Willis Newton was the longest-serving Texas ban which robbed more than 80 banks and trains. He and his crime gang robbed more than Jessie James, the Daltons and all the rest of the Old West outlaws combined. Their biggest move occurred in 1924, when they robbed a train outside of Rondout, Illinois, and got away with $ 3,000,000. They still hold the record for the largest train robbery in the U.S. history.
In 1979, I interviewed Willis Newton at his home in Uvalde, Texas. A few months later, the lawmaker died at the age of 90.
When I stepped up and knocked on Willis Newton’s door there was no reaction. After a minute, I heard a furious growl, “It’s open. Come in.”
Stepping inside the rolled-out patisserie house with the effortless yard, I saw a small, withered old man staring at me from his rocking chair. “What the fuck do you want?”
“Mr. Newton, I’m the guy who called you yesterday and wanted to ask you some questions.”
“I’m not talking to anyone about my life. I want to sell it to Hollywood for a lot of money.”
I then knew it would be a tough nut to crack that an interview with the old ban. As best I could, I reminded him of our phone call the previous day when I asked him to give me some details on how to rob a bank or a train. I told him that I wrote a pocketbook (which was true) and that I needed help to make a factual description of how the robberies took place (which was also true). After a few moments of deliberation, I went to a chair in the small living room and agreed to answer “just a few questions.”
Unlike the cool weather outside, it was warm and stuffy in his messy living room heated by a small gas wall heater. I quickly unloaded the tape recorder and handed him the microphone after a brief conversation with Willis. I asked him how to arrange a bank position and what was involved in robbing a train. So, like turning on a discontinued toy, Willis essentially started telling me the story of his life. From time to time I managed to come up with further questions, but for the most part he rattled with the well-rehearsed accounts of his life in machine-gun-rationalizing everything he had done, blaming others for his jails, and repeatedly claiming that he had only stolen from “other twenty.”
I had no idea what to expect when I entered his little house that day, but what I encountered was the criminal mind quintessence. Everything he had done was justified by external forces, “Nobody ever gave me anything. All I ever got was hell!” As I listened attentively, he sat in the middle of the stage, speaking with a fierce raspy voice, pontificating over a selection of topics he chose. In twisting his speech with large amounts of profanity, vulgarities and racial slurs, Willis was quite articulate in telling his stories – a master of broken grammar. At times, he went into mythological storytelling, where he would talk about killing rabbits and camping out while on the run from lawyers. Then, with a little bit, he would return to the basic facts of his story.
In the process, I told myself how I was raised as a child and how I was first arrested for a crime “that they knew I didn’t.” He went into detail about his first bank holdup, how he “smeared” a safe with nitroglycerin, robbed trains and avoided the lawyers who came after him. Willis described Texas bank robberies in Boerne, San Marcos, New Braunfels and Hondo (two in one night). He also recounts the double bank robbery in Spencer, Indiana and continued to file bank robbery accounts in a host of other states.
Eventually, I recounted the events of the 1923 Toronto Bank Clearing House robbery and finally the large train robbery outside Rondout, Illinois, where he and his brothers got away with $ 3,000,000 in cash, jewelry and bonds. He went into great detail about the blows he and his brothers took from Chicago police when they were later captured. As he told the story, his face blushed and his voice rose to a scream until he had to pause to catch his breath. Then he lowered his voice, describing how I managed to negotiate a cunning deal with a post-prisoner for reduced prison sentences for himself and his brothers by revealing where the looting was hidden.
He told of his prison years in Leavenworth and his illicit business he operated in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after he got out of prison in 1929. He bitterly complained about being sent back to jail in McAlester, Oklahoma, for a bank robbery “they knew I didn’t, “in Medford.
After returning to Uvalde, Texas, upon his release from prison, Willis swore he “never had any problems with the law after that.” When I asked him about his older brother’s bank robbery in Rowena, Texas, in 1968, I exploded, “They were trying to get me as a get-away driver, but hell, I was in Laredo, over 400 miles away! I had 12 witnesses who said I was there the night the old Doc and RC were captured. “
At the end of the interview, I asked him to comment on the Rondoot thief who was buried in Texas by his brother, Jess. He said he knew where it was buried – just not exactly where, because “Jess was whiskey-drunk when he hid it.” Looking at the frail aged man dressed in a fringed Union suit and a pair of colored pants, it didn’t look like Willis had any theft left from any of his robberies; though it was rumored locally that from time to time he would spend money that seemed to be printing in his 20s or 30s.
Eventually, I turned off the tape recorder and thanked him for helping me with the details I needed for my paperback Western. When I returned to my car, my mind was teeming with the stories I had just heard. The thought of writing a book about the old prohibition had never crossed my mind, and I was very sincere in telling him that I was a fiction writer and not a cinema. But what a story I’ve told!
