The Tri-State Terror

Missouri State Penitentiary - One time home to the Tri-State Terror, Wilber Underhill

Although many a Joplin resident will tell you that Al Capone and other infamous gangsters visited the city in the 1920s and 1930s, there is little, if nothing, in the historical record to suggest that the nation’s most “accomplished” career criminals came to town. We do know, however, that lesser historical figures did live in and visit Joplin, not counting Bonnie and Clyde’s short-lived stay in 1933. Although not a Capone, Wilber Underhill

Henry Wilber Underhill (his name was originally spelled Wilber but he felt that Wilbur was more masculine) was born in 1897 in Newton County, Missouri, to Henry and Nancy Almira (Hutchison) Underhill. The family had a small farm, but perpetual poverty convinced them to move to Joplin, where it was thought they could make a better life for themselves. In 1912, Henry Underhill, Sr. died suddenly and left the family without a steady stream of income. Almira moved her family from the house they were renting at 1218 Sergeant Avenue to the Blendville section of Joplin. Life continued to be one struggle after another. The Underhill children quickly became delinquents and became mixed up in petty crime. Wilber’s older brother Ernest was sentenced to the Missouri State Penitentiary for robbing and murdering a Joplin street vendor. At some point, Wilber was struck in the head by heavy glass bottles while rooting through a garbage pit, and was reportedly never the same.

Although he tried to make a living working odd jobs in Neosho, Wilber returned to Joplin and fell into a life of crime. In 1919, he was arrested for burglary. By 1920, Wilber had become more brazen. He began robbing couples on Joplin’s Lover’s Lane which was then located somewhere in Tanyard Hollow. A sting operation by Joplin detectives led to his capture and subsequent conviction. He was sentenced to two years at the Missouri State Penitentiary and joined his older brother Ernest who was still serving time.

After his release, Wilber headed for Picher, Oklahoma, but eventually drifted back to Joplin. On December 14, 1922, he robbed the Wilhoit Filling Station at 19th and Main streets. He was rounded up by the Joplin police, pled guilty to first degree robbery, and went back to the Missouri State Penitentiary. Underhill participated in a failed escape attempt, but was out by the winter of 1926.

Underhill immediately went back to a life of crime. During a robbery in Baxter Springs, Kansas, he shot a sixteen year old boy as he fled from Underhill and his accomplices. He continued to carry out a crime spree that led to the nickname the “Tri-State Terror.” Underhill was eventually captured, tried, and sentenced to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He eventually escaped from a work detail and made his way to Kansas where he robbed and murdered a gas station owner. Authorities quickly caught on and when Wichita police officer Merle Colver attempted to question Underhill and his nephew, Frank Vance Underhill, Underhill shot and killed Colver. Wilber was later apprehended after a shoot-out in which he was shot in the neck. Apparently hell-bent on staying in every state penitentiary in the Midwest, Wilber was sentenced to life in the Kansas State Pentitentiary.

Ever the escape artist, Underhill and a group of other inmates managed to escape on May 30, 1933, and headed for Oklahoma. The men embarked on a crime spree that sent shivers up the spines of residents across the Four State region. The “Bradshaw-Underhill Gang,” as the group became known, ran riot despite the best efforts of area law enforcement officials. The FBI soon took notice and launched an effort to apprehend Underhill and his fellow gang members.

The FBI quickly located the gang in Shawnee, Oklahoma, and together with local law enforcement authorities, set out to capture them. A vicious gun battle ensued. Underhill was wounded in the fusillade of bullets. Despite having a number of submachine gun bullets strike him, Underhill was able to flee the scene. Despite having been shot multiple times, Underhill traveled sixteen blocks before breaking into a furniture store, where he collapsed. Authorities swooped in and arrested him. Taken to the hospital, Underhill was not expected to live. Still, most natives of Southwest Missouri are tough characters, and Wilber was no exception. Within a short period of time, he was taken back to the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Shortly after his arrival, Underhill died in the prison hospital, bringing an end to a reign of terror.

