By Max McCoy
Globe Investigative Writer
He was Joplin's most infamous son.
In an era of bad men, he was the baddest of them all - a bank robber and mad-dog killer who had Hollywood good looks, a devoted mother and five wives. By the time his criminal career reached its zenith in 1933, when he was named FBI Public Enemy Number One, he harbored a special hatred for cops and carried a fully automatic Luger with a drum magazine. When he was finally shot to death early in 1934, after being betrayed by someone he trusted, his funeral drew thousands.
Few remember Wilbur Underhill today, but that may change with R.D. Morgan's recently released biography of the man called "The Tri-State Terror."
Morgan, a 51-year-old retired military policeman who lives in Haskell, Okla., has devoted himself full time to researching and writing about the region's Depression-era gangsters. He describes Underhill as "a walking billboard for the death penalty" and said he tackled the project because the Joplin native was the last of the famous public enemies who didn't have a biography.
It took 4 1/2 years and trips to five states to research and write the 384-page book, Morgan said, which was published by Open Forums Press, of Stillwater. The publisher had already brought out three previous Morgan books, including "The Bad Boys of the Cookson Hills," about the 18-month manhunt to track down the Ford Bradshaw Gang across the rugged terrain of eastern Oklahoma.
"Those outlaws had some association with Underhill," Morgan said, "and through my Web site I received some correspondence with Wilbur's great-nephew, and he possessed a treasure trove of information, including photographs, 28 letters from various prisons, and a couple of hundred newspaper clippings and legal documents."
The relative, Richard Baine, shared the information with Morgan. Baine died last year, shortly after the release of Morgan's book.
"He was a great guy and certainly knew everything about Wilbur," Morgan said.
Underhill was born in Neosho but grew up on the west side of Joplin, in houses along Sergeant and Pearl avenues, Morgan said. His father was a bricklayer who died when Wilbur was 10 years old, plunging the family into poverty. One day, Wilbur was digging for something to eat in a trash bin beneath a second-floor window when somebody threw a case of pop bottles out of the window. The case hit Wilbur in the head, Morgan said, and some said the boy was never right again.
"Through his letters, I found out that he was certainly more intelligent than I expected," Morgan said. "I always expected him to be a big dumb German, but he was well-read. He spent so long in prison that he had a lot of time to read, and he was a bit of a puritan when it came to matters of the heart. Apparently, he never had any relations with members of the opposite sex unless he was married to them. He was a practicing bigamist, and had been married at least five times but never divorced."
Unlike the other gangsters of the era, Underhill did not drive a car, so he would have to arrange for a driver on his jobs. He was loyal to his family and particularly to his mother, who doted on him and made sure to attend all of his trials - and often stole the show by passing out.
"Wilbur exuded confidence, and when he talked, people listened," Morgan said.
He and his brothers were constantly in trouble. His older brother, Ernest, was 17 when he shot a hot tamale and peanut vendor named Phillip Burton behind the New Joplin theater at Seventh and Joplin streets on Feb. 11, 1913. At 39, Ernest was allowed to return to Joplin - in the company of officials from the state penitentiary - to attend the funeral of his infamous brother.
Another brother, George, was a "morphine addict and classic drifter," according to Morgan. George Underhill broke out of jail in Kansas in 1931 and then broke into a couple of drugstores. He died, of a self-administered overdose of narcotics. His body was identified because of a tattoo on his arm that said, "Kid Underhill."
In 1920, Wilbur Underhill began "hijacking" folks on lovers' lane in Tanyard Hollow, west of Joplin. He was sent to prison, where he tried to escape by tunneling, Morgan said. He was released in 1923 and then began bootlegging liquor to area miners, then branched into street muggings and holdups.
"He shot and grievously wounded a kid in a holdup," Morgan said, "then fled to the Oklahoma oil fields, where he was involved in the murder of a drugstore clerk during a holdup. He fled to Picher, where he committed several more robberies, and shot and killed a cop in 1927."
Underhill was sentenced to life in prison in Oklahoma, but escaped in 1931 and killed another police officer in Wichita, Kan., during a holdup. He was sentenced to life in prison for the Wichita killing, but on Memorial Day 1933 he and 10 other inmates escaped from the Kansas State Penitentiary at Lansing.
Two weeks later, the Kansas City Massacre occurred at Union Station.
Gangsters had attempted to free federal prisoner Frank Nash, but succeeded only in killing Nash, along with four police officers. Pretty Boy Floyd was responsible, but at the time Underhill was the FBI's top suspect.
Underhill's own crime spree, however, was impressive - he robbed 10 banks in seven months. All told, Morgan said, he probably killed five people. He also married, for the fifth time, a woman by the name of Hazel Hudson. The couple had been together a few months when federal agents tracked them to a house at Shawnee, about 40 miles east of Oklahoma City.
