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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture


Born Henry Wilber Underhill on March 16, 1901, in Newton County, Missouri, to Henry and Dora Underhill, as a teenager the son changed the spelling of his name to Wilbur. He believed that the new signature appeared more masculine. Raised in Joplin, Missouri, during the boom of the Tri-State Mining District, Underhill began committing increasingly more violent crimes and by 1920 had served time in the Missouri State Penitentiary. Released in 1921, he traveled to Picher, Oklahoma, and briefly worked in the lead and zinc mines before returning to malfeasance. In 1923 he was again in the Missouri Penitentiary, and by 1926 his three brothers, Ernest, Earl, and George, joined him.

Freed in 1926, he moved back to Picher and worked as a mining company clerk. He soon teamed with Ike "Skeet" Akins, and the pair committed armed robbery throughout the district. Underhill shot a sixteen-year-old in Picher, and Akins killed eighteen-year-old George Fee during an Okmulgee drugstore robbery. The police arrested the duo in Tulsa, but in January 1927 they escaped from the Okmulgee County Jail. In early February authorities captured Akins, but Underhill remained free, committing robbery and murder, until a police officer captured him at Panama, Oklahoma, on April 20, wounding the felon in the process. It was during this period that newspapers began dubbing Underhill "the Tri-state Terror."

In 1927 he began his incarceration at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, serving a life term. In 1931 he escaped and again entered the criminal underworld. Less than one month later he killed a police officer in Wichita, Kansas. This led to a life sentence in the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing. In 1933 he teamed with hardened criminal Harvey Bailey and four other prisoners, breaking out of the prison. During the escape five more inmates joined the fugitives. Underhill and several of his cohorts traveled to Oklahoma and began a statewide bank-robbing spree. He later united with Oklahoma outlaw Ford Bradshaw and along with several others continued to assault banks, traveling as far as Kentucky.

In December 1933 federal and state authorities, including Oklahoma City police officers Clarence Hurt and Jelly Bryce, ambushed Underhill at a house in Shawnee. His current wife, Hazel (he had several wives during his lifetime), acquaintance Ralph Roe, and Eva Nichols were also in the home. Roe and Nichols received bullet wounds, with Nichols dying a few days later. Officers shot Underhill multiple times, but he eluded the forces, only to be found the next morning at a used furniture store in downtown Shawnee. Wilbur Underhill died of his injuries on January 6, 1934, at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester. He was buried in Joplin, Missouri.

Larry O'Dell


Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34 (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 7 January 1934.

R. D. Morgan, The Tri-State Terror: The Life and Crimes of Wilbur Underhill (Stillwater, Okla.: New Forums Press, Inc., 2005).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Underhill, Henry Wilbur,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=UN016.

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