History

The Newton Boys: Charming Texas Outlaws Who Robbed 85 Banks & Half a Dozen Trains

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The most successful outlaw gang in history hailed from the Texas Hill Country. The Newton Brothers, who called Uvalde County home, robbed banks and trains, but they were far from violent thugs. In fact, even bank tellers described them as charming and polite. “The Newton were all nice,” said famed Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson. “Those old bank robbers felt the money was all insured and they weren’t really hurting anyone. Even though they were bank robbers, they had morals. They believed certain that things were right and certain things were wrong.” The brothers’ exploits even led to a movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, and Dwight Yoakam.

newton brothers

Photo: drloihjournal.blogspot.com

The glory days of their outlaw career lasted from 1919 to 1924 and stretched across Texas and the Midwest. During that run, these good ol’ boys robbed over 85 banks and half a dozen trains—and they never killed anyone in the process. “No, we didn’t rob all the banks in Texas,” Willis Newton later noted as an old man. “We just robbed 30 or 40.”

The four Newton boys grew up in Uvalde County, the sons of a cotton farmer. Although the brothers grew up listening with rapt attention to the outlaw tales their mother told them, the real trouble didn’t start until Willis was falsely accused of a crime. Willis was 20 years-old when his brother Dock stole some cotton from a local gin and tried selling it to another. When local lawmen failed to apprehend Dock, they arrested Willis instead. Despite the slim evidence against him, Willis was sentenced to a year in prison, suffering the inhuman conditions of a Texas Prison Farm of that era.

Video: Joe Newton on the Johnny Carson Show, video courtesy of muddboss Youtube channel

Dock was soon a fellow prisoner, picking cotton alongside his brother. The pair made several attempts to escape, but each time they were caught and handed down even harsher sentences. Willis determined he’d make society pay for the injustice. Meanwhile, brothers Jess and Joe enjoyed the freedom of the cowboy life.

After being pardoned by Governor Colquitt and released from prison, Willis remained bitter over the brutality he’d endured. He determined to have his revenge. Willis held up a passenger train at Cline, Texas, getting away with $4,700, and so began his outlaw career. Six years later, he founded the Newton Gang with his three brothers and safecracker/explosives expert Brent Glasscock. They hit banks all over the Lone Star State and the Midwest, usually working by night and blowing safes with nitroglycerin. “We did it so often and so long,” Joe Newton later told the New York Times, “we kind of made a business out of it.”

newton brothers 2

Photo: drloihjournal.blogspot.com

Bank robbery was the family business, and business was good. The boys were even bold enough to knock over two banks in a single night in Hondo, Texas. On occasion, they would execute a daytime robbery, such as the 1922 bank job in New Braunfels. Bank workers and other witnesses to the daylight robberies invariably described the young outlaws as polite and careful to make everyone comfortable.

For a time, the Newtons lived the high life. Willis invested in oil wells, all of which went bust, and Dock and Jess played the horses and sampled the nightlife in Kansas City and Chicago. “Who wants a better job than what we already got?” Joe Newton once asked. “I need any money, I go out and rob another bank.”

THE NEWTON BOYS, Skeet Ulrich, Dwight Yoakim, Matthew McConaughey, 1998, TM & Copyright (c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

Photo: 3brothersfilm.com

The Newton boys pulled off the largest train robbery in history when they robbed a postal train carrying money from the Federal Reserve. The brothers took over $3 million from the heist. It wasn’t without cost, however. During the robbery gang member Glasscock mistook Dock Newton for an armed guard lurking in the dark. He shot Doc five times with .45 handgun. Dock survived, and the gang escaped, but the members were ultimately arrested with all but $100,000 recovered. While drunk, Jess Newton had buried a portion of that money northwest of San Antonio, then promptly forgot the location.

The sentences for Jess and Joe were light, since neither of them had records. They came back to their hometown of Uvalde and lived as honest citizens. Willis and Dock were sent to Leavenworth and served hard time. In the 1950s, Willis returned to Uvalde and lived a quiet life until he was suspected in a 1973 bank job in Brackettville, Texas. Willis wasn’t arrested, however, because the evidence was insufficient. Dock, on the other hand, was arrested for bank robbery in Rowena, Texas, in 1968. The arrest of the 77-year-old bank robber become national news. The charges were ultimately dropped in consideration of his old age.

Video: Trailer of The Newton Boys (1998) courtesy of Video Detective Youtube channel

WWI-veteran Jess Newton died in a VA hospital in 1960. Dock passed away when he was 83 years-old in 1974, having lived with complications from a beating he’d suffered during his final arrest. Willis lived to be 90 years-old, a small businessman in Uvalde. He passed away in 1979. Joe, the youngest of the Newton boys, died in 1989 at the age of 88. In 1998, director Richard Linklater made a movie about the brothers, starring Uvalde-native Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton.

“When I first begin to think of robbin’ banks,” Willis said in a 1970s documentary, “I never thought of hurtin’ anybody. And I knowed all them bankers was rich and they didn’t care about hurtin’ us poor farmers. So why should I care about hurtin’ them?” Willis looked directly into the camera, a fire in his eyes. “Why shouldn’t I steal from ’em? It’s just one thief a-stealin’ from another.”