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Inmate number 19845 has officially served his sentence: The Story of Joe Arridy

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A mentally challenged Pueblo man gets tried and convicted for a murder under suspicious circumstances and his name isn’t cleared until 72 years after his execution.

In Cañon City, Colorado, just beyond the rows of generic metal plate markers on Woodpecker Hill in the Greenwood Cemetery sits only one large headstone adorned with the picture of a grown man playing with a toy train. There are plastic flowers stuck into the ground around the base that don’t seem dusty enough to have been exposed to the elements for long and toy trains sit on the ledge.

Joe Arridy, left, listens to warden Roy Best read his death sentence. (Denver Public Library / Western History Collection.)

While it is not necessarily unusual for gravestones to display personal portraits or to be decorated by regular visitors, this particular stretch of graves just happens to be the final resting place for convicts.

Joe Arridy was born in Pueblo, Colorado to Henry and Mary Arridy. Shortly after starting school, it was decided that he could not learn and that it would not be necessary or desired for him to attend with the other children. He would eventually be sent to the State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives in Grand Junction with an IQ of 46. At that time it was a score that would get him classified as an “imbecile” by the professional community.

He spent the majority of his life at the state home where he was described as a quiet boy who could only be assigned simple chores, having to be closely supervised to be kept on task. Often bullied by the other children, he tended to prefer his own company, uninteresting in forming close friends.

Arridy’s father was able to petition for his release for a brief span somewhere between his tenth to fourteenth years which enabled him to stay at his family home in Pueblo, where he could often be found walking aimlessly around town. It didn’t take long before it would be determined that he was to return to the institutional setting where he would remain until 1936.

Back in Grand Junction, Arridy was known to occasionally leave the state home where he had often observed people riding on the tops of trains. He always seemed to make his way back to the institution until the evening of August 13, 1936 when he and at least one other resident had decided to catch a train of their own.

Gifts and mementos adorn Joe Arridy’s gravesite still today. (Photo C.D. Prescott)

In Pueblo, the small, yellow house is still standing where on August 15, 1936, the Drain sisters Dorothy, 15, and her sister Barbara, 12, were fast asleep in the bed they shared when sometime between ten and midnight, an intruder entered their room and violently bludgeoned the girls, sexually assaulting Dorothy and leaving them for dead.

Dorothy did not survive the attack, but Barbara managed to recover and would later identify Frank Aguilar as the perpetrator. Barbara’s father had previously been Aguilar’s supervisor when he had been employed with Works Progress Administration (WPA) designed to employ mostly unskilled men to work on public projects. They were also able to find an axe that belonged to Aguilar with blade irregularities that were concluded to match the wounds on the girls.

Eleven days after the murder Arridy was found in the rail yards in Cheyenne, Wyoming where he would be arrested for vagrancy. When Sheriff George Carroll (who had gained some notoriety from his dealings with the Ma Barker Gang) heard that Arridy was from Pueblo, he came to the conclusion that this, in fact, might be the man responsible for the viscous attack on the Drain sisters. After interviewing Arridy and calling the press, Carroll contacted Pueblo police stating that he had caught the true killer, possessing a full confession of how Arridy had bludgeoned the girls with a club.

Officials were more than a little surprised given that Frank Aguilar was already in custody for the murder, not to mention a completely different weapon was already in evidence.

With this discovery, Carroll claimed that Arridy had actually said that he had been with Frank on the night of the murder and the club suddenly became an axe. After personally delivering Arridy to Pueblo authorities, Carroll also managed to find time in his busy schedule to attempt to acquire another confession and to be in attendance as Arridy was to reenact the crime at the scene for police.

Both men would be tried for the murder separately and Barbara Drain would attend only Aguilar’s trial to point him out as the man that had attacked her and her sister.

There was another murder that Aguilar had been implicated in but never charged with committing. R.O. McMurtree (48) had identified Frank Aguilar as the man who entered her home two weeks prior to the Drain tragedy, only a few blocks from the Drain residence. McMurtree and her visiting Aunt Sally Crumply (72) had also been bludgeoned with an axe. Crumply did not survive the attack. Aguilar also fit the description of a man who had reportedly attempted to grab another woman off the street. For the Drain murder however, Aguilar was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Arridy’s trial went a little differently. Carroll testified to an extremely detailed confession that he claimed to have gotten from Arridy without ever referencing notes of any kind. It was never explained how a man with such a limited vocabulary and documented perception errors could so accurately describe a scene and readily admit guilt. Arridy had problems differentiating certain colors and could rarely repeat more than four numbers in a sequence.

