1917: Sub-Lt. Edwin Dyett, shot at dawn 1611: Three accomplices of Elizabeth Báthory, the Countless of Blood

1939: Joe Arridy, on Woodpecker Hill

January 6th, 2011 Headsman

Update: Embargoed as of this post’s publication, Joe Arridy’s growing ranks of supporters had submitted to Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter an application for a posthumous pardon. On January 7, 2011, Gov. Ritter granted that pardon — a fitting conclusion to a cinematically heart-rending story.

“Granting a posthumous pardon is an extraordinary remedy. But the tragic conviction of Mr. Arridy and his subsequent execution on Jan. 6, 1939, merit such relief based on the great likelihood that Mr. Arridy was, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he was executed, and his severe mental disability at the time of his trial and execution. Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history. It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”

-Gov. Bill Ritter


On this date in 1939, Joe Arridy “walked to his death with the faith of a child” (Los Angeles times, Jan. 7, 1939) up “Woodpecker Hill” — where the victims of Canon City, Colorado’s gas chamber (since retired) were buried.

Shortly before execution, Joe Arridy gives away the toy train he received from warden Roy Best to a fellow prisoner.

A young Syrian-American with the mental age of a six-year-old riding the rails during the Depression, Arridy was picked up for a teenage girl’s rape-murder in a literal lynch-mob environment: he was nearly pulled from his cell for summary punishment.

Instead, the good citizens let justice run its course to the same conclusion.

The damnable thing — well, the other damnable thing — is that we have about as much reason to believe Joe Arridy committed the crime as we do you or I.

He was linked to the murder by nothing but an evolving series of unreliable confessions fed by the sheriff to his suggestible prisoner (and, later, a single “matched” hair with a suspicious chain of custody; matching hair without DNA is still an unreliable forensic technique today). The real murderer was even in custody, and was executed for the same crime while Joe Arridy’s appeals ran their futile course.

“Believe me when I say that if he is gassed, it will take a long time for the state of Colorado to live down the disgrace,” Arridy’s appellate lawyer pleaded to a deaf court.

Robert Perske’s Deadly Innocence, about Joe Arridy.

Executed Today is honored to welcome Robert Perske, a pioneering pastor to the intellectually and developmentally disabled whose book Deadly Innocence helped pull the Arridy case out of obscurity.

This post is an edited version of Perske’s affidavit to the governor’s office in support of the pardon.


On March 28, 1992, Sociologist Richard Voorhees sent me a poem from an out-of-print book that described a warden weeping as he watched a man in a death row cell playing with a toy train before being walked to a gas chamber (“The Clinic” (.doc) by Margeurite Young in Moderate Fables, 1944).

“The man you kill tonight is six years old,
He has no idea why he dies,”
Yet he must die in the room the state has walled
Transparent to its glassy eyes.

I sent a copy of the poem to Watt Espy, Director of the Capital Punishment Archives, in Headland, AL. Espy researched and responded with information that tied the poem to the life and trials of Joe Arridy who at age 23 was executed on January 6, 1939.

During the next two years after receiving the poem, I traveled up and down the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains from Cheyenne to Pueblo, and to Grand Junction on the Western Slope. News stories were discovered from the reading of old microfilm rolls in The Pueblo Chieftain, The Denver Post, The Rocky Mountain News (Denver), The Daily Sentinel (Grand Junction) and Wyoming Tribune (Cheyenne). Archivists and historians were interviewed at The Regional History Division of Western Colorado (Grand Junction), Wyoming State Archives (Cheyenne), District Archives of the Pueblo Public Library, Local History Center of the Cañon City Public Library, and the Colorado State Archives (Denver).

Joe Arridy’s Earliest Years

Joe Arridy was born to non-English speaking Syrian immigrants in Pueblo, Colorado on April 29, 1915. He attended the first grade in Bessemer Elementary School. At the beginning of his second year, the principal called on the Arridy family and told them that their son could not learn and asked them to keep him at home. The parents reported that for the next four years, Joe stayed around the house. He was a passive but happy child. According to his parents he was the happiest when he was alone playing all by himself. His favorite pastime was making mud pies.

Intelligence Testing and Institutionalization

At age 10, Joe was committed to the Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives, in Grand Junction. He was administered the Binet-Simon Test. The results showed that he was unable to repeat four digits (4-3-7-9). When shown the color red, he said it was black and that green was blue. He usually spoke in incompete two or three word sentences. As the questions became harder to answer, he remained silent. The examiner listed him as “an imbecile with an IQ of 46.” Later his institutional records showed no critical incident reports. For the most part he was a shy and quiet loner.

