by Elaine Padgett Carnegie
The Story of the Newton Brothers of Uvalde Texas
It Was Just Business
Doc Willis Joe Jess
The Newton Boys Of Uvalde Texas
A sixteen-year-old boy broke his back picking cotton beside his Mama and Daddy and ten siblings in the hot West Texas sun the day the Banker, Mr. Pike showed up at their house in the first automobile that Willis Newton ever saw.
His industrious nature evident even then, he stopped to brush the sweat from his forehead, smiled his little crooked smile and ran to the fence to see that machine. He watched his family at that man's mercy. He turned the crank to start the contraption and felt its power all over his body. Their crop was pitiful, Willis knew his father planted the seed too shallow, but when he complained of it, he got a smart slap across his face. His father walked away and Willis went back to his picking cotton... two rows at a time.
Willis was one of eleven children of Jim Newton, a hardworking farmer known for his drinking and gambling. His son would later say, Jim Newton "was the best gin man in the country". Their mother, Janetta Pecos Anderson, read the boys stories of famous outlaws, and told Willis that if she had been a man, she would have been an outlaw too. Many people blame these childhood stories for the rogue behavior of the brothers, however, it may have just been the spirit passed from mother to son, enmeshed with the tendencies of the father... and the time in which they lived! 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 and train robbers and outlaws were heroes.
This was the world into which the Newton boys were born.” For years they watched their folks lose everything, barely subsist. Their mother said many times she should have been the man and their father the woman. She was not a person to be trifled with.
The Newton family was poor. The tenement farmers or sharecroppers of that time worked hard, back breaking labor for very little money. The boys began breaking into stores at a young age, within a short time their reputations grew and innocent or guilty, they spent a lot of time behind bars. 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.
Within two weeks, he had learned everything in the first-grade reader, and during that year, he passed second, third and fourth grade. By spring, his pants were worn out (despite his mother’s constant mending), and he quit school. “I was ashamed to wear those ravelly pants,” he recalled later. Willis (14 years old) came home from one of his forays on the Railroad. Jess was sitting out a $20.00 fine in jail, at .50 a day, and it disgusted Willis that the jailer guarding him was making $3.00 a day! It would be the way Willis, Jess, Doc, and Joe Newton thought about many things in their lifetime. They were all good looking, charming men, who lived by their own peculiar set of rules.
These hard headed Texas boys were raised in a time when Texas was having her own “growing pains,” and they had their own minds about what was right and what was wrong!
They were born at the crossroad between the old west's Billy the Kid and Jesse James and the tommy gun toting years of Prohibition, Al Capone and Baby Face Nelson. They weren't outlaws to their own way of thinking. They were evening the odds they'd been born with... by stealing from the thieves, stealing life from the people in the name of Capitalism.
In 1914, both Doc and Willis were in the state penitentiary, their parents had separated and a pardon was granted for Willis when his mother claimed she needed his support to keep the family alive. Willis was happy to offer his support to his mother, but not as she had hoped. Willis robbed a train! He was never caught or even suspected, but it was the real beginning and his family had plenty to eat.
Willis knew the countryside and he knew hundreds of people. He could live off the land and he had a keen and uncanny sense of impending danger. He was an ardent observer of everything around him. He spent time learning the ins and outs and by the time he got out of jail in 1919 felt he was ready to start his own outfit. 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 carrying his saddle! The next acquisition was an explosives expert named John Glasscock, then Doc grabbed a guard’s shotgun in Huntsville and forced him to release two or three hundred prisoners before he himself escaped on the guard’s horse. Doc, of course, was on his way to Tulsa; then Jess, who had been working for the father of Dolph Briscoe, joined the gang.
See, in 1919, the Newton brothers – Willis, “Doc,” Jess, and Joe, were serving time in different prisons for various crimes. Willis and Joe were released, and Willis soon convinced his brother that they should form their own gang. The next year, “Doc” escaped from a prison in Texas and quickly joined his brothers, who were then residing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Between 1919 and 1924, the Newton Gang would rob 87 banks and six trains, taking more loot than the Dalton boys, Butch Cassidy, and the James Gang, combined. Stretching all over the United States, the gang hit their home state of Texas, as well as Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, Illinois, Wisconsin, and even Canada.
Willis was definitely the ringleader! He was an enigmatic, brave, and extremely intelligent man. It was Willis who taught them to take everything valuable and nothing traceable. He used his connections to convert the valuables and he divided the take among the gang.
They drove new Studebakers, which they found to be cheap, tough, and fast, with dependable Goodyear tires. They traded in their cars twice a year to make sure they were in top condition. Jess was a fun-loving, charming, and irresponsible man, two years older than Willis, who earned a reputation as a horseman, and traveled with Booger Red’s Wild West show. Doc (whose real name was Wylie) was big, strong, and a fearless man with little common sense. Willis blamed a bite from a rabid wolf for Doc’s behavior. Joe, the baby of the family, was a good-hearted, friendly charmer who really just wanted to be a cowboy!
Thus, the Newton Boys became America's most successful bank robbers! Eighty-seven banks and six trains from Texas to Canada from 1919 to 1924 fell to them. The most remarkable thing about the Newton Boys, in my research, was the code they lived by. They never killed anyone or robbed women or children. They thought it was okay to rob banks because they were not taking the people's money. The banks were insured, and the insurance companies and banks, in the minds of the Newton Boys, were the biggest criminals of all! In the winter is when the Newton Boys worked. It was a bitter winter night when a blue northern was blowing into town that the Newton Boys hit Boerne, TX. They robbed the bank, gave the night watchman a ride out of town, and deposited him in the hills with a blanket. They blew through Hondo robbing two banks in one night before stopping in San Antonio.
They were never caught for those robberies but lived to tell the stories. They liked to "work” at night, however, when they did commit robberies during the day. Their victims described them as polite, going out of their way to make sure that people were comfortable and not too upset, saying they would never hurt anyone; and they never did.
The Newton brothers were never even suspected until their final robbery, which brought down the combined forces of several law enforcement agencies. Three million dollars was stolen, and it was the largest train robbery in history! Doc was wounded, they were caught, and all four spent time at the Federal Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. The long ride was over; publicity prevented them from bribing their way to freedom. Jess, who charmed the press and the jury during his trial, received a one-year sentence and served only nine months. Even the engineer of the robbed train gave sympathetic testimony at the trial. He said that when Jess approached him to stop the train, Jess smiled at him and said, "Isn’t this a hell of a way to make a living?"
The career take is said to be more money than the Dalton Gang, Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch and the James-Younger Gang combined! Willis stated, "We wasn't thugs like Bonnie and Clyde... we was just quiet businessmen, all we wanted was the money, just like doctors, lawyers and other businessmen. Robbing banks and trains was our way of getting it. That was our business."
Jess settled into ranch work and died of lung cancer at the age of 73 on March 4, 1960, in the VA hospital. Jess had been a member of the Texas Brigade in WWI. Everyone loved Joe universally and he became a community icon, the owner of a cafe and other small businesses in Uvalde, an avid horseman into his 80s, the youngest brother Joe Newton died at age 88 on February 3, 1989 in Uvalde, TX. Doc got caught robbing a bank at age 77 and was brutally beaten. He never fully recovered but lived another 6 years and died at 83 years of age in 1974!
Willis lived to 90, fierce and unrepentant to the end. It is generally thought that Willis remained a case man almost till his death of old age on August 22, 1979. Raw, colorful characters, they lived long and vigorous lives, Doc and Willis remained outlaws to their end... hard headed Texas boys with their own minds about what was right and what was wrong! It was just business...
Doc Willis Jes Joe