On Memorial Day, 1933, at the Kansas State Prison in Lansing, in the middle of what was supposed to be the first game of a double-header between American Legion baseball teams from Topeka and Leavenworth, eleven inmates abducted the warden, using guns that had been smuggled into the prison in bales of sisal used by inmates to make whisk brooms.
The escape was led by Wilbur Underhill, one of the baddest bad guys of his era, who had planned the break with Harvey Bailey, who'd just recently become recognized as the man behind some of the country's biggest bank robberies.
Underhill and Bailey, with four criminals decidedly more notorious than the other five escapees, took the warden and two prison guards with them when they commandeered an automobile from the prison parking lot, and headed for Oklahoma. Lansing is in the northeast corner of Kansas, so Oklahoma was several hours away, which made it quite an adventure, especially for the warden and the guards, who were forced to stand on the running boards the whole time. It was a common practice at the time for bank robbers to take hostages and use them as shields in this fashion.
The other five convicts hijacked a car containing three young women, and forced them to accompany them for about 100 miles, but rather than make them stand on the running boards, they put the women inside the car, next to windows, until the hostages were set free in Pleasanton, near the Missouri border. The convicts then headed off, apparently also for Oklahoma, which was about 70 miles away.
However, as far as I know, there was no plan for the two groups of escapees to meet up in Oklahoma, and they didn't. Five of the Underhill-Bailey group remained together for several weeks, and robbed at least three banks. One convict in the other group went off by himself, the others paired up and went two separate ways.
Here is how the escape was described, first by warden Kirk Prather, and, further down the page, by a 17-year-old, one of three girls abducted by the other group of convicts. Warden Prather's account sounds like the plot of a movie that would have seemed far-fetched.
New York Sun, May 31, 1933
KANSAS CITY , Kansas, May 31 (AP) — Warden Kirk Prather of the Kansas State Penitentiary, who with two prison guards was forced to accompany six of eleven desperate convicts in a daring escape from the penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas, during a Memorial Day baseball game, told his story today of the escape. The warden, in a telephone conversation after the fleeing convicts had released him and the two guards near Welch, Oklahoma, said:
"I was watching the baseball game in the prison yard when Wilbur Underhill, a life-termer convicted of murder, slipped up behind me and threw a slip-knot noose of wire around my neck. At the same time, another convict — I think it was Harvey Bailey — pressed a revolver against my back. A third convict drew my arms behind me.
"Other guards were taken around me. Several guards, covered by six convicts, joined us and together were marched to Watch Tower Post No. 3-1/2,, where we stopped.
"Underhill spoke up. He was the leader of the gang. 'Here's what our plan is,' he said. 'We'll kill all fourteen guards within range of our guns, then kill you, unless you do what we say. Make that guard up there take down his gun.'
"A guard on the wall was covering us. Just then the alarm siren blew to inform the prison that an escape was in progress and Underhill ordered Bailey to kill Sherman. Bailey lifted his revolver, when I shouted to the guard on the wall to lower his gun and not to fire under any circumstances. Then the guard was commanded to throw his keys down to us, and we proceeded on to Post No. 3, at the southeast corner of the yard. The trap to the tower was opened, and we ascended.
"As we entered the tower, Underhill twisted the end of my wire leash around his left wrist. With his right hand, he held a revolver against my side.
"There were six convicts in the group. W. E. Muselman, in charge of prison recreation, John Laws, John Sherman and I were the only guards taken aloft. A coil of rope in the watch tower, used for pulling up fuel and provisions, was thrown down the outside of the wall. Underhill commanded me to slide down. He followed, the wire around my neck still fastened to his wrist.
"Laws and Sherman came down with the other five convicts. While the convicts were in a huddle, trying to decide their next step, I think, somebody fired a shot from the wall. It struck Bailey in the right leg and he went down. Afterward we found his leg was broken just below the knee.
