It was the year of Calvin Coolidge, Prohibition, Charles Lindbergh, and the “talkie” motion picture. Ford had just replaced the Model-T with the Model-A. In Dallas, E.R. Byer and Harry Rolnick started cranking out Resistol cowboy hats.
It was 1927. Bank robberies in Texas were occurring at the rate of three or four per day. So that November, the Texas Bankers Association announced a reward of $5,000 for dead bank robbers shot during a robbery, but not one penny for a live one.
Marshall Ratliff and his brother, Lee, had served a year in prison for robbing the bank at Valera. A group of folks in his hometown of Cisco petitioned Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson to give the boys another chance. The governor pardoned the two. Then, just a year later, they were all set to rob the First National Bank in Cisco.
Before the planned bank job could happen, Lee was jailed for another robbery, Marshall Ratliff and his ex-convict partners, Henry Helms and Robert Hill, suggested he ask a relative of Helms, Louis Davis, to participate in the heist. Davis had no record, needed money, and became convinced it would be an easy job.
The foursome headed for Cisco in a stolen Buick. Ratliff borrowed a Santa coat and a plastic Santa mask as a disguise. His mother had owned a diner in Cisco, and he did not want to be recognized.
They rolled into Cisco around midday on December 23rd. Ratliff hid on the floorboard until getting out by the docks, while the rest parked the car in the alley behind the bank. A small group of kids followed him to the bank, asking for candy and presents.
The bank was quiet during the lunch hour, with only four employees on duty and a handful of customers inside. The three accomplices slipped in behind Ratliff. All eyes were on Santa. Banker Joe Spears smiled and said, “Hello, Santa Claus,” not sure who it might be behind the mask. Then he saw the guns.
Across the street, six-year-old Frances Blasengame had seen Santa enter the bank, and began pestering her mother to let her see Santa. As they entered, Mrs. Blasengame took one look at the guns and began shoving her daughter through the bank, ignoring the robbers’ orders for her to stop. She did not stop until she reached the back door, ripping the screen door from the frame and tumbling into the alley. The two ran to the Cisco Police station, shouting, “They’re robbing the bank! They’re holding up the First National!”
Davis, Hill, and Helms held the bankers and customers at gunpoint, while Santa got a gun from the teller cage and shoved it in his waistband. He gave the banker a tow sack and told him to fill it up. The banker shoved money, bonds, checks, and paper into the potato sack until Ratliff shouted, “That’s enough!”
As Ratliff exited the vault, the robbers fired at a man peering through the front window of the bank. Almost immediately, a hail of gunfire erupted from the street. Police Chief, Bit Bedford, and two of his officers converged on the bank along with half the town! Hardware stores emptied their shelves of guns, passing them out to customers who all headed to the bank. The Postmaster and his assistant took their government-issued revolvers out and headed up the alley as well.
Bullets rained down on the bank lobby. The robbers herded everyone to the bookkeeping room in the back and began returning fire. Customers fired willy-nilly through the bank’s front windows and even staked out the back alley. One banker dove for the back door and was hit in the jaw by a bullet. The robbers herded the hostages into the alley, and one hostage was immediately hit by a stray bullet. The bandits shoved him into the stolen Buick’s back seat. The Harvard student calmly slid all the way across and exited the car on the other side, escaping. Bankers and customers ran for their lives.
One of the robbers shoved two crying little girls into the car. When Santa came out of the bank, the police chief and his deputy were quickly shot in the hail of gunfire. Davis came out of the bank into the alley and was hit by a shotgun blast before collapsing into the Buick. The robbers took off with the two girls as hostages just as the Postmaster fired and blew out one of the rear tires.
It was about that moment that the bandits discovered they had failed to fill the car up with gasoline. A few blocks later, the Harris family saw Santa waving for them to stop. Woodrow Harris, age 14, pulled his Oldsmobile over. When the robbers ordered them out of the car, Woodrow politely got out, and ran with his family to safety behind a nearby house. The robbers quickly transferred everything to the Harris’s car—the girls, the money, and a badly-injured Louis Davis. Once they were all inside, they discovered the fourteen-year-old driver had taken the keys with him.
Under a hail of bullets from the advancing posse, they transferred the hostages back to the Buick, abandoning Davis, in the back seat of the Oldsmobile. Once they were on their way again, they realized they had left the loot on the seat with Davis.
Davis died later that night, along with Chief Bedford. The remaining three robbers, two of them bleeding from bullet wounds, left the two girls and hid out in the Eastland County brush.
Brazenly, the men snuck back into town and stole a Ford, which they used to elude police for days. The weather began to rain and sleet. The men were not yet caught, but they could not find a way to slip out of Eastland County.
They wrecked the Ford, but carjacked a Dodge and its driver, 22-year-old Carl Wylie. Wylie’s father, in his haste to shoot the fleeing bandits, accidentally shot his son in the arm. The men eventually stole another vehicle and let Wylie go.
The robbery made national news, and the hunt was joined by the Texas Rangers. A biplane was even used to search for the men by air, one of the first times an airplane had been used to help find bank robbers. Back in Cisco, Deputy Carmichael had also passed away from the shots he received in the alley, bringing the total to three dead and eight wounded, not counting the robbers who were on the run.
Using the information Carl Wylie had given them, police set up a road block at South Bend. They ambushed the bandits as they tried to cross the Brazos River. Texas Ranger Cy Bradford shot all three suspects as they ran. Ratliff was captured, while Helms and Hill eluded police for a few more days. They were eventually captured near Graham, seriously injured from the gunshots, and weakened severely from blood loss, dehydration, and exhaustion.
The trials started the following month. Ratliff and Hill each received a 99-year sentence for the robbery. Ratliff and Helms were both given the death penalty for the murders of Chief Bedford and Deputy Carmichael.
Both men filed appeals, pleading insanity. Helms’s appeal was denied first, and on September 6, 1929, he was dragged kicking and screaming from his cell and electrocuted in a chair known as Old Sparky. Ratliff, still awaiting an execution date, continued to feign insanity, going limp and having to be fed, bathed, and dressed like an invalid while he babbled incoherently. He was transferred back to the Eastland jail for the sanity hearing.
After 25 days of lying motionless and pretending insanity, Ratliff took advantage of an unlocked cell door to slip downstairs and get the jailer’s unattended gun. He shot and mortally wounded “Uncle Tom” Jones before being pistol whipped with the stolen revolver by the other jailer, Pack Kilbourn.
The following evening, on November 19, 1929, an angry mob of hundreds of Eastland residents gathered in front of the jail to lynch Ratliff. The crowd subdued Kilbourn, stormed the jail, and dragged Ratliff into the street.
The angry residents threw a rope around his neck and hoisted his naked body into the air. After the first rope broke, the residents got another rope and successfully hanged the Santa Claus bank robber in front of an audience of hundreds. The body remained in front of the hardware store until the coroner could collect it.
After multiple prison escapes, Bobby Hill, the youngest of the robbers, eventually served the mandatory 20 years of his 99-year sentence. He was released from prison in 1948, assumed a new identity, and became a productive member of society in a small West Texas town.
The Texas Bankers Association never did pay out on the reward money, unable to establish just whose bullet struck Louis Davis. Today, a historical marker denotes the site of the former First National Bank, but few outside of Cisco remember the Santa Claus Robbery of 1927.