Santa Claus walks into a bank brandishing a pistol. He’s also got a sack, but he’s not looking to distribute any gifts. He’s flanked by three helpers, but they’re hardly elfish-types. Two of them are ex-cons, while the other is a family man looking to make a quick buck.
It happened at around noon on December 23, 1927 in the central Texas town of Cisco. The man dressed as Santa Claus was Marshall Ratliff. He’d served time for bank robbery in the past and he was at it again.
Ratliff knew Henry Helms and Robert Hills from the Texas State Penitentiary, so he roped them into the heist. They’d also squared up an expert safe-cracker, but at the last minute he came down with the flu. His replacement was Louis Davis, a relative of Helm’s.
The holdup at the First National Bank in Cisco led to the largest manhunt the state of Texas had ever seen.
The festive disguise
On the morning of the crime, the four men stole a Buick in Wichita Falls, where they’d been planning the armed robbery. As they drove into town, Ratliff donned a Santa Claus suit he’d borrowed from the woman who ran the boarding house where they’d been staying.
At the time the authorities tracked down Ratliff for his previous bank robbery, he’d been living in Cisco. So he was well aware he might be recognised and for that reason he wore the Saint Nick disguise.
A Christmas stick up
As Ratliff entered the bank, a cashier called out, “Hello Santa.” But he ignored her and moved on towards the desk where customers wrote out their deposit slips.
Then the other three men entered the lobby and drew their shotguns indicating it was a holdup. As they covered the customers and staff, Ratliff grabbed the money out of the cashiers’ draws. He then ordered a staff member to open the vault and stuffed his sack full of cash.
However, Mrs Blassengame entered the bank with her daughter as the robbery was in progress. Realising the danger – and despite warnings from the robbers that they’d shoot – she rushed back out another door with her child in tow.
And that’s how the armed robbers’ plan came unstuck. Blassengame screamed for help, alerting police chief Bedford that the holdup was taking place.
The shoot out
Noticing someone outside the bank, Hill fired a shot through a window and it was returned. He then fired several warning shots into the roof of the building. And the battle began. Gunfire was exchanged from inside and outside the bank.
At the time, three or four banks were being held up a week in Texas, so the Texas Bankers Association had put forward a $5,000 reward for anyone who killed a bank robber in the act. Once word got around town, most of the locals who owned guns had gathered at the entrance.
In order to escape, the robbers forced all the people inside the First National to shield them as they made their way to the getaway car.
In the ensuing gunfight six of the hostages were wounded, but most got away. However, two young girls Laverne Comer, aged 12, and Emma May Robertson, aged 10, were taken hostage in the car.
Chief Bedford and the town’s deputy George Carmichael were mortally wounded during the exchange. Davis was severely shot up and Ratliff suffered two minor wounds.
A failed getaway
The gang drove out of town, pursued by the mob. But as they did, they noticed they were running low on petrol, so they flagged down an Oldsmobile. They loaded it up with the stolen money. However, as they went to start the vehicle, they realised the 14-year-old driver had taken off with the keys.
So they piled back into the Buick, taking the two hostages with them. But they left Davis behind, as he was riddled with bullets.
When the townspeople got to the Oldsmobile they found a dying Davis, along with the $12,000 in cash and $150,000 in non-negotiable securities the men had stolen. The bandits had forgotten the loot in their haste to escape.
The remaining three robbers eventually dumped off the stolen vehicle, along with the two girls. They took off on foot for a while, then stole another car. At one point, they hijacked Carl Wylie’s vehicle and forced him to drive them around for 24 hours.
But after days on the run, they were eventually ambushed by Sheriff Foster of Young County, as they tried to cross the Brazos River. A firefight broke out and Ratliff was shot and taken into custody.
Several days later Helms and Hill were located in the town of Graham. Neither of them resisted arrest.
Hill pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. After several foiled escape attempts, he was paroled in the mid-1940s and became a productive member of society.
Helms was identified as the man who gunned down both Bedford and Carmichael outside the First National. His plea of insanity was unsuccessful. And on September 6, 1929, he was executed by electric chair.
Ratliff was convicted of armed robbery on January 27, 1928 and sentenced to 99 years. But days later, he was also convicted of the killings of the two lawmen, even though no one could testify that they’d seen him shoot a gun at the bank. He too was sentenced to execution.
Had Santa lost the plot?
On the day of Helm’s execution, Ratliff seemed to suffer a mental breakdown, which led his mother to file for an insanity hearing.
But the citizens back in Cisco were infuriated he hadn’t been executed. So a judge from the Cisco vicinity convicted him for stealing the Oldsmobile, and had him extradited to the East County gaol.
Months later, Ratliff had his new gaolers convinced he was insane. But one day, Ratliff saw a chance of escape, when he got his hands on a pistol. As he tried to make the break, he mortally wounded one of the prison officers.
The lynching of Kris Kringle
By this point, the locals had had enough. A thousand of them gathered out the front of the prison shouting, “We want Santa Claus. We want Santa Claus.” The crowd forced their way into the prison and dragged Ratliff out of his cell.
They bound his legs and hands together. Then carried him to a telephone pole and tried to hang him with a rope. The first attempt failed, as the knot came undone and Ratliff fell to the ground.
However, on the second attempt, the lynch-mob was successful. As the felon’s body hung motionless and limp, the crowd cheered.
Marshall Ratliff – the Santa Clause robber – was pronounced dead at 9.55 pm on November 19, 1929.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.