It was also never explained how Aguilar would meet a mentally challenged man getting off of the top of a train and within just a few days develop a trust that would result in Arridy accompanying him in a complicated and risky crime.

Arridy would also be found guilty and sentenced to death with a defense mounted entirely on mental capacity rather than the likelihood that he wasn’t even in town on that night and that Barbara Drain had never implicated him in the attack.

Joe Arridy would spend the rest of his short life on death row. Warden Roy Best, who was known to prefer the physical punishment of paddling over solitary confinement and for requiring inmates to cross their arms when they moved from one place to another within the prison, developed an almost paternal relationship with Arridy even gifting him the toy train that would become his favorite pastime.

Frank Aguilar was put to death in the gas chamber in 1937 and after exhausting all of his appeals; Arridy would follow him on January 6, 1939.

Before his death, Arridy had often responded to questions from the press about his pending execution by looking confused or denying that he would die. After ice cream and posing in oddly staged looking photos for articles of the paper, (awkwardly hugging his mother goodbye and giving his toy train to another inmate), a smiling Arridy would be led to his final destination. There would be no call from the governor to stay his execution.

Arridy would be strapped into one of the chairs of gas chamber that was the preferred method of satisfying death sentences at that time. Cyanide pellets were then dropped into an acid creating a toxic gas that would fill the airtight tank. After only a few breaths he went still. A doctor would declare Arridy dead and it was over.  Inmate number 19845 had officially served his sentence.

Since the execution a quiet swell rose to defend a man wronged and at least for posterity correct a false and careless conviction of the Colorado legal system. A group called Friends of Joe Arridy managed to get the funds to purchase the large headstone. When the stone was first erected, the group was not allowed to inscribe it with any declarative statements.

In 2011, after years of hard work by volunteers and Denver attorney David Martinez, Colorado Governor Bill Ritter issued an unconditional pardon for Arridy 72 years after his death.

Now, to the left of Joe’s grave stands a framed copy of his posthumous pardon tasked with etching in history the very words carved into his tombstone. “Here lies an innocent man.”

One more thing...

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History

The Last Watchman: The lost story of Colorado’s worst train wreck

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The only reminder of one of the worst train wrecks in Colorado history is a weathered post with a small white sign that stands sentinel at the edge of an unassuming arroyo. It is cracked, and wrapped in barbed wire so you must stand very close to make out the fading words. “This historical marker is a tribute to author-historian Dow Helmers (1906-1976), author of THE TRAGEDY AT EDEN the story of Colorado’s most disastrous train wreck… ’” it begins.

In 1904, dirt roads may have been the main mode of travel, but they made going long distances impractical and often unpleasant, so the idea that a train could smoothly and quickly get you to your destination seemed an attractive choice for the regular traveler to take advantage of the special weekend rates.

The arroyo today. It was near bushes that probably looked a lot like this that Mayfield found the deceased Engineer Hinman after more searching. Many others were not as lucky to have been found. The Gartlands from Denver suffered profound losses. Kate Gartland and 4 of her 5 children were on the train. None survived and 9-year-old Walter was never found. (C.D. Prescott)

Nothing seemed out of the ordinary on that Sunday the 7th of August in 1904. A few scattered rain showers and even cloudbursts were often expected that time of year. The passenger train from Denver to Pueblo was running on schedule and ticket holders were gathering on the platform for their return trip home from their weekend jaunts.

The train was the No. 12 that had just made the trip from St. Louis to Pueblo where it picked up the dining car from the last southbound train and headed to Denver where it would be stocked, cleaned and staffed in preparation for the trip to Pueblo. Now that it would be heading south, it was redubbed the No. 11.

The No. 11 had seven cars including the engine. There was also a baggage car, a coach car, a chair car, two Pullman sleepers and the dining car. The well-regarded Henry Hinman would be the Engineer and his fireman would be David Mayfield. Both men were from Denver.

Passengers boarded and the No. 11 left the Denver station for its date with destiny on time at 5pm. It was in Colorado Springs that Hinman was given a bulletin order to use caution and watch for standing water. At least 50 more passengers also boarded. Many were headed for Pueblo but there were others that would be continuing on to further destinations.

