On January 9, 1921, the Newton Gang drove into Hondo, Texas, a small town 30 miles west of San Antonio, to rob one of the two banks in town. It was just past midnight and the temperature was near freezing.
The Newtons knew the night watchman in Hondo, and as was his habit, they found him huddled around a pot-bellied stove in the depot. They cut all of the telephone wires and then went back to check on the night watchman. He had not budged from his spot by the stove so Joe was placed across the street as a lookout while the rest went to the bank.
In his 1979 interview, Willis proudly told his version of the story:
“Sometime you just get lucky ’cause they had left the vault door open. They had left it unlocked so we didn’t need no nitro or nothing. We jimmied the window, walked over to the vault, tried the handle and she opened! You would be surprised how many times them banks would just close the door so it looked locked during the night.
“We had the vault cleaned out in no time and went to see if the night watchman was still in the depot. Sure enough, he was reading a magazine and drinking coffee by the stove. Well hell, we figured we had plenty of time so we’d go over to the other bank and give it a try. I kept Joe and Doc watching the night marshal while Jess and I went down to the other bank.
“We got inside that bank and cleaned it out. Damn, two banks in one night and the night marshal, he never come out of the depot!”
The local newspaper, the Hondo Anvil Herald, carried the story with a splash headline:
Yeggs Rob Hondo Banks
One of the Most Daring Robberies Ever Staged in Texas Occurred Here Sunday Morning
The people of Hondo were amazed and angered Sunday morning when it became known that both banks had been entered by yeggs, between midnight and daylight, and robbed of both money and valuables. Entrance to the First National Bank was effected by forcing the front doors; while the entrance to the State Bank was effected by prizing down the bars over the last window in the alley between Parker’s and the bank.
The newspaper went on to give an elaborate description of the robbery:
Owing to most of the money in both banks being in the money safes, with time locks set, the loss in cash was not serious, the First National losing a total of $2,814 while in the matter of actual cash loss the State Bank was a little more fortunate, its loss being $1,879; both banks losing a total of $4,694 nearly all of which was silver coin.
The funds of both banks were covered by burglary insurance, consequently neither will suffer loss. [Just like Willis had assured his brothers.]
Owners of private boxes, who had put their valuables in the vaults of the banks, are the heaviest losers, and their actual loss will not be definitely known for some time-probably a month-as the owners of the boxes are the only ones who can clear up the loss, the officials of the banks not being advised of the contents of the boxes.
The safety 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 taken in the robbery. Estimates of as high as $30,000 were never confirmed.
The article continued to describe the “safe experts:’
… That the robbers were experts is borne out by the fact that they were able to work the combination on the vault of the First National Bank. [Willis said it was left unlocked.] They were also experts in the use of explosive, the vault doors of the State Bank being 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 strewn with papers about two feet thick.
From the thoroughness with which the robbers made their search for securities it is evident that they spent two hours or more in the vaults of the banks and the private boxes of the customers are in a sad plight, most of them showing that they were beat open by some heavy instrument, probably with a sledgehammer that had been stolen from the blacksmith shop of Mask & Co.
… That the robbers were no tyros (archaic word meaning beginners) in the business of robbing is again borne out by the fact that they took every precaution against being apprehended by the possession of jewelry, gold coins, and so forth, which might lead to their identity. The floors of the vaults were literally strewn with such articles as might lead to their detection. Notes and other articles of value that could not be turned into money were cast aside and left behind.
It is generally believed that the band was composed of from six to eight men, and that both banks were robbed simultaneously, a gang being assigned to each bank.
Another circumstance that indicates that the robbers were not new to the game of bank robbing is borne out by the fact that every telephone line in town was cut, apparently, before the banks were robbed. And this part of their plans was carried out most effectively and by an expert telephone man.
… Cables were severed, apparently with saws, and single wires were cut with wire clippers. Only three telephones connected with the local exchange were working Sunday morning.
The robbery was discovered by the night watchman about five o’clock Sunday morning and immediately reported to Deputy Sheriff C.J. Bless.
