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Willis Newton’s First Bank Hold-Up – 1916
In 1916, large swathes of rural Texas and Oklahoma still resembled the wild days of the Old West.. Sam Bass was shot and killed during a bank robbery in Round Rock, Texas 38 years ago. Jesse James was only buried for 34 years. Thomas E. Ketchum (Black Jack Ketchum) was hanged in 1901 for an attempted train robbery. Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longabaugh (Sundance Kid) were allegedly killed by the Bolivian police in 1908. Frank James had died the year before (1915), spending his last days giving James 25 cent tours. a farm in Missouri. The Dalton brothers were all gone except Emmett Dalton, who survived 23 gunshot wounds in an ill-fated double bank robbery in Coffeyville, Kansas in 1892. He served 14 years in a Kansas prison before moving 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 did not know that he would rob more banks and trains in his lifetime 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 Boswell’s heist.
It was in Durant, Oklahoma that Willis encountered a loosely knit group of bank robbers. One of them asked him if he wanted to work in a bank during the day. “Hell yeah,” Willis told them and was introduced to the 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, slim boy named Charlie Rankins and the other one – I can’t remember his name but his face was covered in scars, probably small pox or something. They had horses and we planned to work at Boswell Bank; it was about 15 or 20 miles this side of Hugo.
“The bank was the last building in town when you left, nothing but bushes after that. They had some trees you could tie your horses to. Well, we did; one day we went to Boswell’s and tied the horses at the bank. Nobody told me he didn’t know there, so I went in and pretended to get change. Charlie and the other guy came in while I was talking to the teller. I lunged at him and yelled for everyone to stand up and clap because we were robbing a bank.”
“While I kept the front, Charlie and the other guy ran after me and started throwing money out. Charlie took all the money out of the safe and the other guy cleaned out the cash drawers. It came out to $10,000. We told everyone to stay.” or we’d blow their damned heads off. Then, big as you like, we untied our horses and trotted slowly into the bushes. When we looked back, no one had come out of the bank.
“We headed across the South Boggy River and went down the river just before Hugo, where we split the money. I gave them my horse and saddle and said, ‘You guys go on and I’ll go to Hugo tonight and catch the train from there .” I figured they weren’t looking for anyone to catch a train, they were looking for three men on horses. I knew the passenger train was leaving sometime after 10 o’clock, so I stayed out in the bush until dark.
“They took all the hard money (silver) and gave me green money (cash), so I put it around my waist and put some in my pocket. When I put my coat on, you couldn’t tell I had it in my pockets or anything. I went in there just before 10 o’clock and bought me a ticket to Ardmore as you like.
About a month after the Boswell robbery, Charlie Ranking was arrested when they found a quantity of silver dollars in paper rolls bearing the name of the bank. When Willis learned that his friend was in jail, he devised a plan to get in and see if he needed help. He knew a man in Hugo who was a pigeon in prison. While visiting with the man, he boasted that there seemed to be a number of easy banks in the area that “need to be demolished”.
The man immediately went to the police and reported his conversation with Willis.
“When I went down to the depot that night to catch the train, the law was there for me. They caught me and put me in jail, which is exactly what I wanted. So I spoke to Charlie and I said, ‘You want me did he help you I can come and kick you out if you want.”
“Hell no,” he said. “I don’t think they have much on me, not enough to put me in jail. They’re going to post my bond in three weeks.”
“They kept me in jail for three or four days and they just wouldn’t let me go. They could keep you in jail as long as they wanted in those days. I ended up having to go to a lawyer and pay them $250.” to get out of jail I later found out they sent Charlie to McAlester Prison for 25 years. I never saw him again.
“My receipt from the robbery was right around $4,000, but I didn’t have it with me when I got back to Hugo. I came to San Antonio and put six or seven hundred in the bank and gave them a check for the lawyers.” at a bank in San Antonio to get me out. About two months after that I went down to San Antonio to collect the rest of the money and there the law was waiting for me. I wrote a check to get the money and this teller says, “Well, wait a minute.” He took it and went back there and I saw him talking to someone and I knew I was going to be arrested. So I just left and went down to Uvalde and gave the little lawyer a check for all my money and he went up there the next day and I got it. I never knew what they wanted to arrest me for, but that’s what they were going to do. In those days you got arrested for nothing. They would do whatever they wanted.
“The bank in Boswell was the very first daylight job I ever did for money. But I didn’t hesitate. Hell, if you hesitate, you can get into trouble. You’re going to 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 nothing. A bank robbery in Winters, Texas with Frank, an old bank robber, was my first night job. From there, though, $3,500 in Liberty bonds and they killed that one old boy over there next to the car. So I never got anything out of it. He had the bonds in his hip pocket, the one who was killed.”
Willis’ version of his first holdup at the bank has reference to a botched nighttime robbery in Winters, Texas, where he and three others broke into a bank at midnight. Frank, his friend, is told that Winters’ bank has a safe that they can blow through with nitroglycerin. His source was a Banker’s Association detective named Boyd who wanted a piece of the loot. As it turned out after they shot the safe door, the money was kept in a round safe that they couldn’t open. After ransacking the safe, they ended up walking away with $3,500 in Liberty bonds.
Returning to Abilene, a third man named Al was driving an early model Hudson when the car got stuck in sand and burned the clutch near Buffalo Gap, Texas. They left the car and hid in the hills until the next night when they entered Buffalo Gap. Just as they were approaching the city, a car full of lawmen drove past them on the road. When the car stopped and turned around, Willis and his friend Slim Edgarton ran for the brush while Frank and Al stood still and fired at the lawmen in the car. After a volley of shots, Al was hit in the chest and went to the ground. Frank then went in another direction into the bushes. It was a man named Al who was wearing handcuffs when he was shot by the squad.
Willis managed to escape but was later caught with his friend Red near Sweetwater. They were trapped in Ballinger with Slim Edgarton, who had been caught earlier. After bribing the sheriff’s wife, the trio managed to break out of jail in the middle of the night and get away.
Willis repeated the pattern he used throughout his career, returning to San Antonio after working at Boswell and then heading to the family home in Uvalda. In 1916 he was still “learning the ropes” of outlaw life, while with the exception of his brothers Jesse and “Doc” the rest of the family were engaged in honest work as ranchers or hard-scrabble sharecroppers, known in the West. Texas as “Cyclone Farmers”.
Later, Willis and some brothers formed the Newton Gang, which robbed over 80 banks in Texas, the Midwest and Canada in the early 1920s.
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