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Willis Newton’s First Bank Hold-Up – 1916
In 1916, large portions of rural Texas and Oklahoma still resembled 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) had been hanged in 1901 for an attempted train robbery. Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (Sundance Kid) were reported to have been killed by the Bolivian police in 1908. Frank James had died the previous year (1915), spending his last days doing 25-cent tours of James. ‘farm in Missouri. All the Dalton brothers were gone except Emmett Dalton, who had survived 23 bullet wounds in the ill-fated double bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892. He served 14 years in a Kansas prison and then moved to California , where he became a real real estate agent, storyteller, author and western actor. He died in 1937 at the age of 66.
Little did Willis know at the time of the bank robbery 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” in 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 during the day. “Yes,” Willis told them, and they introduced him to two men he would be working with on the Boswell robbery.
In his last interview in 1979, he described his first bank robbery.
“One was a tall thin boy named Charlie Rankins and the other guy, I can’t remember his name, but his face was full of scars, probably from smallpox or something. They had horses and we planned the Boswell bank job; they were about 15 or 20 miles this side of Hugo.
“The bank was the last building in town when you left, nothing but brush after that. They had some trees there where you could tie horses. Well, that’s what we did; we went to Boswell one day and tie up the horses at the bank. Nobody knew me there, so I went in and acted like I was changing. Charlie and the other guy came in while I was talking to the teller. I threw him on top and yelled for everyone to raised pat because we were robbing the bank.
“While I was holding the front, Charlie and the other guy ran behind and started looting 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. Then, big as you like, we untied our horses and trotted slowly to the junk. No one left the bank when we looked back.
“We headed across the South Boggy River and followed the river to the outskirts of Hugo, where we distributed the money. I give them my horse and saddle and said, ‘You guys go on and I’ll go to Hugo tonight and I will take a train from here I thought 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 there after 10 o’clock, so I stood out there in the trash. until it got dark.
“They took all my hard money (silver) and gave me greenbacks (cash) for mine, so I put it around my waist and folded some in my pocket. When I put on the ‘coat, 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 sailing after I arrived 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 bank’s name. When Willis learned that his friend was in prison he devised a plan to break into the prison and see if he needed help. He met a man in Hugo who had been a stool pigeon in prison. Visiting with the man, he boasted that there seemed to be a few easy banks in the area that “had to be knocked over.”
The man immediately went to the police and reported his conversation with Willis.
“When I went down to the coach house that night to catch a train, the law was on my side. They caught me and put me in jail, which was just what I wanted. Then I had to talk to Charlie and I said, “Do you need help? I can come in and take you out if you want.”
“Hell no,” he said. “I don’t think they took me long, not enough to put me in the penitentiary. They’re going to bond me out in three weeks.”
“They kept me in jail for three or four days and wouldn’t let me go. They could keep you in jail as long as they wanted, in those days. Finally, I had to go and get a lawyer and I paid them 250 dollars. to get out of jail. Later I found out they sent Charlie to McAlester prison for 25 years. I never saw him again.
“My cut from the robbery was about $4,000, but I didn’t have it when I got back to Hugo. I had gone down to San Antonio and put six or seven hundred in the bank and I’m giving them a check to the lawyers. bank in San Antonio to get me out. Well, about two months later I went down to San Antonio to get out the rest of my money and they had the law waiting for me. I wrote a check to get my money and this teller says, “Well , wait here a moment.” He took it and went back there and I saw him talking to somebody and I knew I was going to be arrested, so I left and went down to Uvalde and gave a little lawyer a check for all my money, and he left. up there the next day and I got it. I never knew why they wanted to arrest me, but that’s what they were getting ready to do. They arrested you for nothing in those days. They would do whatever they wanted to you.
“Boswell’s bank was the first day job I ever did for money. But I didn’t hesitate. Hell, if you hesitate, you might get in trouble. You’re going to do anything like that, you’d better do it. I always told them, “Come on boys” and I took the initiative and we never stopped for anything. The bank robbery in Winters, Texas with Frank, the former bank robber, was my first night job. We never got it but D ‘there, though, $3,500 in Liberty bonds, and they killed that old guy over there by the car. So I never got any of it. I had the bonds in my hip pocket, the one that was killed.”
Willis’ version of his first bank robbery involves a botched nighttime robbery in Winters, Texas, where he and three others broke into the bank in the middle of the night. Frank, a friend of his, had been told that the Winters bank had a vault that they could blow with nitroglycerin. His source was a Bankers’ Association detective named Boyd, who wanted a cut of the loot. As it turned out after they blew the vault door, the money was stored in a round safe that they couldn’t open. After ransacking the vault, they eventually 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 burned 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 were approaching the village, a car full of law enforcement officers passed them on the road. When the car stopped and turned, Willis and his friend, Slim Edgarton, ran into the brush while Frank and Al stood their ground shooting the lawmen in the car. After a volley of shots, Al took a hit to the chest and went down. Frank then took off in a different direction into the brush. It was the man named Al who was wearing the ties when he was shot by the gang.
Willis managed to escape, but was later caught with his friend Red, near Sweetwater. They were imprisoned 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 a pattern he would use throughout his career, Willis returned to San Antonio after the Boswell job and then headed to the familiar place in Uvalde. In 1916 he was still “learning the ropes” of life outside the law while, with the exception of his brothers Jess and “Doc”, the rest of the family were engaged in honest work as cattlemen or hard sharecroppers , known in the west. Texas as “Cyclone Farmers.”
Later, Willis and some of the brothers formed the Newton Gang that robbed more than 80 banks in Texas, the Midwest and Canada during the 1920s.
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