Nine months later, Joe’s father missed his son. He asked for his son to be returned home. The request was granted. Upon his return, he tended to take lonely walks all over town. These walks continued for three years.

At age 14, the walks came to an end when a probation officer caught a gang of boys performing sexual acts on him. The officer wrote an angry letter to the court, labeling Joe as “one of the worst mental defective cases that I have ever seen.” The court ordered his immediate return to the institution in Grand Junction.

During the next seven years at the institution, his records show that he was incapable of working on the farm crews or sitting in classrooms. Therefore, he was given a “day activity,” working side by side with a kindly kitchen worker, “Mrs. Bowers.” The worker reported that Joe was only capable of “Tasks of not too long duration, can wash dishes, do mopping of floors, can do small chores and errands. He depends on others for leadership and suggestions.”

Railroad Boxcar Riding

At age 22, he and a few other inmates watched men riding on top of railroad boxcars that passed the institution. So together they wandered off the institution grounds and also jumped on boxcars. They took the 24-hour ride through the mountains to Pueblo. Later they took the trip back. Joe was last seen in Grand Junction on the evening of August 13, 1936. He was believed to have jumped onto a boxcar either that night or on the next morning.

After that, Arridy disappeared from sight until he walked up to the kitchen car of a railroad work gang on August 20, in the East Railroad Yards of Cheyenne, Wyoming, dirty and hungry.

Rape and Murder in Pueblo

On Saturday evening, August 15, 1936, slightly before or after midnight, Dorothy Drain, 15, and Barbara Drain, 12, were bludgeoned about their heads while sleeping together in the same bed, at 1536 Stone Avenue in Pueblo. Dorothy was raped and beaten to death. Barbara was near death, but survived. Later, she identified Frank Aguilar as the attacker at his trial. She was not present at Joe Arridy’s trial. She did not even identify Joe Arridy as a co-attacker.

Sheriff Gets a Confession from Arridy Even Though the Real Killer is Already in Custody

On August 26, 1936, Joe Arridy was arrested by two railroad detectives and turned over to Sheriff George Carroll. Carroll, like all law officers in all of the towns up and down Colorado’s Eastern Slope, was actively picking up suspects and interrogating them regarding the attacks on the Drain girls in Pueblo.

After an hour and a half of questioning, Carroll called a reporter and told him that he had just received a complete confession for the Pueblo crime from Arridy. He recited to at least one reporter a long series of wordy, complete sentences that Arridy purportedly uttered. According to Carroll, Arridy was the lone killer and he committed the crime with a club.

At first, when Pueblo Police Chief J. Arthur Grady received news of the confession, he was shocked. The real killer, Frank Aguilar, a former WPA worker who had been supervised by the Drain girls’ father, had already been arrested for the crime.

Aguilar had been arrested during the funeral of Dorothy Drain. The Pueblo police had even recovered the weapon used in the crime. It was the head of a hatchet with nicks that matched the wounds on the girls. The Pueblo police kept all this evidence in silence because Aguilar vehemently denied committing the crime.

Following that, Sheriff Carroll changed his story. After conducting another interrogation, he then reported to the press that a hatchet—not a club—was used in the crime. He also claimed that Arridy did not do the crime alone. According to Carroll, Arridy said he did it “with Frank.”

Sheriff Carroll was a famous but loquacious individual who was known to talk long and loud about being in the posse that finally caught up with and finished off the notorious Barker gang.

Now with his regular announcements to the press he remained at his long-worded best. Carroll had been so totally verbal in his interrogations of Arridy, nothing was written down on paper. Nor was any confession signed. Consequently the confessions and changes in them were dictated daily to reporters.

Later, in the trial of Arridy, Sheriff Carroll became the star of the case. He spoke in his heroic, over-wordy style. According to the press, he did not speak from a single note. He simply testified from memory.

Frank Aguilar is Quickly Convicted

Aguilar’s trial came quickly, starting on December 15, exactly four months after the crime. It ended seven days later. His executed came quickly, too: on August 15, 1937, just two days short of the anniversary of Dorothy Drain’s murder.

