The time: ninety years ago.
The place: ninety miles southwest of Fort Worth.
It was December 23, 1927, and in the small town of Cisco in rural Eastland County, Santa Claus was about to bring Boyce House a most unexpected Christmas present: fame.
Boyce House was editor of the newspaper in the town of Eastland, the county seat eight miles from Cisco. His coverage of an eccentric crime in late 1927 and of an equally eccentric (but more benign) news event in early 1928 would propel House from Eastland to Fort Worth, where he would live, die, and be buried. His coverage would also propel House from writing about the west Texas oil fields to writing books and a syndicated column, hosting his own radio program, and answering the call of Hollywood and politics.
But first let’s go back to December 23, 1927 and the town of Cisco, where at the First National Bank things were about to go horribly wrong for Santa and his three elves.
Marshall Ratliff, age twenty-four, was a local ex-con.
In 1926 Ratliff and his brother Lee had held up the bank in Valera (Coleman County). Cisco Police Chief G. E. “Bit” Bedford had been among the lawmen responsible for Marshall Ratliff being captured, convicted, and sent to prison. Ratliff had been paroled but had not learned his lesson. He wanted a do-over. So, on December 23, 1927 Ratliff, wearing a Santa Claus costume made for him by his former landlady, entered the First National Bank of Cisco with fellow ex-cons Henry Helms and Robert Hill. All three had done time at Huntsville state prison. Along for the sleigh ride was Louis Davis, a relative of Helms. Davis had never been in trouble with the law. He just needed some Christmas money.
As Santa and his elves entered the bank, tagging along with him were local children who had been understandably thrilled to see St. Nick himself walking down the sidewalk of their little town just two days before Christmas. But as Ratliff entered the bank, he did not respond with a jolly “Ho ho ho!” to the greetings of “Hello, Santa!” from people in the bank lobby. Instead, elf no. 1, Robert Hill, pointed a pistol at a cashier and shouted, “Hands up!” Elves nos. 2 and 3, Helms and Davis, also waved pistols.
Then, in a perversity that could scar a child forever, even Santa whipped out a rod.
Ratliff took money from the tellers, a safe, and the vault.
Undetected by the four robbers, bank customer Mrs. B. P. Blassengame was able to sneak out of the lobby and alert Police Chief Bedford.
According to Boyce House, Bedford was “a giant of a man and a veteran peace officer.” Bedford grabbed a riot gun and headed for the alley beside the bank. He told officers R. T. Redies and George Carmichael to cover the back door of the bank.
After the robbery came a gunfight worthy of the wild West. The four robbers and the three policemen began shooting. They were soon joined by civilian residents of Cisco. Some brought their own guns to the fight; others rushed to hardware stores to get guns. Cisco, like the rest of America, was in the midst of the depression. In Texas three or four banks were being robbed every day, and the Texas Bankers Association offered a $5,000 reward to anyone shooting a bank robber. No doubt the prospect of a reward was an added incentive to some of the armed residents.
As the gunfight continued, the robbers shot their way to their getaway car in the alley. They took with them two hostages from the bank to serve as human shields: Laverne Comer, age twelve, and Emma May Robertson, age ten.
The robbers fled town with the two girls. The shooting stopped. Chief Bedford and officer Carmichael were fatally wounded. Six other citizens of Cisco were wounded. Robbers Ratliff and Davis also were wounded. The bank building was riddled with an estimated two hundred bullet holes.
Officer Redies and other residents of Cisco formed an impromptu posse and pursued Santa and his elves. The largest manhunt in Texas to that date was under way for the desperado Santa Claus.
As the robbers left town, they realized that they had forgotten to fill their car’s gas tank before the robbery. With the Redies posse in pursuit, the robbers stopped a car driven by fourteen-year-old Woodrow Wilson Harris. Young Woodrow surrendered his car. The robbers piled into the new car with the bank money and hostages while being fired upon by Redies et al. The robbers started to make their escape. But wait! Where were the keys to the commandeered car? They sure weren’t in the car’s ignition switch. Young Woodrow had slyly pocketed the keys as he surrendered the car. Panicking, Ratliff, Helms, and Hill climbed back into their original getaway car with the two hostages, leaving injured Louis Davis in the keyless car. The Cisco posse continued to shoot at the robbers.
