The "Tri-State Terror" is the Boogeyman of Depression-era outlaws in more ways than one. For nearly a decade in the turbulent period of the 1920s and 30s, he was one of the most infamous and feared criminals in the Southwest. Convicted of one of his murders in Oklahoma he was sentenced to life and escaped, killing a cop and receiving another life term in Kansas, and then escaped again, leading ten others in a mass breakout. In the last months of his life, he rose to national notoriety as a prolific bank robber and suspect in the infamous Kansas City Massacre and became the first criminal ever shot down by agents of that fledgling agency which would soon become the FBI.
True criminal immortality seemed to elude Wilbur after his death, his name eclipsed in the national headlines by the likes of John Dillinger, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, and "Baby Face" Nelson. But scratch the surface and he's still there. From his native Joplin where Underhill began his career modestly as a "lovers lane" bandit, to the Tri-State mining district where he is best remembered as a lone wolf scurrying about the night terrorizing the populace and committing a half-dozen robberies at gunpoint, to Wichita, Kansas where he was known as a vicious cop-killer, to Jeff City, Lansing, and McAlester where he became a legendary figure among the inmate populations and seemingly possessed a talent to break out at will, to the Central Oklahoma oilfields and his hideouts in the wild and wooly Cookson Hills, to the many towns he struck in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arkansas his impact is still felt. The lives he took, touched or made a total travesty of has impacted generations of folks in the Southwest. His name hasn't been totally obliterated from the history books of course.
Most crime buffs are familiar with Wilbur Underhill if not necessarily with the details of his long and deadly career. He's received cursory mention, though usually not long on accuracy in such books as Ten Thousand Public Enemies by Courtney Riley Cooper and The Bad Ones by Lew Louderback. Cooper, J. Edger Hoover's crony and favorite journalist in the thirties set the tone with a fictional account of how Underhill was kicked out of the Kimes-Terrill Gang (itself a media created fiction) for having a murder complex. Around 1970 Loren D. Estelman based his novel The Oklahoma Punk (later reissued in paperback as Red Highway) on Underhill. But Estelman's Virgil Ballard really owed more to Cooper's fiction than to any real life events. The 1973 movie Dillinger with Warren Oats thoughtfully included Wilbur as a character giving the popular but erroneous version of him being tracked down through his wedding then compounding the fiction by having Underhill personally killed by Melvin Purvis-who wasn't even there. Louderback's paperback was still being sold at the time and probably introduced many crime buffs to the "Tri-State Terror" but his inclusion in the movie might possibly owe something also to the late Clarence Hurt who served as a technical advisor. Hurt, a life long lawman and one of the two G-Men who shot Dillinger, was an Oklahoma City police officer in 1933 and helped bring down Underhill at Shawnee. The Underhill capture may well have gotten him his appointment to the FBI.
Strangely, even the FBI has seemingly forgotten Wilbur. Decades after J.Edger Hoover's death the bureau still promotes it's glorious gangbusting escapades of the thirties, capitalizing on such gangland legends as Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and cases in which the bureau's involvement was minimal such as Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde. But even they seem to be totally unaware today that Wilbur Underhill was the first criminal ever shot by FBI agents, who had no police powers before 1933 and weren't really legally authorized to carry guns until six months after Underhill's demise.
Ralph H. Colvin, regional director of the U S Department of Justice's investigative wing, (The forerunner of the FBI) taking note of Underhill's activities decided to put on a full court press in an all out effort to capture the badman. Shortly after becoming aware of Wilbur's marriage at Coalgate, Colvin, who had been the lead investigator in the recent Urschel kidnapping case, and Agent Frank Smith, a survivor of the Kansas City massacre, began assembling a task force which included twenty-nine federal agents along with a contingent of officers from the Oklahoma County Sheriff's office and a party of Oklahoma City policemen which included Detectives Mickey Ryan, D. A. "Jelly" Bryce, and Clarence Hurt.
The thirty-six-year-old Clarence Hurt, who had led the raid on Hazel Hudson's Oklahoma City residence, was a formidable force in his own right. Joining the Oklahoma City Police Department as a patrolman in 1919, he rapidly worked his way up the ranks to the position of Assistant Chief of Police by the age of thirty-two, becoming the youngest chief in the department's history. In 1926, he was loaned out to the Department of Justice seeing service as an investigator during the infamous Osage Indian murder case. In 1931, he joined the detective bureau as a supervisor. Jelly Bryce joined the force after impressing Hurt with his marksman ability at a shooting match. Bryce had a reputation as a "Triggerman," gunning down several fleeing felons during his first year with the department.
