Joe is an imbecile with the mind of a five-year old child. He escapes from the Home for Mental Defectives. He has a fondness for trains, and gleefully hops a boxcar to find his family in Depression-era Pueblo, Colorado. Unsuccessful, he wanders the city.
GAIL IRELAND, a rich water-rights attorney, is sent by the Governor to investigate the loose reins at the Home for Mental Defectives, and to capture Joe. He finds the home to be inhumane. RILEY DRAIN, a WPA foreman, and FRANK AGUILAR, a WPA worker, are on a job site when Drain’s daughters, DOROTHY, 15, and BARBARA, 12, appear with cookies for the workers. Frank stares at the beautiful Dorothy. Riley takes his wife to a nightclub on the night of August 15, 1936. Toting an ax, a killer or killers invade the Drain home to rape and murder Dorothy. Barbara is also attacked, but clings to life. The Chief of Police demands the apprehension of a baby killer. Mob law rules the city.
Detective EVERETT HORNE is on the hunt of his life. Due to a previous murder, the Axman is a possible serial killer? Worse yet, a necrophiliac? Watch the funeral. This maniac might go back to look at the corpse of Dorothy? Ireland makes a search for Joe. He meets Joe’s parents, who haven’t seen Joe in years. He searches railroad yards and riverside shanties. FRED, an egg farmer, takes Joe home to work for room and board. The chickens and peeps fascinate Joe. But the pull of the train is strong, and Joe hops a boxcar for Cheyenne, Wyo. Frank is detained for macabre behavior at Dorothy’s coffin. Horne moves swiftly, discovering the murder ax and bloody clothes at Frank’s house. Joe is apprehended in the railroad yards by guards, and zipped off to Cheyenne Sheriff GEORGE CARROLL, previously famous for his role in the apprehension of the Ma Barker Gang. Eager for the spotlight, Carroll coerces a confession from Joe. Is Joe innocent or guilty? We really don’t know? Carroll phones Pueblo. Impossible, Horne has the killer. And evidence is mounting against Frank.
Two killers! No problem: Frank cracks, saying Joe was aboard, and actually did most of the dirty deeds. Little Barbara rallies from her wounds, and points out Frank at his murder trial as the killer. Frank goes to Death Row. Joe, despite testimony that he is a notch above an idiot, is declared sane. Joe’s father begs Ireland to enter the fray as the lawyer, but Carroll’s testimony is damning in the murder trial. Joe gets the gas chamber and is off to Death Row.
Now, Ireland is on the crusade of his life. He files a process of appeals for Joe. His beautiful wife, Jewel, is apprehensive about his connection to a notorious ax-murderer, and frets over his political future. Prison Warden Roy Best, a huge, ex-rodeo cowboy, who is feared for his lashes on the famous “Old Grey Mare,” is convinced of Joe’s innocence, and secretly works with Ireland on a quest for clemency. Joe has free run of Death Row, playing with his toy car. Unaware of his plight, Joe is happy. Ireland is locked in a political battle of hope and despair in hearings and appeals.
The warden gives Joe a toy train for Christmas. The train runs a constant express lane down Death Row. Joe’s sounds of joy humanize everyone, including the brutal wife killer ANGELO AGNES, and the hard core prison guard ROY MONGOMERY. Before his execution, Frank whispers his confession in FATHER ALBERT SCHALLER’S ear. Was Joe with him or not? Frank is gassed. Schaller, due to Roman Catholic protocol, is silent on the devastating truth. Ireland takes the final appeal to the Supreme Court, and loses 3-2. The Governor refuses to see him on a last minute clemency request. Ireland weeps on the Governor’s steps. Jewel arrives and comforts Gail. It was a righteous fight. She sits on the steps with him. Joe wants to take his toy train to the gas chamber, but he finally gives it to Agnes. Joe takes the Woodpecker Waltz to the gas chamber. It takes a lot of gas to kill him. Jewel takes Gail for a ride. She shows him a billboard on the side of a highway. It proclaims: VOTE FOR GAIL IRELAND FOR ATTORNEY GENERAL: A CHAMPION OF THE UNDERDOG. She will cast the first vote for him.
Ireland and Jewel attend the burial of Joe on top of Woodpecker Hill.
EPILOGUE: Perske and Montgomery arrive at Woodpecker Hill. In a flashback sequence, we learn that Gail Ireland did run for Attorney General. He won by 204 votes. He nailed the governor for malfeasance.