Proud to Visit Joplin’s Jail

In early Joplin, there was no shortage of Joplinites who were escorted to the city’s hoosegow. Surprisingly, some of these individuals were quite proud of their predicament. A Joplin Globe reporter interviewed Joplin Constable Arch McDonald about the phenomenon,

“You may not believe that it actually makes some people proud to be arrested. There’s all the difference in the world the way various people take the situation when the officer is compelled to duty. Some men readily appreciate the officer’s difficulties and prepare to go right along just like attending to any other business engagement; while others blame the officer who is called upon to serve the warrant and think its his fault, much the same as some people hold it against the postman when they fail to get a letter.”

Another Joplin police officer, Will Gibson, offered his own experience,

“Proud? Why yes, it’s the event of some fellows’ lives to get arrested, and some of them think it a real honor to be shown the distinction of being singled out of a crowd and marched down the street to jail. I arrested a young miner from Chitwood the other night for being drunk and disorderly on Main Street between Fourth and Fifth, and he didn’t seem half so drunk after I took hold of him. He wasn’t scared sober, either, but was just swelled up over having the strong arm of the law take notice of his antics, I guess. He braced up at once and told me that was all right, that he could walk straight, and then stepped off down Main street like a ham-strung thoroughbred, looking first to the right, then to the left, and making it a point to say something to every acquaintance he saw. He was plainly the cock of the walk.”

Deputy Sheriff Clarence Kier had this for the reporter,

“Nor are the drunks the only ones who feel the honor of being taken into custody. I’ve seen men arrested for some petty offenses of a more or less serious nature who got right chesty over it and swaggered down the street. One man in particular from over in East Joplin put the thing plainly when I started for the car line with him and his wife called to know where he was going. ‘Can’t you see,’ responded the fellow with a sort of self-important air,’ that I’m being arrested!”

Finally, United States Deputy Marshall, Henry Platt, offered his own experience,

“There’s another phase to the seeming willingness of some men to go along with the officer. I’ve seen federal prisoners puff all up when thrown into jail, and hold themselves aloof from common state felons and petty criminals, but that isn’t the secret of it. You’ll find that it isn’t only the novice nor the best citizen who goes along willingly with the officer, but that the very worst criminal of all is a good dissembler and very frequently scores a point by the apparent acquiescence and good nature with which he submits to arrest. The quiet man is often worse because he is shrewdest and most slippery of all evil doers.

He is not the murderer nor the criminal of passion, but the criminal of property, the thief, the forger, the embezzler, the counterfeiter, the one who works along original and stealthy lines. He’s just smart enough to know when he’s cornered, and if he sees that the chances for escape are all against him he quietly submits and goes along with the hope of affecting escape later, or by getting the minimum penalty by arousing the least suspicion. When the time comes for his break for liberty, the seemingly well behaved and tractable prisoner shows himself to be the most desperate of the bunch. He’s the criminal exemplification of the man with the ax to grind.”

An interesting aside to be picked up from the answer is the fact that Joplin police would use the trolley line to take prisoners back to the city jail. The equivalent today having a police officer get on a city bus with a prisoner in handcuffs.

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.