On receipt of the information concerning Underhill's ill health, agents took a shot in the dark fanning out questioning area doctors and druggists showing them photos of Underhill. The day before Christmas investigators finally got a break in the case. A Seminole physician identified a photo of Underhill as a man he had treated at a beauty shop in town. It appears that the operator of the shop, a thirty-three-year-old three-time divorcee named Eva Mae Nichols, had contacted a pharmacy in search of a doctor to treat a "friend." The physician continued, saying the man had given his name as George Hickson. The authorities immediately began a loose but apparently ineffective surveillance of the beauty shop, which was located in a two-story downtown brick building. Miss Nichols lived in a second story apartment above the shop with her sister.
A short investigation of Miss Nichols, who was described as plump but attractive, turned up the fact she was apparently a well-respected business women known for her wit, intelligence, and drive. She and her sister, Lena, who worked and lived together, were both obvious "thrill seekers" having a penchant for dating unsavory types. Eva, who had left home at the tender age of seventeen traveling alone to New York City to attend beauty school, was apparently a headstrong and free-spirited lass. She was a bit of an enigma, although she obviously enjoyed living on the wild side she in turn willingly took on the responsibility of supporting her younger siblings after the death of their parents. Not your typical gangster's moll.
According to FBI reports the investigators were not operating totally in the dark, they had an ace in the hole in the form of a mole operating inside the Underhill mob. An informant, whose identity is still unknown to this day, (Name is blacked out on FBI reports) approached the feds in mid-November offering his services for a fee. FBI agent Frank Smith, who was appointed the snitch's handler, evidently offered him a $500 cash reward as well as his assistance in gaining the $350 reward offered by the state of Kansas for the badman's capture if he could put the outlaw on the spot. The informant, who was dubbed "Jack Hughes" for contact purposes, was provided some spending money and presented with a car for his use compliments of Uncle Sam.
On the evening of December 29, Agent Smith was phoned by "Hughes" who stated he and Lon Johnson had just visited Wilbur Underhill at a residence located at 606 West Dewey Street in Shawnee. "Hughes" requested Smith instruct the Shawnee police to immediately arrest him and Johnson in order to avoid any suspicion that he was involved in any raid made on the place. This was done. When Smith arrived at the city lockup in order to confer with his stool pigeon, "Hughes" advised him he and Johnson had stopped by the Dewey street address at approximately 7:30 pm but found no one at home. At roughly 8:30 pm, the pair again visited the residence, this time Underhill's automobile was parked in the driveway. According to the informant, he and his companion entered the residence and spoke with Wilbur who was in the company of his wife and Ford Bradshaw.
Agents conferred with Shawnee Night Chief Frank Bryant who instructed his investigators to search the utility deposits on file at city hall. The deposits for the residence in question were found to be under the name of J. H. Reynolds. When the owner of the home, Hatler Smith, a prominent insurance agent, was rolled out of bed and questioned he informed officers the cottage was rented to a man of the same name. He further instructed lawmen he had not set eyes on the individual. Instead, a politician turned real-estate agent and part-time bond merchant named Joe Smalley had made the actual lease arrangements. When Smalley was contacted, he stated he had let the property in early November to a pair of individuals who signed the agreement as J.H. Reynolds and Joe Sullivan. After some arm-twisting, he admitted the character using the name of Sullivan was in reality Elmer Inman. That name rang a bell. Smalley explained his actions by stating although he had known Inman for many years he was unaware the slick gangster was wanted at this time for any crime. It later came to light; the house had been under observation for nearly two weeks by Shawnee Police detectives who suspected the residents were engaged in bootlegging activities. At half past midnight a squad car carrying Agent Frank Smith and Detective Clarence Hurt accompanied by the informant drove past the residence in order to ascertain if there was any activity-taking place. The officers spotted a light in the back bedroom with sounds of a drinking party emitting from the place. Upon receiving information of this new development, Agent Colvin contacted the members of his task force instructing them to "Saddle Up!"
