You never know what you will find when going “off the beaten path” on vacation.
While visiting the prison museum last month in Cañon City, Colorado, I learned about the Greenwood Cemetery, where there are inmate graves from the Colorado State Penitentiary. I have an interest in visiting and taking pictures of historic cemeteries, so I was very excited to learn about this cemetery.
That afternoon, I found the cemetery and spoke with a caretaker who was taking down the flag. I asked him about the inmate graves and he pointed toward an area with small grave markers. He then said, “I think there are more over there,” pointing toward a hill with foot-high weeds.
I visited the first set of graves and found that most of them were rusted metal plaques with no names and only marked, “CSP Inmate.” After taking a few pictures, I decided to wander over to the hill. Coming upon the foot-high grass, I debated whether to walk up to the hill, figuring I would just see more of the same type of graves, and the thought of snakes crossed my mind.
I decided to go ahead, and upon reaching the top where there is a wire fence, and a large mountain in the distance, I was stunned to see a granite grave stone among the cheaply made markers covered in rust. There was a picture on the gravestone that showed a young man playing with a toy train. “Here lies an innocent man,” was inscribed on the stone. The grave was of 23-year-old Joe Arridy of Pueblo, Colorado, who received a posthumous pardon in 2011. A framed copy of the pardon letter was next to his grave. I had never heard of the case, but I obviously knew something had went terrible wrong.
Researching it online from a motel room a couple of nights later, I found the website, www.friendsofjoearridy.com. I learned that Arridy was mentally challenged and had the mental capacity of a six-year-old boy. A 15-year-old girl had been brutally raped and murdered in Arridy’s hometown of Pueblo, and a few days later, Arridy was arrested while wandering the railroad tracks in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The sheriff questioned him, and perhaps due to Arridy not understanding the nature of the questions, he “confessed” to the murder, and was later convicted, despite the fact that a suspect, who was later executed for the murder, had already been arrested in Pueblo.
The sentence for Arridy was death by gas chamber. While on death row, Warden Roy Best bought him a toy train for Christmas that Arridy played with constantly, and even the most-hardened convicts loved him and treated him well.
“On death row, Arridy received amazing amounts of understanding, support and kindness from the warden, guards and even other death row inmates,” the website, friendsofjoearridy states. “The warden told reporters repeatedly that ‘Joe Arridy is the happiest man who ever lived on death row.’
“The warden enlisted a famous Denver attorney, Gail Ireland, in the fight for Arridy’s life. The lawyer managed to get at least nine stays -before the governor called and ordered that Arridy be killed.”
In a final appeal Ireland wrote, “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.”
The Colorado state Supreme Court denied the petition by a single vote. Before being led to the gas chamber, Arridy gave his toy train to another inmate and reportedly was smiling on the way to his execution, perhaps due to him not understanding what was about to happen. Prison chaplain, Father Albert Schaller, told him he would be trading his toy train for a harp. He was placed into the gas chamber where he succumbed to cyanide gas.
In 2011, he received a pardon from then-governor Bill Ritter. A news release from Gov. Ritter’s office stated, “[A]n overwhelming body of evidence indicates the 23-year-old Arridy was innocent, including false and coerced confessions, the likelihood that Arridy was not in Pueblo at the time of the killing, and an admission of guilt by someone else.” The governor also pointed to Arridy’s intellectual disabilities. He had an IQ of 46 and functioned like a toddler. The governor said, “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.”
There is a gas chamber is located at the prison museum. I saw it before I knew of Arridy. Looking inside, I had no idea a sweet and innocent young man gasped his last breaths in a similar gas chamber.
Finding his grave among the beauty of the Colorado scenery is something I will never forget, and seeing his beautiful and decorated gravestone among long-forgotten markers was a somber moment for me. May Joe Arridy rest in peace and play with his toy train in Heaven.
For more information, visit www.friendsofjoearridy.com.
Contact Matt Swearengin at 634-2160 or DDDEditor@Twitter.com.