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Willis Newton Interview – 1979
Willis Newton was Texas’ longest-serving convict Who has committed more than 80 bank and train robberies. He and his band of outlaws committed more robberies than Jesse James, Dalton, and all the rest of the outlaws in the Old West combined. Their biggest heist was in 1924 when they robbed a train outside Rondout, Illinois – getting away with $3,000,000. They still hold the record for the largest train robbery in US history.
In 1979, I interviewed Willis Newton at his home in Uvalde, Texas. The outsider 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 raspy roar, “It’s open. Come in.”
Stepping inside the rundown clapboard house with the empty yard, I saw a small, dry-looking old man peering 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’m not talking to anybody about my life. I’m going to sell it to Hollywood for a bunch of money.”
I knew then that an interview with Old Law was going to be a tough nut to crack. As best I could, I reminded him of our phone conversation earlier in the day when I asked him to give me some details about robbing a bank or a train. I told him I was writing a paperback novel (which was true) and I needed some help portraying a factual account of how the robbery happened (which was also true). After a few moments’ consideration, he pointed to a chair in the small living room and agreed to answer “just a few questions.”
In contrast to the cold weather outside, it was warm and stuffy in her cluttered living room – heated by a small gas wall heater. I quickly took off my tape recorder and after a brief conversation with Willis, handed him the microphone. I asked him how the bank was held up and what was involved in the train robbery. Then like turning on a wind-up toy, Willis basically started telling me his life story. From time to time, I was able to get additional questions but for the most part he rattled off the well-rehearsed details of his life in machine gun fashion – rationalizing what he had done, blaming others for his imprisonment and repeatedly claiming that he was only from “other thieves”. stole
I had no idea what to expect when I stepped into her little house that day but what I found was the delicacy of a guilty mind. Everything he did was justified by an outside force, “No one gave me anything. All I got was hell!” As I listened intently, he took center stage, speaking in a high-pitched raspy voice, talking about an assortment of his favorite topics. With profanity, profanity and racial slurs galore in his speech, Willis was quite articulate in his storytelling – a master of broken grammar. At times he would slip into mythic storytelling mode where he would go camping killing rabbits while on the run from lawyers. Then with a little prompting he would go back to the basic facts of his story.
In the process, he told me how he grew up as a child and how he was first arrested for a crime “they knew I didn’t do.” He went into detail about his first bank holdup, how he “greased” a safe with nitroglycerin, robbed a train and evaded the lawyers who came after him. Willis described Texas bank robberies in Boerne, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and Hondo (two in one night). He related the double bank robbery in Spencer, Indiana, and proceeded to account for a number of bank robberies in other states.
Finally he recounts the 1923 Toronto Bank Clearing House robbery and finally the great train robbery outside Rondout, Illinois, in which he and his brothers escaped with $3,000,000 in cash, jewelry and bonds. He detailed the beatings he and his brothers received from the Chicago police when they were later captured. As he told the story, his face reddened and his voice rose to a shrill scream until he had to pause to catch his breath. Then lowering his voice, he recounted how he managed to strike a sly deal with a postal inspector to reduce his and his brothers’ prison sentences by revealing where the loot was hidden.
He spoke of his prison years in Leavenworth and his illegal business in Tulsa, Oklahoma after his release from prison in 1929. He complained bitterly about being sent back to prison in McAlester, Oklahoma, for a bank robbery “they knew I didn’t do,” in Medford.
After returning to Uvalde, Texas, after his release from prison, Willis vowed that 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 blurted out, “They tried to get me as the driver, but hell, I was 400 miles away in Laredo! I had 12! Witnesses said I was there.” That night old Doc and RC were 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 — not exactly where because “Jess was whiskey-drunk when she hid it.” Looking at the frail old man in a tattered suit and a pair of stained pants, Willis doesn’t seem to have any loot left over from any of his robberies; However, it was rumored locally that from time to time he spent money that appeared to have been 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 in my car, my mind reeled over the stories I had just heard. The thought of writing a book on the old criminal had never occurred to me and I was very sincere in telling him that I was a fiction writer, 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. Years later, I transcribed the tapes, added my notes, and filed the interview. Then while working on another book I came across the interview file and knew I had to write his story—but the full story, not what Willis told me in the interview. As I found out it 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 the few others who actually knew about Willis Newton and had first-hand knowledge.
