12/23/1927 - One of the most infamous crimes in Texas history takes place in the town of Cisco, when local outlaw Marshall Ratliff and some of his bandit buddies decide to procure some spending money for the holidays by robbing the local bank.
Known to residents of Cisco, for a disguise, twenty-four-year-old Ratliff borrows a Santa Claus suit from Mrs. Midge Tellet, the woman who runs the Wichita Falls boarding house the outlaw has been living in, steals a getaway car in Fort Worth, and along with his robber partners, ex-cons Henry Helms (thirty-two), Robert Hill (twenty-one), and Helms' relative, Louis Davis (twenty-two), proceeds to the First National Bank for what is hoped to be a large cash withdrawal.
First National Bank of Cisco, Texas
Dropped off a few blocks from the bank, Ratliff walks the streets as Santa, amusing downtown shoppers and drawing a small crowd of children, several of whom eventually follow the outlaw into the bank, and inside with his partners, everyone quickly discovers the man inside the red and white costume is not a jolly St. Nick. Pistols covering the patrons of the bank, Santa pulls out a large sack from beneath his disguise and begins stuffing it with cash from the teller stations and vault. The costume both an excellent disguise but also a magnet for happy holiday celebrants, it proves to be a negative when Mrs. B. P. Blassengame and her six-year-old daughter enter the establishment in hopes of spending a few quality moments with Kris Kringle ... instead they discover that the bank is being robbed, and exiting from a side door in the bookkeeping office, Blassengame runs a block to the police department where she notifies Police Chief George Edward "Bit" Bedford that a crime is taking place in his town.
Grabbing weapons, six-foot-four, two-hundred-twenty-pound Bedford and officers R.T. Redies and George Carmichael make their way at a trot to the First National and take up positions around the bank. Armed and ready, when one of the crooks inside fires through a window of the bank, a gun battle breaks out between the bandits, members of the police force, and locals who have run to a nearby hardware store and armed themselves with weapons seeking the $5,000 reward the Texas Bankers Association is offering to anyone who shoots and kills a bank robber. Bullets flying everywhere (over two hundred are said to be fired during this portion of the robbery), in the hailstorm of slugs outlaw Davis is hit seriously several times and bandit Ratliff is wounded in the leg and jaw, while bank president Alex Spears is shot in the face, local grocer Oscar Clitt is hit in the foot, and Marlon Olson, a college student home on Christmas vacation from Harvard is struck in the thigh. Sensing they will be turned into Swiss cheese if they step outside without cover, the gang gathers a group of hostages as shields, including twelve-year-old Laverne Corner and ten-year-old Emma May Robertson, and forces their way into the alley containing their getaway car, a dark blue Buick ... action that results in more woundings of outlaws and citizens alike. And in the alley, lawmen Carmichael and Bedford both go down trying unsuccessfully to keep the outlaws away from their vehicle ... sixty-year-old Bedford, a peace officer for over twenty-five-years dies from five wounds, and though he fights for life, Carmichael dies of his wounds on January 17th. They do not go to their graves alone though!
Fleeing in their car, which now sports a bullet punctured flat tire with a mob of angry citizens following them, on the edge of town the idiot crooks discover that the car they had stolen earlier is now almost out of gasoline (full when they left Fort Worth the night before, no one has refilled the vehicle upon reaching Cisco). Stopping to find other transportation, the outlaws next commandeer the Oldsmobile of fourteen-year-old Woody Harris (who is accompanied by his Christmas shopping parents and grandparents). Transferring money and weapons, the gang is ready to continue their escape, but discover young Harris has pulled a fast one, giving up his car, but keeping its keys when he and his family run off. Back again in their original car as they begin taking fire from townspeople once more (Hill is hit in the arm during this exchange of bullets), the bandits leave behind in the Harris Oldsmobile their unconscious partner, Louis Davis ... and proving they are mental midgets, the loot they have taken from the bank ... $12,400 in cash and $150,000 in security bonds. Captured a few moments later, Davis will die later that night at a local hospital.
Davis about to adios
The outlaws' car soon breaks down and the men flee into the wilderness of the region ... and in a bit of good news for the town of Cisco, the two little girls are found unhurt in the backseat of the Buick and returned to their parents. Outrage spreading like a wildfire, a huge manhunt for the murderers soon begins, the largest in Texas history. In the following days of Christmas Eve, Christmas, and beyond, the flight and pursuit includes the outlaws' kidnapping of Carl Wylie, who they force to drive them around until his car breaks down, the theft of another car and its abandonment, the bandits walking through icy and sleeting conditions, a thwarted ambush of the men by Sheriff Foster of Young County as the group tries to flee across the Brazos River, another car chase, a shootout in a field orchestrated by future Texas Ranger Cy Bradford who repeatedly loading and firing a double-barrel shotgun, wounds all three crooks (Hill and Helms will escape into the brush) and brings down Ratliff ... and a finale in which the last two bank robbers, cold, tired, and starving, walk into the town of Graham on December 30th and give themselves up.
Posse outside the Graham jail celebrating the
capture of the Santa Claus bank robbers
Fugitives in custody, Hill will be sentenced to ninety-nine-years in prison, Helms will roast in the state's electric chair, and Ratliff, sentenced to death, will feign insanity, kill one of his guards trying to escape, and be lynched by the upset citizens of Eastland County in November of 1929.
12/23/1927 - Cisco, Texas
With the human toll that the Santa Claus Bank Robbery and its aftermath take, it is little wonder that the crime is still remembered and considered one of the most infamous moments in the state of Texas' bloody history.