The Santa Claus Bandits

EastlandMulberrySt

Site of Ratliff’s Lynching

This post originally appeared at both the now defunct Home of Heroics site and Adventures Fantastic in December 2011. I’ve updated it a bit and reprinted it. I feel it’s a better fit here than either of the other two venues. As I mention later, this story was adapted for radio in the 1950s. I recently heard it broadcast again, so I thought I would dust this post off and reprint it.

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.  

Ratliff

Marshall Ratliff

Things went wrong from the get-go.  Ratliff was mobbed by children who thought he was Santa as he walked to the bank. The bandits weren’t able to secure the bank before Mrs. B. P. Blasingame and her daughter exited through the back door.  Mrs. Blasingame alterted the police at the City Hall the bank was being robbed.

A shoot-out ensued, with Davis being mortally wounded and two police officers were hit.  The robbers took hostages and drove off on a least one tire that had been shot out.  The townspeople, eager to collect on a standing reward for bank robbers, quickly gave chase.

As soon as they were out of downtown, the robbers realized they were almost out of gas.  They hadn’t filled up since leaving Wichita Falls.  They carjacked an Oldsmobile being driven by 14-year old Woodrow Wilson Harris, who was taking his parents and grandmother into town from the nearby community of Rising Star.  His grandmother was so frail, the bandits had to help her out of the car before they could take it.  While they were doing so, young Woodrow took the keys and ran off.

The bandits were forced to continue in their car until it stopped running.  At some point they realized they had left the money in the Harris vehicle where Ratliff had tossed the loot.  They managed to escape on foot after exchanging fire with the posse.

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 in a long open coat looking down.

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Hill and Helms captured in Graham

The competency of the bank robbers wasn’t much better.  Helms and Hill snuck back into town in the predawn hours of Christmas Eve and stole a car.  After midnight on December 26, they kidnapped a young man and forced him to be their chauffeur.  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.

Ratliff was captured after another shoot out near the community of South Bend between Breckenridge and Graham, but Hill and Helms escaped.  Texas Rangers brought in a plane to search for the fugitives from the air.  The two remaining robbers surrendered in Graham after hiding out in the brush for a few days; 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.

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 in Eastland.

To get full details, 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, and I’ll be visiting some of them and writing about them here from time to time. 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.

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Plaque commemorating the robbery.

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.

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