Criminal Kringle: The Santa Claus Bank Heist of 1927

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Woodrow “Woody” Harris had no reason to think it was not going to be a great Christmas. Woody was just 14 but already driving around West Texas. On December 23, 1927, he and his family—his parents and grandmother—were busy finishing their holiday shopping, Woody steering their brand-new Oldsmobile around town.

At a stoplight, Woody looked out his window and saw something that must have caused him a brief moment of amusement. There in the road was Santa Claus—not the Santa, obviously, but a Santa—and he appeared to be coming toward the Harris vehicle.

Before Woody could process what was happening, Santa brandished a gun. So did the two men with him. They ordered the Harris family out of their car, screaming for them to hurry. The men quickly loaded their belongings from a nearby Buick into the Oldsmobile, including a giant and cumbersome sack like the kind Santa toted for gifts. Santa also produced a moaning and bleeding man from the back seat of the Buick, who was summarily stuffed into the Oldsmobile. Two children were with him, but they didn’t appear to be there of their own volition. Down the road, dozens of men were running toward them, most bearing a firearm of some kind.

Woody Harris did not know why Santa had a gun, why he was accompanied by a badly injured man, why a mob appeared to want to kill him, or why he had carjacked his family. He and his relatives ran away, gunshots ringing in the air.

Maybe it would not be a great Christmas for the Harris family after all.

The man in the Santa Claus suit was Marshall Ratliff, a 24-year-old Texan who was not exactly filled with seasonal spirit. Seemingly a born troublemaker, Ratliff preferred crimes large and small over steady employment. A few years earlier, he and his brother, Lee Ratliff, had robbed a bank in Valera, Texas. Throwing the money around freely and boasting of the heist while consuming large amounts of alcohol, the Ratliffs were eventually picked up and sentenced to prison before being pardoned by Governor Miriam Ferguson, who was well-known for issuing pardons, after a year.

The brothers wandered West Texas searching for work on an oil field, but failed to land anything. They soon found themselves in a boarding house in Wichita Falls operated by a woman named Midge Tellet. With no job prospects—at least, none that were appealing for two men who favored easy money—the siblings decided to tackle another bank robbery, this time in Cisco, Texas, a small town in Eastland County with a population of about 7000.

Marshall Ratliff’s plan was simple. He intended to borrow a Santa Claus suit that Tillet had sewn for her husband to wear. Well-disguised—having spent time in Cisco, he feared he would be recognized—and disarming due to his presence as St. Nick, he would enter First National Bank with Lee and accomplices and collect the cash.

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Marshall Ratliff recruited two men he knew—Henry Helms, 31, and Robert Hill, 21, who were both willing to commit armed robbery. Ratliff also enlisted a safecracker in the hope he could gain access to the bank vault, but the man fell ill. Worse, Lee Ratliff couldn’t make it: After committing another burglary, he had been arrested and jailed.

That left Marshall Ratliff to finish the job on his own. To fill the position left by his brother, Ratliff invited a relative of Helms, Louis Davis, a 22-year-old father with no criminal record. Desperate for money, Davis agreed to assist, but only if there was no shooting.

Louis Davis would not get his wish.

The four men drove 200 miles from Wichita Falls to Cisco. By the time they reached their destination, it was late morning on December 23. Ratliff donned his Santa outfit, including a beard and red cap, and was let out a few steps away from the bank. Hill drove to an alley near the bank’s back door and parked.

Ratliff walked down the street, waving and greeting excited kids who approached him. It’s not entirely clear why Ratliff preferred to do this over simply exiting the vehicle closer to the bank, though he might have wanted to provide a distraction for the Buick as it entered the alley. As he strolled, a 6-year-old girl, Frances Blassengame (sometimes Blasengame), saw him and began tugging on her mother’s hand. She wanted to follow Santa as he walked into the bank. Rather than acting as an effective disguise, Ratliff would find that Santa’s hold on a child’s imagination would prove to be the crew's undoing.

Ratliff met up with the others in the alley and all of the men headed inside. The bank was populated with 16 people, including tellers and customers. When “Santa” walked in, he was greeted with smiles. Ratliff didn’t keep up the pretense.

“Reach for some sky!” he screamed, brandishing a gun.

As Ratliff's cohorts covered the nervous crowd, Ratcliff produced a sack and told tellers to begin pouring money into it. That haul totaled $12,000. He also forced an employee to open the bank vault, taking notes worth $150,000 along with checks, bonds, and some valuables.

As Ratliff frantically filled his sack, Frances Blassengame and her mother entered the bank. There, they saw Santa waving a gun, surrounded by crumpled bills. Both Frances and her mother tried to bolt for the front door, but one of the bandits had blocked it. No one, however, had thought to cover the rear exit, where they planned to escape to the Buick.

The Blassengames sprinted out, ignoring calls to stop, and ran directly to the police station, where they informed Chief of Police G.E. Bedford that First National was in the middle of an armed robbery led by Santa Claus. Bedford tossed riot guns to his officers, George Carmichael and R.T. Redies, and stormed out.

Surprisingly, the cops would be the least of the robbers’ worries. The Blassengames’ running and screaming had drawn the public’s attention, and soon a crowd began to gather outside the bank. Owing to a spate of bank robberies across the state, the Texas Bankers Association had just started offering a $5000 reward to any civilian who could shoot and kill a bank robber, and “not one cent for a hundred live ones.” This Old West-style protocol, dubbed the “dead robber reward,” didn’t pay out for wounding—only a dead man would do.