"When the Woodson car was seized (automobile of W. W. Woodson, prison farm superintendent, taken from the prison garage), Bailey had to be helped to the back seat. I didn't see the car taken. Underhill made me stand on the running board. He crawled into the back seat. The two guards and one convict also stood on the running board.
"Jim Clark, life-termer from Bourbon County, took the wheel and drove down a road skirting the prison farm.
" 'You show us how to keep out of the mud,' Underhill said to me, 'or I'll kill you. Understand?'
"I told him not to fear, that I would direct them to a good road. We drove south on State Highway 5. Underhill somehow got his revolver tangled up with his clothing or the wire and it was discharged. The shot shattered the back window of our car.
"The road turned east a mile and one-half farther on and we turned to the right to get to U. S. Highway 73E. Just before we reached it, however, Woodson's car began to sputter, and stopped. Clark got out, tinkered with the engine and said we would have to find another car.
"Just then, a coach, almost new, passed on the slab. It seemed to be crowded with women and children. A few minutes later, the convicts started the Woodson car and proceeded on toward Wallula, Kansas. We passed the other car.
"At Wallula*, the car sputtered again. Clark tried to pull the car off the road. The car stalled sideways in the middle of the slab, blocking the other car, which was approaching it. Evidently, its occupants thought we intentionally blocked the road.
"The convicts immediately leveled guns at it and we changed places with the passengers, leaving Woodson's car in the middle of the highway. Ed Davis, a life-termer, took the wheel. Bailey was bleeding. I was in the back seat. The two guards rode the running board, revolvers aimed at the heads. They rode the running board the rest of the day.
"We went south of 73E and later turned off into a dirt road. I lost track of our route from then on.
"I think we crossed the Kaw River about ten miles southwest of Linwood, Kansas, then drove into Eudora, where we bought gasoline at an out-of-the-way filling station. Underhill paid for it. I kept my head down. The attendant wasn't suspicious.
"Somewhere below Ottawa, Kansas, the driver said he saw a police car ahead. One of my guards told me afterward it contained uniformed officers and appeared to carry a machine gun. Davis stopped the car and ordered the guards to stand off at the roadside. Two convicts jumped out with pistols, prepared to meet the police car.
"It came almost within fighting range, then went into reverse and backed off. Then it turned around and went speeding away from us.
"Fourteen miles north of Parsons we encountered a car (identified as that of Ed Clum) and the convicts held it up. Davis had complained the car was getting too hot.
"Sawyer and Brady took Laws, the guard, and climbed into the Clum car. We went on ahead, the other following. It could not keep up, so we stopped and waited for it.
"One of the convicts produced a pint of whiskey. Everybody was jubilant over that.
"At Edna, Kansas, we bought more gas, Underhill again paying for it. Then we struck south on a dirt road and the bottle was passed to everybody but me and the guards. When the boys began to loosen up and talk, I said:
" 'Well, you guys certainly pulled a clever job. We suspected two weeks ago that you were smuggling guns, but we couldn't find them. We searched all the sisal bales that came in.'
"Bailey, the wounded man, said we hadn't searched the right ones.
"About sundown, just before we drove into Welch, Oklahoma, was had a flat tire. Davis parked at the side of the road and all of us got out of the car. Two of the convicts repaired the puncture, grumbling, and Underhill said he hadn't decided what to do with me and the guards, bump us off, or what?
As we entered the Saginaw Hills, south of Welch, twilight was descending and the country seemed wilder than it really was.
" 'Here's where we're going to bump you off,' said Underhill. 'We've been waiting to get to these hills.'
"Then he remarked, 'Well, warden, you've been a pretty decent fellow. Don't think I ever met a better warden. You've handled the pen pretty well.'
"We turned from the road into higher and darker hills. Suddenly, the car stopped and Underhill said: 'Well, here's where you boys get out.'
"The guards stepped down. I crawled out. All of the convicts followed us, even Bailey. I thought they were about to kill us.
" 'Got any dough?' Underhill asked.
