Growing up in rural West Texas during the early twentieth century, the four sons of Jim and Janetta Newton would have been expected to grow up to be cotton farmers or cattle ranchers. Instead, they became one of the most successful teams of professional bank and express-car robbers in the United States. Resembling railway baggage cars, express cars transported high-value freight and usually had armed guards. The Newton Boys’ career ended in 1924 with a spectacular express-car heist in Illinois that netted them an unbelievable three million dollars but ended with arrests and imprisonment.
Willis Newton had several early encounters with the law, and while incarcerated, he learned the fine art of blowing open safes with nitroglycerine. Once freed in 1919, he recruited his brothers Jess, Joe, and Doc to join in what became a family enterprise.
For the first two years, the gang typically undertook night burglaries of small-town banks. During the summertime, they traveled across the Great Plains and Midwest, sometimes crossing into Canada, casing potential banks. Willis claimed that it took only about five minutes to pour liquid nitro around a safe door and blow it off, so a carefully planned nighttime burglary required only about 15 minutes.
After doing their work, the four brothers typically returned to Texas to enjoy the proceeds of their efforts. After a profitable season in burglary, Willis remembered, “We come on down to San Antone for the winter, where we stayed at the St. Anthony Hotel most of the time.”
Even though the Newton Boys operated mostly outside the Lone Star State, occasionally they took advantage of opportunities closer to home. The first known Texas bank that they burglarized as a group was the Boerne State Bank, 30 miles north of San Antonio. The next Texas “bank job” was in the town of Hondo, where they broke into two the same night, having discovered that they didn’t have quite enough money to maintain the lifestyle they liked.
On August 25, 1921, the Newton Boys undertook the first of two unsuccess ful late summer train heists in Texas, planning the first—in Grayson County— to coincide with a registered mail ship- ment of bank notes from the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas. Finding only ordinary registered mail, the Newton Boys planned a follow-up job on a train between Bloomburg and Texarkana. “We want that black box containing money shipped from Shreveport,” barked one of the robbers. To their dismay, the box was not there. Years later, Willis grum bled, “We got a pretty good bunch of bonds and stuff, but we missed that box.”
The Newton brothers went on to rob banks in New Braunfels and San Marcos before committing the 1924 Illinois robbery that would take them to the Leavenworth federal penitentiary. On re-lease, they eventually returned to Uvalde, where they resided for the remainder of their lives. “Robbing banks is hard work,” Willis reflected late in his life. “There’s no fun to it. I never done it for the ex-citement. I done it only for the money.”
Newton Boys-related sites in Texas include Winters, San Marcos, New Braunfels, Uvalde, and San Antonio. See Gangster Tour of Texas for information, photos, and maps.