I Caught My 13 Year Old Son With Another Boy Willis Newton Interview – 1979

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Willis Newton Interview – 1979

Willis Newton was the longest living Texas outlaw who robbed more than 80 banks and trains. He and his band of outlaws have robbed more than Jessie James, the Daltons, and all the other outlaws of the Old West put together. The largest raid occurred in 1924 when they robbed a train outside of Rondout, Illinois and made off with $3,000,000. They still hold the record for the biggest train robbery in US history.

In 1979 I interviewed Willis Newton at his home in Uvalde, Texas. A few months later, the outlaw died at the age of 90.

When I went over and knocked on Willis Newton’s door, there was no answer. After a minute I heard a husky growl, “It’s open. Come in.”

Walking into a dilapidated clapboard house with a unkempt yard, I saw a small, withered old man glaring at me from his rocking chair. “What the hell do you want?”

“Mr. Newton, I’m the guy who called you yesterday and wanted to ask you some questions.”

“I don’t talk to anyone about my life. I’ll sell it to Hollywood for a lot of money.”

I knew then that interviewing the old outlaw would be a tough nut to crack. As best I could, I reminded him of our phone conversation the day before when I asked him to give me 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 help presenting a factual account of how the robberies occurred (which was also true). After a few moments of thought, he pointed to a chair in the small living room and agreed to answer “just a few questions.”

In contrast to the cool weather outside, it was hot and stuffy in his overstuffed living room – heated by a small gas wall heater. I quickly took out the tape recorder and after a short conversation with Willis, handed him the microphone. I asked him how to stage a bank blockade and what was involved in a train robbery. Then, like turning on a wind-up toy, he began to tell me his life story. From time to time I managed to get in follow-up questions, but he mostly dismissed well-rehearsed accounts of his life in machine-gun fashion, rationalizing everything he did, blaming others for his prison terms, and repeatedly claiming that he only stole from ” other thieves”.

I had no idea what to expect when I walked into his little house that day, but what I encountered was the quintessence of a criminal mind. Everything he did was justified by outside forces: “No one ever gave me anything. All I ever got was hell!” As I listened with rapt attention, he sat center stage and spoke in a high raspy voice, pontificating on a variety of topics of his choosing. Interspersing his speech with copious amounts of profanity, profanity and racial slurs, Willis was quite articulate in telling his stories – a master of fractured grammar. Every now and then he would slip into a mythological mode of storytelling where he would talk about killing rabbits and going camping while on the run from the law. Then, with a little prompting, he would return to the basic facts of his story.

In doing so, he told me how he was raised as a child and how he was first arrested for a crime “they knew I didn’t do.” He described in detail his first bank robbery, how he “greased” the safe with nitroglycerin, robbed trains and eluded the police who were following him. Willis described Texas bank robberies in Boerne, San Marcos, New Braunfels and Hondo (two in one night). He also covered a double bank robbery in Spencer, Indiana, and went on to report on bank robberies in numerous other states.

Finally, he recounted the events of the 1923 Toronto clearing house robbery and finally the great train robbery outside Rondout, Illinois, where he and his brothers made off with $3,000,000 in cash, jewelry and bonds. He went into detail about the beatings he and his brothers took from the Chicago police when they were later caught. As he told the story, his face reddened and his voice rose to a high-pitched scream until he had to stop to catch his breath. Then, lowering his voice, he described how he had managed to negotiate a cunning deal with the postal inspector to reduce the prison sentences for himself and his brothers by revealing where the loot was hidden.

He talked about his prison years in Leavenworth and his illegal business in Tulsa, Oklahoma, after he got out of prison in 1929. He bitterly complained that he was sent back to prison in McAlester, Oklahoma, for robbing a bank “they knew he didn’t did,” in Medford.

After returning to Uvalde, Texas, after his release from prison, Willis vowed he “never got in trouble with the law after that.” When I asked him about his older brother’s botched bank robbery in Rowena, Texas in 1968, he exploded, “They tried to get me as the getaway driver, but hell, I was in Laredo, over 400 miles away! I had 12 witnesses who said I was there the night old Doc and RC were caught.”

At the end of the interview, I asked him to comment on the loot in Rondout that his brother Jess had buried in Texas. He said he knew where it was buried – just not where exactly because “Jess was drunk on whiskey when he hid it.” Looking a frail elderly man dressed in a tattered union suit and a pair of stained trousers, Willis didn’t look like he’d fallen prey to any of his robberies; although it was rumored locally that he would occasionally 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 soft western. Walking back to my car, my mind was reeling from the stories I had just heard. The thought of writing a book about the old outlaw had never crossed my mind and I was very honest in telling him that I was a writer of fiction, not a biographer. But what a story he told!

