by MaryJo Tesitor
In part 1 of this series, the author introduced Walsenburg Day Services and the Southern Colorado Developmental Disability Services (SCDDS) and reviewed the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
by Mary Jo Tesitor
HUERFANO — On January 6, 1938, Colorado learned of the gas chamber execution of Joe Arridy for the rape and murder of a fifteen-year-old Pueblo girl. After months of court and several stays of execution, certainly justice had been done. The only problem was that “Little Joe” was innocent.
Born in the Bessemer neighborhood of Pueblo, Colorado in 1915, Joe Arridy had the intellectual capacity of a six-year-old child. First at school, then on the streets of Pueblo, and later at an “institution for the mentally handicapped,” he had been the victim of cruel abuse.
Through a series of misadventures, Joe was apprehended in Wyoming and questioned concerning the unsolved murder in Pueblo. Unable to grasp the seriousness of the charges leveled against him, he confessed to a crime which he almost certainly did not commit.
The year and a half Joe spent on death row was the happiest time of his life according to a book about Arridy by Robert Perske. Oblivious to the fate that awaited him, he played in his cell with a toy train given to him by Warden Roy Best. He polished the metal food plate he kept in his cell and used it as a mirror, talking into it and making faces. Warden Best gave Joe some children’s books with pictures of funny faces, which Joe laughed at until the pages fell apart.
Despite at least six stays of execution due to the efforts of attorney Gail Ireland, on January 6, 1939 Joe Arridy was led, smiling, up Woodpecker Hill to the gas chamber.
Sadly, the case of Joe Arridy reflects the attitude of most people about the mentally handicapped during the early twentieth century. Even if Joe was innocent, so what? The loss of another “mental defective” was a favor to society.
Eugenics, a pseudo-science promoting the improvement of the human race through controlled breeding and sexual sterilization, was at its zenith in the 1930s. Its credo, grounded on the false assumption that “mental deficiencies” were passed from one generation to the next, thus polluting the human gene pool, was supported by prominent persons. Among them were H.G. Wells, Emile Zola, Margaret Sanger, George Bernard Shaw and even Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
In 1924, a quota system was instituted that severely limited the numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. A rhetoric of “defective races,” was rooted in claims that certain nationalities were prone to congenital defects and was an essential element in configuring the image of the “inferior immigrant.” References to “the slow-witted Slav,” the “neurotic condition of our Jewish immigrants,” and the “degenerate and psychopathic types, which are so conspicuous and numerous among the immigrants” was pervasive in the debate.
As sociologist Douglas Baynton noted on the website Disability History Museum, “the physiognomy of certain groups unmistakably proclaims inferiority of type.” Among immigrants that he observed at Ellis Island, “in every face there was something wrong.” Moreover, Italians were “dwarfish,” Portuguese, Greeks, and Syrians were “undersized,” and Jews were “very poor in physique . . . the polar opposite of our pioneer breed.” The issues of ethnicity and disability were so intertwined in the immigration debate as to be inseparable.
Baynton, Douglas. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History,” Disability History Museum, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=70.
Perske, Robert. Deadly Innocence?, Abingdon Press, 1995.