On January 8, 1936, Underhill’s body arrived in Joplin and was taken to the Frank Sievers Undertaking Company. His funeral service, held at the Byers Avenue Methodist Church, was well attended. An estimated 1600 people crammed into the church to view Underhill’s corpse. He was then buried at Ozark Memorial Cemetery.

Although lesser known and certainly not as infamous as Capone, Wilber Underhill led a violent and bloody life, and his early years in Joplin may have inspired the long told tales of gangsters in Joplin.

For a more in-depth look at Wilber Underhill’s career, see R.D. Morgan’s book The Tri-State Terror. Regrettably it is not footnoted or sourced, but provides a detailed account of Underhill and his crimes, including his time in Joplin.

The Joplin Funeral of the Villainous Young Brothers

If you are from Joplin or have lived in Joplin, then you have undoubtedly heard of Bonnie and Clyde’s infamous visit in 1933. You may have even visited Peace Church Cemetery to view the grave of Joplin native William “Billy” Cook who committed six murders before he was apprehended, tried, and executed at San Quentin. But you may not be aware that the two men responsible for one of the deadliest days in law enforcement history are buried in Joplin.

On the morning of January 13, 1932, the bodies of Harry and Jennings Young were brought to Joplin for burial in Fairview Cemetery. Watching the caskets being removed from the hearse, one onlooker remarked, “I wish I were the devil. If I were I’d be getting my pitchfork sharpened up for those two.” One reporter recounted that there was a “slight undercurrent of jeering” as the Young family filed toward the grave.

Harry and Jennings Young were career criminals. In 1929, after Marshal Mark Noe pulled Harry Young over for drunk driving in Republic, Missouri, Young shot and killed Noe. Harry and his brother Jennings went on the run, but returned to the Springfield area to visit family. Their presence became known when Springfield police were contacted by a car dealer who claimed that Young’s sisters had tried to sell him a couple of stolen cars. When questioned by police, the sisters admitted their brothers were holed up on a farm outside of Springfield. Greene County Sheriff Marcel Hendrix, two deputies, three Springfield city police officers , and others, headed out to apprehend the Young brothers. In the gun battle that ensued, six of the officers were killed, including Sheriff Hendrix. Some of the surviving officers were able to return to Springfield and brought back reinforcements only to find the Young brothers had escaped.

During a national manhunt, the brothers were eventually located in Texas were they engaged in another shootout with law enforcement authorities. This time, however, they did not survive. Instead, the two brothers shot each other in order to avoid capture. Their bodies were brought back to Missouri on the insistence of their mother, who, according to one reporter, could not leave the state of Missouri due to her status as a prisoner. The bodies were sent from Texas to Vinita, Oklahoma, before being embalmed at the J.J. Gees Undertaking Parlor in Pittsburg, Kansas. From there the bodies were reportedly driven to the Greene County, Missouri, line, were the hearse was met by Greene County officials who then returned it and its cargo to Joplin.

It was reported that “Joplin police protection was not afforded the funeral. [Joplin] Police Chief Harrington was opposed to holding the funeral in Joplin, and said this morning, ‘I wasn’t going to have any of my boys hurt, for no good reason.’”

Before the caskets were lowered into the ground, the lids were taken off so that the bodies of the Young brothers were visible. A Greene County deputy sheriff formally identified both corpses as that of Harry and Jennings Young and then took fingerprints. This was done so that if someone filed for a reward claim, law enforcement officials could provide the reward money without hesitation over the identity of the two men.

Dirt was then shoveled onto the caskets and the family members under arrest were taken back to the Joplin city jail for holding.

If you do plan on visiting the graves of any of the aforementioned individuals, please be respectful of each respective cemetery’s rules, and do not disturb any grave sites.

For a more detailed glimpse, including photographs of the men involved and the house,  into what became known as the Young Brothers Massacre, here’s a link to a book published shortly after about the shoot out (note of warning: the book describes the bullet wounds received in graphic terms and photographs of the deceased brothers, as well there may be some creative embellishments).

Powers Museum Needs Your Help

The Powers Museum of Carthage needs your help. Recently, the museum’s air condition system had a near catastrophic failure. The result is that only the main gallery and library are receiving air conditioning, while the storage area of the museum, home to many of the museum’s most valuable and climate sensitive items, is not.