Whether Ratliff and his men knew this or not isn't clear. If not, they soon found out. Hill noticed a face peering inside the window. He fired his weapon. To his surprise, those outside returned fire. Hill decided to shoot up into the ceiling to demonstrate to the crowd that they had weapons. The crowd did the same, and soon the bank was engulfed in bullets. (A count by law enforcement would later put the total number of shots fired into the building at 200.)

Residents were out in force, perhaps as many as 100, some armed with shotguns being passed out by a local hardware store. With the promise of $5000, or roughly $73,000 in today's dollars, the crowd was out for Santa's blood.

To get to the Buick would require some improvisation. Ratliff ordered the 16 people inside to follow them out the back door, creating a human shield that could stand between the robbers and the angry mob. In the fire, Davis—who had not wanted to see anyone hurt—was shot and badly wounded. Ratliff was also shot in the leg and jaw, though he remained ambulatory. At least six townspeople were shot, including cashier Alex Spears, but it’s not clear which side had done the shooting, as the mob appeared to be firing freely into the human barrier Ratliff had constructed.

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Piling into the Buick with Hill, Helms, and an injured Davis, Ratliff grabbed two girls from the bank crowd—Laverne Comer, 12, and Emma May Robertson, 10—to use as hostages. During the chaos, the robbers opened fire on cops Bedford and Carmichael, fatally wounding both. (Bedford would die several hours later; Carmichael would pass on January 7.)

With Davis wounded and hostages in tow, things looked bad—and they were about to get worse. A bullet had punctured a tire. Worse, owing to the 200-mile drive from Wichita Falls, the Buick was low on gas. They would need a new vehicle, and soon. The mob was still following on foot.

That’s when Ratliff saw the Harris family’s Oldsmobile. After forcing the Harrises out, the men carried the barely-conscious Davis to the new car and put him in the back seat. The money went in front. The two girls were forced to follow.

When one of the men went to start the car, they realized that the now-long-departed Woody Harris had not entirely complied with their demand. He had handed over the car. He did not hand over the car keys.

Furious, Ratliff, Hill, and Helms abandoned the Oldsmobile and retreated back to the Buick, the girls in tow. By now the mob was close and another gunfight began, this one resulting in Hill being shot in the arm. Davis, a liability, was left in the Oldsmobile. He would die that evening in Fort Worth. In their panic, the robbers left the money in the car with him. The only reward now would be to escape a prison sentence.

The robbers were able to progress only a few miles in the Buick before it broke down, forcing them to flee on foot; at some point, Ratliff discarded the Santa suit. The girls were left in the car and discovered by authorities.

On foot, the three remaining thieves managed to temporarily elude their pursuers, stealing another car the next morning and later taking cover in the woods outside of Cisco. But the promise of a financial bounty remained motivation for townspeople, who refused to abandon their trail. The ensuing manhunt involved civilians, an airplane, dogs, and at least one instance of a police officer accidentally discharging his own weapon and wounding himself.

Days later, the threesome was cornered by authorities near the Brazos River and another shootout commenced, this one wounding Ratliff further. He was captured. Helms and Hill escaped and remained at large for three more days before being captured in the town of Graham on December 30, 1927. According to Captain Tom Hickman, the men were “literally riddled with bullets.”

Because they'd been brought in alive—and because there were so many shooters at the bank it was impossible to determine who had killed Davis—no one collected the bank reward.

All three men stood trial for their crimes, which had resulted in a number of civilian injuries and two dead police officers. Helms was identified as shooting Cisco police officers Bedford and Carmichael and was given the death penalty. He was executed on September 6, 1929, despite feigning insanity. Hill pleaded guilty to armed robbery, begged for mercy, and received a sentence of 99 years, going on to escape from prison at least twice before being paroled in the mid-1940s.

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The fate of Ratliff, the gang's malevolent Santa, was far more sensational. He was charged with robbery and abduction; young hostage Emma May Robertson, who had seen him without his Santa disguise, made a positive identification of him in court.

That conviction, which was handed down on January 27, 1928, netted him 99 years. He was also charged with the death of Bedford in a separate trial on March 30, 1928, despite no one being able to identify him as the shooter. For this, he was given a death sentence.

Like Helms, Ratliff decided that pleading insanity would be his best option. In fact, he seemed to be gripped with mental illness beginning the very day Helms was executed. Awaiting a ruling on his appeal in an Eastland County jail, he stopped eating and talking, forcing jailers Tom Jones and “Pack” Kilborn to assist him. After serving him a meal one night, the two accidentally left Ratliff’s cell unlocked. Far from catatonic, he sprang into action, grabbing a pistol from a nearby desk and shooting Jones multiple times before Kilborn managed to subdue him.

The people of Eastland County were not feeling particularly hospitable toward Ratcliff, who had just badly wounded another police officer. As Jones was being tended to in a hospital—where he would soon succumb to his injuries—the crowd kept vigil around the jail, growing to 1000 to 2000 people who were becoming more and more ornery by the hour. Come evening, they decided justice had been too long delayed. They stormed the jailhouse and pinned Kilborn to the floor, grabbing his cell keys.

They freed Ratliff, then tied his hands and feet and dragged him outside, where a utility pole stood. Using a length of rope, they strung him up by his neck.

The first rope broke. The second didn’t.

Ratliff was found dead the evening of November 19, 1929. Authorities ordered he be cut down from the pole. By way of making him even more of a public example, the onetime Santa’s corpse was displayed at a furniture store the next day. No one was ever charged in connection with the lynching.

Today, First National Bank is still in business, though in a different location (and with a different name: It's now First Financial Bank). Where First National originally stood is a historical marker placed by the Texas State Historical Survey Committee in 1967. After a brief recap, the inscription on the monument gets right to the point: “Later, a mob lynched ‘Santa’ when he broke out of jail.”