Friday, December 20, 2019

The Great Santa Claus Bank Robbery

I imagine you've all heard of the Jesse James gang, the Dalton gang, Bonnie and Clyde, and their many bank robberies, but have you ever heard of the infamous Santa Claus Bank Robbery? I hadn't until I started hunting for a topic for today's post. I wanted it to be related to Christmas in some way and thought of looking online for the first Texas Santa Claus. Imagine my surprise when several articles popped up about the Santa Claus Bank Robbery.

What??? I had to investigate that. Turns out the robbery occurred on December 23, 1927, in the central Texas town of Cisco.
The perpetrators were Marshall (his name, not a law enforcement officer) Ratliff, Henry Helms and Robert Hill, all ex-cons, and Louis Davis, a relative of Helms. The four held up the First National Bank in Cisco. The ensuing manhunt was the largest ever conducted in Texas. Eyewitness Boyce House wrote that this was "the most spectacular crime in the history of the Southwest ... surpassing any in which Billy the Kid or the James boys had ever figured."

Three or four bank robberies occurred every day in Texas during this period, and the Texas Bankers Association had offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who shot a bank robber during the crime. Making matters more dangerous for the would-be robbers, Ratliff had lived in Cisco before and knew he would be recognized . . . unless he wore a disguise.

Therefore, Ratliff donned a Santa Claus suit borrowed from the boarding house where the outlaws had been staying in Wichita Falls up in North Texas. His cohorts let him out of their stolen car a few blocks from the bank in Cisco and he walked up Main Street, smiling and talking to children who were excited to see Santa. The street was crowded with shoppers in the Christmas spirit. None thought it odd when Santa came walking along around noon followed by children. Ratliff met the other three villains in an alley and led them into the bank, still with children tagging after him.

The bank cashier said "Hello Santa" but got no response. A few customers stood at the teller's window making deposits. At this point, Ratliff's accomplice, Robert Hill, entered the bank, pistol in hand, and snarled, "Hands up!" The other two bandits followed him in, also waving guns.

Ratliff strode into the cashier's cage, opened a drawer under the counter, found a gun and tucked it under his Santa suit. Next, he ordered the assistant cashier to open the safe, and began stuffing money and bonds into a sack he had hidden beneath his costume while the others covered the customers and employees.

Not knowing a robbery was in progress, Mrs. B. P. Blassengame and her six-year-old daughter entered the bank wanting to see Santa. When she saw what was happening, the brave woman dashed with her daughter through the bank's bookkeeping office and escaped out a door to the alley, ignoring threats to shoot from the robbers. Screaming for help, she ran to city hall and the police department, alerting Chief of Police Bedford and many citizens about the robbery.

Eyewitness Boyce House said, "Police Chief G.E. "Bit" Bedford [was] a giant of a man and a veteran peace officer." Grabbing a riot gun, he headed for the bank, ordering officers to cover the building's back door. The chief stationed himself at the side alley that opened at the bank's front on Main Street.

Who fired the first shot is uncertain, but a fusillade of gunfire began, as many civilians with guns gathered outside the bank, perhaps eager to collect that $5,000 reward for shooting one of the robbers. A rifle bullet struck one outlaw in the arm and "spun him around." A cashier was shot in the jaw, and a customer took a bullet in the leg.

The robbers forced all the people in the bank out the door to the alley, where they'd left their blue sedan. Several of these people were wounded as they emerged. Most of the customers escaped, but the outlaws held two little girls hostage, using them as shields wile making for their getaway car.

During the alley shootout, Chief Bedford and Deputy George Carmichael were mortally wounded. Chief Bedford, who had been a peace officer in the area for some 25 years, was shot five times. He died on Christmas Day; Carmichael died almost a month later.
The robbers' escape from Cisco turned into a comedy of errors. First, they found they were low on gas because they'd forgotten to fill the tank beforehand. As they neared the edge of town, pursued by an angry mob, a bullet flattened one of their tires. Brandishing their guns, they commandeered a passing car driven by 14-year-old Woodrow Wilson Harris. They transferred the loot, hostages, and critically wounded comrade Louis Davis to the car amid gunfire, during which Robert Hill was also struck. Then they discovered they could not start the car because its young driver had taken the keys when ordered to stop.

By now, Davis was unconscious, so they left him in Harris's car and moved back to the first car with their two hostages. They did not realize until later that they had left the money behind with Davis. They had stolen $12,400 in cash and $150,000 in nonnegotiable securities.

The mob of citizens found Davis and the money and temporarily suspended the chase. They returned the money to the bank, which sustained at least 200 bullet holes during the robbery. Besides the two police officers, six townspeople had been wounded in the shootout. Davis, who joined the gang at the last minute, had never before committed a crime. He was taken to a Fort Worth hospital and treated but died from his wounds.

The remaining three robbers had raced out on Main Street, firing at their pursuers. They swung east on a dirt road and escaped into a pasture, dodging cactus, mesquite and scrub oak until the growth became impassable. Forced to abandon their bullet-riddled car a few miles from town, they continued on foot, leaving the two young hostages behind.

Sheriff John Hart of Eastland, the county seat, was called in. He and his deputies raced to the spot where the bandits had abandoned their car. Reporters, including Boyce House, followed in another vehicle. By House's account, "officers and citizens poured in from all that section of the state and such a manhunt as Western Texas had never seen before was soon in progress ... Many members of the posse were on horseback or on foot as they beat their way through clumps of trees, searched high grass in the bottoms of ravines and peered around boulders in canyons."

Bloodstained rags and garments were discovered, but the fugitives evaded search parties and stole another car the next morning. However, after a week, the manhunt finally succeeded in capturing the three bank robbers. Ratliff was described as a "walking arsenal," bearing six gunshot wounds and six pistols when captured, including the one he took from the bank. "Santa" had been caught, and after killing one of his jailers in an attempt to escape from the Eastland County jail, he was dragged out by a furious mob and lynched.

One sad result of the Yuletide crime was its effect on small children in the area. On Christmas Eve, a church in Eastland was filled with worshippers. When jolly Saint Nicholas entered, a little boy called out in a quivering voice, "Santa Claus, why did you rob that bank?"

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Ho, Ho, Ho!


  1. Lyn, what a story that was! Never know what we can discover when researching on Google! Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  2. Cheri, it's shocking, isn't it. Same to you, my friend. See you here in 2020.

  3. What a traumatizing event for all involved, but especially the children. Even though we live not that far from Cisco, I had not heard of this robbery. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I agree, poor babies. Glad to share, Caroline. Thanks for stopping by. Merry Christmas!

    2. A stunning, dastardly story told in great detail! Thanks Lyn for this exceptional piece...pity the poor children caught in such mayhem! I wonder how the child-hostages survived the trauma.

    3. Thank you, Arletta. There is even more to tell about the manhunt and final capture, but I thought it would be too long. For the whole detailed story, just look online at wikipedia. How those poor kids survived and recovered, if they did, I don't know. It must have been very difficult.

  4. Quite a story, just proves no matter what the plans are, something goes wrong and often leads to sad outcome. It happens every day in criminal activities.


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