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Willis Newton Interview – 1979
Willis Newton was the longest-living outlaw in Texas who robbed more than 80 banks and trains. He and his gang of outlaws robbed more than Jesse James, Dalton and the rest of the Old West outlaws combined. Their biggest hit came in 1924 when they robbed a train outside Rondout, Illinois – getting away with $3,000,000. He still holds the record for the largest train robbery in American history.
In 1979 I interviewed Willis Newton at his home in Uvalde, Texas. Daku died a few months later at the age of 90.
When I went up and knocked on Willis Newton’s door, there was no response. A minute later I heard a booming voice, “It’s open. Come in.”
Stepping inside the rundown clapboard house in the dirt yard, I find a small, wizened old man staring at me from his rocking chair. “What do you want?”
“Mr. Newton, I’m the guy who called you yesterday and wanted to ask you some questions.”
“I don’t talk to anybody about my life. I’m going to sell it to Hollywood for a few bucks.”
I knew then that interviewing an old outlaw was a tough one to crack. As best I could, I reminded him of our phone conversation the day before when I asked him to give me some details about how to rob a bank or a train. I told him I was writing a paperback novel (which was true) and I needed some help with a factual account of how the robberies happened (which was also true). After a few moments of thought, he motioned to a chair in the small living room and agreed to answer “just a few questions.”
In contrast to the cold outside, it was warm and stuffy in his cluttered living room – 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 hold a bank and what was involved in robbing a train. Then, like a wind-up toy turned on, Willis essentially started telling me his life story. From time to time, I joined in with additional questions, but for the most part he rattled off well-rehearsed accounts of his life in machine gun fashion—rationalizing everything he had done, blaming others for his imprisonment, and repeatedly claiming that he had only stolen from “other thieves.” .
When I stepped into his small house that day, I had no idea what to expect but what I encountered was the appearance of a criminal mind. Everything he had done was justified by outside forces, “No one could give me anything. All I got was hell!” As I listened raptly, he sat at the center stage and spoke in an accented voice on an assortment of topics that interested him. Using a great deal of profanity, profanity and racial slurs in his speech, Willis was very blunt in telling his stories – a master of fragmented grammar. Sometimes he would slip into mythic storytelling mode where he would talk about killing rabbits and camping out while on the run from lawmen. Then with a little irritation he would go back to the basic facts of his story.
In the process, he told me how he grew up as a kid and how he was first arrested for a crime “that they knew I didn’t commit.” He detailed his first bank holdup, how he “greased” safes with nitroglycerin, robbed cars and eluded lawmen who were after him. Willis described robbing Texas banks in Boerne, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and Hondo (two in one night). He is also associated with a double bank robbery in Spencer, Indiana, and accounts for bank robberies in several other states.
He eventually pulled off the Toronto Bank Clearing House robbery in 1923 and finally a major railroad robbery outside Rondout, Illinois, where he and his brothers escaped with $3,000,000 in cash, jewelry, and bonds. He and his brothers gave detailed accounts of their beatings by Chicago police when they were later captured. His face reddened as he told the story, and his voice rose in earnest until he had to stop to catch his breath. Then, lowering his voice, he described how he had made a cunning deal with the postal inspector to reduce the prison sentence for himself and his brothers by revealing where the loot was hidden.
After his release from prison in 1929, he spoke about his years in prison in Leavenworth and the illegal business he ran in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He bitterly complained about being sent back to prison in McAlester, Oklahoma, for robbing a bank “they knew I didn’t do,” in Medford.
After returning to Uvalde, Texas after his release from prison, Willis swore he “had no trouble with the law after that.” When I asked him about his older brother’s 1968 bank robbery in Rowena, Texas, he exploded, “They tried to get me as a getaway driver, but hell, I was in Laredo, 400 miles away! I had 12. The old night doctor And the witnesses said I was there when RC was caught.”
At the end of the interview, I asked him to comment on the Rondout loot that his brother Jess had buried in Texas. He said he knew where he was buried—just not where because “Jess drank the whiskey when he hid it.” Looking at the frail old man, dressed in a tattered Union suit and a pair of stained pants, Willis didn’t see any loot left from any of his robberies; Although, it was rumored locally that he would occasionally spend money printed in 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. Back at my car, my mind reeled from the stories I had just heard. It had never occurred to me to write a book on an old criminal, and I was very honest when I said that I was a fiction writer and not a biographer. But what a story he told!
