Leave it to a Texan to pull off the largest train robbery in history.
The notorious crew that is the subject of this article also knocked off five other trains and an astonishing 80 banks. Even though they broke the law, they did it with little violence or fanfare.
The Newton Gang was one of the most successful train and bank robbers in the United States. They were in Texas for most of the 1920s and robbed more than 80 banks and six trains, getting away with millions of dollars.
The leader of the Newton gang was Willis Newton. He was born on January 19, 1889, to a dirt-poor family of cotton farmers near Uvalde, a town about 80 miles from San Antonio. Willis and his ten siblings had a hard childhood of mind-numbing labor on the family farm. Tired of being bored and poor, Willis had his first brush with a life of crime at the age of 20. In that incident, he claimed that he was convicted for a crime he didn't commit, but his brother Wylie or "Doc" Newton did.
Doc, the oldest of the Newton sons, stole loose cotton from the loading dock of one processing gin and tried to sell it at another. When the police could not find Doc, authorities arrested Willis and charged him instead. In 1909, a local jury convicted Willis on flimsy evidence and sentenced him to a year of hard labor in prison. His thieving brother Doc was thrown behind bars a few months later. Somehow, the two siblings escaped but were recaptured, with five years tacked onto their sentence.
After his tough childhood and prison time, Willis believed he had been wronged and decided that he would get back at the authorities by becoming the criminal that people made him out to be. In 1914, Willis and his friend robbed a train and stole $4,700, the modern-day equivalent to more than $100,000.
Now with a taste for loot, Willis joined a gang in Oklahoma, scoring about $10,000 from one bank. By about 1920, Willis and these outlaws had stolen nearly $400,000 worth of bonds and cash.
Returning to Texas, Willis formed his own gang in 1921 by recruiting his brothers Jess and Doc to his outlaw lifestyle. They also brought in an explosives expert named Brent Glasscock, which is when the real stealing began.
From November 1921 to the end of 1922, the Newton Gang robbed banks all across Texas, and even in Colorado, Indiana, Missouri, and Canada. They never killed anyone in the process. Some witnesses even said that the gang was polite to the bank tellers they were robbing. Patrons and bank employees often described the Newton Gang as going out of their way to make sure everyone was comfortable. Even so, the gang often caused thousands of dollars in damage to a single bank, not including the cash stolen.
The key to their bloodless crime spree was that most of their robberies were committed at night. Using explosives, they mostly broke in and blew open the safes. They were long gone before the authorities ever arrived. By bribing a corrupt insurance official with the Texas Association of Bankers, Willis obtained a list of banks that still possessed older model safes that were vulnerable to this brand of attack. Before entering the building, Willis usually would climb phone towers and cut the lines, then they went into the banks and poured nitroglycerin into cracks in the safe doors before setting off the explosive with dynamite. Afterward, the fugitives loaded up into their favorite getaway car, a Studebaker, while locals tried to phone for the police, but couldn’t.
These were bold bandits. In Hondo, the gang reportedly robbed two banks on the same night after finding the first vault door open. Occasionally their plans might change, and the crew planned daytime robberies, like on March 9, 1922, in New Braunfels where they staged a simple bank hold-up. On July 24, 1923, the Newton Gang was in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, robbing pedestrian bank messengers. Then, they hit The Toronto Currency Clearinghouse later in the morning.
This time, things went poorly. A fight ensued when the bank messengers refused to surrender their bags, and gunfire was exchanged; Willis wounded two messengers during that shootout. The two Canada scores, though, brought in about $84,000 in that country’s currency. But the criminals had drawn blood. Even so, the outlaws made about $200,000 from just a year of robberies, or about three million dollars in today’s currency.
Willis invested a large amount of his money into oil wells, hoping to make it big during the boom times for the industry and buy his way out of a life of crime. Doc and Jess, though, enjoyed the high standard of living their crimes financed, visiting the Kentucky Derby and enjoying the nightlife in several big cities. Willis persuaded Joe to invest with him in various oil wells, but all of them failed to produce. Born into poverty, the brothers did not save much. Besides . . . where would they put their money? In a bank?
In the 1920s, interstate crime was difficult to control. Anonymous, wide-ranging, and fast moving, the Newton Gang received very little attention from law enforcement, despite the number of robberies they had committed. However, that would soon change.
The gang's biggest and, as events unfolded, last score was on June 12, 1924, in Illinois. Teaming up with Chicago criminals, the Texans and their accomplices robbed a train of three million dollars, worth about 45 million dollars today, making it the largest train robbery in history.
Blood was drawn again. During the robbery, Doc Newton was accidentally shot by another gang member. Police were able to track the whereabouts of the wounded Newton and soon caught up with the criminals, ending their five-year reign.
One by one, each of the four brothers were caught by law enforcement. The brothers served time in prison but received relatively light sentences because they rarely injured anyone. They also returned a majority of the money they had stolen from the big train heist.
But some of the spoils remained missing. Jess Newton had buried $100,000, the equivalent of 1.5 million dollars today, northwest of San Antonio on his way to Mexico. But he was drunk at the time, and to this day the stash has not been found.
Time in prison ended the Newton Gang. Jess and Joe, lacking criminal records, received the lightest sentences. These two brothers returned to Uvalde, where they led respectable lives, for the most part.
Willis and Doc spent many years behind bars. After his release, Willis returned to Tulsa where he ran several gas stations and nightclubs and maintained criminal connections while keeping himself out of trouble. He rarely spoke about his past life in much detail, but he was clearly involved in local "nightclub wars," with episodes of arson reported during the same time period. Willis was the victim of an assassination attempt at one point, being shot at through his bathroom window. He survived.
In 1934, both Willis and Joe were sentenced to nearly ten-year sentences in Oklahoma, framed for a bank robbery they did not commit. They served at least seven years each. Joe went home to Uvalde, having already renounced crime. Willis returned to Tulsa and the nightclub life, but in the early 1950s, he also moved back to his hometown, where he managed to stay out of prison and the limelight.
Amazingly, seventy-seven-year-old Doc Newton was again arrested for bank robbery in 1968, in Rowena. Authorities dropped the charges due to his advanced age—and the fact that he had been beaten during the arrest.
Jess Newton died on March 4, 1960, having lived out the remainder of his life as a cowboy in Uvalde. A veteran of World War I, he died in a VA hospital.
Doc never fully recovered from his assault in Rowena and died at the age of 83 in 1974.
Willis lived to age 90, a familiar and notable figure around his hometown, dying on August 22, 1979.
The youngest Newton brother, Joe, passed away at age 88 on February 3, 1989, but only after being interviewed on a late-night television talk show about his youth as a bank and train robber.
In 1998, Mathew McConaughey starred in a movie The Newton Boys that tells an embellished, and at times, humorous version of the siblings’ exploits.
Willis, Doc, Jess, and Joe were products of their time and circumstances. Born poor, they desperately wanted to live the high life of the 1920s that they witnessed and to get back at a system they thought worked against them.
And they did . . . for a while. But in the end, crime didn’t pay. Yet, the nearly bloodless bandits from Texas are remembered as being some of the most successful, and polite, desperados in history.