The following week I put the tapes in a safe thinking the information might be useful for a future writing project. A few years later, I transcribed the tapes, added my notes, and archived the interview. Then, while working on the second book, I came across the interview file and knew I had to write his story – but the whole story, not just what Willis told me in the interview. As I found out, this was a much bigger project than I expected. I found several hundred newspaper and magazine articles about Willis and his brothers, court records and police reports. Then, where I could, I interviewed the few remaining people who actually knew and had first-hand knowledge of Willis Newton.

Along the way, I dug up some startling evidence that dispelled the myth that Willis and his brothers never killed anyone in the commission of their many crimes. This is the first time this fact has been brought to light.

When I finished my research, I knew I could write his story. With some minor editing, cutting out some of the obvious racial references and plenty of profanity, I tried to keep his words to me intact. I do not support derogatory racial terms about any ethnicity of people – be they Irish, Jewish, Hispanic, African, Italian, or other outmoded groups.

In a few cases I had to restructure his accounts for clarity. He spoke in rapid prison prose using a wide range of criminal jargon that was sometimes difficult to follow. Wherever possible I have tried to retain his vivid phraseology, using the common expressions of the day.

In writing Willis Newton’s book, I left out most of his repeated self-justifications for his actions in which he went to great lengths to paint himself as a gallant criminal – in the vein of Robin Hood. It is true that he robbed from the rich, but gave very little to the poor. In several of his reports, he described giving “hard money” (silver coins) to a poor and downtrodden farmer who helped him. In addition, he reiterated the idea that he never intended to harm anyone in the robberies; “all we wanted was money.” There is no doubt that Willis Newton was shaped and marked by the harsh economic conditions of the Southwest in the late 1890s and early twentieth century. Yet at the same time, there were hundreds of thousands of other people who sought to work hard and become solid citizens of their communities. His choice was to go after “easy money”.

Looking through hundreds of news reports and magazine articles, I was amazed at how different the story was from what Willis told me, sometimes significantly. At the same time I discovered that the papers, in their haste to publish their story, misspelled names, got their facts wrong, under or over the estimated dollar amounts of the loot, and had a very hard time keeping the names of the Newton brothers right. -Willis and Wylie (aka Willie or Doc) were giving them fits.

A few weeks before Willis Newton died, he was admitted to a hospital in Uvalde, Texas, to be tested for a variety of physical problems. After he had been there a few days, I went by his room and visited the old outlaw. I knocked on his door and he managed a weak, “Come in.”

When I entered his room, I saw a very emaciated version of what I had seen in March of that year. Thin and covered in crimson rashes on his legs, Willis cocked his head to the side and asked, “Who are you?”

I politely reminded him that we had spoken earlier at his house and that he had given me advice on robbing banks and trains. He nodded and stared at the ceiling, “Yes, I remember now.”

I told him I was sorry to see him sore and in pain. He responded by saying, “Yes, I’m going to the bar. The doctor says I’m gone crazy. I know I’m gone and I wish I could kill myself, but I can’t, because it’s still only crazy people kill themselves, but I’m not crazy.”

Realizing that his time was up, I asked him if he regretted anything he had done in his life. He tilted his head to the side and raised his head from the pillow to glare at me. “Hell no,” he screamed at me. “I’d still do those things, but my body played tricks on me. If I was 20 years younger, I’d be driving guns across the border into Mexico and bringing drugs back! Nobody’s ever given me anything but hell and I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done! “

So much for contrition and redemption.

I did not know how to answer and remained silent. After a moment, he stared at the ceiling again and added, “My only regret is that those cowards left $200,000 in the bank when they got scared. They said, ‘We’ve got $65,000 in bonds and we’re getting out before they catch us.’ Hell, we left $200,000 just sitting on that counter. Damn shame, I told them I always wanted it all!”

The next day, Willis was transferred to a San Antonio hospital where he died on August 22, 1979. Fierce and defiant to the end, he died as he had lived – as an outlaw.

During my 1979 interview with Willis, he went into detail about his time in jail or prison. Describing his first imprisonment, he said: “I was imprisoned for 22 months and 26 days and then sent to Rusk (prison) for two years. Every son of a bitch knew I was innocent. They knew I had not broken a single law!” Then over the years he spent over 20 years in prison in some sort of penal prison. I never got around to asking him the question: was it worth it?

I suspect the answer would be a resounding, “Hell yes!”

Spending a quarter of my 90 years behind bars hardly seems worth it.

As I left Willis Newton’s hospital room for the last time, I saw his doctor, who was a personal friend of mine. I asked him about Willis’s condition and he confirmed what he had told me while dying. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he asked if I wanted to see an X-ray of Willis’ spine.

Of course, I had no idea what to expect.

We went to a nearby theater and he slapped the film on the lighted viewing board. There was a very clear spot near the spinal column. “It’s a German luger slug that he’s been carrying for about 30 years. Some old boy shot it in Oklahoma.”

As I stared at the picture, the doctor concluded by saying, “And damned if that old outlaw won’t be buried with him!”

I guess you could say it was a eulogy of sorts.

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