Wilbur Underhill is one of the forgotten outlaws of the ‘Crime Wave’ that terrified America during the 1920’s into the early 1930’s. Multiple murders, a string of armed robberies and a couple of jailbreaks were his trademark. Underhill never achieved the notoriety or lasting legacy of John Dillinger or Charles ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, nor did he have quite the same violent nature as Lester Gillis (AKA George Baby Face’ Nelson), but in his time he was as fearsome as any ‘Crime Wave’ gunman.
Born in Joplin, Missouri on March 16, 1901, Underhill wasn’t the only one of Mr and Mrs Underhill’s seven children to make crime his profession. Three of his siblings also turned to crime but it was Wilbur, known variously as ‘Mad Dog,’ ‘The Southwest Executioner’ and, most memorably, the ‘Tri-State Terror’, who took most of the limelight along with tens of thousands of dollars and numerous lives. Like most of his contemporaries he lived fast and died young. Mortally wounded in a firefight in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Wilbur Underhill died of his wounds at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary, but not before building a criminal record as bloody and reckless as any of his peers.
Like most major criminals he started young and started small. His first recorded crime was in 1918 when he drew four years for burglary after being caught stealing a neighbor’s silverware. On his release in 1922 he was a changed man (or perhaps prison had simply unlocked an innate vicious streak). He initially found notoriety as the ‘Lover’s Lane Bandit’ after a string of robberies of young couples parked in secluded spots. Having been released from prison in 1922 it wasn’t long before he was back inside, serving five years at the dreaded Missouri State Penitentiary, an institution so violent that it became known as ‘America’s bloodiest 47 acres.’ In late 1926 he was paroled again and the bloodiest part of the Wilbur Underhill story was about to begin.
On Christmas Day, 1926 Underhill, with partner Ike ‘Skeet’ Akins, robbed a drugstore in Okmulgie, Oklahoma. George Fee, aged only 19, was behind the counter when Underhill and Akins stormed in demanding the takings. He was still behind the counter when they left, only he was dead having been shot in the chest. Now Underhill was wanted for armed robbery and murder, both capital offenses in Oklahoma at that time. Akins and Underhill were arrested on January 7, 1927 and held at the county jail to await trial and probably a date with ‘Sizzling Sally’ (Oklahoma’s electric chair) at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary at Mcalester. Underhill and Akins, however, had other ideas.
Along with Akins, ‘Red’ Gann and ‘Buff’ Kennedy, Underhill and Akins promptly escaped from the county jail. Akins was soon recaptured on February 9. Attempting another escape on February 12, Akins was shot and killed. Underhill was about to embark on a crime spree that would easily earn him his ‘Tri-State Terror’ nickname.
The day after Akins was killed trying to escape from Okmulgie, Underhill committed an armed robbery, murdering deputized civilian Earl O’Neal in the process. On March 20, Underhill found himself wearing handcuffs again. Captured at Panama, Oklahoma he soon found himself shipped back to Okmulgie under armed escort to await trial for his life. Oklahoma, not having the kindest attitude toward armed robbers and murderers, Underhill decided that he’d arrange his own release without going to either trial or the electric chair.
After having the good fortune to only draw a life sentence for the murder of George Fee, Underhill found himself serving his time at the Okalhoma State Penitentiary at Mcalester. This wasn’t much of an improvement on the Missouri State Penitentiary, but Mcalester did have one big advantage. For a state penitentiary it was relatively easy to escape from and, July 14, 1927, that was exactly what he did. He turned up on Cherryvale, Kansas 12 days later to commit another armed robbery, this time managing to avoid shooting anybody.
An armed robbery of a gas station in Wichita, Kansas followed on August 12 — a fairly small-time affair by Underhill’s standards — before he fled again. Having crashed his car during the getaway, Underhill was forced to check into a Wichita hotel, which attracted the attention and suspicion of local police. In the running gunfight that followed, Underhill murdered Patrolman Merle Colver, leaving him dead on a sidewalk after having been shot three times in the head. Now, as if the threat of ‘Sizzling Sally’ hadn’t been enough, the Kansas gallows was a distinct possibility. Underhill was caught after taking a bullet in his neck, a neck that the Kansas hangman might soon be taking an unhealthy interest in.
Again, Underhill’s luck held. He drew another life sentence for murdering Patrolman Colver, this one was to be served at the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing. Other KSP inmates might be taken quietly from their cells late at night, be driven down to what KSP inmates called ‘The Corner’ and never come back, but not Underhill. He wouldn’t remain at Lansing to serve his life sentence for very long, either.
The mass escape from KSP on May 30, 1933 caused humiliation for Kansas authorities and unleashed 11 hardened killers and thieves upon an unsuspecting (and deeply unhappy) populace. Underhill wasn’t the only big-time crook to go over the wall that day. Among others he escaped with Robert ‘Big Bob’ Brady, Harvey Bailey, Ed Davis (later gassed in California for his role in the 1937 Folsom Prison Massacre), Frank ‘Buzz’ Saawyer and Jim Clark. Kansas authorities were humiliated, State and Federal government were furious, and the public wasn’t overly pleased either.
