The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Local News

April 8, 2006

Public Enemy No. 1

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.

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