23-year-old Joe Arridy didn’t understand the concept of dying and requested ice cream as his last meal, he was described by the warden as “the happiest man who ever lived on death row.”
Joe Arridy was born in 1915 in Pueblo, Colorado and was late to start talking, as a boy, he also had trouble speaking full sentences as he never spoke in sentences of more than a few words.
The doctors called him imbecile – a clinical term used in those days for someone with the mental capacity of a child between four and six-year-old someone considered more capable than an idiot but not quite as swift as a moron.
He had an IQ of 46 and his inability to learn caused troubles for him early in his life, his principal told his parents to keep him at home after attending the elementary school for just one year.
At the age of 10, Joe Arridy was admitted to the State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction, Colorado. Joe stayed there for some time until he finally ran away after he turned 21.
The Night of The Attack
When Dorothy Drain’s parents returned to their home on August 15, 1936, they were not prepared to the sight they were about to witness – their 15-year-old daughter was dead in a pool of her own blood, she was killed by a blow to the head while she was sleeping.
Adding to their horrors, their younger daughter, Barbara had also been struck in the head, although she somehow survived.
The coroner determined that elder daughter Dorothy had been raped and suffered a fatal blow to the brain from a sharp weapon, such as an ax – she was first killed then sexually assaulted.
The attack on the sisters, Barbara and Dorothy were remarkably similar to another attack on two sleeping women that occurred just two weeks earlier.
On the night of the attack, two women in the neighborhood claimed to have been grabbed from behind on the street by a short man. They described him as a “Mexican” looking man.
The Arrest of Joe Arridy
The police were heavy pressure to catch the killer as the word of the tragedy spread across the city, hundreds of people were standing in front of the residence.
Pueblo Police Chief Arthur Grady wrote in an article for a true-crime magazine, published just months after the killing.
“Pueblo has a population of about 50,000, and by 10 a.m. it seemed as though 49,000 of them had swooped down on Stone Avenue.”
11 Days after the murder, Sheriff George Carroll decided to question a young man who was wandering around the railyards.
The man was 21 years old, 5′ 5″ tall, 125 pounds, with a dark complexion, Joe Arridy. Joe’s parents were Syrian immigrants, which contributed to his dark complexion as described by the two women who claimed they were grabbed from behind in Pueblo.
But what caught sheriff Carroll’s attention was Joe said that he’d come by train from Pueblo.
Carroll questioned Joe for almost eight hours over the next two days – Carroll did not even bother to write down the confession he got from Joe in the eight hours of questioning.
Sherrif Carroll would later testify – form his memory, as there were no notes, no witnesses for most of the interrogation – a harrowing story about the night of the attack. He said that Joe had spied on the girls from the bushes outside, and after he saw the parents leaving, he snuck inside and hit the girls in the head, took his clothes off, assaulted Dorothy, dressed, and left.
Carroll asked Joe if he liked girls? then immediately followed another question “if you like girls so well, why do you hurt them?”
Puzzling Story By Sheriff Carroll
Many elements of the story made no sense at all. At first, Joe talked about hitting the girls with a club, then changed the weapon to hatchet. Joe was unable to say where he got the hatchet from.
But Carroll insisted that he provided with the details about the Drain house – details about the arrangements of the rooms, the color of the furniture and the color of the walls in girl’s bedroom. The details only someone who had been there would know.
He arrested Arridy and called the Chief to tell him that he had a “nut” who was unable to read and write but knew the details about the murder of Dorothy Drain. Carroll added: “He’s either crazy of a mighty good actor”
It should have been clear to everyone involved in the case that Joe Arridy wasn’t guilty and his confession was a result of a man who interrogated him.
In the meantime, Chief Grady arrested a suspect named Frank Aguilar. Frank was found guilty of the murder and was executed after being identified by Barbara Drain.
Frank had worked for Drain on WPA projects and had been discharged by him. Frank had seen the girls at worksites and police found that hatchet head with distinctive nicks that seemed to match up with the wounds inflicted on Dorothy Drain.
The Confusing Case of Joe Arridy
The hatchet head recovered from Frank’s house was brought to the station and Joe Arridy was asked if he recognized the hatchet?
Arridy said it belonged to someone named Frank. The story changed overnight, now Arridy claimed that he’d committed the crime with Frank. That it was Frank who hit the girls, he offered very little useful information. An officer told the reporters that the suspect seemed to be hungover “from the use of marijuana or something similar.”
When Arridy was taken to police headquarters for a confrontation with Frank Aguilar. Arridy said “That’s Frank,” to which Frank replied, “I never seen him before.”
All of this took place while Joe Arridy was still being held for the murders himself, but the local law enforcement was convinced that Frank and Joe Arridy had been partners in the crimes.
Either way, the public outrage did not slow down even after Frank was executed. So despite the fact that three psychiatrists testified at Arridy’s trial and declared him mentally handicapped with an IQ of 46, Arridy was found guilty and was sentenced to death.
The Happiest Man On Death Row
The main focus for Joe Arridy’s defense was that he was not legally sane and therefore he was “incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong and therefore, would be unable to perform any action with criminal intent.”
Arridy even struggled to explain the simplest of things, such as the difference between a stone and an egg. He also failed to understand the concept of death.
The prison warden Roy Best reported that “Joe Arridy is the happiest man who ever lived on the death row” and when Joe was informed of his execution, he was more interested in his toy trains.
When asked what he wanted for his last meal, he requested Ice Cream. On Jan 6, 1939, after giving his toy train to another inmate, Arridy was led to the gas chamber, where he grinned as the guards strapped him into the chair.
His execution was fairly swift, although the prison warden is reported to have cried in the chamber.
The attorney, Gail Ireland who petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court on Arridy’s behalf, had written during the case “Believe me if he is gassed it will take a long time for the state of Colorado to live down the disgrace.”
It was not actually until 2011, after more than seven decades after Arridy’s execution, the Colorado Governor Bill Ritter granted him a posthumous pardon. “Pardoning Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history… It is the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name” Ritter said.
He was reported to have smiled while being taken to the gas chamber. Momentarily nervous, he calmed down when the warden grabbed his hand and reassured him.