As noted in the above linked Joplin Globe article, never in the museum’s 24 years has it requested public help, but the cost of replacing the faltering system is more than the museum’s usual sources of funding can support. Repairs are not an option, unfortunately, as the company which makes the needed parts is now out of business.

The Director of the Powers Museum, Michelle Hansford, stated in the Globe article, “Powers Museum has never solicited the community for operational or maintenance support before, but now we need their help to make this repair possible. Any gift, no matter what size, will be used for this purpose. At this point, anything would be appreciated.”

If you have never been to the Powers Museum, it is definitely worth a visit and a fine example of what a local history museum should be. Please show your support for local history and make whatever donation you can to help preserve Jasper County’s history.

A Town Is Born (The First and Nearly Last Nice Thing Carthage Said About Joplin)

Joplin, 1872

In 1871, the Carthage Weekly Banner had this to say:

“There is a new town in Jasper County. Its name is Joplyn. Location fourteen miles southwest of Carthage on the farm of our friend J.C. Cox. It is young, but thrifty. Has lead in unlimited quantities underneath it. Numerous miners are there going for the lead. The sound of the shovel and the pick is heard daily in the bowels of the earth. Board shanties have sprung up like mushrooms. There is a scene of business within its borders, and even in the region round about for a mile or two. The lead exists in richly paying quantities, and some of the miners are making small fortunes every week. The fame whereof has spread abroad even to Carthage.

In mining as in any other business, or profession, if one man succeeds, and does well, a dozen are ready to go into the same speculation. Hence men out of employment, from this city, invest a few dollars in a pick and shovel, fill a haversack with rations and go for the mines. We saw one of our neighbors ‘lighting out’ the other day for the front thus duly outfitted. We asked him if he was going to work on the railroad? ‘Railroad be hanged! I’m going to strike lead,’ was his ready response.”

Among those of our citizens who have struck lead, are Col. O.S. Picher, who has rich deposits – being worked – on his farm. Mr. D.H. Budlong has a farm in close proximity upon which lead blossoms like the rose, and the probabilities are that he will exhume a lead mine, that may make his everlasting fortune, which if it does we shall not begrudge him his luck, one iota, for he is a worthy man, and an excellent citizen, besides being an uncompromising Radical.

We also had a farm in that vicinity about a year ago, but fortunately we traded it off for Mr. Benham’s interest in the BANNER, or we, too, would be troubled with visions of fabulous wealth, and pass sleepless nights worrying about it.

Mr. T.G. Powers, from this place, has had excellent success in lead mining, and is on the highway to wealth.

There are others, but we cannot call them to mind. Joplyn is a lively place. Everybody out of employment ought to go there and dig. That is better than doing nothing, and it may lead to certain fortune. We shall not worry about it if some of our citizens make their hundreds of thousands by it – with which charitable sentence we will close this sentence.”

 

The Age of Zinc: The Wright Lead & Zinc Company

An example of an investment letter, click on image to find larger versions.

The Wright Lead and Zinc Company of Chicago, Illinois, was one of hundreds of companies that sought shareholders to help finance its mining ventures in Joplin. The president of the company, Walter Sayler, was an ambitious Chicago lawyer. A.H. Wilson, treasurer, was partner in a large real estate company and John W. Wright, secretary, was a “mining expert.”

He, along with his fellow officers and directors of the company, sent out circular letters advertising the opportunity to purchase stock in the anticipation that the company would strike it rich in the lead and zinc mines of Southwest Missouri.

The company’s letter must have intrigued a few investors. The stock was said to be a “safe 12 per cent investment; a probable 3; a possible 48.”

The company owned over 500 acres of land divided between four properties. Wright Lead and Zinc planned to sink twenty shafts across its four properties, and expected to make an estimated $40,000 per month before payroll, royalties, material, and other costs, leaving a $20,000 profit.

In case one might have doubts about investing, the letter included a circular with endorsements from various politicians and businessmen, descriptions of Joplin and mining operations, and a selection of “Tales of Fortune.”