Ratliff, Helms, and Hill sped away with the two hostages. The robbers did not realize until later that they had left the bank money behind with Davis in the keyless car.
Redies et al. arrested Davis and recovered the bank money—$12,400 ($163,000 today). Davis, who had no previous criminal record, soon died in the Tarrant County jail.
The manhunt continued. Pursued by the Cisco posse, the three surviving robbers threw roofing nails out the car window to puncture the tires of their pursuers. The robbers then veered into a pasture and got the car entangled in a thicket of scrub oak, cactus, and mesquite. The robbers abandoned the car and the two hostages and fled on foot.
Eastland County Sheriff John Hart and his deputies then joined the manhunt. Boyce House and other journalists followed in their own cars. House wrote that “officers and citizens poured in from all that section of the state . . . 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.”
The three robbers stole another car the next morning—Christmas Eve. During a church service that night in Eastland, as a very different Saint Nicholas appeared before a group of children, one boy called out: “Santa Claus, why did you rob that bank?”
The manhunt continued. The robbers wrecked their latest getaway car and commandeered a car carrying a father and son. The robbers fled in the new car with the son as hostage. The father fired his shotgun at the fleeing car, wounding his son.
The next day the three robbers abandoned their latest car and latest hostage and stole yet another car. The next morning the three robbers were ambushed in Young County by Sheriff Jim Foster and deputies.
Another gunfight ensued.
Marshall Ratliff went down, wounded. When captured he reportedly was a “walking arsenal,” carrying six pistols and bearing an equal number of gunshot wounds. Santa Claus had been caught, but elves nos. 2 and 3 escaped on foot. Helms and Hill disappeared into the woods at the Brazos River.
Helms and Hill, weak from injuries and lack of food, were caught in Graham one week after the Santa Claus Bank Robbery. Clip is from the December 31, 1927 Dallas Morning News.
Helms was executed by electric chair. Hill was sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. He escaped from prison three times. On his third escape he left behind a note reading, “If you want me you’ll have to come to Paris, France.” He made it as far as Houston before he was captured. Sacre bleu! Clip is from the July 6, 1929 Dallas Morning News.
And Santa Claus? Marshall Ratliff, too, was sentenced to death. He was sent to Huntsville state prison, but his mother arranged to have him taken back to Eastland for a sanity hearing. While in the Eastland County jail awaiting that hearing, Ratliff managed to get a pistol from an office desk and fatally wounded a jailer while attempting to escape. Ratliff was subdued and returned to his county jail cell. Clip is from the November 19, 1929 Dallas Morning News.
But within hours an angry mob of almost two thousand people gathered outside the jail, demanding that Ratliff be turned over to them. The jailer refused but was overpowered. The mob dragged Ratliff to a vacant lot behind the Majestic Theater and lynched the ersatz Santa. The title of the play being presented at the theater at the time? The Noose.
Clip is from the November 21, 1929 Dallas Morning News.
No one was ever tried for the lynching.
Marshall Ratliff’s prisoner profile at Huntsville state prison: Methodist, size 7 shoe, ninth-grade education, serving ninety-nine years for murder . . . “lynched 11-19-1929.”
Marshall Ratliff is buried in Fort Worth’s Mount Olivet Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Clip is from the November 24, 1929 Dallas Morning News.
Whew. As a journalist, Boyce House was in the right place at the right time that Christmas of 1927. He broke the story of the Santa Claus Bank Robbery, calling it “the most spectacular crime in the history of the Southwest . . . surpassing any in which Billy the Kid or the James boys had ever figured.”
With Boyce House’s newspaper taking the lead, the eccentric crime, its violence, and, yes, its ineptness received national attention. In 1930 House retold the tale for Startling Detective Adventures magazine (above). The Santa Claus Bank Robbery was the first of two events that would launch the writing career of Boyce House. Two months after the robbery, Eastland County would tear down its old courthouse . . .