Leaving the station about 5 minutes after the scheduled departure, Hinman carefully followed his orders and would eventually be running at least 15 minutes late. They were due in Pueblo at 8:15pm but were crossing Bridge 110-B over Hogan’s Gulch at almost 8:20pm at no more than 20 miles per hour.

The engine swayed to the sound of cracking timbers as Hinman eased the throttle forward hoping to quickly get to solid ground. The front had just reached the bank when it suddenly stopped, lurched backwards and began to slide into the churning waters below.

A panicked Mayfield managed to jump clear of the falling engine but after being struck by a timber from the bridge, he was washed downstream just far enough that when he crawled ashore, he was still able to see the train’s headlight shining into the sky. After searching and yelling for Hinman, to no avail, he made his way to the Eden Station for help.

Passengers that got out to investigate were immediately stunned to find that the engine, baggage, coach (smoker), and chair cars were gone. The bridge wasn’t simply empty as it was immediately apparent that it had also met the same fate. It was only the automatic air brakes that had kept the remaining cars from following suit.

Being the heaviest, the engine sank like a stone but the other three missing cars and their inhabitants tumbled in the rushing waters towards Fountain Creek. The angry waters smashed through glass and took lives quickly as they violently twisted the cars in an ultimate test of their very structure.

It was in this act of destruction that a few lucky survivors managed to find their escape. John Killin had to hold his breath as the car filled with water and it rolled with the current. He had just broken a window when the car collided with something and a large piece of the roof tore away.

Using the new exit, he was able to get out of the car and attempt a swim to shore. He was struck by a railroad tie and grabbed it for use as a floatation device. Falling from it a few times, he managed to find it again until he reached water shallow enough to wade to shore. Later, he would display the tie in his Pueblo store as he credited it to saving his life.

Henry Gilbert and Tony Fisher also managed to navigate their escape and the treacherous waters to find their way to shore where they met and immediately received medical attention. Rescue efforts started immediately as the water had already begun to recede and the first relief train took the survivors and the passengers from the remaining section of the train to Pueblo.

Men with lanterns rushed to try to find any other survivors. They lit fires along the shore for heat and light, but the searchers would have to wait for dawn before any real progress was made. Their rescue mission quickly became one of recovery and while they found most, they didn’t find everyone.

Word spread quickly that there had been an accident and it drew crowds wanting to help in the rescue efforts. It also brought looters that were willing to hunt for any bodies but only to relieve them of anything that they might be carrying of value. The macabre also arrived to spread blankets to picnic nearby as they watched the rescuers like they were attending a theater production.

The engine proved to be harder to recover than had been anticipated. The crane from Pueblo couldn’t handle the weight so a replacement from Salida had to be retrieved and that would take a little time. The bents from the new bridge were put in place while the engine still remained engulfed in the mud below.

The final death count had been 96. It would have been 97 if they had included Tony Fisher who survived the wreck but would die almost a month later from tetanus on September 1st from injuries related to the crash and his time in the water. The bridge was in place in time for the passenger train to run on schedule the next day.

At least 80 square miles of land used to drain through that arroyo but a better understanding of engineering and drainage improvements has changed that. Now water rarely flows through the dry ditch that was Hogan’s Gulch and when the sign was erected it wasn’t even called that anymore. It had been changed to Porter’s Draw as arroyos are usually named for the landowner.

Aside from what is left of the sign, there are no visible remnants of that fateful night. Even the replacement bridge has given way to the newer stronger, sleeker version to the east. The Eden train station has been moved and was used as a personal residence for a bit. Only the sign remains, but local lore claims that on cloudy nights, the lights from long gone lanterns bob in the distance along the banks searching for the lost to at last bring them home.

One more thing...

Local and independent journalism is under threat in the West and you change that.  With corporate raiders slashing newsrooms across the West, the PULP is one of the "Last Locals" in Colorado to produce original, compelling journalism missing in today's profit hungry world. But that costs money, time and hard work. We don't believe in spamming you with ads or putting up restrictive paywalls and that's why we need your help.

For every contribution, we put 100% back into producing original and amazing journalism. That's a promise only a local and independent newsroom can promise. Take heart because you will fuel stories just like this one and the future of journalism.
Continue Reading

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