… Harry Crouch, our local telegraph operator, was summonsed and messages were sent east and west in an effort to intercept the robbers, but as far as the general public is advised, nothing was learned as to the direction in which the robbers went.
Detectives from San Antonio and the surrounding area converged on the Hondo banks searching for clues to the duel-heist robbery.
… One of the most remarkable coincidences of this whole business is that these robberies could have occurred right in the heart of the town and not more than 200 feet apart, and not one among our people being any the wiser until daylight it was revealed what had transpired, and that too, it was since developed that the night watchman and the two other men were in the waiting room of the depot, not more than sixty yards from the front doors of the First National Bank, while the robbery was being accomplished. The robbers must have done their work very silently 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 expression of the era. It is interesting to compare the newspaper reporting to Willis’ account in which the vault of the First National Bank had been left unlocked and they used nitroglycerine (rather than TNT) to blow the vault door on the State Bank. Even more interesting was the fact that there were no follow up articles on the robbery. There was not a single mention of the multi-bank burglary over the ensuing months-although it contained large advertisements from both banks. It was as if both banks had never been robbed.
The Galveston Daily News on January 10 reported the robbery describing a “clew” that proved to be a red herring:
Robber Heel May Lead to Arrest
Telephone Connections Cut When Banks at Hondo Are Looted
San Antonio, Texas-January 10-A rubber heel, lost from a shoe, may lead to the identification of the bank robbers who made a successful haul of $20,000 from the First National Bank of Hondo and the Hondo State Bank early Sunday morning.
The bank robbers gained entrance to the two banks by prying the iron bars loose from rear 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 haul was made from the safety deposit boxes in both banks, the robbers obtaining only $1,500 in cash from the First National and $29,350 of the state bank’s money. The smaller vault safes in both institutions were untouched.
The balance of the loot, it is estimated by officers at the two banks, was secured from owners of safety deposit boxes in the banks. Hondo was not aware of the visit of the bank robbers until almost noon Sunday, when the open windows at the rear of the two bank buildings were discovered.
Heel lost in bank.
Sheriff J.S. Baden, during his investigation was given the lost rubber heel, which had been found in front of the vault of the First National Bank. Further investigation disclosed a set of burglar tools consisting of a pipe wrench, saw, and chisel, which had been left by the robbers. These however are not considered as important for they are of a standard make, easily purchased at any hardware store.
Just outside of the window through which the robbers entered the state bank, Sheriff Baden found the numerals 13,555 scratched on the brick work. This, bank officials believe, indicates the amount the robbers secured from the deposit boxes in the bank. [This curious piece of information appears to have been just another “red herring.”]
Sheriff Baden believes the robberies were committed by a band of six men, who sent an advance guard of two into Hondo last week.
… Hondo citizens, who were up at an early hour Sunday morning, reported to the Sheriff that they saw a high-powered automobile leaving the outskirts of town occupied by six men. These, the Sheriff believes, were the Hondo robbers.
[Ironically] Sheriff Baden suffered a loss by the early morning visit of the robbers, as his safety deposit box in the First National Bank was broken open and $300 in stamps and $150 in bonds were taken. A $100 Liberty bond, the property of his son O.J. Baden, of Donna, was left in the box.
In light of the erroneous “clews’, the Newtons were never tried for the Hondo bank robberies.
Willis Newton was born in 1889 and died in 1979, making him the longest living Texas outlaw. He and the Newton Gang hit trains and banks in the early 1920s but their biggest haul occurred in 1924 when they robbed a train outside of Rondout, Illinois-getting away with $3,000,000. They still hold the record for the biggest train robbery in U.S. history.
G.R. (Ron) Williamson is a historian, a western writer and a born storyteller. He has published three non-fiction books on the West, many magazine and newspaper articles, and several Western movie screenplays. His home is in Kerrville, Texas where he lives with his wife and Chihuahua, “Shooter.”
His books include Frontier Gambling, The Texas Pistoleers, and Willis Newton: The Last Texas Outlaw.