The following column, which first appeared on Page 4 of the Thursday, April 24, 2014, edition of the Uvalde Leader-News, is an excerpt from the introduction to G.R. Williamson’s published account of the late Willis Newton’s role in the Newton Gang. The book, “The Last Texas Outlaw,” is available for sale at major bookstores and online.
It was a damp, chilly morning in March of 1979 that I knocked on Willis Newton’s door in North Uvalde. A slight drizzle was falling on me while I waited for a response. I knocked again and called out his name. After a minute I heard a raspy growl, “It’s open. Come on in.”
Stepping inside the rundown clapboard house with the unkempt yard, I saw a small withered looking old man glaring at me from his rocking chair. “What the hell do you want?”
“Mr. Newton, I am the guy that called you yesterday and wanted to ask you some questions.”
“I ain’t talking to no one about my life. I’m going to sell that to Hollywood for a bunch of money.”
I knew then that doing an interview with the old outlaw was going to be a tough nut to crack. As best I could, I reminded him of our phone conversation on the previous day when I asked him to provide me with some details on how to rob a bank or a train. I told him I was writing a paperback novel (which was true) and that I needed some help in portraying a factual description of how the robberies took place (which was also true). After a few moments of consideration he gestured to a chair in the small living room and agreed to answer “just a few questions.”
In contrast to the chilly weather outside, it was hot and stuffy in his cluttered living room being heated by a small gas wall heater. I quickly unloaded my tape recorder and after a brief conversation with Willis, handed him the microphone. I asked him how to stage a bank hold up and what was involved in robbing a train. Then like turning on a wind-up toy, Willis essentially started telling me his life’s story. From time to time I managed to get in additional questions but for the most part he rattled off the well-practiced accounts of his life in machine gun fashion –rationalizing everything he had done, blaming others for his imprisonments, and repeatedly claiming that he had only stolen from “other thieves.”
I had no idea what to expect when I stepped into his little house that day but what I encountered was the quintessence of the criminal mind. Everything he had done was justified by outside forces, “Nobody ever give me nothing. All I ever got was hell!” As I listened in rapt attention he sat center stage speaking in a high-pitched raspy voice, pontificating on an assortment of subjects of his choosing. Lacing his speech with large quantities of profanities, vulgarities and racial slurs, Willis was quite articulate in telling his stories – a master of fractured grammar. At times he would slip into mythological story telling mode where he would talk of killing rabbits and camping out while on the run from lawmen. 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 “that they knowed I didn’t do.” He went into detail about his first bank holdup, how he “greased” a safe with nitroglycerine, robbed trains, and evaded the lawmen that came after him. Willis described the Texas bank robberies in Boerne, San Marcos, New Braunfels, and Hondo (two in one night). He also related the double bank robbery in Spencer, Indiana and proceeded to give accounts of bank robberies in a multitude of other states.
Eventually he recounted the events of the Toronto Bank Clearing House robbery in 1923 and finally the great train robbery outside of Rondout, Illinois, where he and his brothers got away with $3,000,000 in cash, jewelry, and bonds. He went into great detail about the beatings he and his brothers took from the Chicago police when they were later captured. As he told the story his face reddened and his voice rose to a pitched screech until he had to pause to catch his breath. Then lowering his voice he described how he managed to negotiate a crafty deal with a postal inspector for reduced prison sentences for himself and his brothers by revealing where the loot was hidden.
He told about his prison years at Leavenworth and his illegal businesses he ran in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after he got out of prison in 1929. He complained bitterly about being sent back to prison in McAlester, Oklahoma, for a bank robbery “they knowed I didn’t do,” in Medford.
After returning to Uvalde, Texas, following his release from prison, Willis swore that he “never had no trouble with the law after that.” When I asked him about his elderly brother’s botched bank robbery in Rowena, Texas, in 1968, he exploded, “They tried to get me as the get-away driver but hell, I was in Laredo, over 400 miles away! I had 12 witnesses that said I was there the night old Doc and R.C. got caught.”
At the end of the interview I asked him to comment on the Rondout loot buried in Texas by his brother, Jess. He said he knew where it was buried – just not exactly where because “Jess was whiskey-drunk when he hid it.” Looking at the frail aged man dressed in a frayed union suit and a pair of stained pants, Willis did not appear to have any loot left from any of his robberies; although, locally it was rumored that from time to time he would spend money that appeared to have been printed during the ’20s or ’30s.
Finally, I turned off the tape recorder and thanked him for helping me with the details I needed for my paperback Western. Returning to my car, my mind was awhirl with the stories I had just heard. The thought of writing a book on the old outlaw had never crossed my mind and I was very sincere in telling him I was a fiction writer and not a biographer. But what a story he told!
In a few instances I had to restructure his accounts for clarity. He spoke in a rapid fire jailhouse prose using a wide range of criminal jargon that sometimes was difficult to follow. Wherever possible I strove to retain his colorful phraseology, using the common expressions of the day.
In poring over hundreds of newspaper reports and magazine articles, I was struck with how much of the story varied with what Willis had told me, sometimes substantially. At the same time I found that the newspapers, in their rush to get their story out, misspelled names, got their facts wrong, under or over estimated dollar amounts of loot taken, and had a very difficult time keeping the Newton brothers’ names straight – Willis and Wylie (aka Willie or Doc) dealt them fits. Quotes from the actual newspapers used in this book reflect exactly what the public read with all the errors, inverted and confusing sentence structuring, and copious use of commas intact.
Then, as I was writing the book, I interviewed R.C. Talley. At 92, he still had a clear recollection of his involvement with Willis Newton and he provided a detailed account of the events of the bungled bank robbery in Rowena, Texas, in 1968.
Though Willis was in his mid-70s at the time, Mr. Talley described him as the mastermind of the heist. Then, when things went sour, he told how Willis left him and Doc Newton alone to face a violent shoot-out with the Ballinger police.
What follows is not a glorification of his criminal career but rather, the true story of the last Texas outlaw – Willis Newton.