by Elaine Padgett Carnegie
It Was Just Business
The Story of the Newton Brothers of Uvalde Texas
Doc Willis Jes Joe
Time is a fickle thing. At the moment between the generations of Jesse James and Billy the Kid and their more modern counterparts Al Capone and Baby Face Nelson, the State of Texas teetered back and forth between the old ways and the roaring ’20s!
Into that moment eleven children had been born to Jim and Janetta Pecos Anderson Newton. Janetta was a widow and had a young son, Jim Johnson, whose father had been a buffalo hunter. Their children together, Ivy, Bud, Henry, Dolly, Jess, Willis, Wylie ("Doc"), Bill, Tull, Ila, and Joe, were sent to work in the cotton fields as soon as they were old enough to wield a hoe. Willis didn’t mind the work and did it well, although he and his father did not get along, even in the early years.
Janetta was not a woman to be trifled with and as she read exciting stories of outlaw escapades to her young children by lamplight, she told them if she had been a man, she would’ve been an outlaw. Later, when Jim Newton was unsuccessful at almost everything he ever put his hand to, Janetta told them she should have been the man and Jim the woman.
Young brother Billy wandered away and got lost in 1935 and died. It was eight months before they found his body. Tull was wounded in WWI and sister Ivy died while giving birth, she had contracted measles. Henry died at sixteen from a rheumatoid condition that affected his heart. The family lost four children altogether and the great adventurous spirit of Janetta went with them. She ceased reading outlaw stories to her children and only read bible verses.
The boys at 13 and 14 years old began working in outside cotton fields and gins and on farms. They’d travel as stowaways on trains and had mighty stories to tell of those days, running from brakemen and riding underneath the trains. They had inherited their mother’s ferocious spirit and their father’s wanderlust when Texas had her own growing pains.
Marjorie Hagy wrote, “It was a time in the adolescence of Texas, a dusty, hard-scrabble time when the state was young and tough and feeling its oats, and bank robbers, train robbers, and outlaws were heroes.”
This was the world in which the Newton boys became men. They grew up watching their folks struggle, going hungry without adequate clothing or shelter. Barely making it from one season to another and losing those they loved. Tenement farmers or sharecroppers of that time worked hard, back-breaking labor for very little money. The boys began supplementing (stealing) their income at a young age and soon, guilty, or not... they were blamed.
When Willis was twelve years old, he wanted to learn to read. He walked two miles to school each morning and hid at lunch so no one would know he did not have food. He had no shoes, but his mother had made him a shirt and some pants, and a neighbor had given him a coat.
He learned everything in the first-grade reader in two weeks. During that one year, he flew through the second, third, and fourth grades. He never went back, his pants were worn out (despite his mother’s mending), and he quit school. “I was ashamed to wear those ravelly pants,” he recalled later.
A bright and industrious boy, Willis picked cotton with his Mama and Daddy and ten siblings in the hot West Texas sun the day Mr. Pike showed up at their house in the first automobile that Willis Newton ever saw. He was the Banker in town, and Jim Newton owed a debt for seed and supplies.
Willis ran to the fence excited to see that machine, but his feelings soon changed as he watched his family at that man's mercy. His Pa told Mr. Pike they would leave after this season. The Banker asked Willis to turn the crank for him and he didn’t want to, but at a look from his Ma, he turned the crank and felt the vehicle’s power all over his body. He never forgot that. He was 13 years old.
He called his Pa, a “cyclone farmer” because he drug them everywhere. He took cotton the boys planted, raised, baled, and intended to sell to give their mother for Christmas money. He used it to pay a debt and their mother cried. Willis said he stole their Ma’s money, and that was that. Willis was fond of saying the neighbors thought his father was a good man... but he (Willis) couldn’t tell good for what.
In 1914, both Doc and Willis were in the state penitentiary, their parents had separated, and they pardoned Willis when his mother claimed she needed his support to keep the family alive. Willis was happy to offer his support, but not as his mother had hoped. Willis robbed a train! They never caught or even suspected him, but it was the actual beginning and his family had plenty to eat after that.
Willis knew the countryside, and he knew hundreds of people. He was an ardent observer of everything around him. The next time he served jail time in 1919, it was for something that he didn't do. Poor Doc got him into that, and Willis was innocent, but no one would listen. He spent his time in prison learning the ins and outs of several trades, legal and illegal. When he got out, utterly disgusted with the law he considered unjust, he had decided what to do about it.
What Willis Newton really hated was the inequality. He was brilliant and yet, served as much jail time for things he did not do as for things he did. The law was unfair, and Willis decided it was time to take matters into his own hands.