Along the way, I uncovered some shocking evidence that debunked the myth that Willis and his brothers didn’t kill anyone in the commission of their numerous crimes. This is the first time this fact has been brought forward.
When I finished researching, I knew I could write her story. With some minor editing, cutting out some blatant racial references and copious amounts of profanity, I tried to keep his words intact to me. I do not disparage ethnic terms for any race of people – whether they are Irish, Jewish, Hispanic, African, Italian or other underrepresented populations.
In a few instances, I had to restructure his accounts for clarity. He spoke in a rapid-fire jailhouse prose using elaborate criminal jargon that was sometimes difficult to follow. Wherever possible I have tried to retain his colorful phrasing by using common expressions of the day.
In writing the Willis Newton book, I omitted much of his repetitive self-justification for his actions where he took great pains to paint himself as a brave criminal – in the Robin Hood vein. It is true that he stole from the rich but he gave very little to the poor. In some of his accounts, he described giving “hard money” (silver coins) to some of the poor and destitute farmers who helped him. Additionally, he reiterated that he never intended to harm anyone in the robbery; “We just wanted money.” There is no doubt that Willis Newton was shaped and stamped by the harsh economic conditions of the Southwest in the late 1890s and early 20th century. Yet at the same time, there were tens of thousands of other people who tried to work hard and become solid citizens of their communities. It was his choice to follow “easy money”.
While sifting through hundreds of newspaper reports and magazine articles, I was struck by how much the story varied, sometimes significantly, from what Willis told me. At the same time I found that newspapers, in their rush to get their story out, misspelled names, got their information wrong, stole more or less of the estimated dollar amount, and had a very hard time keeping the Newton brothers’ names straight. -Willis and Wylie (aka Willy or Doc) tackled them as they saw fit.
A few weeks before Willis Newton died, he was admitted to a hospital in Uvalde, Texas, for tests for a number of physical problems. After he had been there several days, I went to his room and met the old criminal. I knocked on his door and he managed a weak, “Come in.”
When I entered her room, I saw a very sad version of what I had seen in March of that year. Covered in thin rails and a scarlet rash on his leg, Willis cocked his head to the side and demanded, “Who are you?”
I politely reminded him that we had talked earlier at his house and that he had advised me of bank and train robberies. He nodded 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 everything inside me has gone mad. I know I’m a goner and wish I could kill myself but I can’t, because I still have my mind. Only Crazy people commit suicide but I’m not crazy.”
Realizing that his time was almost up I asked him if he had any regrets or regrets for what he had done in his life. He tilted his head up from the pillow and looked at me. “Hell no,” he yelled at me. “I’d still do them but my body played on me. If I was 20 years younger, I’d be running a gun and bringing drugs back across the border into Mexico! Nobody gives me nothing but hell and I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done!”
So much for regret and redemption.
I remained silent not knowing how to respond. After a while he looked up at the ceiling again and added, “The only thing I regret is the $200,000 left in the bank when those cowards got scared. They said, ‘We’ve got $65,000 in bonds and we’re getting out before we get caught.’ Hell, we left $200,000 sitting on that counter. Shame, I told them I always wanted it!”
The next day they took Willis to a hospital in San Antonio where he died on August 22, 1979. Fierce and defiant he died as he had lived – as an outsider.
During my 1979 interview with Willis, he detailed the time he spent in jail. Describing his first prison term, he said, “I served 22 months and 26 days in jail and then was sent to rusk (prison) for two years. Every bastard knew I was innocent. They knew I hadn’t broken a law!” Then over the years he spent more than 20 years in some form of penal servitude. I never got to ask him the question: Was it worth it?
I guess the answer would be a resounding, “Hell yes!”
Spending a quarter of your 90-year life behind bars doesn’t seem worth it to me.
The last time Willis Newton left his hospital room I saw his physician who was a personal friend of mine. I asked him about the condition of Willis and he confirmed what I had been told by the deceased. Then with a twinkle in his eye he asked if I wanted to see an X-ray of Willis’ spine.
Of course, not what I would expect.
We went to a nearby viewing room and he shot a film on the lighted viewing board. There was a very distinct space near the spinal column. “It’s a German Luger slug he’s been carrying for about 30 years. Some old boy shot him in Oklahoma.”
As I looked at the picture, the doctor finished by saying, “And damned if that old criminal isn’t buried with it!”
I guess you could say it was a fitting compliment.
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