At roughly 2 A.M. on a cold, wet, foggy morning, a large party of heavily armed federal, county, and city officers rendezvoused at the central police station located in downtown Shawnee. Colvin informed the group "I think we have our man, now lets set the trap!" To ensure the lawmen would not be shooting at one another or into surrounding homes, Colvin gave explicit instructions as to where each officer would be stationed during the ambush. Afterwards, the group set out in several automobiles parking a block and a half from the house in question. Setting up in front of the residence directly across the street was federal agents T. N. Birch, G H. Franklin, and J. M. Edger all equipped with shotguns, positioned nearby was Oklahoma County Deputy Sheriffs George Kerr and Don Stone. Next to them was Shawnee Night Chief Frank Bryant, armed with a machinegun. Standing on the porch of a dwelling located directly east of the targeted residence were Oklahoma County Deputies Bill Eads and John Adams. Federal Agents Colvin, Frank Smith, K. D. Deadrick, and Paul Hanson, along with Oklahoma City Detectives Clarence Hurt, A. D. Bryce, and Mickey Ryan were assigned to cover the rear of the residence. Colvin and Bryce were armed with machine guns, while Smith, Ryan, Hanson, and Deadrick had shotguns. Hurt was equipped with a tear gas gun as well as his trusty "chopper."
Hurt, accompanied by Colvin, crept to the window of a bedroom located on the northeast corner of the rear of the dwelling while the others took up positions to their rear. Although the darkness and heavy fog limited their vision, officers could make out a faint light glowing in the room. The pair peered into the window. Colvin pressed the barrel of his machinegun against the screen while Hurt readied his gas gun. They both observed Underhill standing at the foot of the bed clothed only in his long underwear while his scantily dressed wife sat on the edge of the mattress.
When a dog started barking in the distance, Underhill looked up and began walking toward the window. A couple of feet from the window, he suddenly stopped locking eye balls with Officer Hurt. Hurt yelled, "This is the law Wilbur, stick `em up!" The outlaw replied, "Okay," then whirled about grabbing a wicked looking automatic Lugar pistol which was attached to an ammo drum with a capacity of thirty-one rounds, off a nearby nightstand. Hurt reacted by firing a single round from his gas gun, the missile crashing through the screen and glass before bouncing off Underhill's stomach. Colvin squeezed the trigger of his machine gun loosening a full clip of .45 rounds that smashed into the bedroom's walls and shattered a glass mirror. Hazel fainted, dropping like a stone to the floor, a maneuver that probably saved her life. The officers standing behind Hurt and Colvin opened up with machine guns and shotguns pumping a ferocious volley of lead into the room. Hurt stated he quickly ducked and weaved to get out of the line of his comrade's fire. Meanwhile, the second male suspect, currently lying in bed with a female companion in an adjacent bedroom was struck in the left arm and shoulder by rounds piercing the wall between the rooms. The female, later identified as Eva Mae Nichols, jumped up running toward the front door screaming hysterically when suddenly she crumpled to the floor in a bloody heap hit squarely in the stomach by a pair of steel jacketed .45 caliber rounds. Amazingly, she found the strength to gain her footing and rush out the front door and on to the front yard where she abruptly pitched forward to the ground when a machinegun round struck her in the foot.
Hurt maintained he saw Wilbur fall to the floor then jump up and rush into the bathroom where he stopped momentarily to return fire before darting into the living room and on to the front porch. On hearing the sudden explosion of deafening gunfire emitting from the rear of the residence and observing the blinding detonation of a myriad of muzzle flashes lighting up the inky-black night like a fourth of July fireworks display, the posse stationed in front of the house took their safeties off and stood at the ready searching for a target. The moment they caught sight of Wilbur sprinting out the front door, Bryant, Eads, Adams, and Stone began hosing down the outlaw with shotgun and machine gun rounds. Sideswiped by the fierce volley of lead, Wilbur fell to the muddy earth with a thud where he lay still. Temporarily holding their fire, lawmen began to warily approach the badman when suddenly like Lazarus from the grave he leaped to his feet and dashed madly into the shadows between two neighboring houses.
Meanwhile, Colvin, hearing the firing coming from the front of the home was just rounding the corner when he nearly bumped into the fleeing Underhill. The G-Man responded by, in his words, "Tattooing" the fugitive's back with a machine gun burst. At about the same time, a pursuing Frank Bryant, dropped to one knee and unleashed a full drum of submachine gun rounds into the fleeing man's direction. To both his and Colvin's astonishment, the horribly wounded bandit just kept running till he again disappeared into the foggy night. Colvin later explained, "I don't know how he did it. The bastard just wouldn't stay down."
