Willis Newton was the longest living Texas outlaw who robbed more than 80 banks and trains. He and his outlaw gang robbed more than Jessie James, the Daltons, and all of the rest of the Old West outlaws-combined. Their biggest haul occurred in 1924 when they robbed a train outside of Rondout, Illinois-getting away with $3,000,000. They still hold the record for the biggest train robbery in U.S. history.
In 1979, I interviewed Willis Newton at his home in Uvalde, Texas. A few months later the outlaw died at age 90.
When I stepped up and knocked on Willis Newton’s door there was no response. After a minute I heard a raspy growl, “It’s open. Come on in.”
Stepping inside the rundown clapboard house with the unkempt yard, I saw a small, withered looking old man glaring at me from his rocking chair. “What the hell do you want?”
“Mr. Newton, I am the guy that called you yesterday and wanted to ask you some questions.”
“I ain’t talking to no one about my life. I’m going to sell that to Hollywood for a bunch of money.”
I knew then that doing an interview with the old outlaw was going to be a tough nut to crack. As best I could, I reminded him of our phone conversation on the previous day when I asked him to provide me with some details on how to rob a bank or a train. I told him I was writing a paperback novel (which was true) and that I needed some help in portraying a factual description of how the robberies took place (which was also true). After a few moments of consideration, he gestured to a chair in the small living room and agreed to answer “just a few questions.”
In contrast to the chilly weather outside, it was hot and stuffy in his cluttered living room-being heated by a small gas wall heater. I quickly unloaded my tape recorder and after a brief conversation with Willis, handed him the microphone. I asked him how to stage a bank hold up and what was involved in robbing a train. Then like turning on a wind-up toy, Willis essentially started telling me his life’s story. From time to time, I managed to get in additional questions but for the most part he rattled off the well-practiced accounts of his life in machine gun fashion-rationalizing everything he had done, blaming others for his imprisonments, and repeatedly claiming that he had only stolen from “other thieves.”
I had no idea what to expect when I stepped into his little house that day but what I encountered was the quintessence of the criminal mind. Everything he had done was justified by outside forces, “Nobody ever give me nothing. All I ever got was hell!” As I listened in rapt attention, he sat center stage speaking in a high-pitched raspy voice, pontificating on an assortment of subjects of his choosing. Lacing his speech with large quantities of profanities, vulgarities and racial slurs, Willis was quite articulate in telling his stories – a master of fractured grammar. At times he would slip into mythological story telling mode where he would talk of killing rabbits and camping out while on the run from lawmen. Then with a little prodding he would return to the basic facts of his story.
In the process, he told me how he was raised as a child and how he was first arrested for a crime “that they knowed I didn’t do.” He went into detail about his first bank holdup, how he “greased” a safe with nitroglycerine, robbed trains, and evaded the lawmen that came after him. Willis described the Texas bank robberies in Boerne, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and Hondo (two in one night). He also related the double bank robbery in Spencer, Indiana and proceeded to give accounts of bank robberies in a multitude of other states.
Eventually he recounted the events of the Toronto Bank Clearing House robbery in 1923 and finally the great train robbery outside of 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 beatings he and his brothers took from the Chicago police when they were later captured. As he told the story his face reddened and his voice rose to a pitched screech until he had to pause to catch his breath. Then lowering his voice he described how he managed to negotiate a crafty deal with a postal inspector for reduced prison sentences for himself and his brothers by revealing where the loot was hidden.
He told about his prison years at Leavenworth and his illegal businesses he ran in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after he got out of prison in 1929. He complained bitterly about being sent back to prison in McAlester, Oklahoma, for a bank robbery “they knowed I didn’t do,” in Medford.
After returning to Uvalde, Texas, following his release from prison, Willis swore that he “never had no trouble with the law after that.” When I asked him about his elderly brother’s botched bank robbery in Rowena, Texas, in 1968, he exploded, “They tried to get me as the get-away driver but hell, I was in Laredo, over 400 miles away! I had 12 witnesses that said I was there the night old Doc and R.C. got caught.”
At the end of the interview, I asked him to comment on the Rondout loot 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 frayed union suit and a pair of stained pants, Willis did not appear to have any loot left from any of his robberies; although, locally it was rumored that from time to time he would spend money that appeared to have been printed during the ’20s or ’30s.
Finally, I turned off the tape recorder and thanked him for helping me with the details I needed for my paperback Western. Returning to my car, my mind was awhirl with the stories I had just heard. The thought of writing a book on the old outlaw had never crossed my mind and I was very sincere in telling him I was a fiction writer and not a biographer. But what a story he told!