I put the cassette tapes in a safety deposit box, thinking the information would be useful for a future writing project next week. A few years later, I transcribed the tapes, added my notes, and transcribed the interview. Later, while working on another book, I found the interview file and knew I wanted to write his story—but not just what Willis told me in the interview, but the whole story. I realized that this was a much bigger project than I expected. I tracked down hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, court records and police reports on Willis and his brothers. Then, where I could, I interviewed some of the remaining people who had firsthand knowledge of Willis Newton.
Along the way, I discovered some shocking evidence that dispelled the myth that Willis and his brothers never killed anyone during their numerous crimes. This fact has come to light for the first time.
When I finished researching, I knew I could write his story. With some minor editing, removing some derogatory racial references and copious amounts of profanity, I tried to keep his words intact for me. I do not treat racial terms as derogatory to any ethnicity such as Irish, Jewish, Hispanic, African, Italian, or other denigrated populations.
In some instances, I had to rearrange his accounts for clarity. He spoke in rapid fire jailhouse prose using elaborate criminal jargon that was sometimes difficult to follow. Wherever possible I have tried to preserve his colorful diction by using common expressions of the time.
In writing Willis Newton’s book, I omitted his frequent self-justifications for his actions, taking great pains to paint himself as a valiant criminal in the Robin Hood vein. It is true that he robbed from the rich but he gave very little to the poor. In some of his accounts, he describes giving “hard money” (silver coin) to some poor and downtrodden farmer who helped him. Moreover, he thought again that he did not want to harm anyone in the robbery; “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 twentieth century. Yet at the same time, there were hundreds of thousands of others who tried to work hard and become solid citizens of their communities. It was his choice to go after “easy money”.
In publishing hundreds of newspaper reports and magazine articles, I was amazed at how different the story was from what Willis had told me, sometimes significantly. At the same time I discovered that the newspapers rushed to get their story out, misspelled names, got their facts wrong, estimated less than a dollar or more, and found it very difficult to keep the names of the Newton brothers straight. -Willis and Wylie (aka Wiley or Doc) adapted them.
A few weeks before Willis Newton’s death, he was admitted to a hospital in Uvalde, Texas, for tests on several physical problems. After he had been there for several days, I went to his room and met the old bandit. I knocked on his door and he managed a weak, “Come in.”
When I entered his room, I saw a much faded version of what I had seen in March of that year. Thin and covered in crimson rashes on his legs, Willis cocked his head and demanded, “Who are you?”
I politely reminded him that we had spoken earlier at his house and that he had advised me to rob banks and trains. He shook his head and looked up at the ceiling, “Yes, I remember now.”
I told him I was sorry to see him sick and in pain. He replied, “Yes, I’m going to the bar. The doctor says I’m all crazy inside. I know I’m a goner and I want to kill myself but I can’t, because I still have my Mind understood. Only crazy people kill themselves but I’m not crazy.”
Realizing that his time was near, I asked him if he regretted or regretted anything he had done in his life. He turned his head to the side and lifted his head from the pillow to look at me. “Hell no,” he yelled at me. “I still do those things but my body played on me. If I was 20 years younger, I’d be running guns across the border into Mexico and bringing drugs back! Nobody gives me nothing but hell and I’m ashamed of anything I do.” I don’t think so!”
So much for repentance and redemption.
I did not know how to answer and remained silent. After a moment he looked up at the ceiling again and added, “The only thing I regret is that $200,000 was left in the bank when those cowards got scared. They said, ‘We’ve got $65,000 in bonds and we’re in. Get out before we get caught.’ Hell, we left $200,000 sitting on that counter. Embarrassed, I told them I wanted it all!”
The next day they moved Willis to a hospital in San Antonio where he died on August 22, 1979. He died to a terrible and bitter end – the way he had lived – as a bandit.
During my 1979 interview with Willis, he detailed the time he spent in jail or prison. Describing his first incarceration, he said, “I was sentenced to 22 months and 26 days and then sent to rusk (prison) for two years. Every dog boy knew I was innocent. They knew I broke no law. !” In the years that followed, he served over 20 years in prison. I could never ask him the question: Is it right?
My guess is the answer will be a resounding, “Hell yes!”
I don’t think spending a quarter of your 90 years in prison is worth it.
The last time I left Willis Newton’s hospital room I saw his physician who was a personal friend of mine. I asked him about Willis’ condition and he confirmed what the dead man had told me. 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 shot the film on a lighted viewing board. There was a very distinct space near the spinal column. “It’s a German Luger slug that he’s been carrying for about 30 years. Some old guy shot it in Oklahoma.”
As I gazed at the image the doctor concluded by saying, “And damned if that old bandit won’t be buried with him!”
I guess you could say it was a fitting eulogy.
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