With John Dillinger folklore given WAY too much attention, Balladeer’s Blog takes a look at some of the legends versus the ugly reality regarding some of his contemporary gangsters.
Real Name: Francis Crowley
Birth – Death: October 31st, 1912 – January 21st, 1932
Lore: Crowley was supposedly born out of wedlock to a German-American woman and a New York police officer who refused to marry Crowley’s mother. This supposedly accounts for his intense hatred of the police.
Reality: Such shallow, Pulp Magazine thinking doesn’t seem likely. The young man was adopted by a family in which Francis grew up alongside a cop-killing older brother named John Crowley. John himself would be killed in a battle with police.
This background seems a more likely explanation for Francis’ issues than some mythical hatred of an unknown father who abandoned him and his mother.
Criminal Career: By age 19, Crowley had a reputation as a competent holdup man and hit & run armed robber who never slipped up enough for a conviction. He might have escaped suspicion entirely if not for his excessively belligerent attitude when questioned by authorities.
On February 21st, 1931 Crowley, packing the omnipresent pair of hand-guns that earned him his nickname, crashed an American Legion dance in the Bronx. Two-Gun was accompanied by a pair of male accomplices, one of whom was believed to be frequent associate Rudolph “Fats” Durringer.
When the Legionnaires attempted to expel the uninvited trio Crowley whipped out his pair of firearms and opened fire, wounding at least two innocent men before fleeing. With charges of attempted murder now hanging over his head, Two-Gun was about to enter the busiest period of his career.
Crowley went into hiding after the Bronx affair but foolishly emerged by March 13th when he was spotted and approached by law enforcement on Lexington Avenue in New York City. Two-Gun shot and wounded Detective Ferdinand Schaedel before losing his pursuers in a nearby office building.
On March 15th Crowley, Fats and three others pulled off a bank robbery in New Rochelle, NY. (“Oh, RAW-AW-AW-AWB!” Had to be said, Laura Petrie style.) By mid-April Two-Gun had blown through the bank robbery proceeds, so he, Durringer and another man broke into the apartment of Rudolph Adler, a real estate man.
This misbegotten affair redefined Dog Day Afternoon as Adler’s dog Trixie attacked the thugs and drove them away but not before Two-Gun shot Adler five times.
On April 27th Crowley shot dead Virginia Brannen, a dance hall hostess, for resisting Fats Durringer’s advances. Not long after, Two-Gun was involved in a high-speed chase and gunfight with police in which the bullets fired were matched with Brannen’s murder.
After a few more violent encounters with law enforcement he, Fats and Helen Walsh (Crowley’s girlfriend) were besieged in a five-floor rooming house in New York. The trio were turned in to the cops by a jealous ex-girlfriend of Two-Gun.
The legendary two-hour standoff between Crowley and hundreds of New York police officers is credited with inspiring many themes and scenes from James Cagney and Edward G Robinson gangster films. Fats and Helen reloaded handguns for Two-Gun who raced from window to window exchanging fire with the cops below.
Crowley added to his legend by swiftly grabbing and throwing back tear-gas grenades that the police fired into the building. Eventually, bleeding excessively from four bullet wounds, Two-Gun surrendered. His plan to kill even more police was thwarted when a routine patdown revealed that the thug had concealed two more loaded guns by strapping them to his legs.
The newsreel interview with Crowley’s rejected girlfriend who turned him in has become dark comedy gold over the decades as she casually implicates him in crimes that he hadn’t even been suspected of yet.
Two-Gun whiled away the months leading to his execution by starting prison fires, sabotaging the toilets and wielding weapons made out of every available (seemingly) innocent object. The animal died in the electric chair at Sing Sing on January 21st, 1932.
THE TRI-STATE TERROR
Real Name: Wilbur Underhill, Jr
Birth – Death: March 16th, 1901 – January 6th, 1934
Lore: Underhill is so overlooked today there are times when it seems like there IS no lore about him. That is good, actually, since rabid criminals like this don’t deserve the romanticized treatment they usually get.
Criminal Career: In 1918 Underhill was convicted of burgling the home of his family’s next-door neighbor in Joplin, MO and was sent to prison. He was released in 1922 and began robbing necking couples who were parked in cars, making him one of many “Lover’s Lane Bandits” across the country.
Underhill, still just a One State Terror at this point, was convicted of armed robbery after police decoys caught him one night in 1923 pulling off a Lover’s Lane holdup. Wilbur was sentenced to five years but was released on parole in 1926. He celebrated Christmas of 1926 by robbing an Oklahoma drug store with “Skeet” Akins and killing a 19 year old customer in the process.
Wilbur and Skeet (NOT a wacky Morning Zoo deejay team) were arrested January 7th, 1927 but escaped jail before they could be brought to trial. Sympathetic parties had smuggled hacksaws into the jail for Underhill and Akins, enabling that escape.
Skeet was soon recaptured then shot to death attempting to escape custody. Underhill remained on the loose, robbing an Oklahoma movie theater and killing a Deputy before being caught on March 20th. He began serving a life sentence for his latest crimes on June 3rd, 1927.
In 1931 Underhill celebrated Bastille Day by escaping from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Okay, I’m kidding, but his escape WAS on July 14th. Before the end of the month Wilbur officially became a Tri-State Terror by robbing a Kansas theater of $300 and stealing (some sources say buying) a new car.
A month-long spree of gas station holdups ended when Underhill crashed his new wheels during his getaway from one of the holdups. That led to an encounter with a local patrolman who got shot to death by the Tri-State Terror. Wilbur fled on foot and in a running (literally) gunfight with the cops a 12 year old boy was killed in the crossfire. Police fire wounded Underhill, bringing about his recapture.
On May 30th of 1933 the Tri-State Terror used smuggled weapons to escape Lansing State Prison. Escaping with him were many of the criminals who would form a gang led by Underhill and co-escapee Harvey Bailey.
By mid-June the Underhill/ Bailey gang robbed a bank in Black Rock, AR and were falsely implicated in the so-called Kansas City Massacre, often cited as one of the FBI’s many deceitful concoctions meant to cover up their own incompetence and/ or corruption.
(It was not until recent decades that additional evidence – reluctantly pried from the FBI itself – indicated that law enforcement may have accidentally shot their own men at the “Kansas City Massacre” but the FBI conveniently blamed the deaths on assorted criminals known to be at large, Underhill among them. Then as now, FBI apparently stood for “Fuggedda Bout Integrity.”)
Meanwhile, the Tri-State Terror and his gang spent over 6 months robbing banks in Kansas and Oklahoma, with time out for a Kentucky bank robbery as a “wedding gift” to Underhill’s new bride, Hazel Jarrett, sister of the infamous Jarrett Brothers.
On December 26th, 1933, a team of 24 police and federal agents surrounded the Shawnee, Oklahoma cottage where Underhill, Hazel, Ralph Roe and his girlfriend were hiding out. After a brutal exchange of gunfire in which the Tri-State Terror was wounded 5 times, he fled the vicinity and collapsed on a bed in a furniture store several blocks away, where he was soon arrested.
Hazel Underhill and Ralph Roe were also arrested, but Roe’s girlfriend was killed. Wilbur Underhill lingered, handcuffed to a hospital bed, until perishing from his wounds on January 6th, 1934.
MORE NON-DILLINGERS COMING SOON.
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