Joplin was described as “utterly unlike any other mining camp in the United States. It is a combination of the east and west, of the north and the south. It is at bottom an agricultural and commercial town, upon which has been superimposed a thick layer of American birth.”

It was in Joplin that one tenderfoot, along with his partner, was seemingly hoodwinked by two seasoned local miners when they purchased a piece of land long thought tapped out. But the two greenhorns, not knowing any better, worked their land and eventually struck a new vein of ore that allowed them to buy a new hoist and other mining equipment. Within a few months, they had cleared $33,000 in profits. Then there was the story of a young man from Kansas City who, with $150 in capital, began work on a modest claim. He found enough ore to build a mining plant which he then used to bring up $30,000 out of the mine.

Even Mrs. M.C. Allen, Joplin’s famous mining queen, was mentioned as one of the mining district’s success stories. Having failed to sell her land for $50 an acre, she leased it, and made a fortune. Intriguingly, after telling of Allen’s success, the circular added, “Among the mine operators of the district are several women, and almost without exception they have done well or have prospects of making large profits in the near future. Their lack of mining knowledge is more than offset by the gallantry of the land owners and promoters, who see to it that the ladies who so pluckily venture into mining are given the best locations and every assistance [sic] possible.”

As the circular noted, “One of the richest men in Joplin was once a bartender; another drove a brewery wagon; others labored in the mines or worked in stores or on farms, and had only their hands to work with. Riches came to the lucky ones.”

But the days of luck were over. Within a few decades the mines of Joplin would stand still, only to fade away, leavening behind faint memories of a proud mining history.

The Interurban

Only relics, rusting pieces of steel, and the rare preserved object remain of the great interurban railway that once connected the cities and towns of the Tri-State area. While we intend to go much further into depth on the railway, for now we’re going to provide a glimpse of it. Below is a map from 1911 showing the steel web of connections of the Southwest Missouri Railway.

Click on Image for Larger Image

An article from the Joplin News Herald proudly boasted that the railway was one of the first of its kind, beginning service in 1893 with a 10 mile long connection between Joplin, Cartersville, Webb City and Prosperity. Nearly two decades later, the railway had accumulated 75 miles of track and was accessible to over a 100,000 residents of the area. In 1894, the railway was used by 400,000 travelers, a number that grew to an astronomical 8,000,000 by 1910.

Initially served by small cars, like the one pictured below, by 1911, larger trolleys were in service powered by four 50 horsepower engines. Cars ran every half hour between the towns with the exception of Joplin to Carterville, 15 minutes, and Joplin to Webb City, every 10 minutes. The costs ran anywhere from 1 penny to 1 1/2 cents per mile. A very low and reasonable rate, the article in the News Herald added.

Car No. 3 was powered by two 25 horsepower engines.

Source: Joplin News Herald, 1911

105th Anniversary of Springfield’s “Easter Offering”

Editorial Cartoon from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as a statue of freedom was placed at the top of Gottfried Tower where the three men were lynched.


One hundred and five years ago, on the night before Easter, a mob in Springfield, Missouri broke into the Greene County jail, carried three prisoners to the city square, and lynched them for the alleged assault of a white woman. The murder of the three men quickly became known as the “Easter Offering.” The lynchings made the front page of newspapers across the nation and faded only with news of a terrible earthquake which leveled the west coast city of San Francisco. Below is an excerpt from Kimberly Harper’s White Man’s Heaven, which in addition to covering the Joplin lynching of Thomas Gilyard, tells the story of the Easter Offering.

The following takes place after two men had already been lynched, Horace Duncan and Fred Coker.

“Resistance was nonexistent at the jail. Sheriff Horner and his men, absent since Duncan and Coker were seized, were nowhere to be found. Members of the mob strolled through the door of the jail unopposed. Men, armed with hammers, chisels, and other tools, walked through holding cells looking for Bus Cain and Will Allen. Bus Cain, however, was nowhere to be found. Apparently his cell was damaged during the first assault on the jail and Cain was able to slip away without being noticed. Cain, in his eagerness to escape, left Will Allen behind. When Cain’s absence was discovered by the mob, a litany of curses filled the air. Infuriated by his escape, men began to shout, “Take any negro and hang him!”

