Category Archives: Texas Rangers

Dispatches From the Lone Star Front, Christmas Edition: The Santa Claus Bandits

This is going to be brief, in part because Damon Sasser did a thorough write-up on this crime last year, and I see no need to repeat what he said.  Also, Damon quoted from one of Robert E. Howard’s letter describing the crime.  Instead, I’ll provide a brief summary of what happened and then get into why I was reminded of this.

Site of Ratliff’s lynching

In short, four men robbed the First National Bank in Cisco, Texas on Friday, December 23, 1927.  The men were Marshall Ratliff, Henry Helms, Robert Hill, and Helm’s brother-in-law, Louis E. Davis.  The men started from Wichita Falls, in Northwest Texas.  They chose the bank in Cisco because Ratliff’s mother once ran a cafe there, and he knew the city.  To keep from being recognized, Ratliff wore a Santa suit into the bank.

Things went wrong from the get-go.  The end result was 14 causulties, including 6 fatalies, three people (all children or teens) kidnapped, two gun battles, and the first manhunt from the air in the state.  Davis died of his wounds received in the first gun battle, Helms went to the electric chair, and Ratliff was lynched after killing a deputy sheriff in an attempted jail break.

The whole thing almost reads like a movie script, one with equal measures of drama and comedy, especially if the Keystone Kops are involved.  It amazes me that law enforcement couldn’t catch wounded men driving on the rims because the tires have been shot out.  Twice, the second time ending in a chase on foot.  Two of the three crooks still on the loose got away; Ratliff was wounded in the leg and captured. The photo below shows the posse after capturing Hill and Helms in Graham.  Hill is the man in the front row to the right of center with his arm in his dark coat; Helms is the man on his left looking down.

The competency of the bank robbers wasn’t much better.  Ratliff was mobbed by children who thought he was Santa as he walked to the bank.  The robbers had to abandon the getaway car shortly after leaving the scene of the crime because they didn’t think to check the fuel level before the robbery and ran out of gas.  They were so intent on transferring their hostages to the next car that they forgot to transfer the money and left it in the original car.  Getting turned around in the dark after spending the night hiding in the country, they drove back into Cisco to steal another car (one the police wouldn’t be looking for) thinking they were driving into Breckenridge.  The two remaining robbers surrendered in Graham; they hadn’t eaten in days and were too weak to resist.  The whole thing sounds like one of Donald E. Westlake’s caper novels.

To get full details, read Damon’s post or see Gangster Tour of Texas by T. Lindsay Baker (filled with photos and maps) or A. C. Greene’s  The Santa Claus Bank Robbery for further details.  The Baker book is a tour book of gangster sties in Texas.  The bank in Cisco still exists, although it’s in a different location.  Other than the site of the first Hilton hotel (yes, that Hilton), the bank robbery is Cisco’s only real claim to fame.

The reason I’m bringing this crime up is because on Christmas Eve 1950, a highly fictionalized dramatization of the story with the title “Christmas Present” was broadcast on Tales of the Texas Rangers, a Dragnet-style radio program.  I heard it rerun the other day on satellite radio while driving my son to meet his grandparents.

The show took great liberties with the story, moving the story to 1931 and reducing the number of bank robbers to two men and one woman accomplice.  Both of the men wore Santa suits and pretended to be charity bell ringers, with one relieving the other.  The story also introduced a poverty stricken man who had been duped into renting the Santa suits in order to raise money to give his children a Christmas.  The thieves are caught with old fashioned detective work, with not a single shot being fired.

As a detective story told with the limits of radio, it was pretty good, even if it didn’t have much resemblance to the facts.  One of the consultants on the show was Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas.  Gonzaullas was one of the Rangers in the (unsuccessful) plane search for the bank robbers in the original crime.  My last installment of this series focused on a Texas Ranger, so I’ll save Gonzaullas for another time.

Dispatches From the Lone Star Front: Profile of an Early Texas Ranger

It got an email last week from Jason Waltz, informing the contributors of Home of Heroics that he was discontinuing adding new material to the site.  Between work and family obligations, not to mention trying to publish the books on the Rogue Blades Entertainment schedule, Jason said he was exhausted and simply couldn’t devote the time necessary to maintaining the site.  As regular readers of this blog are probably aware, I was one of the contributors to Home of Heroics, with a quarterly column entitled “Dispatches From the Lone Star Front”, featuring heroes from Texas.  It was in a different vein than what I do here, focusing on history with little or no fantasy aspect.  With Jason’s blessing, that column will continue here, although I don’t know if it will be quarterly, more frequently, or just when I find something interesting to write about.  Reader reaction will help me decide.

