This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
Breaking their night-owl habit of working strictly at night, a bandit band of brothers robbed the bank at New Braunfels in broad daylight on Mar. 9, 1922.
If Willis Newton can be believed, and that is a big “if,” the Newton Boys were the most successful bank and train robbers of all-time stealing “more money than the Dalton Gang, Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch and the James-Younger Gang combined.” That was the total take from 87 banks and six trains in a five-year crime spree.
The matriarch of the Callahan County clan entertained her 11 children with exciting tales of outlaws. While her bedtime stories may have influenced Willis’ career choice, his refusal to follow in his cotton-chopping father’s footsteps probably had more to do with it.
Eighteen year old Doc Newton was caught stealing a small amount of unprocessed cotton from a gin in 1909. Despite his protests of innocence, older brother Willis, one year out of his teens, was charged as a party to the pilferage and sent to prison along with Doc to serve a two-calendar stretch.
Punishment for an escape turned the term into half a decade of hard time. Released ahead of schedule by a pardon from Gov. Oscar Colquitt, Doc went home to Uvalde, where the Newtons had moved, but his big brother jumped head-first into a life of crime.
Petty thievery kept Willis from starving, but on occasion he did step up his game. On New Year’s Eve 1914, he relieved Southern Pacific passengers of $4,700 in cash and valuables and two years later participated in an Oklahoma bank heist that netted $10,000.
When a burglary landed Willis back in the state slammer, the clever convict merely forged his walking papers. Though not quite as resourceful, Doc proved to be the ultimate flight risk breaking out of jail no fewer than five times.
Following his last escape in 1920, Doc headed straight for Tulsa where Willis had formed the gang that would be known as the Newton Boys. Ready and waiting were brothers Jess and Joe, the baby of the brood, along with an explosives expert and skilled safecracker named Glasscock.
Working from a list of banks with vaults Glasscock could open in his sleep, the gang busted small-town banks from Texas to Canada. Striking in the dead of night, Willis cut the telephone lines in advance of Glasscock blowing the walk-in safes with nitroglycerin and dynamite caps. Two Newtons stood watch with shotguns, while their brethren loaded the loot into a waiting getaway car.
The system was foolproof. The loud explosion rarely woke anybody, and even insomniacs did not bother to investigate. That gave the gang the time to completely clean out the vault and even lug heavy bags of coins, at Willis’ insistence, out the door. So much time, in fact, they managed to empty not one but two banks in Hondo.
The hours the burglars kept made them invisible phantoms. No one ever saw their faces much less knew their names. As far as law enforcement was concerned, the nocturnal crimes were committed by different suspects in different parts of the state and country.
Were it not for their leader’s greed and ambition, the Newtons might have gone on indefinitely. But their daytime stick-up of bank messengers on a Toronto street in July 1923 ended in a gun battle that attracted the attention the gang had so scrupulously avoided.
Rather than retreat to old and safer haunts in Texas, Willis threw in with Chicago mobsters and a corrupt postal inspector to pull the biggest train robbery in American history. On the plus side, the proceeds were mind-boggling – three million dollars – but the down side was the Texans’ worst nightmare come true.
Doc nearly died from bullets pumped into him by Glasscock, who in the dark mistook him for a railroad guard. Chicago cops trailed an underworld doctor to the hotel room, where Joe sat holding the hand of his badly wounded brother, and took both into custody. Willis was arrested the next day, when he dropped in to see how Doc was doing.
Joe succeeded in skipping town with $35,000 and made it all the way back to San Antonio. But he got stinking drunk, buried the money, promptly forgot where and walked into a Ranger trap on the border.
Luckily for the Newton brothers, the prosecutor was more interested in making examples of the postal inspector and mobsters than four presumably minor characters. In exchange for testifying against their Windy City accomplices, the Newtons received amazingly light sentences. Jess was out of Leavenworth in nine months, Joe in a year, Willis in four and Doc in five because of extra time tacked on for his 1920 escape.
In the 1930’s, Willis and Joe spent seven and ten more years behind bars on a robbery rap most sources agree was trumped-up. Willis was the last brother to wander back in Uvalde before the members of the Newton Gang began dying off with Joe the last to go in 1989.
The 1998 motion picture “The Newton Boys” played fast and loose with the facts. Two redeeming features of this mediocre movie may be that it was filmed on location around the Lone Star State and starred a couple of actors actually born in Texas.
Last chance! Three “Best of This Week in Texas History” collections for the price of two: “Hurricanes, Tornadoes & Other Disasters,” “Secession & Civil War” and “Revolution & Republic.” Mail a check for only $28.40 to “Bartee Haile” at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or order on-line at twith.com
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.