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January 10, 2024 10 mins

The Newton Boys were a gang of brothers who made a business of robbing banks and trains in the 1920s. Learn how they largely got away with it in this episode of BrainStuff, based on this article: https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/newton-boys-bank-robbers.htm

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio, Hey Brainstuff, Lauren Vogelbaum. Here.
Willis Newton and his three brothers are not, for the
most of us, as easily identifiable as Pretty Boy Floyd,
Baby Face, Nelson, or al Capone. They certainly weren't as
renowned as Bonnie and Clyde, but that may go a

(00:25):
long way toward explaining why Willis Newton and his gang
were just about infinitely more successful than any of those others.
For much of their career, nobody, even the cops knew
who the Newtons were. In a blink of about five years,
in the nineteen twenties, the Newtons and an occasional accomplice
pulled off some seventy bank heists, give or take a dozen,

(00:47):
and ripped off six trains, including a single haul of
somewhere around three million dollars. It remains the largest train
robbery ever. Accounting for inflation, that single three million dollar
take in nineteen twenty four would be a fifty three
million dollar getaway today. As old men, after their thieving
was mostly over, they surfaced in a nineteen seventy five documentary,

(01:11):
but coming off is both proud and practical. Willis said,
straight face to the camera, just like a doctor and
lawyers and everybody else. It was our business to do that.
The youngest of the Newton brothers, Joe, even made his
way onto Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show in nineteen eighty
and was downright charming. When Carson asked him about his

(01:33):
appeal to women as a bank robber, Joe said, well,
if you've got a good car and a pot full
of money and you're a young man, yeah. However, in
nineteen seventy nine, Willis Newton, just a few months before
his death at the age of ninety, sat down in
his home in Uvalde, Texas, for a wide ranging and
sometimes contentious interview about his life and crimes with historian

(01:56):
and author G. R. Williamson. Before the article this episode
is based on How Stuffworks, spoke with Williamson, who walked
away from that interview with an entirely different impression of Willis.
He said, I truly believe he was a flat out
evil person. The four Newton Boys, Willis, Wiley aka Doc, Jess,

(02:18):
and Joe were the sons of poor Texas sharecroppers growing
up at the turn of the twentieth century. They mostly
left school early and fell into petty crimes and stints
in jail. Willis was about twenty five with a lengthy
rap sheet already to his name when he first robbed
a bank, making off with about four thousand, seven hundred

(02:39):
dollars from a job in Kline, Texas. That's about one
hundred and forty four thousand in today's dollars. And in
nineteen sixteen, with some other outlaws, Willis took a share
of around ten thousand dollars from a robbery the about
two hundred and ninety five thousand dollars today. Willis was hooked,
and he eventually brought his brothers into the new family business.

(03:02):
Early on, as the brothers and occasional accomplices lined up jobs,
Willis laid down some ground rules. Williamson said, they were
full blown criminals. But here's the thing. Willis had the
wisdom to know that if they killed somebody, that would
change everything about how the police came after them. So
it was his mandate to his brothers that they never

(03:24):
kill anybody. It's a rule that may have been broken.
They were involved in a few messy gunfights in Canada
in a rare daytime heist, they were involved in a
shootout during morning rush hour that sullied their reputation for
clean hits and easy getaways. But normally, with a little preparation,
plus some nitroglycerin, perhaps to blow the door off of

(03:45):
a safe, the Newtons would be on their way quick
and quiet, loot in hand. At its height, the gang
was the four brothers and an explosives expert by the
name of Brent Blascock, and they robbed banks and trains
across Tech, Oklahoma, through the Midwest, and even into Toronto, Canada.
On at least one occasion, they robbed two banks in

(04:06):
one day. Williamson said, compared to the Newtons, Jesse and
Frank James were mere amateurs, but Cassidy was a small fry.
The Newtons made blowing safes and robbing trains a big business.
They wanted to fly under the radar. They didn't want notoriety.
Bonnie and Clyde they had actual photographs of them, and

(04:26):
they did all sorts of stuff that kept taunting the police.
So did pretty Boy Floyd. Because the public did not
know what the robbers that were doing these bank jobs
and train robberies looked like. The Newtons weren't having to
run from the law. At one point, Willis said, we
wasn't mugs like Bonnie and Clyde. We was just quiet businessmen.
What we wanted was the money. It helped too that

