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On this day, eighty-three years ago, a drama worthy of a Hollywood movie was playing out on the bustling streets of Cisco. While shoppers were rushing to finish up their Christmas shopping, four criminals were preparing to do some shopping of their own at the First National Bank.
The Great Santa Claus Bank Robbery, as it came to be known, occurred on December 23, 1927. After the gun smoke cleared, six people were dead, eight others wounded, two little girls and a young man had been kidnapped, and two bloody gun battles had been fought, launching the largest manhunt in Texas history. As an epilogue, one man was sent to the electric chair and another lynched. In nearby Wichita Falls, three of its citizens, including a doctor, had been arrested and an unsolved mystery persisted for decades.
Cisco is located in Eastland County, about 30 miles north of Cross Plains, so Howard was well aware of the robbery and its aftermath. Here, he comments on the events in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft dated July 13, 1932.
When we went to the town, we found the countryside in an uproar; for while we lay drunk, the “Santa Claus” gang that had looted Southwestern banks for more than a year, had swept into Cisco, 35 miles away and in an attempt to rob the main bank, had raved into a wholesale gun-battle that strewed the streets with dead and wounded. Two or three of them had gotten away into the brush and posses were beating the hills for them. To invitations to join the man-hunt, my friends and I laughed hollowly; we were in no shape to even lift a gun to our shoulders, much less confront a band of desperate outlaws.
Gad, the country buzzed like so many bees! The authorities sent south for the great Ranger captain Tom Hickman, and Gonzaullas — “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas — “Trigger Finger” Gonzaullas — “Quick Action” Gonzaullas — hero of more touch-and-go gun-fights than I know, and already almost a mythical figure in the Southwest. But they were not needed; the fugitives staggered in and gave themselves up — haggard shapes in torn and muddy garments, caked with blood from bullet-wounds. It was the end of the last great robber-gang of Texas. Let me see; it was three — no, four years ago. It doesn’t seem that long. All the Southwest rang with the news. Their names were on all men’s tongues. Now I doubt not they are completely forgotten, except by the kin of the men they slew, except by the men who carry the scars of their bullets. Helms, the leader, went to the chair, roaring and cursing blasphemies, fighting against his doom so terribly that the onlookers stood appalled. Hill, the boy whose life was twisted and ruined in his boyhood when a ghastly blunder consigned him to a reformatory instead of the orphanage to which he should have been sent — he is serving a life sentence in the penitentiary, after an escape and a recapture. Blackie, the sardonic jester, dying with a rifle-bullet through him, gasped the names of respectable business men of Wichita Falls as his pals and accomplices, for a last grim jest. Ratcliff, who entered the bank clad in a Santa Claus robe and whiskers to avoid suspicion, feigned madness, killed his jailer, was shot down as he sought to escape by the jailer’s daughter, and that night a mob tore him, wounded as he was, from his bunk, and strung him up to a near-by tree, to sway in the shrieking blizzard. Eh — life is a strange fierce thing.
In late December 1927, four men were holed up in a boarding house on the eastside of Wichita Falls. Three of the men were hardened criminals, led by Wichitan Henry Helms, a hot-tempered man known for making even his own cronies obey him at gunpoint. He had been released from prison just a few months earlier for robbing the City Bakery. Two of the others had drifted into town several weeks earlier. Marshall Ratliff and Robert Hill had become buddies with Helms in the prison at Huntsville. The fourth man rounding out the team was Lewis Davis, Helms’ brother-in-law. A newcomer to crime, Davis was a glass worker who lived in a modest home with his wife and two children.
The men planned to rob a bank in Cisco, a town familiar to Ratliff because his mother ran a cafe there. Of the four, Ratliff was the only man who could be recognized, so he decided to use Christmas as his cover. He persuaded Josephine Herron, the woman who owned the boarding house, to make him a disguise — a Santa Claus suit.
Cisco is more than 100 miles from Wichita Falls, so the gang stole a blue Buick sedan for the trip and took off on December 22nd, stopping for the night in Moran where Davis’ sister lived – it was just a short drive to Cisco the next morning.
During this period of time, 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.
It was around noon when, amidst the busy shoppers, children spotted Santa walking down Main Street and ran to greet him. He smiled, patted their heads and asked them what they wanted for Christmas.