Aguilar Identified as Lone Murderer in an Identical Crime in the Same Neighborhood

After the death sentence, Aguilar was brought face to face with Mrs. R. O. McMurtree, 58, who identified Aguilar as the lone attacker in a similar crime that happened two weeks earlier and just three blocks away from the Drain crime. She and her aunt, Sally Crumply, 72, were sleeping in the same bed when Aguilar attacked. He beat them on the heads as he had done in the Drain home. Like Dorothy Drain, Sally Crumply was bludgeoned to death.

Sheriff Carroll Assumes Leadership in all Aspects of the Arridy Investigation

After announcing Arridy’s first confessions to reporters and Chief Grady, two Pueblo detectives sped through the night to Cheyenne. The next morning, they joined in an added interrogation with Carroll leading it. Then they drove back to Pueblo.

Later that day, Carroll drove Arridy to Pueblo. He was present at the Pueblo Police Station when Arridy and Augilar may have been brought together. He took leadership when Arridy was taken to the Drain home and the crime was reenacted. He was present at the prison in Cañon City when Aguilar gave a signed confession that marginally included Arridy’s initials in a lower left column. That confession was printed in its entirety in the Pueblo Chieftain but was withdrawn and was never heard in a court.

Sheriff Carroll Became Chief Presenter of Evidence Against Arridy

During the prosecutor’s evidentiary presentations, Sheriff Carroll took the stand five different times. The transcript shows how Carroll was allowed to launch forth as a riveting story teller. He testified that Arridy was in complete control of his thoughts, and speaking in clear sentences that described the colors on the walls in the bedroom and the colors of nightgowns that the girls wore, and even the colors of the dresses the girls would be wearing when they went to the Sunday church services.

The Joe Arridy that Carroll described was a far cry from the Arridy who often spoke in unfinished sentences and did not know who Franklin Delano Roosevelt was. Nor did he know what a hatchet was or that his own father was present in the courtroom.

The Defense Loses in a Sanity Hearing, and Eschews an Evidentiary Defense

The defense argued at a pre-trial sanity hearing that Arridy was “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity”. The question before the court: “Does Joe Arridy have the capacity to tell good from evil and right from wrong?” If not, he should be found to be insane and not guilty. Three psychiatrists testified that Arridy did not know right from wrong, but they hedged by saying that he was not insane. According to them, one needed to be normal first before ever being insane, and they claimed that Arridy had never been normal.

The jury deadlocked at six to six, but an hour later, voted that Arridy would have to go on trial for murder.

As strange as it may seem today, the defense attorney had conducted no investigation in the case. At the beginning of the trial he announced that he would not present an evidentiary defense and would only cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution.

He then requested that the judge set aside the earlier sanity trial verdict and that he be given permission to argue a sanity case one more time. He furthermore requested permission to make his opening argument only after the prosecution had completed with its evidentiary case. The judge agreed to all of these conditions.

The same three psychiatrists (joined by a fourth) gave the same testimony once again.

But Sheriff Carroll voiced his views unchallenged. After touting his 30 years of experience and claiming that he interrogated Arridy for “six or seven hours,” the prosecutor asked him, “Based on your experience [is] Joe Arridy capable of distinquishing right and wrong?” Carroll responded, “I think there is no doubt, whatever, but what he is”.

A verdict of “guilty” was rendered on April 17, 1937, and Arridy was sentenced to death.

On August 13, 1937, Frank Aguilar was executed, and on the same day, Sheriff Carroll and two railroad detectives received a $1000 reward for making the arrest of Joe Arridy in Cheyenne.

For a year and a half, a pro bono “Citizen Lawyer” Gail Ireland fought valiantly to save the life of Joe Arridy. During that period, Ireland managed to win at least six stays.

On January 6, 1939 at 6:15 p.m., the Colorado Supreme Court voted 4-3 to deny the last petition. Governor Teller Ammons called the warden at 6:30 p.m. and ordered that the execution be carried out.

The chaplain administered the Roman Catholic Church’s “Last Rites for a Child.” It called for the Chaplain to recite each phrase of “The Lord’s Prayer,” one at a time with Arridy repeating it, all the way to the “Amen.”


Joe Arridy’s rusty motorcycle plate served as his grave marker for 71 years, until it was replaced with a headstone reading Here Lies an Innocent Man

This volume by Perske addresses the criminal justice system’s (mis)handling of the developmentally disabled. He’s written a number of other books, fiction and nonfiction, humanizing this.

Robert Perske also graciously agreed to address a few additional questions that we had for him.

ET: How did you come to this case?

