Newton Gang robs two banks in one night

On January 9, 1921, the Newton Gang entered Hondo, Texas, a small town 30 miles west of San Antonio, to rob one of the two banks in town. It was just after midnight and the temperature was around freezing.

The Newtons knew the night watchman in Hondo, and as was his custom, they found him huddled around a pot-bellied stove in the depot. They cut all the telephone wires and then went back to check on the night watchman. He hadn’t budged from his spot by the stove, so Joe was put across the street as a lookout while the rest headed for the bank.

In his 1979 interview, Willis proudly told his version of the story:

“Sometimes you’re just lucky, because they left the vault door open. They left it open so we wouldn’t need nitro or anything. You’d be surprised how often those banks just shut the door so it looked locked at night.

“We cleared the safe in no time and went to see if the night watchman was still in the depot. He was indeed reading a magazine and drinking coffee by the stove. Well, damn, we thought we had plenty of time , so we would go to the other bank and try it. I had Joe and Doc keep an eye on the night watchman while Jess and I went to the other bank.

“We went into that couch and cleaned it. Hell, two banks in one night and the night commissioner, he never came out of the depot!’

The local newspaper, the Hondo anvil announcesdelivered the story with a smashing headline:

Yeggs Rob Hondo Banks

One of the most daring robberies ever committed in Texas happened here Sunday morning

The people of Hondo were surprised and angry on Sunday morning when it became known that both banks had been broken into by yeggs between midnight and daylight and robbed of both money and valuables. Entry to the First National Bank was by forcing the front doors; while entry to the State Bank was made by prying down the bars above the last window in the alley between Parker’s and the bank.

The newspaper went on to describe the robbery in detail:

Because most of the money from both banks was in the cash vaults, with time slots set, the cash loss was not serious, the First National lost a total of $2,814, while the state bank was a bit lost in terms of actual cash loss. luckier, the loss was $1,879; both banks lost a total of $4,694, almost all silver coins.

The funds of both banks were covered by burglary insurance, so neither will be harmed. [Just like Willis had assured his brothers.]

Owners of private chests, who had stashed their valuables in the banks’ vaults, are the worst losers, and their actual loss will only be known definitively for some time – probably a month – since the owners of the chests are the only ones who can cleaning up the loss, the bank officials are not informed of the contents of the boxes.

The safe-deposit box owners had cash, government bonds, war savings stamps, jewelry and other valuables in their boxes, so it was impossible to determine the exact amount that was captured in the robbery. Estimates of as much as $30,000 were never confirmed.

The article went on to describe the “safe experts:”

… That the robbers were experts is borne out by the fact that they were able to edit the combination on the First National Bank vault. [Willis said it was left unlocked.] They were also experts in the use of explosives, the vault doors of the state bank were blown open by one of the most powerful explosives known: TNT. [ Willis swore in his interview that he never used dynamite-only nitroglycerine.]

The vaults were thoroughly ransacked and the floors were littered with papers about two feet thick.

The thoroughness with which the robbers made their search for securities shows that they spent two hours or more in the bank vaults and that the customers’ private boxes are in a sad state, most of which showed that they had been smashed open by some heavy instrument, probably with a sledgehammer stolen from Mask & Co.’s blacksmith shop.

… That the robbers were not tyros (archaic word meaning novices) in robbing is reaffirmed by the fact that they took every precaution to avoid being apprehended by the possession of jewels, gold coins, &c. could lead to their identity. The floors of the vaults were literally littered with items that could lead to discovery. Banknotes and other valuables that could not be converted into money were set aside and left behind.

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It is generally believed that the gang consisted of six to eight men and that both banks were robbed at the same time, with a gang assigned to each bank.

Another circumstance indicating that the robbers were not new to the game of bank robberies is borne out by the fact that apparently every telephone line in the city was cut before the banks were robbed. And this part of their plans was most effectively carried out by an expert operator.

… Cables were cut, apparently with saws, and some wires were cut with wire cutters. On Sunday morning, only three telephones connected to the local exchange were working.