Back at police headquarters the switchboard suddenly lit up like a Christmas tree, citizens living near the scene of the shootout reported someone was setting off illegal firecrackers, others described their windows being broken by rock throwing juvenile delinquents while yet another citizen reported a prowler running through his yard clothed only in his underwear.
Moments after Underhill had pulled his Rasputin act, Deputy Kerr, standing staring in the darkness, heard the voice of the second male subject emitting from inside the tear gas filled house begging to be allowed to come out and surrender. Kerr ordered him to crawl out the bedroom window while instructing the posse to hold their fire. The suspect, who had taken slugs to the shoulder and elbow, responded, "I can't but I'll crawl out the front door." Kerr replied, "Go ahead," then covered the outlaw with his weapon as he wiggled on his belly on to the porch where he was handcuffed and transported to the Shawnee Municipal Hospital. Although he refused to answer questions from officers, he did identify himself not as Ford Bradshaw as previously thought but Ralph "Raymond" Roe. He expressed great anxiety over Miss Nichols condition, saying, "She is innocent of all our doings ...I got her into this and now she's gonna die... She's a good kid who strung along with us asking no questions even when she saw all those guns."
After waiting a few minutes for the tear gas to dissipate, Colvin and a group of officers entered the residence where they discovered an unconscious but unhurt Hazel Underhill sprawled on the floor next to the bed. Lawmen were amazed to find her unscathed while the walls of the bedroom were literally shredded. Officers picked her up and carried her into the front yard where suddenly she jerked away from them and began clawing at her burning eyes and gasping for fresh air. When questioned, Hazel was reportedly incoherent. Colvin suggested she was inebriated. Mrs. Underhill was then transported to the city jail and locked in a cell where she immediately flopped on a cot and fell into a sound sleep. Eva Nichols, floating in and out of consciousness was transported to the emergency room located at the Municipal Hospital where she occupied a room adjacent to her wounded lover. On her arrival at the medical center, she asked for her ex-husband who lived in nearby Seminole. Both wounded suspects were placed under heavy guard.
Back at the scene of the raid, the posse fanned out splitting up into several small groups and began a houseto-house search while two-dozen other officers from surrounding counties soon joined the manhunt. Operating on the misguided notion that suggested the desperado had somehow gotten possession of a set of wheels and was seeking a friendly face, a contingent of Oklahoma County sheriff's deputies raided Lon Johnson's SE 23rd Street address at approximately 4 am. Although Underhill was not found, lawmen arrested Lonzo Johnson's little brother, Seedell, on charges of harboring a fugitive from justice. Although the youth vigorously denied ever meeting Underhill, tire tracks matching those of plaster casts taken from Wilbur's Ford were discovered in the Johnson's dirt driveway.
Meanwhile, ten miles east of the Johnson residence the bleeding and dazed fugitive, in a superhuman effort, ran several blocks before stumbling face first onto the rain soaked ground. He laid there for several minutes in order to gain strength and get his bearings before racing east across the Jefferson School yard finally coming to the Shawnee Creek drainage ditch where he collapsed and laid low for an hour or more, unable to move due to numerous patrol cars criss-crossing the area. Around 5 A.M., he attempted to start an old feed truck he had spotted nearby but failed. Cursing his luck he stumbled in a southerly direction until he hit an alley located between Main and Seventh. His journey on foot while suffering from numerous painful wounds which would have killed a normal man came to an end when he reached the back door of the McAlester Furniture Store located sixteen blocks from where he had began his dash for freedom. He could go no further.
At roughly 6 A.M., officers came across a large pool of blood on the banks of the Shawnee Creek drainage ditch. The officers decided to stay put and wait for the arrival of bloodhounds from the state penitentiary in McAlester. An hour later Bill McKenzie, a motorcycle cop who was temporarily acting as a dispatcher at police headquarters, was contacted by R. A. Owens, the manger of a second-hand furniture store located at 509 East Main, with startling news. Owens reported a large man clothed only in his underwear had broken into the back door of his establishment. McKenzie, suspecting the intruder was Underhill rushed out to the station's parking lot where he encountered Oklahoma County Sheriff Stanley Rogers who had just arrived on the scene. Rogers, accompanied by his son who happened to be home on Christmas vacation from medical school, quickly gathered a posse, which included radio dispatchers Jack Roberts and John Whalen along with Oklahoma City Detective John Cassidy and Oklahoma County Deputy W E. Agee. The small group hurried to the scene in a two-car caravan, lights flashing. The younger Rogers, McKenzie, and Agee took the front door of the establishment while the sheriff accompanied by Cassidy, Roberts, and Whalen took the rear. The officers, seeing several shadowy figures moving about, kicked in the locked front door while the officers located in the rear entered the already open back door. They quickly discovered an individual lying in a blood-soaked bed with a Lugar pistol lying on the floor next to him. The store's manager and his wife were standing frozen in position in the far corner of the room.
