Last week Veep and I were in Colorado Springs for a conference (yawn).
Joe’s original execution date was October 16, 1937. But, thanks largely to the interest Warden Best took in Joe, there would be nine stays before he went to the gas chamber on January 6, 1938.
Best was a proponent not only of capital punishment but also of corporal punishment, including floggings, but he was a fair man capable of caring and kindness, as exemplified by his concern for Joe.
Best arranged to get Joe an appeals lawyer, Gail Ireland, who kept the case alive on the insanity issue. Ireland hoped to get the case transferred away from Pueblo County and Judge Leddy to a judge in Fremont County, where Cañon City and the penitentiary were located. He succeeded in getting a Fremont judge to assume jurisdiction, but the Colorado Supreme Court ruled the case belonged to Pueblo.
The year and a half Joe spent on death row was joyful for him. He polished the metal food plate he kept in his cell and used it as a mirror, talking into it and making faces. Best gave Joe some children’s books with pictures of funny faces, which Joe laughed at until the pages fell apart. Best got him scissors and Joe, humming, cut the pictures out.
But nothing delighted Joe more than the bright red wind-up car, with battery powered headlights, and the toy train, a model of a Union Pacific streamliner, given to him by Warden Best and his wife. With the tireless repetition of a child, Joe scooted the car around his cell, and if it smashed into something or tipped over he would shout, “Car wreck! Car wreck!” The train extended Joe’s field of play up and down the passageway in front of the death row cells. His nearest neighbors, all admitted killers, were patient, catching the train when he rolled it toward their cells.
Best made Joe available to the press, and reporters loved the story. “I want to live here with Warden Best,” Joe told one in December 1938. “Don’t you want to go back to the home in Grand Junction?” the reporter asked. “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.”
As execution day neared, a Cañon City reporter wrote that Joe was unaware of the tension building. “He sat in his cell making faces in his polished dinner plate.”
“He cannot comprehend that the state wants to take his life,” Best said.
On January 5, 1938, Best asked Joe what he wanted for his last meal.
“Ice cream,” said Joe.
That night Best brought Joe some cigars and a box of homemade candy. Joe ate so much candy his stomach got a little upset, and he gave the rest of it away.
He began the next day, the last day of his life, with a short visit from his mother and other relatives; his father had died eleven months earlier. The visit caused his mother to collapse in tears, but Joe, unbothered, went back to his cell. He spent the rest of the day smoking cigars, eating ice cream, and playing with his train, the happiest man on death row.