Adventures Fantastic would like to wish Jason and Rogue Blades Entertainment all the best.  Home of Heroics will be missed; the contributors are still around and blogging on other sites, so if you enjoyed the work of any of them, look them up if you haven’t already.  Now, here is the most recent Dispatch from the Lone Star Front that would have been posted at HoH if things had been different:
Jack Hays
There are a number of qualities that are commonly used to describe heroes.  One of them is courage.  John Coffee “Jack” Hays had that in spades.
Hays was one of the first Texas Rangers, seeing most of his service during the days of the Republic, before Texas joined the United States, and then during the Mexican War.  He was renowned for his bravery, cunning, and his leadership.  He was called “Devil Jack” by the Comanches. 
The Rangers were formed to protect the Texas settlers, both Anglo and Tejano, against bandits and hostile Indians.  The Comanches were the primary tribe hostile to the settlers, and they were traditional enemies of the Lipan Apaches.  Naturally, the Rangers, and Hays in particular, allied themselves with the Lipan.  Hays’ Lipan scout Flacco is reported by Walker Prescott Webb to have said, “Me and Red Wing not afraid to go to hell together.  Captain Jack he brave; not afraid to go to hell by himself.” 

More than once Hays stood his ground against superior numbers and prevailed.  One incident was at Enchanted Rock, now a state park north of Fredricksburg.  Enchanted Rock is a large lava dome, visible for miles, and a perfect spot to scout out the surrounding countryside.  This was what Hays reportedly did one day in the fall of 1841.  I say “reportedly” because Hays never confirmed the story.  On the other hand, he never denied it, either, and he was usually quick to correct any inaccurate stories about himself.  True or not, it’s a great tale.
Hays had left a group of surveyors on the nearby Pedernales River.  He was armed with two revolvers, his rifle, and his Bowie knife.  The only ammunition he had was what was in the guns.  Near the top, he found himself pursued by a party of Comanches.
Enchanted Rock
Now Enchanted Rock is not an easy climb, although from a distance it can appear to be.  I know; I’ve climbed it several times and hope to again with my son when he’s a little older.  The rock is fairly smooth and round in most places, and it’s easy to slip. It can also get bloody hot in the Texas sun, as the rock reradiates the solar energy it absorbs, but like a parking lot does.  There are boulders and small caves on one side (not shown in the photo), but mainly its a steep hike with little to no handholds.
Hays managed to hide in a crevice and holdout until his men were able to rescue him.  The Comanches were notorious for their tricks, and they tried unsuccessfully to get him to waste his ammunition.  The Comanches eventually tired of these tactics and rushed Hays.  He fought off the first rush and was preparing to make his final stand with just his knife when the survey party, alerted by the shots, rode to his rescue.
Hays also changed frontier warfare forever once the Colt Paterson five-shot revolvers were introduced.  In June 1844, Hays and fifteen Rangers were approached by a few Comanche riders.  The Comanches attempted to get the Rangers to follow them.  This was a standard Comanche trick used to lure overeager settlers into a trap.  Hays and the Rangers had used the same trick themselves and didn’t fall for it.
Colt Paterson revolver
When the Comanches saw that their ruse wouldn’t work, they retreated.  Hays and his men weren’t fooled.  As short time later, they saw the full Comanche war band, between 60 and 70 braves, waiting for them on a rise.  The Rangers charged, but as soon as they were down in a ravine and shielded from the sight of the Comanches, the swept up the ravine and emerged on their enemies’ flank. 
Standard practice at the time was to fire only some of the rifles, keeping the rest in reserve.  Armed with the new pistols, Hays ordered his men to fire all their rifles.  They then charged the Comanches. 
Even though they were caught off guard by this approach, the Comanches vastly outnumbered the Rangers and encircled them.  The Rangers formed their own defensive circle, dropped their rifles, and drew their revolvers.  Each Ranger had two.  The Rangers charged again.
Up until this point, firearms had had limited effectiveness against Comanches because of the buffalo hide shields they carried were hard enough to deflect bullets when angled properly, and most bullets were fired from rifles shot at a distance.  This tactic didn’t work against the Colts, which could be fired more than once without reloading and be fired accurately at short range.
The Rangers killed at least 20 of the Comanches in the first charge, but the Comanches were not deterred.  They charged again, and again their numbers were decimated.  Only about 20 of the Comanches were left.  Their leader was trying to convince them to attack again when Hays asked if any of his men had a loaded rifle.  He then ordered Ad Gillespie, another renowned Ranger (who had been wounded in the fight), to dismount and shoot the chief.  Gillespie did, putting a bullet through his head.  The remaining Comanches decided running like hell was the better part of valor and fled.
Weapons don’t make heroes.  Courage does, as the life of John Coffee Hays demonstrates.  But weapons can sometimes ensure the hero lives to tell the tale.