A Tale of Four Brothers

CULTURE | December 25, 2018

The Newton Brothers (Photo from www.hillcountryexplore.com)

Once upon a time in Texas, there lived four brothers. Their names were Willis, Joe, Jess, and Wylie (Doc), and they were just four out of eleven children born to Jim and Janetta Pecos Anderson Newton, who were poor farmers. Those four brothers eventually joined together and made a name for themselves during the 1920s as the Newton Boys, one of the most notorious gangs of bank robbers in history, taking in more loot than all the other outlaws of that time combined.

Willis Newton, the leader of the group, was born on January 19, 1889, near Cottonwood, Texas. He and his brothers had sticky fingers from childhood, with a reputation for breaking into stores. At first, Willis followed in his parents’ footsteps, working as a farmer until he and Doc were arrested in 1909 under charges of vagrancy and stealing cotton. They served five years – having escaped together once and been recaptured – before they were pardoned by Governor O.B. Colquitt. Willis claimed to have been wrongfully accused but had no desire to return to the unrewarding job of farming after his release. Instead, he chose to embrace the life of the criminal he was already reputed to be.

Liberty (or War) Bonds (Photo from Wikipedia)

On New Year’s Eve in 1914, Willis and a friend boarded a train in Cline, Texas, and proceeded to rob the passengers, taking in $4,700 before disembarking in Kinney County. While in Durant, Oklahoma, he joined a gang of bank robbers who stole $10,000 from a bank in Boswell. After being arrested and released in Marble Falls in 1917, he became involved in petty theft and gambling. He returned to robbing stores with another group of men, before hitting a bank in Winters, Texas and making off with $3,500 in Liberty bonds. One of the men was shot and killed the next day while fleeing the authorities. Afterward, the men began robbing banks and stores by blowing the safes open with nitroglycerin.

Meanwhile, his brothers, Doc, Jess, and Joe, had committed crimes of their own and by 1919 were incarcerated in separate facilities, though Willis and Joe were released that year. They joined forces in 1920 and teamed with John Glasscock to rob banks in Omaha, Nebraska, and Glenwood, Iowa. Unfortunately for them, the spoils of $400,000 in Victory and Liberty bonds had already been registered and was, therefore, useless to them. By 1920, Doc had escaped prison and joined Willis and Joe, who were living in Tulsa at the time. Jess was released in 1921 and became the fifth member (and fourth brother) of the gang.

Banks in the 1920s and 1930s (Photo from Pinterest)

The Newton boys spent the next year robbing banks all over Texas, including in Hondo where they robbed two banks in one night, as well as in Indiana, Missouri, and even Canada, bringing in a total haul of $200,000. Their modus operandi was to case the banks for a few days before going in at night and blowing the safes with nitroglycerin and making off with the cash. On the rare occasions that they committed robberies during the day, they were known for being very polite. Not only did they never hurt nor kill anyone, but they also made an effort to keep their victims calm and comfortable during the robberies.

The Newton Gang (Photo from Ranker)

Their final and most renowned job was the robbery of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul mail train, which was the largest train robbery in United States history. It happened on June 12, 1924, in Rondout, Illinois. The boys had teamed up with two gangsters and a racketeer from Chicago as well as a postal inspector named William J. Fahy. Willis and Fahy boarded the train in Chicago and forced it to a stop at Rondout where the rest of the gang waited. With tear gas and warning shots, they compelled the passengers to hand over $3 million worth of cash and securities. However, the robbery did not go off without a hitch as Glasscock accidentally shot Doc. The wound was not fatal, but the necessary medical attention left a trail which led the authorities to the brothers.

The Rondout Train Robbery (Photo rarenewspapers.com)

Doc, Willis and Joe were arrested a few days after the robbery, but Jess escaped with $35,000 which he buried after getting drunk in San Antonio. When he went back for the money, he couldn’t remember where he buried it. He fled to Mexico without the money but was tricked by a federal agent into reentering the United States. Eventually, everyone involved in the train robbery was arrested and most of the money returned. Fahy was pinpointed as the leader of the operation and received the harshest sentence of twenty-five years. Jess served the lightest sentence of nine months, with Joe serving a year and Willis serving four years. Because of his previous escape from prison, Doc was sentenced to six years. The buried money was never found.

Criminals behind bars in the 1920s and 1930s (Photo from Pinterest)

The Newton brothers did not learn their lesson, despite living long lives. They continued to break the law after their release, with Willis and Doc running whiskey. Willis and Joe later served time after being wrongfully accused of robbing a bank in Oklahoma. Jess died of lung cancer in 1970 at the age of 73 after spending a number of years working on a ranch. At the age of 77, Doc suffered brain damage while being arrested for an attempted robbery in Rowena, Texas. He died of cancer in 1974 at the age of 83. Joe died at the age of 88 on February 3, 1989, and Willis died at the age of 90 on August 22, 1979.  

Tags: The Newton brothers, 1920s, robbers, bank robbers, The Newton Boys

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Lyra Radford