On June 16, 1933 Underhill and several others committed, yet another, armed robbery in Black Rock, Arkansas. Then a bank in Clinton, Oklahoma found itself abruptly relieved of $11,000. Then, taking a break from gang business, Underhill performed a solo job, robbing a bank in Canton, Kansas before hooking up again with what was becoming known as the ‘Bailey-Underhill Gang.’
Returning to the gang’s warm embrace and with Harvey Bailey having been recaptured, Underhill led them to Kingfisher, Oklahoma to make a rather large withdrawal from the town bank on August 9, following up with a trip to Baxter Springs, Kansas to relieve the local bank of another $3,000. As if that wasn’t enough, the ‘Underhill Gang’ also committed robberies in Galena, Kansas and Stuttgart, Arkansas to add to their considerable bankroll and burgeoning criminal reputation.
On November 9, Underhill, having hooked up with notorious robber Ford Bradshaw, made a return to trip to where Underhill’s serious crime spree began. The bank at Okmulgie, Oklahoma found itself short of $13,000 dollars and Okmulgie’s residents wished they’d never heard the name Wilbur Underhill. They weren’t the last people to think so.
By now Underhill’s reputation for brazen robberies and instant violence had drawn the attention of State and Federal authorities. Underhill now faced his most dangerous enemy in the form of J. Edgar Hoover, busily using the publicity of the ‘Crime Wave’ to establish the name and legend of the FBI. A multi-agency task force was set up, composed of State, Federal and local law enforcement officers, and aimed specifically at capturing or killing Wilbur Underhill. The silver thief from Joplin had come a long way in a short time but, for him, the end of the road was fast approaching.
But, despite the perpetual risks and ever-mounting opposition to his crime spree, Underhill’s life wasn’t without it’s lighter and more defiant moments. On November 18 he applied for a marriage license using his own name in Coalgate, Oklahoma, knowing that the task force was scouring the nearby Cookson Hills which had long been a regular hiding place for outlaws. He did marry his fiancée and, naturally wanting to give the newly-wed Mr and Mrs Underhill a wedding present, the gang arrived the next day in Frankfort, Kentucky and robbed the local bank.
Underhill narrowly escaped the task force in Oklahoma City. So narrow was his escape that, at one point, he was driving down one lane of the highway when he saw the task force hurrying in the opposite direction to the place he’d left shortly before. Another narrow escape in Konowa, Oklahoma ought to have alerted him to the fact that moving around without attention was getting harder and his narrow escapes were becoming more narrow and more frequent. Perhaps Underhill had already accepted it was only a matter of time and was already resigned to being hunted down, caught, and either dying in a gunfight or an execution chamber. Or maybe he simply didn’t care. We’ll probably never know.
On December 11, 1933 Underhill hooked up with another notorious Oklahoma badman. Ralph Roe wasn’t notorious so much for his crimes but for being, with Theodore ‘Ted’ Cole, one of the first two inmates to successfully escape from the dreaded Alcatraz Island. Along with Jack Lloyd, Roe and Underhill attempted a slightly more subtle bank job by trying to burgle a bank in Harrah, Oklahoma rather than simply storming in with guns blazing. They fled without taking anything after being disturbed on the job.
Two days later they were back in Coalgate. Coalgate had a bank and the ‘Underhill Gang’ needed money. The solution was obvious. Coalgate was a success for Underhill, but it was also to be his last robbery. The task force were closing in and it was would only be matter of time before Underhill had nowhere to hide and no more time left to run.
On December 30, 1933 time finally ran out. Underhill and Roe had both married their molls and were celebrating the holiday season in a rented cottage at Shawnee, Oklahoma. The task force rather abruptly crashed the party. Soon 24 Federal agents, State Troopers and local police officers were surrounding the cottage and demanding that the duo surrender immediately. Underhill answered their demands equally abruptly with a hail of bullets.
The firefight was both brief and bloody. 24 guns against 2 doesn’t make for a fair fight, especially not when bystander Eva Nicholls was killed in the crossfire. Roe was wounded and captured when the task force stormed the cottage. Underhill, shot five times and clearly dying, staggered some 16 blocks before flopping down on a bed in a local furniture store. It was there that the task force caught up with him. He was shipped to the hospital at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary under heavily-armed guard and manacled to his bed.
In truth, shot five times and obviously incapable of resistance, never mind escape, it probably wasn’t necessary to manacle Underhill. The ‘Tri-State Terror’ had clearly been fatally wounded. It was only a matter of time before Underhill died and, on January 6, 1934, ‘Mad Dog’ made his last bark. His final words, presumable addressed to other dead felons, were:
“Tell the boys I’m coming home.”