The robbery was discovered about 5 a.m. Sunday morning by the night watchman and immediately reported to Deputy Sheriff CJ Bless.

… Harry Crouch, our local telegraph operator, was summoned and messages sent east and west in an attempt to intercept the raiders, but as far as the general public is advised nothing was heard of the direction the raiders were going .

Detectives from San Antonio and the surrounding area converged on the Hondo banks looking for clues to the duel robbery.

… One of the most remarkable coincidences of this whole affair is that these robberies could have happened in the heart of the city and no more than 200 feet apart, and none of our people were the wiser until daylight revealed what was happened, and it did, it has since become apparent that the night watchman and the two other men were in the depot waiting room, no more than two hundred feet from the front doors of the First National Bank, while the robbery was accomplished. The robbers must have done their job very quietly to avoid detection. [It is hard to image a “silent” explosion of nitroglycerine.]

The word the newspaper used for the night burglars was “yeggs,” a popular vernacular of the time. It is interesting to compare the newspaper reports to Willis’ account in which the First National Bank vault was unlocked and nitroglycerin (instead of TNT) was used to blow up the State Bank vault door. Even more interesting was the fact that there were no follow-up articles about the robbery. There was no mention of the multi-bank break-in in the following months, even though it carried large advertisements from both banks. It was as if both banks had never been robbed.

The Galveston Daily News reported on January 10 that the robbery described a “clep” that turned out to be a red herring:

Rover Heel can lead to arrest

Phone lines cut as banks are looted near Hondo

San Antonio, Texas – January 10 – A rubber heel, lost from a shoe, may lead to the identification of the bank robbers who successfully looted $20,000 early Sunday morning from the First National Bank of Hondo and the Hondo State Bank.

The bank robbers gained access to the two banks by prying the iron bars from the back windows of the buildings and manipulating the combinations of the vault in the First National Bank, but blew off the door of the vault in the state bank.

The loot was made from the safe deposit boxes of both banks, the robbers got only $1,500 in cash from the First National and $29,350 of the state bank’s money. The smaller vaults in both institutions remained untouched.

The balance of the loot, it is estimated by agents of the two banks, has been secured by owners of safety deposit boxes in the banks. Hondo was not aware of the bank robbers’ visit until around noon on Sunday, when the open windows at the rear of the two bank buildings were discovered.

Heel lost on the couch.

Sheriff JS Baden, during his investigation, got the lost rubber heel, which was found in front of the First National Bank safe. Further investigation revealed a set of burglary tools, consisting of a pipe wrench, saw and chisel, left behind by the robbers. However, these are not considered important as they are of a standard brand and can be easily purchased at any hardware store.

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Just outside the window through which the robbers entered the state bank, Sheriff Baden found the numbers 13,555 scratched on the brickwork. According to the bank officials, this indicates the amount that the robbers stole from the safe deposit boxes at the bank. [This curious piece of information appears to have been just another “red herring.”]

Sheriff Baden believes the robberies were carried out by a gang of six men, who sent a vanguard of two to Hondo last week.

… Hondo citizens, rising early Sunday morning, reported to the sheriff that they saw a powerful car leave the outskirts of the city, occupied by six men. These, the sheriff believes, were Hondo’s robbers.

[Ironically] Sheriff Baden suffered a loss from the robbers’ early morning visit, when his safety deposit box at the First National Bank was broken into and $300 in stamps and $150 in bonds were taken. A $100 Liberty bond, owned by his son OJ Baden, from Donna was left in the box.

In light of the erroneous “clews,” the Newtons were never brought to justice for the Hondo bank robberies.

Willis Newton was born in 1889 and died in 1979, making him Texas’ longest-lived outlaw. He and the Newton Gang attacked trains and banks in the early 1920s, but their biggest loot came in 1924 when they robbed a train outside of Rondout, Illinois, getting away with $3,000,000. They still hold the record for the largest train robbery in US history.