23-year-old Joe Arridy didn’t understand the concept of death 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 Mughsot
Joe Arridy Mughsot

Joe Arridy was born on April 29, 1915, to Henry and Mary Arridy, in Pueblo, Colorado. As a child, he started speaking late and found it difficult to form full sentences, often using only a few words.

Doctors diagnosed him as an imbecile, a clinical term used in that era for someone with the mental capacity of a child between four and six years old – someone considered more capable than an idiot but not as developed as a moron.

He had an IQ of 46 and his inability to learn caused problems early on. His headmaster suggested his parents leave him at home after only one year of primary school. At the age of 10, Joe was admitted to the State Home and Training School for the Mentally Disabled in Grand Junction, Colorado, where he stayed for some time until he finally ran away at the age of 21.

The murder of Dorothy Drain

When Dorothy Drain’s parents returned to their home on August 15, 1936, they were not prepared for the gruesome sight that awaited them – their 15-year-old daughter was found dead in a pool of her own blood, having been killed by a blow to the head while she was sleeping.

To compound the tragedy, their younger daughter Barbara was also struck in the head. The coroner determined that the elder daughter, Dorothy, had been raped and suffered a fatal blow to the brain from a sharp weapon, such as an axe. She was killed first and then sexually assaulted post-mortem.

The assault on sisters Barbara and Dorothy bore a striking resemblance to another attack on two sleeping women that had occurred just two weeks prior.

On the night of the attack, two women in the neighborhood reported being grabbed from behind on the street by a short man fitting the description of a “Mexican” individual.

The Arrest of Joe Arridy

The police were under intense pressure to apprehend the perpetrator as news of the tragedy spread across the city, with hundreds of people gathering outside the residence.

Joe Arridy spent most of his time playing with his toy trains.
Joe Arridy spent most of his time playing with his toy trains.

Pueblo Police Chief Arthur Grady wrote about the case in an article for a true-crime magazine, which was 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.”

Eleven days after the murder, Sheriff George Carroll decided to question a young man who was wandering around the railway yard. The man, 21-year-old Joe Arridy, was 5’5″ tall, weighed 125 pounds, and had a dark complexion. Joe’s parents were Syrian immigrants, which contributed to his dark complexion, as described by the two women who claimed they had been grabbed from behind in Pueblo. However, what caught Sheriff Carroll’s attention was that Joe said that he had come by train from Pueblo.

Sheriff Carroll questioned Joe for almost eight hours over the next two days. Notably, he did not bother to write down the confession he obtained from Joe during the eight hours of questioning.

Sheriff Carroll would later testify, from his memory, as there were no notes and no witnesses for most of the interrogation, that Joe had spied on the girls from the bushes outside, snuck inside after the parents left, hit the girls in the head, undressed, assaulted Dorothy, dressed and left.

During the questioning, Sheriff Carroll asked Joe if he liked girls and followed it up with another question, “If you like girls so well, why do you hurt them?”

Puzzling Story By Sheriff Carroll

Many elements of the story made little sense. First, Joe talked about beating the girls with a club, then he turned the weapon into an axe. He couldn’t even tell investigators where he had gotten the axe from. But Carroll insisted that Joe provided detailed information about the Drain house – such as the layout of the rooms, the color of the furniture, and the color of the walls in the girls’ bedroom. Information that only someone who had been there would know.

Despite these inconsistencies, Carroll arrested Arridy and called Chief Grady to tell him that he had a “nut” who was unable to read and write, yet knew the details about the murder of Dorothy Drain. He added, “He’s either crazy or a mighty good actor.”

It should have been clear to everyone involved in the case that Joe Arridy was not guilty, and his confession was a result of the intense and coercive interrogation methods used by Sheriff Carroll.

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 the Drains on WPA projects and had been fired by them. He had also seen the girls at work sites, and police found a 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 taken to the station and Joe Arridy was asked if he recognized the hatchet. Joe stated that it belonged to someone named Frank. And the story changed overnight and Joe committed the crime with Frank.

Arridy’s testimony changed depending on who was interrogating him, he had no idea about the murder, even the basic elements of the murder at that night, such as what was used to kill, and who killed whom.

When Arridy was taken to police headquarters for a confrontation with Frank Aguilar. Arridy said “That’s Frank,” to which Frank replied, “I’ve never seen him before.”

Why was Joe Arridy sentenced to death?

The main focus of Joe Arridy’s defense was his lack of legal sanity and inability to distinguish between right and wrong, making it impossible for him to commit a crime with intent. Arridy struggled to understand basic concepts, such as the difference between a stone and an egg, and he did not comprehend the concept of death.

Despite this, local law enforcement remained convinced that Frank and Joe Arridy were involved in the crime. Public outrage persisted even after Frank’s execution. Although three psychiatrists testified at Arridy’s trial and declared him mentally handicapped with an IQ of 46 and the mind of a six-year-old, Arridy was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Warden Best Reads Joe Arridy his death sentence
Warden Best reads Joe Arridy his death sentence. (Denver Public Library)

The prison warden, Roy Best, reported that Arridy was the “happiest man who ever lived on death row.” When informed of his execution, Arridy was more interested in his toy trains. When asked for his last meal, he requested ice cream.

After giving his toy train to another prisoner on January 6, 1939, Arridy was led into the gas chamber, where he grinned as the guards strapped him to the chair.

 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.

The attorney, Gail Ireland who appealed 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.”

In 2011, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter issued a posthumous pardon to Joe Arridy, over seven decades after his execution. Ritter stated that while the pardon cannot rectify the past, it is a matter of justice and decency to clear Arridy’s name.