“Hello, Santa Claus,” said the bank cashier of the First National Bank of Cisco, Texas to someone who walked up to him dressed as the iconic Christmastime figure. It was only two days before the Christmas of 1927, so no one was surprised to see a man in the festive costume.
But this Santa was not there to make a deposit or take out a loan for a bigger toy shop. He was there to make a permanent withdrawal — at gunpoint — of $12,200 in cash and $150,000 in securities. Accounting for inflation, that would be a haul of about $180,000 and $2.2 million in today’s dollar value.
The man in the holiday disguise was Marshall Ratliff, who had only recently been pardoned along with his brother by Texas Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson — who issued about 4,000 pardons during her tenure — for robbing another bank.
The two planned to rob the Cisco bank together, but Ratliff’s brother had already been arrested again before they could pull off the heist. So instead of his brother, Ratliff pulled some others into his get-rich-quick scheme: two other ex-convicts, Henry Helms and Robert Hill, and Louis Davis.
The four men plotted the robbery in Wichita Falls before stealing a car and driving down to Cisco.
Since Ratliff was known to the people in the town, he decided to dress as Santa to conceal his identity.
The group entered the bank around noon on Friday, December 23, 1927. One woman, Mrs. B. P. Blassengame, and her daughter followed in behind Santa, who took all of the attention off of the other robbers entering the building.
Everyone got into their planned positions and, according to Boyce House who recounted the robbery in the March 1930 issue of Startling Detective Magazine, the customers and employees of the bank thought it was a joke when one of the bandits shouted out, “Stick ‘em up, everybody!”
It didn’t take long before everyone realized the men with the guns were conducting an actual robbery.
Blassengame and her daughter snuck out through a door to the alley and ran across the street to a police station. A shot from one of the robbers whizzed behind them, but they made it to the station safely.
Meanwhile, Ratliff barged into the back of the bank and forced the teller to open the safe. The phony Santa pulled a potato sack out from under his clothes and loaded it up with the cash and securities.
With the town and police now fully aware of the robbery in progress, it wasn’t long before a gunfight broke out.
As Ratliff loaded up the money, Helms took his position by the alley door and began firing shots up and down.
Police Chief G. E. Bedford and Officer George Carmichael were outside firing back at the bandits along with several armed citizens.
Over 200 bullets were reportedly exchanged, tearing up the bank and alley.
Both Bedford and Carmichael were killed by wounds in the shootout, and another six citizens were also wounded.
Ratliff and Davis were wounded, too — the latter robber quite severely.
The bandits exited the building using hostages as cover from the bullets — including two young girls, Emma May Robinson and Laverne Comer, who they forced into their getaway car.
Some gunshots left a flat tire on their car and a hole in the gas tank, so on the criminals stopped at the edge of town to hijack a car from someone else — the Harris family.
In the midst of the hijacking, Woody, the fourteen-year-old who was driving, removed the keys and took it with him.
After the robbers had moved into the new car, they realized that they wouldn’t be able to start the car.
By that time, Davis’s injuries were so bad that they decided to move on without him — and the money — and go back to the original car with the two young hostages.
Being chased by townsfolk, the gang drove a few miles out of town and into the thick brush before abandoning the car, the Santa suit, and the little girls to escape on foot.
For the next several days, the wounded fugitives made their way in hiding throughout the thick brush in the region.
They stole multiple cars and took another hostage, Carl Wylie. However, Wylie was eventually let free to go and he quickly reported what happened to the local authorities pursuing the bandits.
After Christmas, police finally caught up with the robbers who were now around South Bend in Young County.
A vehicle chase ensued for several miles until the bandits’ stolen car came to a sudden stop. The three men sprang out and started rushing toward a wooded area on the other side of an open field.
Cy Bradford, a Texas Ranger who was a few cars behind them in the chase, also jumped from his car and started running toward the criminals.
According to House’s account, Bradford fired three blasts of his double-barreled shotgun at the three fugitives, wounding each.
Ratliff fell down from the shot that hit him and was taken into custody.
Helms and Hill both made it into the woods and the pursuit continued.
Worn out and feeble, the two were finally caught and arrested a week after the robbery attempt occurred.
Helms was identified as the one who killed the two officers and was sentenced to death.
House says he attempted to plead insanity and muttered a chant under his breath repeatedly during the trial: “Ain’t—gonna—sing.”
The jury found him sane, though, and he was put to death by electric chair.
Ratliff was also convicted and sentenced to death for his role in the deaths of the two officers.
He attempted an insanity plea and had a chant of his own: “The Lord have mercy on my soul.”
The mastermind of the robbery was able to convince the jailers that he had gone insane by acting “blind, paralyzed, and demented,” writes House. “He seemed as helpless as a baby.”
But after ten days, he made an escape attempt. Ratliff was able to grab a gun and fired three shots at Deputy Sheriff Tom Jones.
The jailer, along with the help of his daughter who rushed in from the adjoining living quarters with a gun, was able to stop Ratliff’s attempt.
When it was learned that Jones wasn’t likely to recover from his wounds, a mob in the community grew furious.
A crowd of reportedly over 1,000 amassed at the jail to demand immediate justice.
Despite the jailer’s plea to let the law take its course, the mob took hold of Ratliff and brought him out into the street and stripped him naked.
They dragged the man behind a theater — which is said to have been producing a play titled “The Noose” at the time — and lynched the man.
“It was the first lynching of a white man in Texas for many years,” writes House.
The angry mob hung the man to die on a nearby telephone pole.
On the next day, thousands of people flocked to see his body on display in the window of a furniture store, before being moved to a morgue.
While Ratliff and Helms met an ending worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy, Hill’s life was much more fortunate.
He was not sentenced to death, but was given a lifetime in prison.
Hill made several escape attempts before being let out on parole and being allowed to change his name.
And according to a 1977 article from the Abilene Reporter, Hill actually grew to be on good terms with Woody Harris, the teenage boy who had kept the bandits from stealing his family’s car.
“He’s a fine fellow,” said Harris. “He’s my friend.”
Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. While recently finishing his degree in Political Science from Azusa Pacific University, he also interned in the U.S. Senate and co-authored a book on C. S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. In his spare time, he might be reading up on Dostoevsky or attempting to write a novel.