UNTIL A STAR-STUDDED FILM SHOT THEM BACK into the spotlight, the Newton Boys had faded from public memory. Famous during the twenties, the four brothers—Jess, Willis (below left), Doc, and Joe (right)—were part Western desperadoes, part newfangled gangsters. They pulled off dozens of bank and train robberies but, unlike more-notorious outlaws, never killed anyone. In 1973, half a century after their heyday, the aging Willis and Joe, longtime residents of Uvalde, met with writers Claude Stanush and David Middleton to chronicle the gang’s history in a documentary and memoir. It would have been a crime had their story gone untold.
In the great American tradition, the Newtons’ crime business was a family affair. Willis, born in 1889 and the sixth of eleven children, was the leader of the gang. At times numerous friends also joined in.
As they grew up, the Newton Boys progressed from stealing watermelons to bigger thefts: bales of cotton, store-bought clothes, firearms, and cold, hard cash.
They served time for offenses ranging from vagrancy to bootlegging. Twice after Willis was convicted of larceny, their mother successfully pleaded with governors O. B. Colquitt and William P. Hobby for a reduced sentence.
The gang robbed trains and banks in ten states and Canada, perfecting nocturnal burglaries before progressing to daylight heists. Their Texas targets included vaults in San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Boerne—and both banks in Hondo on the same night.
They blew open safes with nitroglycerin, never wore masks, and preferred to make their getaway in a Studebaker.
After a Toronto heist that yielded $80,000, they parked their car—still full of money bags—in a nearby garage and coolly went to a movie while lawmen scoured the surrounding streets.
Greed proved their undoing. In 1924 they held up a mail train in Rondout, Illinois, netting some $3 million and sparking an intensive manhunt. A badly injured Doc, accidentally shot by a new gang member during the robbery, prevented their escape. All four brothers landed in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.
Released by 1930, the Newtons eventually went straight—farming, pumping gas, even running a nightclub. Joe died in 1989 at age 88. He was the baby of the family and the last of the Newton Boys.