Two days before the Christmas of 1927, a peculiar incarnation of Santa Claus appeared in front of the First National Bank of Cisco, Texas. This Santa was most notably unusual for his complete lack of interest in the children surrounding him with their hopes of relating their holiday wishes. In addition to this indifference or even annoyance with the children, Santa’s appearance was not quite right. His red coat which should have been plush and fluffy, looked more like a thin house coat. His pants were not even red, but just regular dark trousers. In place of big black boots, on this day Santa wore loafers. And he’d lost weight to the point of being thin. The people of Cisco would soon learn that this man was not the real Santa Claus. His name was Marshall Ratliff, and he was about to have one of the wildest criminal adventures in Texas history.
When Marshall “Santa Claus” Ratliff walked into the First National Bank begrudgingly trailing behind him several of Cisco’s children, he was met with smiles and greetings from the bank patrons and employees. Because of the focus on Santa, no one noticed when 3 men near the bank’s entrance produced firearms. These men were Henry Helms, Robert Hill, and Louis Davis. The focus was only taken away from Santa when Helms held a gun in the air and shouted “Stick’em up!” Marshall Ratliff was then able to stuff into an Idaho Potato sack $12,500 in cash and an additional $15,000 in securities.
Immediately after declaring their criminal intent, a female patron grabbed her daughter and ran out of a side door that the bandits had neglected to guard. This woman ran straight for the Cisco town hall which was less than one block away. There, she alerted the three present police officers that a bank heist was underway. Within minutes of entering the bank, the Santa Bandits were surrounded.
As Henry Helms was peering out of the alley the door from which the patron and her daughter had escaped, he saw the three police officers gathering in the front and rear of the bank. In an effort to keep them at bay, Helms fired several shots up and down the alleyway. The shots that Helms fired rang out through the town, and very quickly the heavily armed Texans of Cisco joined the fray. These untrained citizens began taking up positions around the bank. Several of them brought additional firearms in the event that someone showed up to the ruckus without a gun of their own.
Knowing that they were surrounded, Marshall Ratliff and his band gathered all of the bank patrons and employees into a tight circle within which the bandits were at the center. They then began moving this wad of hostages out of the door and toward their getaway vehicle. While police officers may have shown restraint in the face of this precarious situation, the townsfolk did not. Having believed themselves to be safely tucked in the middle of this group of innocents, the Santa bandits were quite surprised when the citizens surrounding the bank opened fire. These vigilantes managed to shoot a bank teller in the jaw and a college student in the leg. Most of the rounds fired however served only to speckle with holes the outer wall of Cisco’s First National Bank. The bandits finally manage to reach their automobile releasing all of their hostages with the exception of two little girls which they used as human shields in the hope that they would serve to deter incoming gunfire. For this purpose, the little girls were entirely ineffective.
By the time the robbers peeled out of the scene, their car was riddled with bullets, it had one flat tire, and a hole in the gas tank. The robbers themselves fared little better. Louis Davis had been mortally wounded and was bleeding profusely, and Santa Claus himself, Marshall Ratliff, had a bullet embedded in his leg.
Despite the condition of their automobile and of themselves, the four robbers and their ineffective human shields manage to put some distance on their pursuers. Aware that their own heavily damaged car would not last long, Santa and his fellow bandits were able to hail an Oldsmobile driven by a 14 year old who was chauffeuring his parents into Cisco. After demanding that the family abandon their vehicle, the Santa Bandits loaded their two young hostages, their bleeding accomplice Louis Davis, and their loot into the car. It wasn’t until their pursuers were within firing range that the bandits discovered that the 14 year old boy, by this point out of sight having darted into the woods, had taken with him the keys to the Oldsmobile.
With gunfire erupting around them, the robbers had no choice but to return to the heavily damaged automobile that they’d hoped to replace. With the distance between themselves, and the police and the trigger happy townsfolk rapidly evaporating, the bandits made the decision to leave their wounded accomplice Louis Davis behind. The remaining three bandits and their two hostages took off again, still in their bullet riddled car. Shortly thereafter, the Santa Bandits came to learn that in their rush to escape the scene of their failed car theft attempt, that in addition to Louis Davis, they had also left behind all of the money that they’d stolen from the First National Bank of Cisco. Louis Davis would die within 24 hours of being apprehended.
Almost a week of misadventures would follow within which Santa Claus and his fellow bandits would bumblingly evade capture, find themselves the target of a local farmer who would mistakenly shoot his own son, and due to a poor sense of direction, find that they had accidentally driven all the way back to the town from which they were attempting to escape.
Despite having seemingly very little in the way of talents that might be beneficial to criminal endeavors, the Santa Bandits did manage to elude their ever growing cohort of pursuers for almost a week. By the end of that week two police officers were dead, and numerous citizens had received incidental gunshot wounds. To put an end to the bandits’ haphazard tour of terror, Texas initiated the largest manhunt ever conducted to that point in Texas history. Marshall Ratliff and the two other remaining bandits were all in police custody seven days after their ill-fated bank heist.
Marshall Ratliff and Henry Helms were both sentenced to death by electrocution. Robert Hill was able to argue that poor experiences during his formative years had led him down his unlawful path and he was sentenced to 99 years, but spared the death penalty. Despite escaping jail three times, Hill was eventually paroled in the 1940s and never again found himself in trouble with the law. Helms took his seat in “Old Sparky” on September 6, 1929, in Huntsville, Texas. He is buried at Peckerwood Cemetary which is primarily used as the final resting place for the unclaimed remains of prisoners.
While awaiting his own execution, Marshall “Santa Claus” Ratliff made one final run for freedom. During his escape attempt, he mortally wounded a much-beloved jailer named Tom Jones. When word spread that Jones was unlikely to survive his injuries, a mob of over 1,000 civilians surrounded the jail. Eventually, a group of vigilantes forced their way into the building and into Ratliff’s cell. They then stripped Ratliff nude and dragged him out into the cold night and into the hands of the awaiting bloodthirsty mob. They crowd hung Ratliff a block from the jail. For 20 minutes his body swung, illuminated by the car lights of curious citizens.
In one final bizarre twist, Ratliff’s funeral happened to take place just after Thanksgiving. The owners of a department store near his funeral service had decided to sponsor a small Christmas parade to promote their business and usher in the holiday season. As Ratliff’s modest number of loved ones along with the morbidly curious observed his remains, a marching band was playing Christmas music just outside. And within full view of the front door of Shannon’s Funeral Home within which Ratliff’s body lay, Santa Claus cheerily passed by upon his sleigh.
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