In all the excitement, no one saw a blue Buick pull into the alley beside the First National Bank. Santa walked into the bank and as customers and employees greeted him, his demeanor suddenly changed, and before you could say “sugarplum fairy,” robbers with guns burst into the bank.
“Hands up!” yelled one of the robbers.
Ratliff quickly grabbed money from the tellers, stuffing it into his Santa sack, and forced one to open the vault. At her young daughter’s insistence to see Santa, Mrs. B. P. Blassengame entered the bank while the holdup was in progress. Mrs. Blassengame, quickly reacted to the danger and led her daughter out another door, despite warnings from the robbers that they would shoot. She ran into the alley and screamed for help, alerting Chief of Police Bit Bedford and most of the citizenry about the robbery. Seeing how the police station was only a block away, the Chief and Deputy George Carmichael soon arrived on the scene.
Several minutes later, Ratliff had filled his sack with money and came out of the vault. Spotting someone outside the bank, 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 armed citizens, spurred on by the $5,000 reward, were now outside the bank. The cornered robbers forced all of the people in the bank out the door and towards their car, using them as human shields. Later, a count of bullet holes in the bank revealed over 200 bullets had hit the building.
A few of the hostages were wounded as they emerged into the alley, including Alex Spears, the bank president. While most of the customers escaped, two small girls, Laverne Comer and Emma May Robertson, were taken as hostages.
In the ensuing shootout in the alley, as the robbers tried to get to their car, Chief Bedford and Deputy Carmichael were mortally wounded — Bedford died several hours later, while Carmichael held on until January 17. Ratliff and Davis were also wounded in the shootout, Davis severely.
Despite their pre-planning, the robbers managed to pick a bank located less than a block from the police station and they had also failed to gas up their stolen getaway car. On the outskirts of town, the gang saw the Buick’s gas gauge needle had dropped to near empty.
They flagged down a passing Oldsmobile, and while exchanging gunfire with their pursuers, they transferred their loot and hostages to it. But a problem arose when the driver of car — a 14-year-old boy — took the keys and fled. So they piled back into the Buick, hoping the remaining fuel would be enough to get them down the road to safety.
A few moments later the lawmen and townspeople arrived and discovered the bandits had left behind the grievously wounded novice of the gang, Lewis Davis. He was riddled with bullets and died a few hours later. They left something else, too — in their haste, the robbers had left their loot. A sack containing more than $12,000 in cash and $150,000 in non-negotiable securities was found in the Oldsmobile. It was shaping up to be a disasterous day for the bandits.
The Buick was found abandoned a short distance away. Inside, the posse found the two frightened, but unharmed little girls. The robbers were now making their escape on foot. After an uncomfortable night hiding in the dense woods and thick underbrush, the gang stole another car and managed to evade the search parties for a while, until they wrecked the car near Putnam. They quickly carjacked a vehicle driven by Carl Wylie, forcing him to drive and taking him hostage for twenty-four hours; the gang then released him and let him have his car back. The desperate men stole yet another car and continued their getaway. The three men were in bad shape due to fatigue, lack of food and the icy, sleeting conditions.
There were now a number of posses combing the countryside for the men. The searchers knew that at least one of the robbers was wounded after coming across a trail of bloody discarded bandages. But their quarry was elusive, leaving a zigzag path of stolen cars and sightings.
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 an oil field as the three tried to make their escape. Cy Bradford, a future Texas Ranger, was involved in the firefight, and purportedly shot all three men. Ratliff was hit and fell to the ground with six bullets lodged in his body. When they searched him, they discovered no less than six pistols on his person – clearly Ratliff was ready to go out in a blaze of glory and gunfire.
Though wounded, Helms and Hill, managed to escape into the woods surrounding the winding Brazos River, which offered ideal concealment. The posse, directed by Ranger Captain Tom Hickman pressed on, allowing the wounded men no opportunity for rest. His sergeant, Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, went up in an airplane as a spotter, participating in the first aerial search for criminals in Texas history. However, Gonzaullas was unable to spot the fleeing men. But their trail indicated the men were tiring of the chase – close set footprints showed the men were weakening from loss of blood.
Helms and Hill were finally captured on December 30th, seven days after the bank robbery. The pair was looking for a rooming house in Graham, but the man they asked for directions saw their pistols and notified the authorities. The wounded and starving men gave up without a fight, no doubt thankful their ordeal had come to an end. When apprehended, the lawmen discovered Hill with three pistols and Helms with four. During their week on the run, the pair had made it only sixty-two miles from the bank they had robbed.
