The Newton boys were a criminal gang composed of brothers Willis, Joe, Jess and Wylie (Doc), who operated mostly in Texas during the 1920s. Willis "Skinny" Newton robbed over eighty banks and six trains from Texas to Canada with his brothers and other outlaws, including the single biggest train robbery in United States history. By the time they were captured, they may have stolen more money than all other outlaws at that time combined.
The Newton family was constantly on the move as "cyclone" farmers, until 1903 when they settled in Cottonwood, Texas, in Callahan County. The Newton's parents, Jim and Janetta Pecos Anderson Newton, had eleven children: Ivy, Bud, Henry, Dolly, Jess, Willis, Wylie ("Doc"), Bill, Tull, Ila, and Joe.
Willis Newton was born on January 19, 1889, near Cottonwood. Willis worked as a farmer until he and Doc were arrested for stealing cotton and for vagrancy in 1909 and served a two-year prison sentence in a Texas State Penitentiary. Willis and Doc escaped from prison together and were later pardoned by Governor O. B. Colquitt after being recaptured and serving almost five years. After suffering a childhood of poverty and years of back-breaking farm labor, Willis Newton had been pushed far enough. Maintaining that he had been unjustly charged and imprisoned, he decided to become the outlaw that the authorities envisioned him to be.
On December 31, 1914, Willis Newton robbed his first train, near Uvalde, of $4,700. In early 1917 he was arrested and released on bank robbery charges in Marble Falls. Willis then fell into a life of petty theft, gambling, and fencing. He was arrested again and returned to the penitentiary system but received a full pardon from Governor William P. Hobby in less than a year.
Willis and several other men then committed nighttime store robberies in Mineral Wells, Denison, and Abilene, as well as robbing $3,500 in Liberty bonds from a bank in Winters, Texas. The following day, one of the men was shot and killed by authorities during a pursuit. Utilizing nitroglycerin to blow vaults, Willis and his friends next robbed stores and banks in Waelder, Texas, Boswell, Oklahoma, Arma, Kansas, Dallas, Texas, and Michigan.
By 1920 Joe Newton joined Willis and another outlaw, John Glasscock, on bank robberies in Omaha, Nebraska, and Glenwood, Iowa. They stole almost $400,000 in Victory and Liberty bonds, which were all worthless to them because they had already been registered.
In 1921 Willis decided to enlist his brothers Jess and Doc in the business of bank robbery. Using "Big Six" or "Special Six" Studebakers for transportation, the Newton Boys robbed a mail car in Bells, Texas, then another in Bloomberg, Texas. From November 1921 through fall 1922, they robbed banks in San Antonio, Hondo (two in one night), San Marcos, New Braunfels, Boerne, and Pearsall, Texas; Melita and Moosomin, Manitoba; Toronto, Ontario; Gallatin, Missouri; Lafayette, Colorado; and Tab and Spencer, Indiana. They robbed the Toronto Currency Clearing House and held up the Illinois Central train and a St. Joe, Missouri, train. They stole a total of $200,000 in cash and bonds from these jobs and never killed anyone in the process.
Their last and most lucrative train robbery occurred in Rondout, Illinois, on June 12, 1924, when they held up the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul mail train. At $3 million, it was the largest train robbery in United States history. John Glasscock accidentally shot Doc during the robbery, and the law soon caught up with the brothers. They were sent to Leavenworth Prison where Jess served nine months, Joe served one year, Willis served four years, and Doc served six years for his earlier escape from prison.
After his release from prison, Willis worked at odd jobs but was sent to McAlester prison in Texarkana for hauling whiskey. Later, Willis and Joe were charged for an Oklahoma bank robbery that they did not commit. Willis served seven years, and Joe served ten years.
Later in life, Jess worked on ranches near Uvalde, Texas, until he died of lung cancer at age 73 in 1960. Doc worked on farms in Oklahoma and Missouri and ran whiskey for a time. In 1968 he was arrested for attempted robbery in Rowena, Texas, at age 77. While being arrested, he was struck in the head, which resulted in brain damage, and was sent to Fort Stockton prison hospital, where he served his entire sentence. Upon his release, he returned to Uvalde, Texas, and died of cancer at age 83 in 1974. After being released, Joe worked on a Uvalde ranch, in a butcher shop, a drive-in, and on Doc's farm in Oklahoma. Joe Newton died February 3, 1989, at the age of 88. Willis Newton, the leader of the Newton gang, farmed in Texas with his wife Louise after his release. He died on August 22, 1979, at the age of 90.
In 1998 the life and times of the Newton Boys was made into a movie for Twentieth Century Fox Studios. Directed by Richard Linklater, The Newton Boys stars Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Juliana Margulies, and Dwight Yoakum.