America's Most Successful Band Of Outlaws
J. Willis Newton was a feisty sharecropper's son who fled the Texas cotton fields to become the leader of the most successful band of outlaws in American history. The early 20th Century - when the United States was passing from a primarily rural society into an industrialized and urban one, and the American Dream was changing from owning a patch of land to making "big money," was one of the country's most pivotal eras.
If there were an Olympic competition for bank and train robbing, Willis and his three brothers - Joe, Jess and Dock - would easily have won the gold medal, carrying off more money in their day than Jesse James, the Daltons, Butch Cassidy, and all the other famous outlaws put together. They were fascinating characters who bridged the Old World outlaw era and the gangster world of Al Capone. In the early 1920s, with the help of nitroglycerin, the best cars, and "systems analysis," Willis' four-brother gang emptied dozens of banks and pulled off the biggest train robbery in U.S. history - a $3 million heist near Chicago.
A flinty and restless person, Willis decided he wasn't going to spend his life picking cotton and following a "stinking mule's ass". Ironically, he modeled himself after his mother, Janetta Pecos, a hefty hardworking woman who, weary of the family's slave-like existence, told him once that if she had been a man, she might have become an outlaw.
The only other person Willis respected as much as his mother was Louise Brown, whom he met in Omaha, Nebraska, between robberies. Like Willis' mother, Louise was smart, wily and strong, and he fell deeply in love with her. The relationship blossomed until Louise discovered something about Willis that he'd neglected to mention - he was a bank robber.
He moved from a rural society (where everything was done by hand and the workday was from dawn to dusk) to the high-living urban life of a successful bank-robber. Willis spent his life chasing the New American Dream - a dream that Americans are still chasing today.
During that fall of nineteen and twenty and winter of nineteen and twenty-one, we worked the cotton country in the South and the corn and wheat country in the Middle West. Wherever they'd been picking and ginning cotton, or wherever they'd been pulling and shipping corn, or harvesting wheat, wherever banks was full of that crop money.
We never hit `em in a line. It was one here, one there. One here, one there. This week one in Texas, next week one in Missouri. Anywhere that'd keep the laws from figuring out it was the same people getting `em all. There was no problem about who was gonna be the leader, like there'd been with Frank and Dago and Slim. I was the one that'd brought us all together and I was the one that knowed all the angles. And the boys went with it. They even took to calling me "old man." "Old man" is what cowboys call the boss-man on a ranch; it's also what thieves call the leader of a gang.
Well, we wasn't no gang. We was just brothers working together in a business. But I was the head man of that business, and I give the orders, so I never did mind being called "old man." And when I give my brothers orders, like "go here" or "stay there" or "no falling asleep in the getaway car," they turned out to be real reliable. They done it and didn't go helty-skelty.
Ever' so often, Jess'd slip off to some bootleg joint and get drunk and shoot off a bunch of "windies," them Texas bull-shit stories. But whiskey's thinner'n blood, I guess, `cause he was pretty good about stopping his drinking when we was going out on a job. He knowed if he was skunked, it could get all of us killed, him too. And he never one time got his pints of whiskey mixed up with our pints of nitro.
As it come out, Jess `n Joe forgot all about my deadline, where I'd promised `em a Pullman ticket back to Texas, plus a thousand dollars pilon, if they didn't like my business. Sometimes, Joe'd get quiet and I could tell his morals was acting up. But I'd called the deal right: soon as the boys was making good money, it was never "enough." All three of `em, Joe too, was enjoying ever' dollar that come into their pockets and ever' dollar that leaked outa their pockets. And plenty was going both ways.
After ever' job, we'd lob together the money and take out our expenses first, and then split it up even. I didn't take no extra cut. The biggest expense we had was cars. We mostly drove Studebakers, they was the most reliable, and they cost about $1,800 to $2,400. And we traded in for a new one ever' ten thousand miles, soon as the rubber on the tires wore out. It wasn't no trouble to rob the banks; the getaway was the thing.
Other expenses: The best hotels them days was twelve to fourteen dollars a night, except for the Astoria in Chicago, and that was twenty-five dollars. So that was about four hundred dollars a month for room rent. Meals was running us about six hundred dollars to a thousand dollars ever' month, with Joe at the high end, because he was young and hungry and wanted to eat! Then there was the speakeasies, the burlesque shows - and the clothes they needed to slick it up.
