Joe Arridy’s parents knew something was different about their son from a young age. Born on April 29, 1915 in Pueblo, Colorado, Joe had great difficulty in school and couldn’t understand a number of basic concepts. By the time he reached his late teens, he was admitted to Colorado State Home for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Because he had an IQ of just 46, the other boys at the mental home would often take advantage of him—and even beat him. Though they were troublemakers, he didn’t know better when he joined a few of them one day as they hopped a train that was passing by the home. They traveled for 24 hours all the way back to Pueblo.
Unfortunately, Joe would have no way of knowing about an incident that had shaken his hometown that same week. There’d been an attack on two teenage girls in their own home, in which someone raped and murdered a 15-year-old girl named Dorothy Drain with a hatchet. Her 12-year-old sister, Barbara, miraculously survived. Understandably, everyone in Pueblo was on edge, and they were hunting for the “perverted maniac” responsible. Sadly, this news didn’t bode well for Joe…
While the other boys from the mental home had returned from their train adventure, Joe ended up traveling alone all the way to Cheyenne, Wyoming—roughly 200 miles away from Pueblo. There, police found him and brought him in to Sheriff George Carroll, who suspected that Joe might be connected to the crimes in Pueblo. Following hours of interrogation, Joe ended up confessing to the attacks.
Sheriff Carroll immediately contacted Pueblo Chief of Police Arthur Grady. He said, “We are holding a fellow here who says he killed the little Drain girl in your city.” For his part, Chief Grady was shocked. He already had a man named Frank Aguilar in custody; Frank was a prime suspect because he’d been fired recently by the father of the victims, Riley Drain.
Further cementing his guilt, authorities has discovered items from the Drain’s home in Frank’s own house, as well as a hatchet that matched the police’s description from the crime scene.
What should’ve been a clear-cut murder case was now complicated by Joe’s confession. “He’s a nut—he can’t even read or write—and he’s told us two or three different stories,” the sheriff told Chief Grady. “But he seems to know all about the Drain murder.” Because of this, Sheriff Carroll informed the press that Joe was the murderer before the young man himself was even charged.
Certain things didn’t line up, however. Joe also claimed to have killed people who were still alive, which should have been a clear sign of mental instability—thus rendering his claims contradictory. Frank also originally said he’d never even met Joe, but after he was interrogated further, he implicated Joe in the crime—possibly seeing a way out of his own guilty sentence. Afterward, both were taken to court.
Little Barbara had even already identified Frank as her attacker; she was never asked to testify against Joe. Meanwhile, Joe’s defense pushed for a verdict of innocence by reason of insanity. After all, three state psychiatrists said that Joe had only reached the mental age of six, and they stated that he was “incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, and therefore, would be unable to perform any action with criminal intent.”
The judge, though, sided with the four lawmen, including Sheriff Carroll, who claimed that Joe knew what he was doing.
Notably, Sheriff Carroll had received a $1,000 reward for catching Joe. Likewise, he recited Joe’s confession from memory. Nobody else saw or recorded it. Moreover, Colorado State Home superintendent Dr. Benjamin Jefferson said that Joe was vulnerable and suggestible. For example, he would confess to stealing cigarettes, even when he clearly hadn’t.
During his questioning, it was revealed that Joe didn’t know who Frank Aguilar or Dorothy Drain were. Additionally, he couldn’t identify the then-current president, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He didn’t even know why he was in court, or what a hatchet was. Nevertheless, on the strength of Sheriff Caroll’s testimony, he was jailed and sentenced to death.
While on death row, Joe liked to play with the toy train that Roy Best, the prison warden, gave to him. He enjoyed making faces after polishing off his dinner plates and using them as mirrors. Unlike at his previous homes, people in prison actually liked him. The warden even called him “the happiest prisoner on death row.”
When a reporter asked Joe if he’d like to return to the mental home, he replied, “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.” Although Frank Aguilar was executed in 1937, future Colorado Attorney General Gail Ireland won Joe nine stays of execution. Unfortunately, though, the tenth appeal failed.
“He probably didn’t even know he was about to die,” said the warden. “All he did was happily sit and play with a toy train I had given him.” He showed “blank bewilderment” when asked about the execution, and told the warden, “No, no, Joe won’t die.”
After eating his last meal—ice cream, per his request—the priest reciting his last rites told Joe that he’d have to give up his toy train, as he’d get a golden harp in return. Then, on his way to the gas chamber, he was quoted as saying, “I want to play the harp like the padre told me.” He was executed in 1939, at the age of 23. Warden Best wept in response.
A book was published in 1995 by Robert Perske, who advocates for the disabled, detailing the case and arguing Joe’s innocence. “I’ve worked on a lot of miscarriage of justice cases,” he said, “and the trial, conviction, and execution of Joe Arridy is the worst miscarriage of justice I’ve ever seen.” In 2011, 72 years after his death and following years of appeals from advocates, Governor Bill Ritter finally pardoned Joe Arridy.
“Pardoning Mr. Arridy cannot undo this tragic event in Colorado history,” said the governor. “It is in the interests of justice and simple decency, however, to restore his good name.”