The Newton family had eleven kids, four of whom would become some of history’s most successful bank and train robbers. As sharecroppers the family moved around, scratching out a living in the cotton fields of Texas. The boys’ mother read outlaw stories to her sons with such success that Willis, the eventual leader of the gang, claimed that he cried in 1902 when he heard that the outlaw Harry Tracy had committed suicide.
The boys grew up in Uvalde County, hating the backbreaking work on cotton farms. Their penchant for petty thievery kept them under the constant eye of local law enforcement. When Wylie (known as Doc) stole cotton from one gin and tried to sell it to another gin, Willis got blamed for the robbery and ended up serving his first prison term. Besides the brutal conditions of the Texas prison system, Willis hated the farm on which he served time because he was forced to pick cotton. Instead of blaming his brother Doc for letting him take the rap, Willis viewed the harsh prison conditions as evidence of injustice in the system. It was not long before Doc joined Willis in prison for robbing the post office of less than fifty dollars (probably stamps). For the next several years Willis and Doc moved in and out of prison. Their escape attempts led to harsher sentences, which resulted in the hardening of their attitude toward law enforcement.
While Willis and Doc stayed in constant trouble with the law, brothers Joe and Jess became cowboys working as ranch hands and bronc busters.
Willis graduated to robbing trains in 1914, taking $4,700 at gunpoint from passengers near Uvalde. Two years later he joined an Oklahoma gang that robbed a bank of over $10,000. When he went to prison the following year, he forged letters that secured a full pardon. Following several unsuccessful bank robberies with a group, Willis decided to organize his own gang known as “the Newton Boys.” The new organization included Doc who had made a successful jailbreak (his fifth), the two younger brothers Joe and Jess, and Brentwood Glasscock, an expert with high explosives and a skilled safecracker.
The gang began a campaign of bank and train robberies that spread from Texas up through the Midwest and as far north as Canada. They operated at night when banks and businesses were closed.
Willis bribed an insurance official with the Texas Association of Bankers to obtain a list of banks that had safes that were older models and more vulnerable to Glasscock’s use of nitroglycerin and dynamite caps. They usually cut the phone wires before a robbery, stationed two men at the door to keep townspeople at bay while the other members loaded the car with money, and then made a quick getaway. In Hondo, just down the road from Uvalde, they robbed two banks in one night. They kept their reputation for not killing their victims and were described by many bank employees as “extremely polite” and “making a real effort to ensure that everyone was comfortable.”
When they tried robbing pedestrian bank messengers in Toronto, Canada, at the height of the morning rush hour, the intended victims refused to give up their bags of cash. The resulting scuffle and gunfire wounded two messengers, ruined the gang’s reputation for nonviolence, and yielded $84,000 in Canadian money.
Willis and Glasscock made contacts in Chicago with underworld characters and used the connection to fence bonds and securities that were included in individual deposit boxes.
On June 12, 1924, they pulled off their last robbery, a mail train carrying money from the Federal Reserve in Illinois, which garnered the largest haul—$3 million—in U.S. history. It all began to unravel when Glasscock mistook Doc for a postal worker and shot him five times. Eventually, they were all arrested, and it was never clear how much of the money was recovered. There was a tale claiming that Jess was drunk when he buried $100,000 somewhere northwest of San Antonio, and despite years of digging, he was never able to find the location.
Jess was caught when he fell for a ruse created by Texas Ranger Harrison Hamer (brother of Frank Hamer who ambushed and killed Bonnie and Clyde in 1934). After the train robbery, Jess had gone into hiding across the Rio Grande from Del Rio. He came back across the border to participate in what he thought was a bronc ride at a Fourth of July rodeo. Hamer quickly arrested him. When they reached Chicago, the newspapers began calling the Newton Boys “colorful cowboys” because Jess was still wearing his rodeo outfit.
After all their escapades the gang received relatively light prison sentences for the robbery because no one was injured except one of their own, most of the money was recovered, and they testified against their accomplice, a postal inspector who had connections with the mob.
Jess returned to Uvalde and lived out his life as a cowboy, dying in 1960 at the age of seventy-three without remembering where he buried all that money. Joe, the youngest, renounced crime after he left prison, but was accused with Willis of an Oklahoma bank robbery that they did not commit. They served another ten years in prison. Joe finally returned to Uvalde, worked at odd jobs, took part in an interview with Willis that became a short documentary, and was interviewed by Johnny Carson in 1980 on The Tonight Show. He died in 1989 at the age of eighty-eight.
Doc was arrested in 1968 for bank robbery. Some accounts say he was never charged because of his old age, however, others say that he suffered a head injury while being arrested and served his entire prison term in a hospital. He died at age eighty-three in Uvalde in 1974.
Willis kept his criminal connections, operated nightclubs in Oklahoma and survived an assassination attempt before he returned to Uvalde. He was accused of a 1973 bank robbery in nearby Brackettville, but there was never enough evidence to arrest him. He and his wife farmed until his death at age ninety in 1979.
In 1998 Twentieth Century Fox Studio released “The Newton Boys,” starring Matthew McConaughey.