RP: It’s almost a magical thing to me. Back in 1991, I got a poem from a valued colleague of mine who is a professor, a sociologist. He was digging through some old books in Greenwich Village, and he found a poem about a warden weeping before the pellets were dropped and all of that, and how the warden cried, and how he complained about how this man playing with a toy train would die.

And I got ahold of it and went down to my buddy Watt Espy [of the Espy file -ed.], and he found it. He really dug for me, what a guy, and he found it and I headed for Pueblo and dug and dug and dug from 1991 to 1995.

What motivated me was that after coming out of World War II, I went to school and became a chaplain at an institution for mentally disabled people in Kansas. I worked my ass off to be a good pastor to them, and so when I found this much, I really started digging.

Did they lead him into the confession?

Oh, yes. He was arrested in the railyard by Sheriff George Carroll. And Carroll was a swashbuckler. He was a hero, and he was a mouthy sonofagun, and he pretty well set up the case.

As soon as he got the so-called confession, he [Carroll] didn’t call the police chief first — he called the press. He said he had the guy who did it.

But they already had the guy in Pueblo, Frank Aguilar.

Was there outright misconduct by the investigators here? Did they realize, or should they have, that they might be railroading someone?

Here’s the deal. People with so-called mental retardation were seen as nobodies in those days. They didn’t have community services, so they all went like Joe, to the institution.

In the year I was born, 1927, Oliver Wendell Holmes issued his ruling that all such people could be sterilized.

Carroll knew he had somebody like that in Joe. There was a lynch mob starting to form in Pueblo, because this head of the WPA was a good solid citizen, and when his daughters were hit, and one killed and raped, there was a lot of hiding of people.

I’ve known a lot of Joes. And he’s lovable, and he’s trusting, and he’s naive, and he’s concrete-thinking, so half of the things he says, he doesn’t really understand. But on the other hand, very dependable, and very lovable. Nobody in Pueblo saw that, but [Warden Roy] Best picked it up, and then the inmates in prison picked it up too.

In their hearts of hearts, yeah, they knew. But they figured he wasn’t worth anything. He was retarded, mentally defective was the word they used. They knew they had the real killer, but they go back and get Joe to amend the confession and now he was there “with Frank”.

If you’ve got a serious mental limitation and you’re facing a capital charge in the criminal justice system today, what’s going to happen to you?

In the year 2002, Atkins v. Virginia, they banned the death penalty in those cases. And they played around with the IQ number, but in some states they’re going farther than that because you have all kinds of other disabilities. I’d say by and large, except for Texas, people are looking at these people — not more kindly, but not looking at them as people who should be executed.

If we would have had that for Joe, he would not have been executed.

Can you give us a lay definition of developmental disability?

The most prominent one I’ve seen when I worked in the institution, and yet today when I work the streets and agencies and group homes and that sort of thing, is the inability to abstract from concrete things. For example, I’ve had guys say to me, I’d say, “why did you waive the right?” and they say, “you’ve got to waive it the right, you can’t waive it the wrong.”

Barry Fairchild, down in Arkansas — Barry thought that the reading of the rights was some kind of opening prayer.

These people survive on the basis of having abstract thinkers as their friends and protectors, so consequently guys like Richard LaPointe had cops as their friends, because they leaned on authority figures. And of course the police department are committed to secure the safety of the neighborhood, but then if there’s a terrible murder and somebody starts to blame them, they’re going to cooperate with that.

I’ve got one where, on a tape recorder, they’re saying, “if you tell us, we’ll all go home”. So that’s concrete thinking that my guys usually have.

Richard Lapointe is still in prison, not on death row. He has hydrocephalus, it’s called Dandy-Walker syndrome, so he’s a guy with all kinds of disabilities. He’s not athletic at all and gets dizzy when he stands up or stops suddenly, and yet they got him to confess to a highly athletic murder of a woman with multiple violent stab wounds and moving the body.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,Interviews,Murder,Notable Participants,Other Voices,Posthumous Exonerations,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA,Wrongful Executions

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4 thoughts on “1939: Joe Arridy, on Woodpecker Hill”

  1. Pity is Sheriff Carroll got away with murder. I wonder if there are any descendants of this murderer and I wonder what their thoughts are about him. They probably think he was a good man who is now being wronged.

    Shame too that he is still not alive, he could be shoved into a gas chamber and murdered just like he murdered this poor innocent child

  2. Julie says:

    If we needed any more evidence of the implicit barbarism & fallibility of the death penalty, we have it here.

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