Eddie Ives's botched execution and replacing the noose with the gas chamber
This week's cover story, "The Happiest Man on Death Row," examines the 1939 execution of Joe Arridy, a Pueblo man with an IQ of 46, for a murder he probably didn't commit -- and the twenty-year battle by author Robert Perske to clear his name. Although the miscarriage of justice in Arridy's case is shocking, his time in the state pen (where he was allowed to play with his toy train) was an oddly gentle period in his short life, and his death by asphyxiation in Colorado's gas chamber was swift -- unlike the fate of many of his predecessors on death row.
Arridy was the seventh prisoner to die in the state's gas chamber, which had enough seats to accommodate three customers at once. Colorado had only started using cyanide gas to administer the death penalty in 1934, and the newfangled contraption was widely regarded as a "painless" alternative to the prior method, hanging -- a practice that dated back to frontier days.
The problem with hanging, state officials had discovered, is that it isn't easy to instantly snap someone's neck with a simple noose and gravity. Even with increasingly sophisticated scaffolds, traps and counterweights, there are too many variants involved in the procedure, including the weight of the prisoner, to guarantee a tidy result. More often than not, the procedure left the condemned man dangling and writhing, slowly being choked to death, rather than a clean kill. There had been some memorable miscalculations by the executioners, and the hanging of Eddie Ives had been the worst of the lot.
Ives, a barber and burglar, had been convicted of the fatal shooting of a cop after Denver police crashed an illegal booze party on Curtis Street. (A second officer was wounded in the 1928 shooting, only to be slain a few days later by a nurse at Denver General Hospital who happened to be his spurned lover; Denver's scandal-crazy dailies pumped that case into a Roaring Twenties version of "the crime of the century," as detailed in my 2003 feature "Love Crazy.") He managed to stall his execution for months by pretending to be insane, dipping his chow in the toilet in his cell and babbling in strange tongues.
After that ploy failed and he was pronounced sane, Ives won another delay when a riot at the state penitentiary gutted three cell houses and left twelve dead, including seven guards. One of the casualties was Jack Eeles, 77, who'd been the prison's hangman for thirty years.
Continue to read more about why Colorado replaced the noose with the gas chamber.