in the nomenclature of the time — had examined Joe and unanimously concluded that he was “incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and therefore, would be unable to perform any action with a criminal intent.” The psychiatric finding was almost word for word the legal definition of insanity employed by courts throughout the United States.
Barnard called the three state psychiatrists who explained how they arrived at their opinion that Joe was legally insane. But the most interesting aspect of the trial was the testimony of Joe himself. Both on direct examination by Barnard and on cross by Ralph J. Neary, who had taken over from Taylor, Joe was his usual, uncomplicated, eager-to-please self.
Barnard asked him twenty-two questions, including:
Q. Do you know what an oath is?
Q. Who is president of the United States?
Q. Who is Franklin Roosevelt?
Q. Have you ever heard of George Washington?
Q. Do you know what the hearing is about?
Q. Can you read?
A. Not so good.
Q. Can you write?
Q. Can you write anything besides your name?
On cross, Neary asked scores of questions ostensibly to suggest that Joe, although slow, knew his way around and had the capacity to carry out his perverted sexual urges:
Q: Where are you going tonight, Joe?
A: Back to Grand Junction
Q: You are not going back to the State Hospital?
Q: Why are you going back to Grand Junction?
A: I like the place.
Q: You want to do what you like to do, don’t you, Joe?
Q: Do you like girls?
A: Pretty good [smiles].
When Joe left the stand, Neary called four lawmen, including Sheriff George Carroll, who had questioned Joe and who said their long experience with all sorts of criminals made them sure Joe knew right from wrong.
Finding the lawmen were more competent in matters of psychiatry than the psychiatrists, the jury found Joe to be legally sane.
* * *
When Joe’s murder trial began on April 12, 1937, Barnard moved to set aside the first jury’s verdict and allow the new jury to revisit the issue of Joe’s legal sanity. Judge Leddy granted the motion. Barnard thus had crossed the Rubicon — the defense would not be that Joe was innocent but rather whether he had been capable of distinguishing between right and wrong.
The prosecution still had the legal burden of proving both guilt and sanity, but it was a burden Ralph Neary welcomed. Barnard would be in the unenviable position of having to argue that his client didn’t commit the crime but, if he did commit it, he wasn’t responsible because he was legally insane. If insanity, in the lay sense, is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, perhaps Barnard’s sanity was questionable. In reality, however, the approach made sense, given the overwhelming odds against persuading a jury that a man who had confessed to a rape and murder was in fact not guilty. Aside from the confession, Neary’s case was weak. Barbara Drain didn’t testify. Neary probably didn’t call her because she hadn’t seen a second man. Neither the record nor contemporary accounts shed light on why Barnard didn’t call her, but he might have had good reason — perhaps she would have identified Joe in open court. Neary’s only eyewitness was Saul Kahn, the pawnbroker who identified Joe as the “Joseph” he claimed had bought a gun from him shortly before the crime.
The only physical evidence purporting to link Joe to the crime was hair. A toxicologist from Denver testified that the hair the police claimed to have found at the crime scene matched Joe’s hair — against odds of 250 to one. Not only was there no scientific basis for such a claim, but Barnard established that there was no record of hair having been recovered from the crime until after Joe’s arrest. Thus, even if the hairs actually did match, Barnard pointed out, the explanation might be that the toxicologist had compared Joe’s hair not to hair recovered from the crime scene but instead to hair taken from him after his arrest.
The star witness for the prosecution was, of course, Sheriff George Carroll, the near-legendary lawman who had skillfully wheedled a confession out of the addled defendant. In the thirty years he had been crafting himself as the crime-busting cowboy of Cheyenne, Carroll had become a skillful showman, and he put on a wonderful performance for Joe’s jury.
Neary asked Carroll to start at the beginning of Joe’s confession, “detailing it as you can remember it” — an invitation made to order for the sheriff’s talents. Exhibiting remarkable recall, Carroll recited verbatim stretches of dialogue, such as this:
“First, I started off by saying, ‘Well, Joe, you like the girls pretty well don’t you?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You have had several girls during your lifetime.’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘If you like the girls so well, why did you hurt these two girls?’ He said, ‘I didn’t mean to.’”
