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John S. Underwood

John S. Underwood

John S. Underwood

24th Colorado Attorney General
Term: 1930-1931

              Upon the death of Robert Winbourn, Colorado Governor William Adams appointed a 45-year-old Democrat from Lamar, John S. Underwood, to complete his term. Underwood was born in Missouri on October 29, 1884. He was educated in Pleasant Hill, Missouri and studied law in the state. He was admitted to the bar in 1909. He was the administrator of a boys’ reformatory in Bonneville, Missouri and served as Treasurer of Cooper County for four years. He came to Colorado in 1919 and settled in Lamar, in Prowers County. He ran for District Attorney in 1928 and served two terms as Prowers County Attorney before his appointment as Attorney General in August, 1930. He was also serving as president of the state industrial school at the time.

               Governor Adams appointed Underwood with the condition that he retain Attorney General Winbourn’s staff of 30, including Charles Roach as his Deputy Attorney General. In the first few months in office Underwood issued an opinion suggesting whiskey and alcohol were to be distinguished under the statutes. Whiskey could only be imported for medicinal or sacramental purposes. Alcohol could also be imported for scientific purposes. He also said that while the constitutional provision was not clear, it was his opinion that because parolees were not confined in prison they “probably could vote.”[1] Seventy-seven years later the Attorney General’s Office would successfully take the position that parole was a “term of imprisonment” within the meaning of the Colorado Constitution and parolees, therefore, could not vote.

               Underwood was the Democratic Party’s nominee for Attorney General in the November 1930 election, which took place three months after he took office. His race against Republican Clarence Ireland was described as one of the most bitterly contested in memory. It was several days after the election before Ireland was declared the winner by 465 votes. The Democrats in the Colorado legislature refused to certify the results and on January 11, 1931, just a day before Ireland was to take office, Underwood was reportedly toying with the idea of a court challenge. But fate intervened.

               At 6 p.m. on January 11, Underwood, his wife Dora, and three of their four daughters, Dorothy, 20, Betty Grace, 11, and Willis, 6, were in the family automobile going to Central Presbyterian Church in Denver. Dorothy was driving. At the corner of Downing and Virginia, their car pulled in front of a tramway bus that broadsided it. The car was thrown 50 feet. Underwood’s wife died instantly. He died soon after being transported to the hospital. The daughters survived, although the youngest was critical for some time. The third Attorney General of Colorado to die in office in the past seven years, Underwood was eulogized as an “able and accomplished lawyer…who handled with fidelity and marked ability the many trying problems that confronted him.”[2]

[1] Ibid.

[2] The Denver Post, January 12, 1931.