Shot 13 times
Inside the house were Underhill, new wife Hazel, gangster Ralph Roe, and Roe's girlfriend, Eva Nichols. They partied until early on the morning of Dec. 30, 1933.
Armed with shotguns and .45-caliber Thompsons, federal agents and local police surrounded the house. Underhill, who heard dogs barking, went to the window in his underwear. A tear gas canister was fired through the screen, Morgan said, and hit Underhill in the stomach. Hazel, who was drunk, dove beneath the bed while Underhill snatched up the 9mm Luger.
In the next few minutes, perhaps as many as 1,000 rounds were fired by police, Morgan said, including some full bursts from less than 20 feet away. The officers, he said, were inexperienced with the Tommy guns because there wasn't enough money to buy practice ammunition. At the time, he said, FBI agents weren't even supposed to carry guns.
In the battle, Roe - who would later become famous by escaping Alcatraz, perhaps only to drown - was badly hurt and his girlfriend was mortally wounded. Underhill himself was struck 13 times - six times by the .45 caliber slugs from the Tommy guns, and the rest by buckshot. With the exception of one machine gun round to the kidney, Morgan said, Underhill's wounds probably would not have proved fatal.
Underhill escaped to a cornfield.
Another 50 to 60 officers, and dogs from the state prison, were brought in for the search, Morgan said. At dawn, the owner of a second-hand furniture store summoned the police, and they found Underhill in one of the beds in the store, the bloody covers drawn up to his chin, and the Luger by his side.
The wounded bandit was taken to a local hospital, but J. Edgar Hoover insisted he be transferred to the prison at McAlester, where he would be out of the reach of attempts by his fellow gangsters to free him. When he reached the hospital, Morgan said, Underhill exclaimed something akin to, "Boys, I'm coming home" - not a reference to his impending demise, Morgan believes, but a statement that Underhill believed his place was in prison.
He died five days later, at the age of 33.
Underhill was the first gangster to be killed by the FBI. His death was reported the next day in The New York Times.
The accepted story of the ambush at Shawnee, Morgan said, is that Eva Nichols - the girlfriend of Ralph Roe - had snitched. But Morgan said recently unearthed FBI documents indicate that it was a man, and not a woman, who was the paid informant.
"I do not know the name of the informant," Morgan said. "The FBI had inserted false stories in some newspapers to throw people off. But I do know that it was a paid informant, and that's how they ran him down, and it was someone who was very close to Wilbur."
Underhill's body was brought back to Joplin by train, while his wife Hazel returned in the same auto that had been used in the last robbery. His services were held Jan. 10 at the Byers Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, on the northwest corner of 18th Street and Byers Avenue, where he had sometimes attended Sunday school as a child. The Globe reported that 2,000 people packed the church and its surroundings for the open-casket service, while the Herald, the afternoon paper, reported 1,500. Other crowd estimates gave figures as high as 5,000, Morgan said, making Underhill's funeral among the largest - if not the largest - in Joplin history.
"The Depression was a very boring time," Morgan said. "They had very little entertainment." Funerals, he said, offered diversion for the morbidly curious.
"In his 28 letters, (Underhill) writes a lot about Joplin," Morgan said. "He certainly considered it his home."
For his next book, Morgan is considering another 1930s desperado with ties to Joplin: Ma Barker.
"The Tri-State Terror: The Life and Crimes of Wilbur Underhill" by R.D. Morgan, is available at Hastings, 526 S. Range Line, or from the author's Web site: www.geocities.com/ezlane2002
Other books that feature Joplin gangsters of the 1930s include:
"Run the Cat Roads," by L.L. Edge, an account of the Memorial Day 1933 jailbreak by Underhill and 11 convicts from the Kansas State Penitentiary. First published in 1981 and now out of print, this book is available from used booksellers and many public libraries in the area.
"Lawmen and Outlaws: 116 Years in Joplin's History," by Jim Hounschell. The author, a 21-year veteran of the Joplin Police Department, looks at some of the more notorious gangsters who have become a part of the city's history, including Bonnie and Clyde. It is available from the author's Web site: www.users.joplin.com/lawmen.
"Wilbur Underhill was visually, and behaviorally, the classic Hollywood stereotype of the cigar-chomping, machine gun-toting bad guy. He was certainly one of the worst public enemies of the 1930s, and he always referred to himself as a 'first-class crook'"
- R.D. Morgan.
Is it Wilbur or Wilber? "The Tri-State Terror" came into the world in 1901 as Wilber Underhill, but at the age of seventeen, he adopted "Wilbur" as the correct spelling because it seemed more masculine. His headstone, however, spells it "Wilber."