Ninety-five years ago this month, a gang of four brothers from Uvalde pulled off the largest train robbery in U.S. history. In a brilliantly conceived plan, Willis Newton and an accomplice named Brent Glasscock hid in the coal tender of a mail train outbound from Chicago. Some 30 miles north of the city the men forced the locomotive’s crew to stop at a crossing at Rondout, Illinois, where Willie “Doc” Newton and others sprayed the mail cars with gunfire and tossed in tear gas grenades. When the guards threw down their weapons, the Newtons drove away with $3 million in Federal Reserve currency.
Limped away might be a better description. In the dash for the getaway car, Glasscock panicked and pumped five rounds from his .45-caliber pistol into Doc’s chest, after mistaking him for an officer. The gang carried Doc to a hideout in Chicago where his wounds festered with gangrene. The summons of a doctor led to a round-up of the participants and the recovery of all but about $100,000 of the loot.
After a sensational trial that revealed the involvement of a U.S. postal inspector named William Fahy and a wealthy political leader by the name of James Murray, the brothers were marched off to Leavenworth. Willis and Doc were handed 12 years apiece. Joe earned three years, while the baby of the family, Jess, copped a year and a day.
The train heist and larger Newton story were the subject of a spread that appeared in “Life” magazine on April 19, 1968. Written by David Snell, who brought his 8-year-old son Mark with him to Uvalde to interview the now-aging outlaws, the story delivers a gritty, sometimes humorous picture of the thieves and the locals who knew them.
Talking to the law
Naturally Snell talked first to the local law, which included police chief Vance Chisum, Texas Ranger Joaquin Jackson and 38th Judicial District attorney Bob Crawford. The men are now gone, but they were very much alive when I moved to Uvalde in 1982.
At the time of the interview, they were well versed in Newton lore but happy to report that they had not had to transact any “official business” with the notorious brothers. This despite the fact that Doc had been arrested and then beaten by lawmen only months earlier while attempting to stick up the bank in Rowena.
“They were hard men all right, clean-through hard, and they still are,” the legendary, 6-foot-6-inch Jackson told the man from Life. “These youngsters today who think they are tough are nothing compared to these old fellows. If they were, we’d have to do a mighty lot of gun fighting.”
Snell got a first-hand taste of the hard-bitten outlaws when he landed at the front door of Willis’ tiny, clapboard house in North Uvalde. The 80-year-old, “buzzard-bald” bandit summoned the writer inside and proceeded to offer up a harangue that was 50 percent expletives, especially when the subject of Bonnie Parker and her “sissified” boyfriend Clyde Barrow came up.
“‘Now just imagine,’ he said, looking for a place to spit, ‘imagine making that ……… movie and all this to-do about them …….. miserable ….. good-for-nothin’ pair of …. little ………s!’”
When Snell inquired about Doc, Willis ushered the visitor into a nearby room where the 76-year-old lay sprawled on the bed, complaining bitterly about the recent thrashing inflicted by the Runnels County sheriff.
“‘Oh, the miserable things they done me,’ he said, his flinty right eye measuring the effect of the words on the listener. ‘Oh, Lordy, the terrible times I’ve seen on this earth and now they have gone and busted my head.’”
“What I noticed, as we talked, was that he was in bed with his outdoor clothes on, right down to the shoes, against what I surmised to be the habitual possible need to take off for some other place in an awful hurry,” Snell wrote in the Life piece.
Advice for a boy
When Snell noticed that his son, who had grown antsy waiting in the car, had approached the house, he waved the boy to the front porch and asked Willis if he had any parting advice for the kid.
“‘Yeah, I got some,’ said the once-leader of the Newton gang, spearing the child with as ferocious a glare as I have ever seen. ‘The whole trouble with this world is all these ……. laws, and that is a plain fack.’”
At the time of Snell’s interview, Jess Newton had been dead for eight years. With his passing went the location of $100,000 from the Rondout heist that he had hidden beside the road north of San Antonio. Drunk at the time, Jess never could recall where he had buried the stash.
Doc, who never fully recovered from the beating, not to mention the five slugs fired into his chest at Rondout, died in 1974 at age 83. Willis, fierce and unrepentant to the end, lived to be 90. The last brother, Joe, who became a respectable cattle man about town, passed in 1989 at the age of 88.
It was Joe who was left to elaborate on and sometimes defend his brothers’ wild ride through lawlessness. In a interview on “The Tonight Show” in January of 1980, Johnny Carson asked if the brothers had lived large after robbing 40 banks in four years.
“We stayed in the best hotels, ate the best cafes and drove the best cars there was them days,” Joe said.
“Lot of women?” Carson quipped.
“You got a good car, a pot full of money and you’re a young man … yeah,” Joe chuckled.
The 1968 Life magazine was given to me by Ralph Hernandez of Uvalde who worked for Joe Newton’s son, also Joe, for 20 years. The magazine was among the keepsakes that were in the younger Newton’s house on North Getty Street when he died March 14 at the age of 91.
Ralph said he never met the old man but heard plenty of stories from his son.
“Joe said his father and uncles had gotten together and were reminiscing about their robberies and that they lost count at 60,” Ralph said.