May 9, 2009

Colorado Prison

Last week Veep and I were in Colorado Springs for a conference (yawn). 

Veep convinced me (which required very little effort on her part) to skip an afternoon of the meeting and take a look around.  We headed to Cañon City, which is situated about an hour drive to the southwest.  We went to see the Royal Gorge suspension bridge which is apparently the highest suspension bridge in the world.  

Royal Gorge with the Arkansas river:


I was expecting some interesting Western history about difficult travel and frontier living that necessitated construction of a masterfully engineered bridge, but was disappointed that the bridge was built for no other reason than to be the highest suspension bridge in the world, ie it leads to nowhere but the other side of the gorge.



Ha ha.


So after walking the bridge, riding the nearby vertical train to the bottom of the gorge, and riding the gondola across the gorge, we headed back toward Colorado Springs.

The vertical train that goes to the bottom of the gorge:


The gondola that also crosses the gorge:


On the way back, Veep insisted we stop at an old abandoned brick building, which was really just a shack, at the side of the highway.  She likes to take pictures of old barns and decaying buildings.


The cornerstone:


Another nearby building:





We immediately noticed the cornerstone and my curiosity piqued.  Nearby Cañon City is known for it's many prisons--in fact that is its reason for existing.  Its economy relies on the 4 federal and 9 state prisons there.  They have an historic territorial prison with a prison museum and everything.  

We weren't sure what this little building was a few miles down the highway from town.  We scoured the area and found another larger brick shed, an old outhouse, and several piles of stone blocks and metal debris including several iron bar doors with key holes like in old movies.  We found several mangled spoons, some stacked rock walls, a frisbee golf course, and a snake (the latter two had nothing to do with the prison).  Veep snapped her pictures and I mentally made a note of the lay of the land and the name and date on the cornerstone:  Roy Best 1937.

That evening I did a little Interwebstigation.  

Roy best was an interesting character. I get the sense that he was a straight talking guy who was interested in getting things done.  I'm sure he had a good sized ego.  In fact, a year after an unsuccessful escape attempt by 12 prisoners, he agreed to play the role of himself in a film depicting the event.  Here is the prison marching band celebrating the world premier of the movie.


And here are the failed escapees enjoying the movie about themselves.  Kind of eerie.


But the most compelling thing about Roy Best was when he crossed paths with Joe Arridy.


Joe Arridy was a mentally handicapped man who made a questionable confession to a murder and rape of two young girls in nearby Pueblo.  Despite strong evidence that another man, who had already been apprehended, was the killer, Arridy was still convicted based on this confession.  Best befriended Arridy and gave him a small toy train for Christmas, which he played with while on death row.  He, among others in Cañon City, petitioned to have Arridy's death sentence overturned unsuccessfully and Arridy was put to death in the gas chamber.  This is the topic of a book by Robert Perske called Deadly Innocence?  Regardless of your view of capital punishment this seems tragic--either because he was mentally retarded, innocent, or both.


Here he is giving away his prized toy train right before his execution.

Arridy was buried in the prison cemetery on "Woodpecker Hill" (so named for the woodpeckers that chip away at the wooden gravestones).  Here's more info.   An excerpt from that website:

 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.

So, in the end it turns out that we were exploring an old prison ranch site that Warden Best had built, part of his "industiral complex" that employed prisoners.  It was essentially a prison farm where they raised pigs.  There were level areas below the building we were exploring that must have been fields and there was a quarry up the hill above.  

All in all, it was much more interesting than the real reason that took us to Colorado in the first place.


  1. I read the links. Really quite a tragic story.

  2. Kaerlig,
    Congratulations on having the fortitude to not only read my long-winded post but the links as well. Tragic but fascinating. Makes me want to wander around more small towns to find out what they're hiding.

  3. Rich Little-BostonJanuary 15, 2011 at 4:49 AM

    Hi There,
    I just completed a case history on the Joe Arridy tragedy and would like to offer the following:
    you stated; Joe’s original execution date was October 16, 1937.......gas chamber on January 6, 1938. Joe's actual execution day was Jan. 6, 1939.
    you stated; Best was a proponent not only of capital punishment but also of corporal punishment, including flogging. The flogging part of this statement is true, it caused Roy Best to be suspended for a time in the early 1950's. There are, however, strong indications that Warden Best was not in favor of executions. It was he that charged Colorado method of execution from hanging to the gas chamber.
    The Joe Arridy story continues, on Jan. 7, 2011 Gov.Bill Ritter signed a posthumous partion for Joe. Joe's accquital happened 72 years and a day from his death.