He wanted people he could trust. He wanted his brothers. Willis knew Joe would be a hard sell, so he wrote a letter telling Joe he had found him a job in Tulsa. Joe arrived at the station carrying his saddle! The next acquisition was an explosives expert named John Glascock, then Doc broke out of jail and got away on a guard’s horse. He went straight to Tulsa; then Jess, who had been working for the father of Dolph Briscoe, joined the gang.
They were all good-looking, charming men, who lived by their own peculiar set of rules. These hard-headed Texas boys had their own minds about what was right and what was wrong! Willis Newton didn’t think of himself or his brothers as outlaws. They were evening the odds they'd been born with... This was their business. “The banks are insured, and everybody knows insurance companies are the biggest thieves of all. We weren’t stealing from the people. It was just one thief stealing from another,” he told reporters years later.
Beginning in 1919 and keeping tally through 1924, the Newton Gang robbed 87 banks and six trains. Some say, their career take was greater than the Daltons, Butch Cassidy, and the James Gang combined. They robbed banks in many states from Texas to Oklahoma and Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and even Canada.
Willis was the ringleader. Fearless and intelligent, it was Willis who taught them to take the valuables and nothing traceable. He used his connections to convert the valuables, and he divided the take equally. The most remarkable thing about the Newton Boys was the code they lived by. They never killed anyone or robbed women or children. Willis believed it was acceptable to rob banks because they were not taking the people's money.
They were young wealthy men, enjoying the best money could buy. They drove new Studebakers, which they found to be cheap, tough, and fast. They used dependable Goodyear tires and traded in their cars twice a year to make sure they were in top condition.
Jess was charming and irresponsible, two years older than Willis. He was a horseman and traveled with Booger Red’s Wild West show. Doc (whose real name was Wylie) was bitten by a rabid wolf when he was young. Willis blamed that sickness for Doc’s bad behavior. He was a big man, fearless and not very smart. Joe Newton was the baby of the family. A good-hearted, good-looking and friendly young man who just wanted to be a cowboy.
Thus, the Newton Boys became the Gentleman Robbers of Texas. Texas is fabled for her outlaws, from John Wesley Hardin to Bonnie and Clyde. But the Newton Gang were the least notorious and most successful of them all. In fact, they were America's most successful bank robbers and responsible for the largest train robbery in history!
Winter is when the Newton Boys worked. The night they hit Boerne, Texas, it was a bitterly cold night. A blue northern was blowing into town and they robbed the bank, gave the night watchman a ride out of town, and deposited him in the hills with a blanket. They robbed a bank in Hondo, Texas and when no one showed up or came to see what was going on, they stopped and robbed the second bank on the other end of town.
They were never caught for those robberies and the brothers lived to tell their stories. They liked to “work” at night, however, when they committed robberies during the day. Their victims described them as polite, making people comfortable and saying they wouldn’t hurt anyone; and they never did.
Their last robbery, which brought down the combined forces of several law enforcement agencies, they got away with three million dollars, the largest train robbery in history! In an accident that night, Doc was shot by one of their own gang. They wouldn’t leave him, and they were caught. All four spent time at the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, and the long ride was over. Publicity prevented them from bribing their way to freedom as they always did before.
Jess, who charmed the press and the jury during his trial, received a one-year sentence and served only nine months. The engineer of the robbed train gave sympathetic testimony at the trial. He said that when Jess approached him to stop the train, he smiled at him and said, “Isn’t this a hell of a way to make a living?”
They lived and worked after their “career” came to a screeching halt, mostly in Uvalde, Texas. They were well known and liked. Hard-working men for most of the rest of their days.
Jess died of lung cancer at 73, in the VA hospital. He had been working for a ranch. Joe was loved equally by all who knew him. He was the owner of a café in Uvalde, Texas. He owned other small businesses in town and remained a horse-lover and horseman well into his 80s. He died at age 88 in Uvalde, TX.
Doc got caught robbing a bank at age 77. He resisted and was severely beaten. He lived six more years, though he never fully recovered from the beating and died at 83. Willis lived to be 90 years old. He was a strong man with a colorful character, and he was unrepentant to the end. Most sources believe Willis remained a case man till the day he died. A peaceful death of old age on August 22, 1979.
In a 1975 documentary, Willis said with a straight face directly into the camera, “Jes' like doctors and lawyers and everybody else, it was our business.” They were men of their time, produced by the raw, impoverished days of Texas before cattle and oil empires. They were strong, rugged, and spirited... hard-headed Texas boys with their own minds about what was right and what was wrong!
It was just business...