The Tragic Story Of The 'Happiest Man On Death Row'

In a dark chapter of American history, one man was sent to death row for a brutal attack on two people. But according to the New York Daily News, the man was considered to be the "happiest man on death row." Who was this man, and how did he wind up facing such serious charges?

Born in 1915 in Pueblo, Colorado, Joe Arridy grew up with his two parents in a steel production town (per Friends of Joe Arridy). He didn't speak for his first five years of life, and Arridy only attended school for two years before the school asked the Arridys to keep their son at home instead. He was committed to a Colorado State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives at age 10. 

New York Daily News reports that while at the state home, Arridy's mental capacities were documented, with his doctors writing that he had an IQ level of 46. Per Reuters, a person with an IQ of 46, like Arridy, is considered to be "intellectually disabled."

Early childhood

Joe Arridy entered the state home in 1925, at age 10, but doctors compared his mind to that of a 6-year-old child, saying that while Arridy could speak, he was not able to sing, write, complete simple math problems, or memorize colors (via the New York Daily News). His doctors realized that other kids could easily take advantage of Arridy — he once made a false confession of stealing cigarettes at the urging of some of his peers (via All That's Interesting). He returned home after just nine months and then spent his days roaming outside. Arridy particularly liked to play in the mud and explore his neighborhood alone (via Friends of Joe Arridy).

Then, four years later, in 1929, Arridy was caught having sexual encounters with other boys, and he was forced to return to the state home. The teen remained there for seven years. One day, Arridy left, escaping by hiding out inside a boxcar of a train that passed by (per Friends of Joe Arridy). It seems that after he left the state home, Arridy kept to himself for a while — until 1936, when his life would change forever. 

Questioned by police

History of Yesterday reports that the Drain children were attacked on August 15, 1936. While the parents were out one night at a party, 12-year-old Barbara Drain was knocked unconscious by an intruder. New York Daily News reports that she lived but became comatose. Her sister, 15-year-old Dorothy Drain, did not survive. She was found facedown on a bed, her head cut open with an ax, and she had been sexually assaulted.

The search for Dorothy's killer began. Colorado police suspected Frank Aguilar, who worked for Dorothy's father, Riley. There was strong evidence against him — when Barbara awoke from a week-long coma, she identified Aguilar as the culprit, and police found an ax on his property that seemed to match the murder weapon. But the police were feeling pressured by the community to find the killer really fast, which may be why police questioned Joe Arridy (via History of Yesterday). Arridy was scared of police officers, and the young man was easily persuaded into false testimony. Police produced a confession that Arridy had supposedly written, which he could never have produced because he did not know how to write. Officers convinced Arridy to say that he hit two girls with a baseball bat, but the Drain sisters were actually attacked with an ax.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Who killed Dorothy Drain?

Joe Arridy and Frank Aguilar were both charged with the crime — Aguilar consistently accused Arridy of harming the girls, while Arridy seemed to not understand the situation enough to defend himself (via History of Yesterday). It wasn't until years later that it was determined Arridy may not have even been in town on the night of the attack (via Office of the Governor).

Frank Aguilar, on the other hand, was accused of committing a similar crime two weeks before he harmed the Drain family — he had hit two women in the head as they slept (per Friends of Joe Arridy). One woman survived the assault and was able to point out Aguilar as the culprit. Meanwhile, during the week of the attack, Arridy was most likely working as a dishwasher on a volunteer basis, earning food and a place to stay in Cheyanne, Wyoming.

There was very little evidence against Arridy, but the main factor was a single hair found at the crime scene that could have belonged to him. In recent years, this hair evidence has been discredited. The only other evidence against Arridy was that he seemed to know Aguilar, saying (via Friends of Joe Arridy), "That's Frank," when asked to identify him. 

Life on death row

Since Joe Arridy was highly suggestible, it's difficult to know if he had been coached by police to identify Frank Aguilar or if he really had met him before (per Friends of Joe Arridy). Barbara Drain confidently testified that Aguilar had been her attacker, and she did not show up to Arridy's trial. Regardless of the lack of concrete evidence, on December 22, 1936, Joe Arridy was sentenced to death. His lawyers appealed, claiming insanity. Arridy took the stand and was unable to answer simple questions, like if he knew who former President George Washington was or what a hatchet looked like. But in 1937, a jury declared Arridy as a sane person who could be held responsible for his actions.

New York Daily News reports that Arridy didn't seem to be aware of the severity of his situation. In jail, he was content to play with his toys, fraternize with inmates, and give interviews to reporters. According to History of Yesterday, Arridy left a positive legacy for his fellow inmates. He gifted his prized possession, a train set, to an inmate before his death. For his last three meals, he requested ice cream. As he left for his final sentence, Arridy said that he hoped to raise chickens and play the harp in heaven. The prison warden later wrote about Arridy (per the New York Daily News), "The man you kill tonight is 6 years old, he has no idea why he dies."

Joe Arridy's legacy

The prison warden actually fought to save Joe Arridy's life (via Friends of Joe Arridy). He assigned him a lawyer who managed to stave off the death sentence on nine different occasions, but the governor intervened. He called the prison and insisted that Arridy should receive the harsh death penalty sentence. The "happiest man on death row" died on January 7, 1939, and was buried at Woodpecker Hill (via the New York Daily News). He recited a final prayer two words at a time, guided by a chaplain who read him a simplified child's version of the last rites (via Friends of Joe Arridy). Per All That's Interesting, the warden cried as Arridy died via gas chamber.

There was shock and outrage in the media, too — "23-Year-Old 'Child' Dies For Slaying," read one Daily News headline, noting that he smiled moments before his death (via the New York Daily News). While the life of a wrongfully convicted man can never be returned, Joe Arridy has not been forgotten. Friends of Joe Arridy created a movement to remember his life and prevent other gross miscarriages of justice in the American prison system. Colorado Governor Bill Ritter pardoned Arridy posthumously in 2011, saying (via All That's Interesting), "Pardoning 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."