`Course, Dock didn't get out much since he was a escaped con and had to lay low. But both Jess and Joe was starting to buy more and more expensive suits, up to a hundred dollars each. And they was getting their hair cut sometimes ever' week. And even their fingers manicured. Can you see that? A rough old cowboy like Jess, who never took but one bath a month back in Texas, getting a manicure? And both of `em started chasing after gals like bucks at rutting time.
Jess was the wildest when it come to women. And it seemed like most of his dates was with them manicure gals. Some of `em was pretty raunchy women, some of `em wasn't too bad. Nearly all of `em liked to dye their hair and paint their faces and lips. None of that made no diff'rence to Jess. He liked `em all, no matter what they looked like. Just so they was women.
Joe was more particular. He said he'd rather stay in the hotel room and read a Western novel than go out with some bangtail. "I don't get it," he said about Jess. "Back home he wouldn't ride no horse that didn't look good or have a good gait. And just look at what he's taking out tonight." But Joe did his share of chasing gals too. Mostly, he'd hit on the salesclerks at the Kresge and the Woolworth five-and-dime stores. He said they was "solid girls."
There was only one thing none of my brothers liked, at first. I wanted `em to wear diamond stickpins and diamond rings, what thieves call `ice.' But Jess and Joe said nothing doing. And Dock said if Jess and Joe didn't care nothing about jewelry, he didn't either. So I had to educate `em: "You get picked up for something, anything, most times it's a shakedown. You get one of them laws off in a corner and whisper to `em, `Look here, I got a big diamond I don't got no use for.' And nine times outa ten, they'll give you the air."
Well, damned if my brothers didn't start liking that ice a day or so after they put it on, particularly Jess and Joe. And liking diamonds didn't have nothing to do with dirty laws. It was because they seen how all that sparkle made women look at `em twice, and sometimes three times, and four. Then it was the gals chasing after Jess and Joe instead of the other way around.
When I was on the road, casing towns, I didn't much care what Jess and Joe did in their free time, and I didn't worry about `em. They knowed how to take care of theirselves. I did worry about Dock. I didn't want him roaming, gallivanting, prowling around town. Laws all over the country had his mug on yellow paper that said in big letters, WANTED ESCAPED TEXAS CONVICT. DOCK NEWTON, STOCKY, VERY STRONG, KNOWN FOR PRIZE-FIGHTING SKILLS. REWARD FOR INFORMATION.
The best thing for Dock, when we wasn't on a job, was to stay in his room. But being that he was used to doing something all the time, being cooped up in a room made him jittery and down in the dumps. So nobody was happier'n Dock when I come back to town after hunting up a bank and said, "I found some marks." He'd perk up right away and the only question he ever asked was, "You sure the money's there?"
When I come back, I always brought maps of the getaway routes. Nearly all counties had "section maps," crisscrossed with lines and numbers, showing the little back roads on ranches and farms. Anyhow, I'd study all of `em and draw with a red pencil the route we needed to follow, ever' crook and turn. I'd mark how far all that was on the speedometer, right down to the hundreds of a mile. I'd draw in landmarks and label `em, like "Red Barn," "Stock Pond," "Broke Down Wagon."
Even Dock could follow them maps without no trouble. And when I showed him the maps, he'd stay up all night studying `em, until they was second nature with him. Dock couldn't read too good, like Jess couldn't, but he'd match the pictures to the words and he knowed just what I meant. And before long, he become a pretty good getaway driver. Dock wasn't afraid of the Devil hisself. No matter how rough the road was, he wasn't afraid to put on the gas if it looked like we was being chased. Or turn a sharp comer.
As time went on, as our first year as a brother team moved into the next one, we started doing jobs that was a little riskier. Like in Spencer, Indiana, I decided to blow two banks in one night - at the same time. They was both on the same street, but at diff'rent corners. One had a vault; the other, a setting safe. Joe'd never blowed a safe before, but he'd watched me do it a dozen times, so I told him to take that one.
Only thing neither me or Joe knowed while we was hard at work inside each one of our banks - coming down Main Street was a farm wagon drawed by two pokey old mules. What that farmer was doing out at one o'clock in the morning we'll never know.