After testifying that Joe had said he watched the girls from bushes until a car left and the lights went out, Carroll assumed the roles of both himself and the defendant:
“How long did you stay there?”
“Until the light went out.”
“Then did you go into the house when the light went out?”
“No, we waited a little while.”
“To let the girls go to sleep.”
“How long did you wait?”
“Oh, ten or fifteen minutes.”
“What did you do then?”
“We went into the house.”
“How did you get in?”
“We went to the back door, but the back door was locked. Then I went around to the front door.”
Carroll recounted how Joe had described striking the girls with a hatchet and continued his verbatim recitation, which reflected Joe’s limited vocabulary:
“Then what did you do?”
“I got in bed with the girls.”
“Did you have sexual intercourse?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I says, ‘What did you do to the girls?’”
“He says, ‘I screw ‘em.”
By the time Carroll was done, so was Joe Arridy.
Barnard put on the three psychiatrists who had testified at the sanity trial and who had not changed their minds — Joe was legally insane. A fourth physician, Medical Doctor Benjamin Jefferson, the institutional superintendent who shared the opinion of his psychiatric colleagues also was called. In rebuttal, Neary again put on the officers who remained in unanimous agreement that Joe definitely could distinguish between right and wrong.
The jury was out for three and a half hours. The Chieftain reported that Joe “took no notice of the pronouncement of the death verdict as delivered by the jury foreman.”
* * *
On August 11, 1937, The Chieftain reported that the $1,000 reward offered in the Drain case had been awarded to Sheriff Carroll and the railroad detectives who turned Joe Arridy over to him.
Two days later Frank Aguilar was executed.
Joe’s original execution date was October 16, 1937. But, thanks largely to the interest Warden Best took in Joe, there would be nine stays before he went to the gas chamber on January 6, 1938.
Best was a proponent not only of capital punishment but also of corporal punishment, including floggings, but he was a fair man capable of caring and kindness, as exemplified by his concern for Joe.
Best arranged to get Joe an appeals lawyer, Gail Ireland, who kept the case alive on the insanity issue. Ireland hoped to get the case transferred away from Pueblo County and Judge Leddy to a judge in Fremont County, where Cañon City and the penitentiary were located. He succeeded in getting a Fremont judge to assume jurisdiction, but the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the case belonged to Pueblo.
The year and a half Joe spent on death row was joyful for him. He polished the metal food plate he kept in his cell and used it as a mirror, talking into it and making faces. Best gave Joe some children’s books with pictures of funny faces, which Joe laughed at until the pages fell apart. Best got him scissors and Joe, humming, cut the pictures out.
But nothing delighted Joe more than the bright red wind-up car, with battery powered headlights, and the toy train, a model of a Union Pacific streamliner, given to him by Warden Best and his wife. With the tireless repetition of a child, Joe scooted the car around his cell, and if it smashed into something or tipped over he would shout, “Car wreck! Car wreck!” The train extended Joe’s field of play up and down the passageway in front of the death row cells. His nearest neighbors, all admitted killers, were patient, catching the train when he rolled it toward their cells.
Best made Joe available to the press, and reporters loved the story. “I want to live here with Warden Best,” Joe told one in December 1938. “Don’t you want to go back to the home in Grand Junction?” the reporter asked. “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.”
As execution day neared, a Cañon City reporter wrote that Joe was unaware of the tension building. “He sat in his cell making faces in his polished dinner plate.”
“He cannot comprehend that the state wants to take his life,” Best said.
On January 5, 1938, Best asked Joe what he wanted for his last meal.
“Ice cream,” said Joe.
That night Best brought Joe some cigars and a box of homemade candy. Joe ate so much candy his stomach got a little upset, and he gave the rest of it away.
He began the next day, the last day of his life, with a short visit from his mother and other relatives; his father had died eleven months earlier. The visit caused his mother to collapse in tears, but Joe, unbothered, went back to his cell. He spent the rest of the day smoking cigars, eating ice cream, and playing with his train, the happiest man on death row.
Although Riley Drain, the father of the murdered girl, served as a witness to the execution of Frank Aguilar, he was not present when Joe Arridy died.
Author Rob Warden is the Executive Director, Center on Wrongful