The greatest manhunt in Texas was over. During the last part of the manhunt, two more men had been wounded from accidental discharge of their weapons, bringing the total number of wounded to eight, excluding the three surviving robbers and the death toll stood at three.
Friends and relatives were rounded up when it was discovered they had assisted the Santa Claus bank robbers, among them a Wichita Falls doctor, Lewis Evan’s sister who lived in Moran, the boarding house landlady who made the Santa suit and one other woman.
The three men recovered from their wounds and were soon put on trail. Hill took the stand on his own behalf, plead guilty to armed robbery and in March was sentenced to 99 years in prison. But he didn’t take too well to prison life and escaped three times, being recaptured each time. After deciding to stay put, 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 1928. After an unsuccessful insanity plea, he was executed in “Old Sparky,” the electric chair in Huntsville, on September 6, 1929. Ratcliff was also convicted for his part in the robbery and shootings andsent to Death Row.
The day Helms was executed, Ratcliff appeared to have some sort of physical andmental breakdown. The ruse was very convincing, even fooling the Death Row guards, who were not easily fooled. In addition to acting erratic and insane, Ratcliff also feigned paralysis. After his appeal failed, Ratcliff’s mother filed for a lunacy hearing.
The local Eastland County judge, infuriated at the insanity plea, wanted the ball back in his court. He charged Ratliff with armed robbery related to the theft of the Oldsmobile on the day of the robbery. The Walker County judge was furious at being outmaneuvered by his Eastland County counterpart. Thus, even after being convicted and sentenced to 99 years for the bank robbery andthe death penalty for the killing of the two Cisco peace officers, Ratliff was extradited from the Huntsville penitentiary to the Eastland County jail.
Once at the jail, Ratliff convinced his jailers, Pack Kilbourn and Tom Jones, that he really was insane and paralyzed, to the point they had to feed him, bathe him, andtake him to the toilet. Needless to say, this did not go over too well with the citizens of Eastland County who were incensed that he had not been executed yet.
On November 18, a desperate Ratliff got his hands on a pistol and attempted to escape, mortally wounding jailer Jones in the process. The other jailer, Kilbourn, was somehow able to disarm and subdue Ratliff, beating him unconscious. Contrary to what Howard told Lovecraft in his letter, Ratliff was not shot by Kilborn’s daughter. She tried to shoot him when she thought he had shot her father, but her father convinced her he was not harmed by Ratliff and she held off pulling the trigger.
At this point, the townspeople had had enough, with well over a 1,000 of them gathered outside the jail chanting “we want Santa Claus, we want Santa Claus” and demanding that Ratliff be handed over to them. By now it was after sunset and the crowd pressed forward into the jail, overpowering Kilbourn and dragging a badly beaten Ratliff from his cell. Binding his hands and feet, the lynch mob carried the doomed bank robber to several nearby telephone poles and attempted to hang him with a rope thrown over a guy-wire strung between two poles.
Their first attempt failed when the knot came untied and he fell to the ground. Not missing a beat, the crowd made a second attempt, which was a success and Ratliff was pronounced dead at 9:55 pm on November 19, 1929. Jones, the wounded jailer, died later that evening. His was the last death attributed to the ill-fated Great Santa Claus Bank Robbery, bringing the total number of dead to six.
As an odd sidebar to the whole affair, when Cisco Police Chief Bedford lay dying from his wounds, he told astonished Wichita County Sheriff W.G. Brailey that a blonde woman had shot him. While some dismissed the dying man’s statement confused ramblings, the Sheriff became convinced during the course of his subsequent investigation that a woman had killed the Police Chief. There were reports a woman took part in other robberies the Helms’ gang committed and, based on a tip, the sheriff did find some of the gang’s loot buried on property belonging to Josephine Herron — the Santa suit seamstress. But the Sheriff was never able to prove a woman was a fifth robber or uncover her identity.
In spite of the gang’s usurping of Old St. Nicholas’ image for this dastardly deed, the jolly old fat man’s reputation was not permanently sullied and the children of Cisco and Texas quickly realized it was just a very bad man pretending to be Santa — a very bad man who came to a very bad end.