But he was heading right for the front of my bank. Jess, who was doing lookout on the street, tried to head the old man off. "Hey-a, stop! Stop, you damned fool!" The fella kept right on coming. He mighta been drunk; he mighta been half-asleep. I don't know. But clump, clump, clump. When.... BLOOEY! !
....Out flied a huge cloud of stuff outa my bank-broke glass, pieces of wood, a twisted-up lamp - right in front of that wagon. The mules rared up so high their front legs was just a-pawing the air. And that farmer wheeled his wagon around and started barrelling down the street, helty-skelty, whipping them mules into a froth. Only problem was, he was headed right for Joe's bank. BLOOEY!
Joe's first shot went off. And ever'thing come flying outa his bank - window frames, doors, broke chairs and tables, pieces of rock wall. Well, them mules stopped dead in their tracks, skidding the wagon half way across the street. Then they started to rare again. This time the farmer just jumped the hell outa his wagon and started to running to beat the devil, back towards my bank, when.... BLOOEY! !
I'd had to put another shot in the vault, and that's when the second one went off. And Jesus Christ! Off flied the vault door, and crash went ever' window in near ever' building on that block! When I looked out the bank's window - or what was left of it - seen that farmer wheel around and start a-hollering and race down that street so fast his legs was just a blur.
Jess was laughing so hard you'da thought he was gonna bust a gut. Me and the boys had a better night than that farmer. Altogether, we netted $33,000. Not bad for one hour's work. And another notch toward that million dollars. There was only a coupla things wrong with my life right then. For one thing, more and more of the little banks in the little towns was starting to get them round, screw-in safes we couldn't blow, and that meant that I was having to search harder and farther away for marks - from deep south Texas to western Canada.
And that little worry tied in with another little worry. Louise. The more I was starting to care about that woman, the more I was hating to stay away on so many of them long trips. And she was starting to have some questions about my work. A couple of times she asked to see my oil-lease papers `cause she was interested in business things. I never could find `em.
As it come out, I only done four years and two months for that Rondout train robbery. I had what they call "good behavior." And when I walked outa the front gate of Leavenworth in nineteen and twenty-nine, Louise was standing right there, waiting for me with a taxi. Godamight! I never seen such a beautiful sight in my life. How come she loved me, and how come she waited for me, I can't say. Some people just love each other, I guess. Their natures match.
Some of what I done after Leavenworth was as wild as what I done before, but that ain't part of my story here. Most folks knowed me for the nightclubs I opened up in Tulsa: the Buckhorn Palace, the Music Box, the Bucket of Blood. The papers called me one of the city's "kingpin gamblers." That Prohibition was still on when I started, but even after the Repeal, them crazy Okies voted to keep the state dry. So I sold "imported" whiskey. Imported from Missouri.
My clubs was some of the busiest night spots in Tulsa. Stacks of people come to `em! Stacks and stacks. Even Bonnie and Clyde showed up one time at my Buckhorn Palace. They'd just shot a sheriff over at Commerce, and they knowed about me through the underground, and they wanted me to hide `em out. Well, I let `em stay for a couple of nights in a little house I had out back. Only they wasn't nothing but two silly kids, and I knowed they was bound to get theirselves killed.
Altogether, in my life, I was in on eighty bank robberies, twenty before my brothers joined me and sixty afterwards. And I can remember ever' bank we robbed and the dates, and how much we got out of each of them. But robbing banks full-time like that, it was here and it was there ... here and there, Broken Bow, Oklahoma; Mattoon, Illinois; and Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. `Course, some folks say I never did stop being a robber, even after I moved to Uvalde. And they say I didn't give up all the loot from that big Rondout train robbery. That I'd squirreled some away, and was always leaving town and coming back flush. But how do they know?
What'll happen to me after I die, I don't know. I think more about what's gonna happen to this country in the years ahead. Seems like in the years before the first World War, families and neighbors helped each other more. Nowadays, it's ever'body for hisself. Ever'where I look it's snatch and grab, snatch and grab, snatch and grab. Like Ma said, that's why you gotta have laws and the Bible. I remember one of Ma's Bible stories where things got so bad that God destroyed the whole world and had to start things all over again. Maybe this time God will just let people destroy theirselves.
Whatever happens I won't be alive to see it. Ever'body who's born has only so much time on this Earth. I think my time is just about up. I can tell. For the first time in my life I been feeling tired.
- Willis Newton
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