"I had 65 cents. Sherman said he had 30 cents, Laws 15 or 20 cents. All the convicts laughed. Pretty cheap lot, they said. Underhill reached in his pocket. 'Here you are, warden,' he said. 'Take this dollar bill, you may want something to eat and smoke — if you can find a town.'
"We found a town all right. After the convicts had climbed back into their car — Bailey had to be carried — we trudged on back to Welch, more than ten miles away, all muddy, very tired. The convict car went on into the hills.
"At Welch, I reported to the town marshal, who telephoned the prison. Then I sat down to dinner."
Warden Prather said he believed the convicts had an excellent chance of making good their escape. He said Bailey and Underhill appeared to be at home in the Spavinaw hills.
* Wallula isn't listed on most maps, is is just a few miles south of Lansing on Route 73. Also, the Kaw River seems better known these days at the Kansas River.
Syracuse Journal, May 31, 1933
LANSING, Kansas (INS) — With three women hostages safe and unharmed, the entire Southwest today joined in one of the greatest manhunts in history as heavily armed posses, sheriffs and police in numerous cities sought the rendezvous of 11 convicts who escaped yesterday from the Kansas penitentiary here.
Authorities concentrated the search in Oklahoma, near Picher**, where five of the convicts held up a filling station at 6 a.m. today, kidnapped station attendant Jeff Weatherby, after robbing the station of a tank full of gasoline and $10. Weatherby was released 15 miles southwest of Picher a short time later.
Meanwhile, Governor William H. Murray of Oklahoma and Governor Alfred "Alf" Landon of Kansas offered every co-operation in an effort to track down the felons. Police in 100 cities and authorities as far south as the Mexican border were notified to be on the lookout.
Governor Landon today ordered a complete investigation of conditions at the prison that may have brought about and made possible the break that freed 11 desperate men and resulted in the wounding of another. A. S. Foulks, pardon and parole attorney at the state capitol, was sent to the penitentiary to conduct the investigation.
Authorities said the induction of a new administration at the prison may have had something to do with the unrest that precipitated the plot to escape.
Miss Louise Wood, 17, who, together with two other women, was held prisoner for several hours by the felons, characterized her abductors to International New Service,
“They were most courteous and polite. They didn’t curse or act like criminals are supposed to act at all,” she said.
“We came directly south from near Lansing, where we were kidnapped, in our automobile. The convicts drove fast and tried to avoid towns as much as possible.
“We were warned not to make any outcry, but we weren’t threatened. The men told us they hated to take us with them, but that it was necessary. We were not mistreated in any way.
“None of us had eaten since morning and the men appeared anxious that we get food. I don’t know what time it was when we arrived at the farm of Bill New, but the men ordered Mrs. New to cook some food. They left us there and we remained overnight and returned to Pleasanton, Kansas, this morning.”
The convicts were under the command of Wilbur Underhill, three times a murderer, and regarded as one of the most desperate characters in the southwest since the reign of Jesse James. Underhill led the plot to escape from prison.
** Today Picher, Oklahoma, once home to nearly 20,000 people, is little more than a ghost town, with only a handful of residents who refuse to leave.
Lead and zinc mining constituted the local industries. The result was Picher became one of the most polluted cities in the country, a hazardous place to live. As if Mother Nature wanted to add her own warning, Picher was hit by a tornado in 2009, the year the city ceased to exist.
As with several large-scale prison escapes. this one included a few tag-alongs. It is assumed Underhill and Bailey planned the breakout, intending to take three others with them — Bob "Big Boy" Brady, Jim Clark and Ed Davis. Bailey may have felt a bit guilty about another inmate, Frank Sawyer, a career criminal who just happened to be convicted for a bank robbery he didn't do, a $32,000 hold-up in Fort Scott, Kansas. That was the crime that rightfully put Bailey behind bars.
In any event, Bailey and Underhill must have given Sawyer a ride as far as Oklahoma, then sent him off on his own. His recapture (story below) showed what can happen when you piss off the wrong female.
