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Willis Newton Interview – 1979
Willis Newton was the longest-lived Texas outlaw who robbed more than 80 banks and trains. He and his band of outlaws robbed more than Jesse James, the Daltons, and all the other outlaws of the Old West combined. Their biggest heist came 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 Uwald, Texas. A few months later, the robber died at the age of 90.
When I went up and knocked on Willis Newton’s door, there was no answer. A minute later I heard a hoarse roar, “Open. Come in.”
Entering a run-down clapboard house with an unkempt yard, I saw a small, wizened-looking old man staring at me from a rocking chair. – What the hell do you want?
“Mr. Newton, I’m the guy who called you yesterday and wanted to ask a few questions.”
“I don’t talk about my life with anyone. I’m going to sell it to Hollywood for a lot of money.’
I knew then that an interview with the old robber would be a tough nut to crack. As best I could, I reminded him of our telephone conversation the day before, when I asked him to tell me some details about how to rob a bank or a train. I told him I was writing a paperback novel (which was true) and that I needed help portraying a factual account of how the robberies took place (which was also true). After thinking for a few minutes, 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, his cluttered living room was hot and stuffy, heated by a small gas wall heater. I quickly unloaded my tape recorder and after a short conversation with Willis handed him the microphone. I asked him how to organize a bank robbery and what a train robbery was. Then, as if turning on a wind-up toy, Willis began to tell me the story of his life. From time to time I was able to get further questions, but for the most part, he would rattle off well-crafted accounts of his life in machine-gun fashion – rationalizing everything he did, blaming others for his incarceration, and repeatedly claiming that he only stole from “other thieves” .
I had no idea what to expect when I walked into his cabin that day, but what I encountered was the quintessential criminal mastermind. Everything he did was justified by external forces: “No one gives me anything. All I ever got was hell!” While I listened intently, he sat in the center of the stage and spoke in a high-pitched voice, musing on various topics of his choosing. Peppering his speech with profanity, profanity and racial slurs, Willis told his stories very clearly – a master of broken grammar. Sometimes he would go into a mythological narrative mode where he talked about killing rabbits and camping while running away from law enforcement. Then, with a little prodding, he would return to the basic facts of his story.
In the process, he told me how he was raised as a child and how he was first arrested for a crime “they knew I didn’t do.” He talked in detail about his first bank robbery, how he “lubricated” the safe with nitroglycerin, robbed trains and evaded the law enforcement officers who came after him. Willis described Texas bank robberies in Boerne, San Marcos, New Braunfels and Honda (two in one night). He also talked about a double bank robbery in Spencer, Indiana, and talked about bank robberies in many other states.
Eventually he talked about the Toronto Clearing House bank robbery in 1923 and finally the big train robbery outside Rondout, Illinois where he and his brothers got away with $3,000,000 in cash, jewelry and bonds. He spoke in great detail about the beating 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 dropped to a shrill screech until he had to pause to catch his breath. Then, lowering his voice, he told how he had managed to negotiate with the postal inspector for a reduced prison sentence for himself and his brothers by showing them where the booty was hidden.
He talked about his years in prison at Leavenworth and the illegal business he ran in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after he got out of prison in 1929. He complained bitterly about being sent to prison in McAlester, Oklahoma, for robbing a bank “they knew I didn’t do” in Medford.
Returning to Uvalde, Texas, after his release from prison, Willis swore he “never got in trouble with the law” after that. When I asked him about his older brother’s botched bank robbery in Rowena, Texas in 1968, he blurted out, “They tried to get me as a driver, but damn it, I was in Laredo, over 400 miles away! I had 12 witnesses who said I was there the night old Doc and RC were caught.”
At the end of the interview I asked him to comment on the Rondout find buried in Texas by his brother Jess. He said he knew where it was buried, but not exactly where because “Jess was drunk on whiskey when he hid it.” Looking at the frail elderly man, dressed in a tattered union suit and a pair of stained trousers, Willis didn’t appear to have any loot left from any of his robberies; although it was rumored locally that he occasionally spent money that appeared to have been printed in the 1920s and 1930s.
I finally turned off the tape recorder and thanked him for helping me with the parts I needed for my western paperback. Walking back to the car, my mind was reeling from the stories I had just heard. The thought of writing a book about an old robber had never occurred to me, and I told him very frankly that I was a fiction writer, not a biographer. But what a story he told!
The following week, I put the tapes in a safe, thinking the information might be useful for a future writing project. A few years later, I transcribed the notes, added my notes, and saved the interviews. Then, while working on another book, I came across the interview file and realized I had to write his story – but the full story, not just what Willis told me in the interview. As I found out, this is a much bigger project than I expected. I searched several hundred newspaper and magazine articles about Willis and his brothers, court records and police reports. Then, when I could, I interviewed the few people left who actually knew and had first-hand knowledge of Willis Newton.