Allen, trapped in his cell, watched from his cot as a rough assortment of men began to coolly and methodically remove the lock from the cell door. Despite the cool night air, the men were drenched in sweat from their exertion. As men tired, they were relieved by fresh replacements. After almost two hours, sledgehammers were brought forth, and men began to steadily pound at the cell door with as much force as they could muster in the middle of the night. Just before two o’clock in the morning, the door to the cell was torn open, leaving nothing between Allen and his attackers. The emptiness between the men was momentary, as the mob rushed forward and seized the man who had been tortured by hours of violent screams and the prospect of the inevitable fate that awaited him.

Allen was blinded as a lantern was shoved in his face, as the mob, with a skewed sense of justice, sought to ensure they had the right man. Unwilling to meekly accept his fate, the 5’5″ tall Allen wrested himself free from the hands of his attackers, and seized a nearby wooden club. He ferociously lashed out at the men around him, but “blows rained on his face and body like hail from a score of arms, and he was quickly subdued.” Allen’s bold attempt to defend himself enraged the mob. While curses and clubs flew freely at Allen’s obstinance, his hands were jerked forward and tightly bound together before he was dragged out of the jail. Once outside the jail’s battered brick walls, Allen insisted on walking, rather than be carried by the mob.

Screams and yells eerily echoed through the air as men fired their pistols in anticipation of a third lynching. In the midst of the chaos, Will Allen walked steadily forward with his head held high, determined not to show fear. The mob guided Allen toward the campus of Drury College where only months before he, together with Bus Cain, allegedly murdered O. P. Ruark. Hoarse voices cried out, “Hang him where he killed old man Ruark!”

Several Drury students who were in the crowd, fearful that a lynching on Drury’s campus would sully the college’s reputation, hurriedly held an impromptu meeting. It was decided that they would try to head off the mob and quickly spread out through the crowd yelling, “Take him to the square! Hang him with the other two! Take him back so the others can see!” The plan worked as the mob suddenly shifted direction and with one voice bellowed, “To the square!”

The city square with Gottfried tower in the forefront. Note the Statue of Freedom at the top of the tower. Beneath her, Will Allen, Horace Duncan and Fred Coker were lynched.

As the mob streamed toward the scene of Coker’s and Duncan’s grisly end, “Men talked to themselves and each other, swore fluently at nothing at all, and shouted all sorts of bloodcurdling things into the air without regard of their significance. Grown men shrieked and howled like demons, shouting to the leaders to hang the negro, to burn him.” It was on the corner of the square, as the howling processional began to arrive that Hollet H. Snow spotted Chief John McNutt and Officers John Wimberly, Henry Waddle, A. R. Sampey, E. T. W. Trantham, and Martin Keener, “laughing and talking and making no effort to stop the mob.” As Allen and the mob approached the square, it was shrouded in darkness, save for the harsh light that came from the bonfire built over the bodies of Fred Coker and Horace Duncan.

As Gottfried Tower loomed before him, Allen trembled almost imperceptibly, but regained his composure. He walked unaided up the steps that led to the tower’s bandstand. In front of Allen was a sea of faces, dimly illuminated by the flames of the bonfire, tense with anticipation. Those who stood on the fringes of the mob were shrouded in darkness. Allen, as he stood on the tower’s bandstand, may have recognized familiar faces. If he did, he did not cry out for help. Instead, he stood silently as an unknown man shoved a lantern into his face for those below, which caused the mob to call out, “Hang him!”

The man motioned for silence and then spoke, “Ladies and gentle – men, here before you is Will Allen, the man who cruelly murdered old man Ruark on the corner of Benton Avenue and Center Street. What will you do with him?” Over a thousand voices thundered in unison, “HANG HIM!” The man turned to Allen and asked, “Are you Will Allen?” Allen replied, “I am.” The unknown man then asked Allen if he had anything to say. Allen looked out at the crowd, straightened, and said, “Only that I did not kill Ruark.” Several men from the crowd howled, “Make him tell who did!” Allen, his hands still bound, declared, “Bus Cain killed Ruark. I had nothing to do with it.” The mob, unsatisfied with his answer, roared, “HANG HIM!”

