The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 98, July 1994 - April, 1995

Book Reviews

suggests that Frank and Jesse James had two different fathers, though Dr.
William A. Settle, the leading authority on the James brothers, states categorical-
ly that Robert James was the father of both. By merely suggesting such theories
without explanation, Prassel weakens his otherwise excellent study.
Smiley, Texas CHUCK PARSONS
The Newton Boys: Portrazt of an Outlaw Gang. By Willis and Joe Newton as told to
Claude Stanush and David Middleton. (Austin: State House Press, 1994. Pp.
xix+332. Prologue, epilogue. ISBN 1-88051-015-4. $24.95.)
During the years 1919-1924, Willis, Joe, Doc, and Jess Newton robbed ap-
proximately eighty banks and, at Rondout, Illinois, pulled off possibly the largest
train holdup in the nation's history. Claude Stanush and David Middleton inter-
viewed two surviving gang members, Willis and Joe, in 1973 and reprinted por-
tions of those interviews in The Newton Boys. Published with a minimum of
editorial commentary, the interviews present a fascinating social history that in-
cludes lucid descriptions of carefully planned criminal activities.
The "view from the bottom" narrative in the early chapters of this book relates
the story of a rather average rural, Texan, Anglo-American family during the late
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moving frequently, and renting rather
than owning the land his family farmed, Jim Newton, the father of eleven chil-
dren, spent most of his days engaged in a futile search for a better life. Indeed,
the preindustrial Texas culture of cotton cultivation, horse trading, and wagon
travel likely typified the lives of many common citizens who lacked wealth or ed-
ucation. The means by which four of the Newton children decided to escape
from poverty, however, distinguished them from others of their class.
Willis Newton, who served time in the Texas penitentiary for a crime he
claimed he did not commit, later organized a gang of professional robbers. "All
we wanted," he observed, "was ... to make money" (p. 1). According to Stanush
and Middleton, "his words begin to give shape to a free enterprise ethic which is
fundamentally American" (p. 324). That "ethic" encompassed a cynical "urban
modernist" (p. 323) world of corrupt governmental officials and a coercive jus-
tice system composed of oppressive police officers as well as lying witnesses. Sup-
port networks of paid informants, buyers and marketers of purloined goods, and
dishonest bankers who purchased bonds stolen from their competitors but-
tressed the system of organized crime.
This book permits readers to draw their own conclusions as to the nature,
meaning, and context of the Newtons' criminal careers. While a large part of the
brothers' testimony stressed the pragmatic, material motivations behind their vo-
cational choice, other statements suggested that the decision to become profes-
sional criminals may have stemmed at least as much from feelings of anger and
alienation as from the desire for a higher standard of living. As Willis com-
plained, "I had tried to go and live right, but they wouldn't let me" (p. 103).
Although some readers might wish that the editors had captured the interac-
tion between interviewers and subjects by printing more dialogue, the publisher

361

1994

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 98, July 1994 - April, 1995. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101216/. Accessed December 27, 2014.