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True crime series: Break-in of First National Bank

Photo caption: The last three Newton Boys taken in 1972. The Newton Boys were from Uvalde and robbed banks and express cars in the 1920s.

Photo caption: The last three Newton Boys taken in 1972. The Newton Boys were from Uvalde and robbed banks and express cars in the 1920s.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman

It’s just a little snapshot of three old guys in a back yard. The story that goes with it, however, is a humdinger and you’re gonna love it.

It was uncomfortably cold and wet that midnight hour of January 20, 1922. Deputy Marshal W. Nance Meredith had walked his section and was heading back to the Faust & Co. building to punch the time clock. The 65-year-old night watchman was ready to be out of the weather and warm up. It would get really warm soon, hot in fact.

The Faust & Co. store was on West San Antonio Street next to the IGN depot, where the Brauntex theatre now sits. An “L” shaped building, it wrapped around the back of its neighbor the smaller First National Bank. The time clock was at the back in the campground that ran behind all the way to Mill Street.

Marshal Meredith made his way around the corner. “Stick ‘em up! Stick ‘em up!” a low voice hissed, making its point known by the touch of the muzzle end of a shotgun in Meredith’s belly. Meredith was startled but he quickly reacted by jumping back around the corner. He could just make out the figures of two men — one held a shotgun and the other looked like a rifle.

Meredith let a few shots fly in their direction and made fast time toward the depot. Felix Conrads, the station night manager, heard the gunshots and reached over to shut off the depot light. That evened up the odds. The two men had been in darkness since they had broken the lights in the campground. Meredith, now also in the dark, had a fighting chance. And fight he did.

Marshal Meredith fired again in the direction of the would-be robbers which only encouraged them to answer with a barrage of 20 to 40 shots back in his direction. For years, the walls of the depot bore the signs of the gunfight.

Two more men, obvious friends of the others, joined in the melee firing from Mill Street to create cover for their buddies. Making their way to a parked car, the foursome slipped into the dark. A “touch of blood” found in the campground was thought proof that at least one of Meredith’s shots had found its mark.

Meredith had used up all his ammunition, but by now many in the city were awake. Chief of Police Moeller, storeowner John Faust and neighbor Paul Jahn arrived on the scene. Faust immediately unlocked the store and checked his office. He found all in order. The other men went to the back of the store and stared at a gaping hole in the wall. Large bolt cutters lay on the ground alongside the heavy steel shutters, window and window frame that had once filled the opening before them. Ironically, the robbers thought they were breaking into the back of the bank without realizing that the Faust building wrapped around it.

The robbers had left an enormous amount of gear in their hasty retreat. Chief Moeller found a brand-new oxygen and acetylene torch with two extra tanks, a large sledge hammer, a pinch bar, and a sack of smaller tools that included keyhole saws and wrenches of all sizes. There was a large black rubber curtain with loops and rings to hang and shield the robbers’ work lights. A leather pouch contained flashlights, dynamite caps, fuses, a ball of soap mixed with oil and cotton bandages. Other miscellaneous articles included three bottles of liquid which turned out to be nitroglycerin. In short, the robbers had brought, and left, an A-1-state-of-the-art burgling kit.

One more item was found. It was a package about 14 x 4 inches in size. Chief Moeller handled this package very carefully; dynamite was unstable and exploded easily. He gently unwrapped the contents. There was an explosion — of laughter, for the package contained an entire loaf of bread that had been hollowed out and stuffed with ham! Apparently, the robbers had brought munchies to the heist.

The burglary equipment was taken to San Antonio where it was discovered that much of it had been stolen. The bottles of nitroglycerin were taken to an open prairie out in Preiss Heights and Chief Moeller shot and exploded them creating a large hole.

W. Nance Meredith was hailed a hero in NB and around the state for his bravery and quick action in thwarting the break-in. A collection was taking up by grateful townsfolk and First National Bank presented him with a $100 check.

The bank robbers were not caught. However, when the New Braunfels State Bank was successfully robbed less than three months later on March 10, 1922, Chief Moeller suggested that it had been committed by the same gang (check out https://sophienburg.com/a-bank-robbery-in-downtown-new-braunfels/ ). As it turned out, Chief Moeller might have been right. The robbers, known as the “Newton Boys” had successfully robbed quite a number of banks in Central Texas using the same MO and equipment. Personally, I think the “Boys” were responsible for both. They had to be miffed about the botched attempt which made them pull off the spectacular daytime robbery in March. $100,000+ is pretty good compensation.

And now we are back to the photo of three old men. This snapshot of Willis, Joe and Dock Newton was taken in 1972. It was given to Oscar Haas in 1975 when Willis and Joe came to New Braunfels with a film crew from Trinity University. They were capturing footage for a documentary film,”The Newton Boys: Portrait of an Outlaw Gang”. The Newton Boys were caught and sentenced in 1924, served their time and then lived their lives telling many-a-tale.

Small town Texas history is just so good.

Sources: NB Herald, Neu-Braunfelser Zeitung, NB Herald-Zeitung collections; Oscar Haas collections, “Reflections” oral history collection #7, Paul Jahn; Gangster Tour of Texas, T. Lindsay Baker, 2013.