Source: Reprinted with permission from the author, White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks by Kimberly Harper.

Spring in the Ozarks

The Riverside Inn, Elks Spring, Missouri

As the spring and summer months approach, we think back to days when Joplinites fled the city for a few leisurely days spent alongside a cool, clear Ozark stream. Outsiders had started flocking to the Ozarks early on, as documented in Lynn Morrow and Linda Phinney Myers’ book Shepherd of the Hills Country Tourism Transforms the Ozarks, 1880s–1930s. But while many from St. Louis and Kansas City traveled to the Shepherd of the Hills and Arcadia areas of the Ozarks, Joplinites had their own oasis just down the road.

McDonald County, home to Indian Creek, Elk River, and the Little and Big Sugar rivers, became a popular destination for Joplin residents seeking relief from the heat of spring and summer. One of the most popular resort destinations was W.H. Fleming’s Riverside Inn located at Elk Springs, Missouri, forty-five miles south of Joplin. The inn was established circa 1905 and offered rooms for $1.50 a day or $9.50 a week.

Guests with recent catches

A lady and her fish

Guests could expect a tastefully appointed inn and rustic cottages awaiting their arrival after stepping off of a train from the Kansas City Southern Railway. Fishing, boating, and bathing in Elk river were among the activities that guests could enjoy while at the resort. The more adventurous would find “surrounding mountains covered with heavy timber” which afforded “plenty of opportunity for exploring parties, and a number of caves” that were within a half hour’s walk from the inn.

 

Dinner time at the inn.

The inn was also known for its delicious fried chicken as one guest, W.E. Nesom of Shreveport, Louisiana, wrote the following poem to commemorate a meal:

“A Chant of Friend Chicken

If you are of that jolly bunch
Which loves a gastronomic hunch,
Just saunter down Missouri way
And place your money for a way
With proper show of honest pride
On yellow-legged chicken fried
At Fleming’s Inn at Riverside

You may affect the flash café,
Where night usurps the place of day;
Where one if flouted if he dines
Without the aid of vintage wines –
But, tell me, have you ever tried
A yellow-legged chicken fried
The way it’s done at Riverside?

You may, with tourist’s license, boast
Of clam-bakes on the Eastern coast,
Or dwell on some outlandish dinner
They stung you for in old Vienna-
Soft pedal, brother, till you’ve tried
A yellow-legged chicken fried
The way it’s done at Riverside

If, in punning sense, you know
The “chickens” of the summer show,
And oft at Johnnies’ door have met them,
The quickest way to quite forget them
Will be, to take a little ride
And sample sure ‘enough chicken fried
At Fleming’s Inn at Riverside

Without, a crust that’s golden, dreamy;
Within, a flesh that’s tender, creamy;
Then, add a certain juicy sweetness
To bring the picture to completeness
The Ozarks’ boast, Missouri’s pride
A yellow-legged chicken fried
At Fleming’s Inn at Riverside.”

A view of the river below the inn.

All one had to do is catch a train headed south from Joplin and soon find themselves in the midst of an Ozark oasis. Years later the inn burned down, but for a brief period it offered a respite from the ills of city life for many a Joplinite.

 

Cottages at the inn.

For those interested, the Riverside was located three miles west of Pineville on what is today Highway H.

One African American Family’s History in Southwest Missouri

One of our readers sent in a story from the Springfield News-Leader regarding the legacy of race, slavery, and family in Missouri. Although the story does not feature anyone from the Joplin area, the story of Moses Berry and Thulani Davis is one that undoubtedly echoes the lives of some of Joplin’s residents. Unsurprisingly, African American history in Jasper County, Missouri, has long been overlooked by local and academic authors. With the exception of White Man’s Heaven, by Kimberly Harper, which recounts the 1903 lynching of Thomas Gilyard in Joplin and Lori Bogle’s Missouri Historical Review article, “Desegregation in a Border State: The Example of Joplin, Missouri,” little has been published. What stories are waiting to be uncovered in Joplin?