How To Get Money As A 14 Year Old Boy Willis Newton’s First Bank Hold-Up – 1916

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Willis Newton’s First Bank Hold-Up – 1916

In 1916, vast swathes of rural Texas and Oklahoma still resembled the wild days of the Old West.. Bass himself was shot and killed in a bank robbery in Round Rock, Texas, 38 years earlier. Jesse James was only buried for 34 years. Thomas E. Ketchum (Black Jack Ketchum) was hanged in 1901 for an attempted train robbery. Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (Sundance Kid) were allegedly killed by the Bolivian police in 1908. Frank James had died the year before (1915), spending his last days touring James for 25 cents. ‘ farm in Missouri. All the Dalton brothers disappeared except Emmett Dalton, who survived 23 gunshot wounds in an ill-fated double bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas, in 1892. He served 14 years in a Kansas prison, then moved to California where he became a real agent for real estate, story, writer and western actor. He died in 1937 at the age of 66.

Little did Willis know at the time of the bank robbery that he would rob more banks and trains in his lifetime than all his predecessors combined. He and his brothers still hold the record for the most money stolen in train robberies in US history. According to Willis, he was “just trying to learn the ropes” at the Boswell prison.

In Durant, Oklahoma, Willis encountered a loose group of bank robbers. One of them asked him if he wanted to work in a bank. “Hell yeah,” Willis told them, and he was introduced to the two men he would be working with on the Boswell robbery.

In his last interview in 1979, he described his first bank arrest.

“One was a tall, slender boy named Charlie Rankins and the other guy – I don’t remember his name but he had a face full of scars, probably small pox or something. They had horses, and we planned the Boswell Bank business; it was about 15 or 20 miles this side of the Hugo.

“The bank was the last building in town when you left, nothing but bushes after that. They had trees there you could tie horses to. Well, that’s what we did; we went to Boswell’s one day and tied horses in the bank. There I no one knew so I went in and acted like I was getting change. Charlie and another guy came in while I was talking to the teller. I lunged at him and yelled for everyone to get up pat because we were robbing a bank.’

“While I was holding the front, Charlie and another guy ran around the back and started robbing the money. Charlie took all the money out of the safe and the other guy cleaned out the cash drawers. It came to $10,000. We told everyone to stay put or we’d blow their damned heads off. Then we untied our horses as big as you like and galloped off slowly into the bushes. No one came out from the bank when we looked back.

“We started across the South Boggy River and followed the river to just outside Hugo’s where we split the money. I give them a horse and a saddle and say, ‘You boys, go, and I’ll go to Hugo tonight and catch the train from here. I realized that they weren’t looking for anyone to catch the train, they were looking for three men on horseback. I knew that the passenger train left sometime after 10 o’clock, so I stayed there in the bushes until it got dark.

“They took all the hard money (silver) and gave me greenbacks (cash) for mine, so I put it around my waist and folded it in my pocket. When I put my coat on you couldn’t tell I had it in my pockets or anything. Just before 10 o’clock I went in there and bought a ticket to Ardmore, smooth as you like. It was clear that I sailed after I got to Ardmore.”

About a month after the Boswell robbery, Charlie Ranking was arrested when they found a quantity of silver dollars in rolls of paper bearing the name of the bank. When Willis found out that his friend was in prison, he came up with a plan to break into the prison and see if he needed help. He knew a man in Hugo who was a pigeon in prison. Visiting the man, he boasted that there appeared to be several easy banks in the area that “needed to be knocked down.”

The man immediately went to the police and reported his conversation with Willis.

“When I went down to the depot that night to catch the train, the law was on my side. They grabbed me and put me in jail, which I wanted. Then I had to talk to Charlie and I said, “You want me to help you? I can come in and kick you out if you want.”

“Hell no,” he said. “I don’t think they have much on me, not enough to put me in jail. They’ll be sentencing me in three weeks.”

“They kept me in jail for three or four days and they just wouldn’t let me go. They could keep you in jail as long as they wanted in those days. Finally, I had to go get a lawyer and pay them $250. I later found out that Charlie was sent to prison in McAlester for 25 years. I never saw him again.

“My cut of the robbery was exactly about $4,000, but I didn’t have it with me when I got back to Hugo. I came to San Antonio and put six or seven hundred in the bank and I give them a check from the attorney at the San Antonio bank to pay me draw. Well, about two months after that I went to San Antonio to withdraw the rest of my money and the law was waiting for me. I wrote a check to get my money and this teller says, ‘Well, wait here a little bit.’ He took it and went back there and I saw him talking to somebody and I knew he was going to arrest me So I just left and went to Uvalde and gave the little lawyer a check for all my money and he went up the next day and got it. I never knew what they wanted to arrest me for, but that’s what they intended to do. They arrested you for nothing in those days. They would do whatever they wanted to you.

“The bank in Boswell was the first day job I ever worked for money. But I didn’t hesitate. Hell, if you hesitate, you get in trouble. If you do anything like that, you better do it. I always told them, ‘Come on, boys.’ , and I took the lead and we never stopped for nothing. A bank robbery in Winters, Texas, with Frank, the old bank robber, was my first night’s work. We never got but $3,500 in Liberty bonds out of there, and they killed that old boy over there by the car. So I never got any of that. He had bonds in his hip pocket, the one that was killed.”

Willis’ version of his first bank holdup mentions a failed nighttime robbery in Winters, Texas, where he and three others broke into a bank at midnight. Frank, his friend, is told that Winters Bank has a vault that they can blow up with nitroglycerin. His source was a Bankers’ Guild detective named Boyd, who wanted a share of the spoils. As it turned out after they blew up the vault door, the money was stored in a round safe that they couldn’t open. After ransacking the vault, they finally left with $3,500 in Liberty bonds.

Back in Abilene, a third man named Al was driving an early model Hudson when the car got stuck in sand and the clutch burned out near Buffalo Gap, Texas. They abandoned the car and hid in the hills until the next night when they entered Buffalo Gap. Just as they approached the city, a car full of policemen passed them on the road. When the car stopped and turned around, Willis and his friend, Slim Edgarton, ran for the brush while Frank and Al stood their ground and fired at the officers in the car. After a barrage of blows, Al hit his chest and fell. Frank then took off in another direction into the bushes. A man named Al was wearing shackles when he was shot and killed.

Willis managed to escape, but was later captured with his friend Red, near Sweetwater. They were locked up in Ballinger with Slim Edgarton, who had been captured earlier. After bribing the sheriff’s wife, the trio managed to break out of the jail in the middle of the night and escape.

Repeating the pattern he used throughout his career, Willis returned to San Antonio after the Boswell job, then headed for the family place in Uvalde. In 1916 he was still “learning the ropes” of the outlaw life, while, with the exception of his brothers Jess and “Doc”, the rest of the family were engaged in honest work as ranchmen or hard stokers, known in the West. Texas as “Cyclone Farmers.”

Later, Willis and some brothers went on to form the Newton Gang which robbed over 80 banks in Texas, the Midwest and Canada during the early 1920s.

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