The following week, I put the cassette tapes in a safe and thought the information might be useful for a future writing project. A few years later, I transcribed the tapes, added my notes, and sent the interview away. As I was working on another book, I came across the interview file and knew I had to write his story – but the complete story, not just what Willis had told me in the interview. When I found out, this was a much bigger project than I expected. I asked several hundred articles about newspapers and magazines about Willis and his brothers, court records and police reports. Then, wherever I could, I interviewed the few remaining people who actually knew and had first-hand knowledge of Willis Newton.
Along the way, I uncovered some astonishing evidence that dispelled the myth that Willis and his brothers had never killed anyone in the execution of their many crimes. This is the first time this fact has been brought forward.
When I finished the research, I knew I could write his story. With some minor edits, removing some of the obvious racial references, and the plethora of profanity, I tried to keep his words intact for me. I do not advocate degrading racial conditions regarding any ethnicity in humans – whether in the Irish, Jewish, Latin American, African, Italian or other obsolete populations.
In a few cases, I had to restructure his accounts for clarity. He spoke in rapid fire prison house prose using a host of criminal jargon, which was sometimes difficult to follow. Whenever possible, I strived to preserve his colorful phrase using the usual expressions of the day.
When I wrote the Willis Newton book, I omitted most of his repeated self-justification for his actions, in which he made great pains to paint himself as a gallant criminal – during the Robin Hood years. It is true that he robbed the rich, but he gave very little to the poor. In a few of his accounts, he described giving the “hard money” (silver coin) to a poor and run-down farmer who had helped him. In addition, I have reiterated the idea that I never intended to harm anyone in the robberies; “All we wanted was money.” There is no doubt that Willis Newton was shaped and stamped by the rough economic conditions of the Southwest in the late 1890s and early 20th century. At the same time, there were hundreds of thousands of other people striving to work hard and become solid citizens in their communities. It was his choice to go for the “easy money.”
When I pored over hundreds of newspaper reports and magazine articles, I was overwhelmed by how much of the story varied with what Willis had told me, sometimes significantly. At the same time, I found that the newspapers in their hurry to get their story out, spelled misspellings, got their facts wrong, under or over estimated dollar amounts of theft, and had a very difficult time keeping the Newton brothers’ names straight -Willis and Wylie (aka Willie or Doc) treated them fit.
A few weeks before Willis Newton died, he was admitted to the hospital in Uvalde, Texas for tests on a variety of physical problems. After he had been there for several days, I went to his room and visited the old ban. I knocked on his door and I managed a weak, “Come in.”
As I entered his room, I saw a very demure version of what I had seen in March of that year. Rail thin and covered with a crimson rash on his leg, Willis knocked his head sideways, demanding, “Who are you?”
I politely reminded him that we had talked to him in the past and that he had given me advice on robberies of banks and trains. I’ve nodded his head and stared up at the ceiling, “Yeah, I remember that now.”
I told him I was sorry to see him dirty and in pain. I responded by saying, “Yes, I’m heading towards the bar mound. The doctor says everything’s gone crazy inside me. I know I’m a storyteller and wish I could kill myself, but I can not because I still got my opinion. Only crazy people kill themselves, but I’m not crazy. “
When I realized that his time was up, I asked him if he had any regrets or was sorry for everything he had done in his life. I turned his head sideways and lifted his head up from the pillow and stared at me. “Not hell,” I screamed. “I still wanted to do them, but my body is played on me. If I was 20 years younger, I would run guns across the border to Mexico and bring back drugs! Nobody ever gave me anything but hell and I’m not ashamed something I’ve done! “
So much for contrast and redemption.
I did not know how to respond and remained silent. After a moment, he stared at the ceiling again, adding, “The only thing I’m sorry is that $ 200,000, these feuds that were left in that bank when they got spooked. They said, ‘We have $ 65,000 in bonds, and we to get out before we get caught. ”Hell, we left $ 200,000 just sitting there on the counter.
The next day, they moved Willis to a hospital in San Antonio, where I died on August 22, 1979. Tedious and defiant to the bitter end, I died as I had lived – as a ban.
During my 1979 interview with Willis, he went into the details of the times he had spent in jail or jail. Describing his first jail time, he said, “I was jailed for 22 months and 26 days and then sent to Rusk (jail) for two years. Every son of a bitch knew I was innocent. They knew I wasn’t then violated any law! ”Then, over 20 years, I spent the prison in some form of criminal jail. I never asked him the question: was it worth it?
I guess the answer would have been a resounding “hell, yes!”
Spending a quarter of your 90 years of life behind bars hardly seems worth it to me.
When I left Willis Newton’s hospital room for the last time, I discovered his doctor, who was a personal friend of mine. I asked him about Willis’ condition and he confirmed what I had been told by the dying man. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he asked if I wanted to see an X-ray of Willis’ spine.
Of course, I had no idea what to expect.
We went to a nearby viewing room and he threw a movie on the illuminated viewing board. There was a very clear place located near the spine. “It’s a German Luger snail he has carried around for about 30 years. An old boy shot him up in Oklahoma. “
When I looked at the picture, the doctor concluded by saying, “And damn if the old ban won’t be buried with it!”
I guess you could say it was an appropriate scheme.