Along the way, I found startling evidence that dispelled the myth that Willis and his brothers never killed anyone during their many crimes. This fact is revealed for the first time.
When I finished my research, I knew I could write his story. With a little editing, removing some blatant racial references and a lot of profanity, I tried to keep his words to me intact. I do not support racial slurs against any ethnicity of people – be it Irish, Jewish, Hispanic, African, Italian or other unrecognized populations.
On several occasions I had to restructure his accounts for clarity. He spoke in rapid prison prose, using a wide range of criminal jargon that was sometimes difficult to follow. As much as possible, I tried to preserve his colorful phraseology, using the expressions of the time.
In writing Willis Newton’s book, I missed most of his repeated self-justifications for his actions, in which he went to great lengths to paint himself as a gallant criminal – in the vein of Robin Hood. It is true that he robbed the rich, but he gave very little to the poor. In several of his stories, he did describe how he gave “hard money” (a silver coin) to some poor and downtrodden farmer who helped him. He also reiterated the idea that he never intended to harm anyone in the robberies; “All we wanted was money.” There is no doubt that Willis Newton was shaped and cemented by the difficult economic conditions in the Southwest in the late 1890s and early 20th century. But at the same time, there were hundreds of thousands of other people who were striving to work hard and become solid citizens of their communities. It was his choice to go after “easy money”.
Looking through hundreds of newspaper reports and magazine articles, I was struck by how much of the story differed from what Willis told me, sometimes significantly. At the same time, I noticed that newspapers rushing to get their story out there misspelled names, got the facts wrong, understated or overstated the loot, and struggled to keep the names of the Newton brothers accurate – Willis and Wiley (aka Willie or Doc) gave them seizures.
In the weeks before Willis Newton’s death, he was admitted to a hospital in Uwald, Texas, for evaluation of a variety of physical problems. After he had been there a few days, I went into his room and visited the old robber. I knocked on his door, and he weakly said, “Come in.”
When I entered his room, I saw a very haggard version of what I had seen in March of that year. Thin and covered in a crimson rash on his legs, Willis cocked his head to one side and asked, “Who are you?”
I politely reminded him that we had talked at his house before and that he had given me tips on robbing banks and trains. He nodded and stared at the ceiling, “Yes, I remember now.”
I told him I was sorry to see him sick and in pain. He responded by saying, “Yes, I’m going to the bar. The doctor says I’m crazy inside. I know I’m gone and I wish I could kill myself, but I can’t because I’m still I got it. Only crazy people kill themselves, but I’m not crazy.”
Realizing that his time was up, I asked him if he regretted anything he had done in his life. He tilted his head to the side and lifted his head from the pillow, looking at me. “Hell no,” he yelled at me. “I would still be doing these things, but my body started to fail me. If I were 20 years younger, I would be smuggling guns across the Mexican border and bringing drugs! Nobody ever gives me nothing but hell, and I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done!”
So much for repentance and redemption.
I didn’t know what to say and kept silent. After a moment he stared at the ceiling again and added, “The only thing I’m sorry about is that those cowards left $200,000 in the bank when they got scared. They said, “We’ve got $65,000 in bonds and we’re going to get out before we get caught.” Heck, we left $200,000 just sitting on the counter. Too bad, I told them I always wanted it all!”
The next day, they rushed Willis to a hospital in San Antonio, where he died on August 22, 1979. Fierce and defiant to the bitter end, he died as he had lived – as an outlaw.
During my interview with Willis in 1979, he spoke in great detail about his time in prison. Describing his first prison term, he said: “I was jailed for 22 months and 26 days and then sent to Rusk (Prison) for two years. Every son of a bitch knew I was innocent. They knew that I had not broken the law. !” Then over the years he spent over 20 years incarcerated in some type of penitentiary. I never had to ask him the question, was it worth it?
I guess the answer would be a resounding “Hell yes!”
Spending a fourth part of my 90-year-old life behind bars is hardly worth it to me.
Leaving Willis Newton’s hospital room for the last time, I saw his doctor, who was a personal friend of mine. I asked him about Willis’ condition and he confirmed what he had told me when he was dying. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he asked if I wanted to see an X-ray of Willis’ spine.
Of course, I had no idea what to expect.
We went into the next viewing room and he slapped the film on the lighted viewing board. There was a very distinct spot near the spine. “This is a German Luger slug that he carried for about 30 years. Some old man shot him in Oklahoma.”
While I was looking at the image, the doctor finished with the words, “And damned if that old rogue won’t be buried with her!”
I guess you could say it was a eulogy of sorts.
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