The last Old West-style train robbery in Texas was strange. It started off as a joke and ended up with a trip to mom’s house.
In his mid-20s, Willis Newton, a good ol’ boy from the Uvalde area, was a few years away from forming the famed Newton Gang with his three brothers.
As he told the story some 60 years later (published as The Newton Boys: Portrait of an Outlaw Gang), Willis had nearly spent all the money he had earned picking cotton. In December 1914, he jokingly told his buddy Red, “Let’s go down to South Texas and rob a train.”
The pair headed toward Willis’s old stomping grounds, armed with a cheap pistol and two stolen Winchesters. Just before Christmas, they missed their chance to rob a train near Cline. On December 30, 1914, their target pulled in at the Cline freight house at around 2:30 a.m.
Wearing masks made from the linings of their overcoats, the two climbed onto the rear car and began robbing the passengers as the train rolled out of the station.
The first man they stuck up was the Southern Pacific’s superintendent. The bandits got only $40 from him. They left single women alone, but everybody else was fair game. Many passengers were asleep; some were in Pullman berths shielded by privacy curtains. Not understanding that people were behind those curtains (Willis thought they were privies), the outlaws missed out on an estimated thousands of dollars.
After the pair had gone car to car, they pulled the cord, stopped the train near Spofford and began their escape to Willis’s mother’s home in Crystal City, which, over the prickly pear flats, was about 50 miles southeast. They didn’t cover their tracks. In fact, the boys killed and cooked a steer en route—even though the fire or the smell could have given them away.
About two days later, they got to Momma Newton’s home. They split the $4,700—the most money either of them had ever seen. When they didn’t get caught, the take tasted even sweeter.
Brothers Dock, Jess and Joe joined Willis on the outlaw trail. Between 1919 and 1924, the Newton Boys allegedly held up 87 banks and six trains. Their swan song was a 1924 train stickup in Rondout, Illinois, just outside Chicago, in which the gang got about $3 million…and sent to prison.
They later rekindled their fame with a documentary filmed in 1975 and a 1980 appearance by Joe on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. A 1998 film starring Matthew McConaughey further burnished the legend of the Newton Gang.
The story got its real start, though, 100 years ago, when Willis had jokingly suggested robbing a train…and then went home to mama.