It might have been after Sawyer was let out of the car that Bailey, Underhill and the other three escapees held up that gasoline station near Picher, Oklahoma. These five remained together to briefly form a bank-robbing gang.
The other five convicts were small-time criminals compared with the group that rode off with the warden. One of the five, Lewis Bechtel, went off by himself, making it as far as a place you probably won't find on a map — Dripping Springs, Oklahoma — where he was recaptured. The others — Billy Woods and Clifford Dopson, and Kenneth Conn and Alvis Payton — were the "courteous and polite" convicts who abducted the three women. Later these four paired off and split.
Now about Frank Sawyer ...
New York Sun, June 5, 1933
CHICKASHA, Oklahoma (AP) — The courage of an Oklahoma A&M College [now Oklahoma State University] coed was credited today with a large share in stopping the frenzied cross-state dash of Frank Sawyer, fleeing Kansas convict.
Sawyer, one of eleven convicts who escaped the Kansas State Penitentiary on Memorial Day, left a trail of kidnappings and stolen automobiles in his attempt to avoid the cordon of officers thrown about northeastern Oklahoma.
Lewis Bechtel, recaptured near Dripping Springs, Oklahoma, is the only other one of the Kansas fugitives who has been retaken.
Sawyer was captured in a gun battle and free-for-all fight after he had kidnapped Bob Goodfellow, Caddo County clerk, and his 20-year-old sister, Lois.
Goodfellow, wounded in the groin by a posse man’s bullet when Sawyer used him as a shield, was taken to an Adadarko hospital, where his condition was described as serious, but not critical.
After abducting the Goodfellows, Sawyer ordered the girl, who was driving, to go to Oklahoma City. Instead the coed drove the car into a ditch while her brother attempted to seize Sawyer’s pistol, but the move failed.
While Sawyer was trying to get the car out of the ditch, with pretended assistance from the Goodfellows, Sheriff Horace Crisp and Deputy Al Marlow of Grady County drove up.
Sawyer seized Goodfellow and opened fire. When her brother was wounded, Miss Goodfellow, ignoring the blazing pistols, started pulling Sawyer’s hair, which, being cut short in convict style, proved unsatisfactory.
Then, according to the sheriff, the young lady began choking the convict, giving the officers an opportunity to close in.
“I was not afraid of him,” she said afterward, “I was just afraid Bob had been killed and I wanted to choke him awful bad.”
Previous to kidnapping the Goodfellows, reports to the sheriff’s office here indicated Sawyer had abducted and released nearly a score of persons Sunday. In all cases, he wanted motor cars in which to further his escape. Some of his victims were stopped on the highways; others were taken from their homes.
|Billy Woods and Clifford Dopson, were arrested on June 10, near San Angelo, Texas. Kenneth Conn and Alvis Payton attempted to rob a bank in Altamont, Kansas, on July 14. Bank robberies were so commonplace at the time, that some didn't make the news. However, this one was decidedly newsworthy.
Syracuse Journal, July 14, 1933
ALTAMONT, Kansas (INS) — A banker with true aim today fired past his wife, who was being held as a shield, and instantly killed Kenneth Conn, escaped convict, who, with a companion, had attempted to hold up his bank.
The second bandit, Alvis Payton, also an escaped convict, was critically wounded by the banker, Isaac McCarty, cashier of the Labette County Bank here.
Both bandits escaped from the Kansas state prison in Lansing on Memorial Day.
McCarty saw the bandits drive up to the bank.
“Something about them aroused my suspicions when I first saw them,” McCarty said.
Leaving his father, A. H. McCarty, vice president; his wife, who is assistant cashier, and W. H. Grumheller, also an official in the bank, to wait on the two men, McCarty walked to the rear of the building where he obtained two guns. He then concealed himself on a stairway.
The bandits instructed the officials of the bank to stick up their hands. as the bandits reached for the money in the till, McCarty fired at them.
Whether Isaac McCarty was ever nicknamed "Deadeye," I don't know, but he did receive a $500 reward.