The following week I put the cassette tapes in a safety deposit box thinking the information might be useful for a future writing project. A few years later, I transcribed the tapes, added my notes and filed the interview away. Then while 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. As I found out this was a much bigger project than I had anticipated. I tracked down several hundred newspaper and magazine articles on Willis and his brothers, court records and police reports. Then, where I could, I interviewed the few remaining people who actually knew and had first-hand knowledge of Willis Newton.
Along the way, I unearthed some startling evidence that dispelled the myth that Willis and his brothers had never killed anyone in the commission of their numerous crimes. This is the first time that this fact has been brought to light.
When I had finished the research, I knew I could write his story. With some minor editing, culling some of the blatant racial references and over abundances of profanities, I tried to keep his words to me intact. I do not espouse demeaning racial terms regarding any ethnicity of people-whether it is the Irish, Jewish, Hispanic, African, Italian, or other deprecated populaces.
In a few instances, I had to restructure his accounts for clarity. He spoke in a rapid fire jailhouse prose using a wide range of criminal jargon that sometimes was difficult to follow. Wherever possible I strove to retain his colorful phraseology, using the common expressions of the day.
In writing the Willis Newton book, I omitted most of his repeated self-justification for his actions in which he took great pains to paint himself as a gallant criminal-in the Robin Hood vein. It is true that he robbed from the rich but he gave very little to the poor. In a few of his accounts, he did describe giving the “hard money” (silver coin) to some poor and downtrodden farmer that had helped him. In addition, he repeated the idea that he never meant to harm anyone in the robberies; “all we wanted was the 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 twentieth century. Yet at the same time, there were hundreds of thousands of other people that strived to work hard and become solid citizens of their communities. It was his choice to go after the “easy money.”
In poring over hundreds of newspaper reports and magazine articles, I was struck with how much of the story varied with what Willis had told me, sometimes substantially. At the same time I found that the newspapers, in their rush to get their story out, misspelled names, got their facts wrong, under or over estimated dollar amounts of loot taken, and had a very difficult time keeping the Newton brothers’ names straight-Willis and Wylie (aka Willie or Doc) dealt them fits.
A few weeks before Willis Newton died, he was admitted to the hospital in Uvalde, Texas for tests on a multitude of physical problems. After he had been there a several days, I went by his room and visited the old outlaw. I knocked on his door and he managed a weak, “Come on in.”
When I entered his room, I saw a very emaciated version of what I had seen in March of that year. Rail thin and covered with a crimson rash on his legs, Willis cocked his head sideways and demanded, “Who are you?”
I politely reminded him that we had talked at his home earlier and that he had given me advice on robbing banks and trains. He nodded his head and stared up at the ceiling, “Yeah, I remember now.”
I told him I was sorry to see him ailing and in pain. He responded by saying, “Yeah, I’m headed to the bar ditch. The doctor says everything’s gone crazy inside of me. I know I’m a goner and wish I could kill myself but I can’t, ’cause I still got my mind. Only crazy people kill themselves but I ain’t crazy.”
Realizing that his time was about up I asked him if he had any regrets or was sorry for anything he had done in his life. He cocked his head sideways and raised his head up off of the pillow glaring at me. “Hell no,” he screeched at me. “I’d still be doing them things but my body’s done played out on me. If I was 20 years younger, I’d be running guns across the border into Mexico and bringing drugs back! Nobody’s ever give me nothing but hell and I ain’t ashamed of anything I done!”
So much for contrition and redemption.
I did not know how to respond and remained quiet. After a moment he stared at the ceiling again and added, “The only thing I’m sorry about is that $200,000 those cowards left in that bank when they got spooked. They said, ‘We’ve got $65,000 in bonds and we’re getting out before we get caught.’ Hell, we left $200,000 just sitting there on that counter. Damn shame, I told them I always wanted it all!”
The next day they moved Willis to a hospital in San Antonio where he died on August 22, 1979. Fierce and defiant to the bitter end he died the way he had lived-as an outlaw.
During my 1979 interview with Willis he went into great detail about the times he had spent in jail or prison. In describing his first prison time he said, “I was jailed for 22 months and 26 days and then sent to Rusk (prison) for two years. Every son of a bitch knowed I was innocent. They knowd I didn’t break no law!” Then over the years he spent over 20 years incarcerated in some type of penal confinement. I never got to ask him the question: was it worth it?
My guess the answer would have been a resounding, “Hell yes!”
Spending a fourth of your 90 years of life behind bars hardly seems worth it to me.
As I left Willis Newton’s hospital room for the last time I spotted his physician 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.
Sure, I had no idea what to expect.
We went to a nearby viewing room and he slapped a film on the lighted viewing board. There was a very distinct spot located near the spinal column. “That’s a German Luger slug he’s been carrying around for about 30 years. Some old boy shot him up in Oklahoma.”
As I gazed at the image, the physician concluded by saying, “And damned if that old outlaw isn’t going to be buried with it!”
I guess you could say it was a fitting eulogy-of sorts.