Infamous bank robbers
The Depression years of the early 1930s created many famous bank robbers and ultimately led to their incarceration at the Kansas State Prison.
Two of these robbers were together in 1933 and planned the Memorial Day Prison Break. They were Wilbur Underhill, who was called the Tri-State Killer or Mad Dog, and Harvey Bailey.
Underhill was a violent bank robber who would kill anyone who got in his way. Bailey was not violent but robbed many banks.
Underhill planned to kill Warden Kirk Prather during the break. Prather, who was appointed by a Democratic governor, was to be relieved of his job on June 1, 1933. Republican Alf Landon would appoint the new warden, as that is what happened with administration changes. The prison break was planned to coincide with that change, partly because there would be a lot of new personnel on duty.
Bailey was furnished money from an outside source, and Underhill used this money to smuggle four .38 caliber automatic pistols into the prison. Underhill was locked up in solitary confinement most of the time. Bailey had not intended to be in an escape, but when he found out that Underhill wanted to kill Prather, he decided to go in with him mainly to protect the warden, whom he liked. The warden was to be used as a shield and hostage.
Everything was set for the escape during the Junior League Baseball Game on Memorial Day. The game was tied 2 to 2 in the sixth inning. My two brothers were at the game with my dad and cousin Jim Studdard. All eyes were on the game when Warden Prather walked down "Broadway," as the inmates called it, from the administration building to the baseball field. While he was walking, Bailey poked a gun into Prather's stomach; Underhill dropped a loop of copper wire around Prather's neck. There were five inmates in the plan, and Bailey had a hard time keeping Clark, Sawyer and "Edgy" Davis in line. As they walked to the pitcher's mound, they picked up several guards as shields, and they asked if more inmates wanted to join them. Six more decided to take the chance, which made a total of 11.
The 11 inmates, the warden and the hostages walked to the tower in centerfield. The guards in the tower were forced to throw down their guns and the door key to keep the hostages from being killed. At this time, the wildcat whistle was sounded that warned the whole town of an escape. Then the escapees and hostages climbed up the tower and lowered themselves down on the outside by way of an extension ladder taken from the twine shop. They stole farm superintendent W.W. Woodson's car that was being filled at the prison gas pump. As they came down, a farm foreman shot Bailey in the knee.
Even thought Bailey had lost a great amount of blood, he protected the warden. Just over the Oklahoma line, they turned loose the warden and two guards, John Sherman and L.A. Laws. Bailey gave the warden a $5 bill for phone calls and bus fare back to Lansing. Bailey had kept his promise about keeping the warden safe. Then the inmates headed for the densely wooded Cookson Hills, which was American Indian country.
Two young boys witnessed this escape down the ladder. They were Bill Powell and Rex Stewart, whose dads both worked at the prison. During the game, my dad saw what was happening and told my brothers and cousin to lay flat down in the bleachers so they would not be seen. Later my brother Tom was upset because they did not finish the game.
More like this story
- Kansas City Connection: Sushi and Sufjan
- Kansas City Connection: Sorting through the hoopla of the Big 12 tournament
- Kansas City Connection: Banjos and beignets
- Kansas City Connection: City Market a hub for delicious ethnic food
- Kansas City Connection: Record Store Day, Malcolm Gladwell and Third Thursday