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Willis Newton’s First Bank Hold-Up – 1916
In 1916, vast portions of rural Texas and Oklahoma still looked a lot like the wild days of the Old West.. Sam Bass had been shot and killed in a bank robbery in Round Rock, Texas 38 years earlier. Jesse James had only been buried for 34 years. Thomas E. Ketchum (Black Jack Ketchum) was hanged in 1901 for attempted train robbery. Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (Sundance Kid) were reportedly killed by Bolivian police in 1908. Frank James had died the previous year (1915), spending his last days giving tours to 25 cents of the James’ farm in Missouri. The Dalton brothers were all gone except Emmett Dalton, who survived 23 gunshot wounds in the 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 estate agent, storyteller, author and western actor. He died in 1937 at the age of 66.
At the time of the bank robbery, Willis had no idea that in his lifetime he would rob more banks and trains than all of 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” during the Boswell heist.
It was in Durant, Oklahoma, that Willis encountered a gang of bank robbers. One of them asked him if he wanted to work at the bank in daylight. “Yeah,” Willis told them and he was introduced to two men he would work with in Boswell’s robbery.
In his last interview in 1979, he describes his first bank heist.
“One was a tall, thin boy named Charlie Rankins and the other guy – I can’t remember his name but he had a face full of scars, probably smallpox or something. They had horses and we planned the Bank Boswell work; it was about 15 or 20 miles this side of Hugo.
“The bank was the last building in town by the time you left, nothing but brush after that. They had trees there where you could hitch horses. Well, that’s what we did; a day we went to Boswell and tethered the horses to the bank No one knew me there so I walked in and acted like I was getting some change Charlie and the other guy walked in while I was talking to the cashier. I threw myself on him and I shouted for everyone to get up pat because we were robbing the bank.
“While I was guarding the front, Charlie and the other guy ran behind and started ransacking the money. Charlie took all the money out of the safe and the other guy cleaned out the cash drawers. This came to $10,000 We told everyone to stay put or we’d blow their damn heads off Then as big as you want we untied our horses and slowly trotted through the brush Nobody got out of the bank when we looked back.
“We crossed the South Boggy River and we followed the river just outside Hugo where we split the money. I gave them my horse and saddle and said, ‘You people, carry on. and I’m going to Hugo tonight and catch me a train from here. I figured they weren’t looking for anyone to catch a train, they were looking for three men on horseback. I knew there was a passenger train leaving sometime after 10 so I stayed there in the brush. until it gets dark.
“They took all the hard money (money) and gave me green money (cash) for mine, so I put it around my waist and folded some in my pocket. When I put my coat on you couldn’t tell I had it in my pockets or anything. Just before 10 I walked in and bought a ticket to Ardmore, smooth as you Navigation was clear after arriving in 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 learned that his friend was in jail, he devised a plan to break into the jail and see if he needed help. He knew a man in Hugo who had been a youngster in prison. Visiting with the man, he boasted that there appeared to be a number of easy banks in the area that “needed knocking down”.
The man immediately went to the police and reported his conversation with Willis.
“When I came down to the depot that night to catch a train, the law was laid on me. They caught me and put me in jail, which was exactly what I wanted. So I was able to talk to Charlie and I said, “Do you want me to help you? I can come in and kick you out if you want.”
“No, shit,” he said. “I don’t think they have much on me, not enough to put me in the penitentiary. They will settle my bail in three weeks.”
“They kept me in jail for three or four days and just wouldn’t release me. They could keep you in jail as long as they wanted, at that time. Eventually I had to get a lawyer and I paid them $ 250. Later I found out they had sent Charlie to McAlester Penitentiary for 25 years. I never saw him again.
“My share of the robbery was about $4,000, but I didn’t have it on me when I got back to Hugo. I had gotten off in San Antonio and put six or seven hundred in the bank and I gave them a check to the lawyers on the bank in San Antonio to get me out Well about two months after that I went to San Antonio to get the rest of my money out and they had the law on me I had written a check to get my money and this cashier said, ‘Well, wait here a minute.’ He took it and went back over there and I saw him talking to somebody and I knew they were going to arrest me. So I just left and went to Uvalde and gave a little lawyer a check for all my money, and he went there the next day and I I never knew why they wanted to arrest me, but that’s what they were about to do. They arrested you for nothing at the time. They would do anything to you. they wanted.
“Boswell bank was the very first day job I ever did for money. But I didn’t hesitate. Damn, if you hesitate, you might get in trouble. You gon’ do something like that, you better do it. I always told them, “Let’s go boys,” and I took the lead and we never stopped for anything. The bank robbery in Winters, in Texas with ex-bank robber Frank was my first night job We never had but $3,500 in Liberty Bonds from there, though, and they killed that old boy there- down next to the car. So I never got anything out of it. He had the bonds in his hip pocket, the one that was killed.”
Willis’ version of his first bank robbery refers to a botched nighttime robbery in Winters, Texas, where he and three other people broke into the bank at midnight. Frank, a friend of his, had learned that the Winters bank had a safe they could blow up with nitroglycerin. His source was a Bankers Association detective named Boyd, who wanted a share of the loot. It turned out that after they blew open the safe door, the money was stored in a round safe that they couldn’t open. After ransacking the safe, they eventually walked away 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 the sand and blew out the clutch near Buffalo Gap, Texas. They abandoned the car and hid in the hills until the following night, when they entered Buffalo Gap. Just as they approached town, a car full of lawmen passed them on the road. When the car stopped and turned around, Willis and his friend, Slim Edgarton, ran into the brush while Frank and Al stood shooting at the lawmen in the car. After a volley of blows, Al took a bullet to the chest and fell. Frank then took off in a different direction into the brush. It was the man named Al who was wearing the bonds when he was shot by the mob.
Willis managed to escape but was later caught with his friend Red near Sweetwater. They were imprisoned at Ballinger along with Slim Edgarton, who had been arrested earlier. After bribing the sheriff’s wife, the trio managed to break out of the jail in the middle of the night and flee.
Repeating a pattern he would use throughout his career, Willis returned to San Antonio after Boswell’s job, then headed to the family home in Uvalde. In 1916 he was “still learning the ropes” of outlaw life while, with the exception of his brothers Jess and “Doc”, the rest of the family were engaged in honest labor as laborers ranchers or tough scrabble sharecroppers known in the West. Texas as “cultivators of cyclones”.
Later, Willis and some of his brothers would form the Newton Gang which would rob more than 80 banks in Texas, the Midwest and Canada in the early 1920s.
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