Sheriff Rogers reported he approached the individual who he recognized as Wilbur Underhill and after checking out his wounds, leaned down telling him, "You're in a bad way, boy." Underhill haltingly replied "Ya, I'm shot to hell, they got me five times. I counted the slugs as they hit me. When I set sail they really poured it to me." Rogers stated "His back was peppered with shotgun wounds and he had been struck by .45 slugs in the head, right arm, back, and right leg," adding, " How he got through that hail of lead and ran sixteen blocks suffering from those terrible wounds is beyond understanding."
Officer Bill McKenzie, describing the badman's capture in a story for the Shawnee Morning News stated "We found Underhill lying motionless on a blood-soaked bed. His blond hair was dyed red from blood, (actually the outlaw had recently had his hair dyed a reddish-brown tint at Miss Nichols beauty shop) he could hardly breath, choking and gasping. His face was wracked with pain. I noticed the top half of his left ear had been shot off. He was also suffering from exposure to the cold due to his long run clad only in his underwear and socks. We expected to have to kill him. It was a relief to discover him lying helpless and offering no resistance." The dying fugitive was transported to the Municipal Hospital to join his partner and Miss Nichols. According to McKenzie, the wounded outlaw repeatedly howled in pain and begged the ambulance driver to slow down due to his fear of falling off the stretcher as the rig made several sharp turns on the ride to the hospital.
When the proprietor of the furniture store, who maintained his living quarters in the rear of the building, was asked why the fugitive had picked his establishment to collapse in, he responded, "I don't know. We were awakened when he forced his way through the back door into our bedroom just moments before the cops arrived. I never seen him before in my life." Owens later changed his tune, claiming Underhill had awakened him by pounding on the back door asking for a drink of water. After admitting the fugitive into his apartment, he claimed he put him to bed and offered first aid out of the compassion of his heart. It also appears the storekeeper, rather than immediately contacting the cops, waited nearly an hour before seeking their assistance. A story soon began circulating inferring the store had been used in the past as a warehouse for stolen goods. (A fencing operation.) There appears to have been some credence to this claim. According to FBI reports, Owens was an ex-con who had done time with Wilbur in McAlester. The report went on to read, "Evidently Underhill knew exactly where he was headed when he fled." Due to Owens cooperating with the authorities, the feds decided not to further pursue the matter.
Back at the scene of the raid, officers began searching the Dewey Street house for evidence. The residence was described as looking like a war-zone, all the home's furniture was turned over except the dining room table, which sat upright, on it sat a half-empty quart bottle of whiskey. Broken glass and debris covered the floors; the walls and ceilings were shredded by gunfire and splattered with blood. The cottage's woodwork and doors were reportedly splintered. Officers estimated over two hundred rounds had been fired in the shootout. A packet containing $5300 in negotiable bonds issued by the Franklin Title and Trust Company of Frankfort, Kentucky that was identified as part of the loot from the November 23, 1933 robbery of the State National Bank of Frankfort was discovered in one of the bedrooms. The bonds were in $1000-$500-and $100 denominations. A large quantity of ammunition and four pistols, a Lugar automatic with a folding stock, two Colt .45 automatics, and a .38 caliber revolver were also found in the search. When officers searched Wilbur's Ford which was parked in the garage, they discovered a .30-.30 rifle, a sawed-off .12 gauge Winchester pump shotgun, a short double barreled shotgun with a pistol handle, and a tin pail full of roofing nails for use as a deterrent for pursuing squad cars (Not exactly James Bond-like, but effective).
On January 6, 1934 the wounded fugitive returned to Oklahoma State Prison, Warden Brown told a crowd of reporters Wilbur had stood the trip well and had been moved to "Big Mac" in order to finish his life term. He also stated the prison offered a more secure environment than the Shawnee Hospital which was a bizarre statement considering 163 inmates had escaped from the Oklahoma prison system in 1933 alone. Examining the prisoner shortly after his arrival, prison physician, Dr. J.A. Munn, expressed little hope for his survival. At approximately nine that evening Underhill lapsed into unconsciousness and at 11:42 died.
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