At the time it occurred, the Santa Claus Bank Robbery was one of Texas' most infamous crimes and led to the largest manhunt ever seen in the state. It all began on December 23, 1927, around noon when Marshall Ratliff, Henry Helms, Robert Hill, all ex-cons, and Louis Davis, a relative of Helms, held up the First National Bank in Cisco. Ratliff had been caught with his brother Lee after robbing a bank in Valera, and they had each served only a year of their sentences before being pardoned by Governor Miriam A. Ferguson. They had planned to rob the Cisco bank together, but Lee had already been arrested again. So Marshall pulled in Helms and Hill, whom he knew from Huntsville, and a fourth man who was good with safes. As they planned the crime in Wichita Falls, the safe-cracker came down with the flu, and the trio pulled in Davis, a family man in need, with the offer of big money. The four stole a car in Wichita Falls and headed for Cisco. They arrived on the morning of December 23 and prepared to make themselves some easy money, or so they thought.
During this period three or four Texas banks a day were being robbed, and in response, the Texas Bankers Association had offered a $5,000 reward to anyone shooting a bank robber during the crime. It was partly this reward that turned a simple bank robbery into a deadly crime. As the group neared the bank, Ratliff donned a Santa Claus suit he had borrowed from Mrs. Midge Tellet, who ran the boarding house where they had been staying in Wichita Falls. They let Ratliff out several blocks from the bank. Followed by children attracted to "Santa," Ratliff joined the other three in an alley and led the way into the bank. He did not respond to the greetings directed at Santa, and the other three drew their guns, indicating that it was a holdup. While the others covered the customers and employees, Ratliff grabbed money from the tellers and forced one to open the vault. Mrs. B. P. Blassengame and her daughter entered the bank while the holdup was in progress. Mrs. Blassengame, realizing the danger, led her daughter out another door, despite warnings from the robbers that they would shoot. She went into the alley and screamed for help, alerting Chief of Police G. E. (Bit) Bedford and most of the citizenry about the robbery. Several minutes later, Ratliff had filled his sack with money and came out of the vault. Seeing someone outside, Hill fired a shot through the window, and a shot was returned. Hill fired several more shots into the ceiling to show that they were armed. A fusillade of gunfire began, as many citizens who owned guns were now outside the bank. The robbers forced all of the people in the bank out the door and towards their car. Several of these hostages were wounded as they emerged into the alley, including Alex Spears, the bank president. Most of the customers escaped; however, two small girls, Laverne Comer and Emma May Robertson, were taken as hostages. In a shootout in the alley, as the robbers tried to get to their car, Chief Bedford and Deputy George Carmichael were mortally wounded; Bedford died several hours later, and Carmichael held on until January 17. Ratliff and Davis were also wounded in the shootout, Davis severely.
As the four began their escape with their hostages, they realized that they were almost out of gas and one of their tires had been shot out. They drove to the edge of town, pursued by the mob, and attempted to commandeer an Oldsmobile belonging to the Harris family. Fourteen-year-old Woody, who was driving, gave them the car but took the keys. The robbers transferred their things to the Oldsmobile, in the midst of gunfire which wounded Hill, only to realize that they could not start the car. Davis was by then unconscious, so they left him in the car and moved back to the first car with their two hostages. They did not realize until later that they had left the money with Davis. The mob found Davis and the money and temporarily gave up the chase. The money was returned to the bank. They had stolen $12,400 in cash and $150,00 in nonnegotiable securities. Estimates were made that there were at least 200 bullet holes in the bank, a number which many thought too low. Besides the two police officers, there had been six townspeople wounded in the shootout, but no one was sure whether the robbers or the mob was responsible. Davis died that night at a Fort Worth hospital.
The robbers abandoned the bullet-ridden car and the two girls several miles from town and continued on foot. They stole another car the next morning and managed to evade the search parties for a while, until they wrecked the car near Putnam. They commandeered a vehicle driven by Carl Wylie, forcing him to drive and taking him hostage for twenty-four hours. They then let Wylie have his car back and stole another car. The two wounded men, especially Ratliff, were doing very poorly due to their wounds, lack of food, and the icy, sleeting conditions. Eventually, the threesome was ambushed by Sheriff Foster of Young County at South Bend as they tried to cross the Brazos River. Another car chase followed, with a shootout in a field as the three tried to make their escape. Cy Bradford, a Texas Ranger, was involved in the firefight, and it is rumored that he hit all three men. Ratliff was hit and fell to the ground. Helms and Hill were both wounded, but they managed to escape into the woods. Several days later, after dodging an intense manhunt assisted by an airplane, the two made it into Graham and were taken into custody by lawmen without a fight. Two more men had been wounded in the manhunt from accidental discharge of their weapons, bringing the total number of wounded to eight, excluding the three surviving robbers.
Helms, Hill, and Ratliff had several wounds apiece and had not eaten for days. All survived however, and soon faced trials. Hill pleaded guilty to armed robbery, took the stand on his own behalf, and in March was sentenced to 99 years in prison. He escaped from prison three times but was recaptured each time. After settling down, he was paroled in the mid-1940s, changed his name, and became a productive citizen. Helms was identified as the one who had gunned down both lawmen and was given the death sentence in late February. After an unsuccessful insanity plea, he was executed by electric chair on September 6, 1929. Ratliff was first convicted of armed robbery on January 27, 1928, and sentenced to 99 years in prison. On March 30 he was sentenced to execution for his role in the deaths of Bedford and Carmichael, although no one could testify to having seen him fire a gun in the bank. Ratliff appealed his case and, when that failed, went for an insanity plea. He had begun acting insane the day that Helms was executed, and thoroughly convinced his jailers that he was. His mother, Rilla Carter, filed for a lunacy hearing in Huntsville. However, the citizens of Eastland County were infuriated that he had not been executed yet, and even further aggravated to know that Ratliff was attempting the insanity plea. Judge Davenport issued a bench warrant for an armed robbery charge, for stealing the Harris car, and extradited Ratliff to the Eastland County jail. There Ratliff convinced his jailers, Pack Kilbourn and Tom Jones, that he really was insane, as they had to feed him, bathe him, and take him to the toilet. On November 18 Ratliff attempted to escape, mortally wounding Tom Jones in the attempt. A crowd began to gather the next morning and by nightfall had grown to over 1,000. They began demanding Ratliff. Kilbourn refused but was overpowered, and the mob rushed in and found Ratliff. Dragging him out, they tied his hands and feet and headed for a nearby power pole. The first attempt to hang him failed when the knot came loose and he fell to the ground. The second time, however, the knot did not come undone. Ratliff was pronounced dead at 9:55 P.M. on November 19. Jones died that evening, bringing the total number of dead, including three bank robbers, to six.
No one was ever tried in association with the lynching, although a grand jury was formed. Several thousand persons viewed Ratliff's body the next day at a furniture store in Eastland before Judge Garrett ordered the corpse locked up. Ratliff's family took possession of the body and arranged for a funeral in Fort Worth, with burial at Olivet Cemetery. Many people in Cisco over the years have claimed to have been present at the robbery or related to someone who was, and it is now a part of local folklore. The First National Bank still stands in Cisco, although it is in a new building. It features a painting of the robbery, as well as a collection of newspaper clippings and pictures of those involved. In 1967 the Texas State Historical Survey Committee (now the Texas Historical Commission) placed a medallion on the bank commemorating the robbery.