(04:50):
the Newtons mostly did their work at night. They didn't
generally barge into banks branching shotguns, and banks compared to today,
were much easier to rob. Many of the banks of
the Newtons knocked over were in small towns with little security.
Williamson said, Remember, the only communications in the nineteen twenties
was telegraph and telephone, no Internet, no national database of fingerprints,

(05:14):
no national database of mug shots or anything like that.
So they could pull these things off and nobody knew
it was the Newtons. In between jobs, when it was convenient,
they'd go back to the family home in Uvalde and
lay low until they needed more money. Williamson said the
general opinion of the people in Uvalde at the time

(05:35):
was that all the Newton boys were near Dowells. They
were probably up to criminal activity, but nobody knew that
they were the robbers. When they were on business trips
outside of Texas, they'd stay in the nicest hotels and
eat at the best restaurants. At least two of the
brothers regularly attended sporting events like the Kentucky Derby and
Indianapolis five hundred. They spent lavishly until their money ran low,

(06:00):
then planned the next job. The Newton Gang's biggest heist,
that three million dollar one, was also the one that
brought them down. It was a train robbery outside of Chicago, Illinois,
on June twelfth of nineteen twenty four. The Newtons, along
with Glascock and a few newcomers, stopped a train on
its way to dropping off cash to several banks along

(06:21):
its route. The gang quickly loaded sixty three bags of
loot into four stolen cars, but in the confusion of
the nighttime raid and after a train brakeman escaped and
alerted authorities, Glasscock mistook Doc Newton for a guard and
accidentally shot Doc several times. The men all got away,
placing the wounded dock atop bags of cash, but authorities

(06:44):
quickly found the men. A corrupt postal inspector who was
in on the job gave himself away under wire tap,
a tip that led authorities to the doctor who had
treated the wounded. Doc Willis made it across the border
into Mexico, and Jesse escaped for a while to Texas
with about thirty five thousand dollars that's six hundred and
twenty one thousand dollars today, money that was never officially

(07:06):
found and is the source of some local legends about
buried treasure. But at the time, within months everyone involved
was arrested and headed to trial, including the convalescing Doc,
who was taken into the proceedings on a stretcher. However,
although eight men were convicted in the end, and the
amount of money that they stole was enormous, most of

(07:28):
their sentences were light and all were eventually released on
good behavior. Later in life, Doc and Willis tried to
rob a bank in Rowena, Texas, when Doc was well
into his seventies and Willis was eighty, But the Newton
brothers spent the rest of their lives mostly on the
right side of the law. Their exploits are now often
considered when the Newtons are acknowledged at all, as brothers

(07:51):
simply trying to make a living. Willis told his documentarians,
I knew all them bankers was rich, and they didn't
care about hurting us poor farmers. So why should I
care about hurting them? Why shouldn't I steal from them?
It's just one thief stealing from another. But the romanticized
story as told by Willis, his brothers, and many historians,

(08:14):
isn't necessarily the true one. Williamson points out that in
at least a few of their robberies a lot of
gunplay was involved, and the lack of planning could have
been disastrous. He said, a majority of the times when
they got into these robberies where they actually had guns
out and so forth, they screwed up so bad they
should have been killed. Willis was good at planning, but

(08:35):
the execution sometimes was completely out the window. In his research,
Williamson uncovered damning newspaper accounts of a shootout during one
of their train robberies in Illinois, in which he claims
a black porter by the name of Moon died three
days after the robbery from gunshot wounds. Though the Newtons
swore they never killed anyone, that may not have been

(08:56):
the case. The last living member of the gang, Joe,
died in nineteen eighty nine. Today, the Newtons retain their
status as folk heroes to many. There was even a
dramatized film made about them in nineteen ninety eight, and
they remain unquestionably the most successful bank robbers the country

(09:16):
has ever seen. Joe told Carson in nineteen eighty we
was crazy for doing it, but you're young then. Today's
episode is based on the article the Newton Boys were
the Baddest bank robbers You've Never heard of on how
Stuffworks dot Com, written by John Donovan. Brain Stuff is

(09:37):
production of iHeartRadio in partnership with how stuffworks dot Com
and is produced by Tyler Klang. Four more podcasts from
my heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or
wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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