23 will mark the 89th anniversary of the bloody melodrama which was
about to take place in the town of Cisco
in West Central Texas, on the day before Christmas Eve 1927. I know
about it because of an article written at the time by the great Texas
columnist, Boyce House. He should know. He was there.
House wrote that this was "the most spectacular crime in the history
of the Southwest ... surpassing any in which Billy
the Kid or the James boys had ever figured." Here's the story
told sometimes in my words, sometimes in House's.
smiling Santa Claus came along Main Street December 23, 1927 stopping
to chat with eager children, answering their questions and patting
them on the head. When Santa came up to the First National Bank, he
looked all around, to his left and to his right, the way you would
if you were about to sneak into the movies after your mother told
you that you couldn't go. Some of the happy children who had followed
Santa, continued on into the Bank after him.
Once inside, Santa received a pleasant greeting of "Hello, Santa,"
from the cashier. Santa did not respond, but walked to a desk in the
middle of the lobby, the one where bank customers wrote out their
deposit slips. A few customers were already at the teller's window
making their deposits. The cashier again called out, "Hello, Santa."
Again, no response.
Right about at this point, a young man entered the Bank, pointed a
pistol at the cashier, and snarled, "Hands up!!"
A second bandit entered. He was also brandishing a gun. A third armed
man entered. Santa Claus pushed through the swinging door, past the
cashier's desk, went into the cashier's cage, opened a drawer under
the counter, and removed a pistol from that location, stuffing it
under his red Santa suit. Now there were four armed men, including
Santa ordered the assistant cashier to open the safe, and began stuffing
money and bonds into a sack he had hidden beneath his costume, a sack
that should rightly have held Christmas toys for children. But not
Unseen by the four unsavory robbers, a woman bank patron made it through
the bookkeeping department and out the side door of the bank, which
opened onto an alley. She ran until she reached the police department
and entered, shouting, "The First National is being held up!"
Here I quote House's article: "Police Chief G.E. (Bit) Bedford, a
giant of a man and a veteran peace officer, seized a riot gun and
he and Policeman George Carmichael started for the scene. The chief
posted himself at the mouth of the alley, which ran alongside the
bank and opened on Main Street, while Officer Carmichael took a position
near the mouth of another alley which ran behind the bank and intersected
the first alley."
Meanwhile, inside the bank, one of the men, with an automatic in each
hand, growled at the bookkeeper, "Don't look at me!" By this time,
Santa Claus had filled his sack with loot. He then fired, the bullet
striking the bank's plate glass window. It was surmised at the time
that this shot might have been a signal to unseen accomplices that
the robbery had been accomplished.
Immediately, Bedford and Carmichael directed cross fire at the side
door and the two-gunned robber fired back, first at Carmichael and
then at Bedford.
The four robbers took as hostages two little girls who were in the
bank and, using them as shields, made their way into the alley to
a getaway car. A bullet struck the cashier in the jaw, another struck
a bank customer in the leg, while yet another customer made a run
for it and was able to tell Bedford and Carmichael about the hostages.
More than a hundred shots had been fired, one hitting Policeman Carmichael
and another, Chief Bedford, as the getaway car screamed out of the
alley, turning south on Main.
One of the shots from law enforcement had hit the tire of the getaway
car, flattening it and stopping the car. The robbers, one of whom
had been hit by a flying bullet, lurched out of the vehicle, brandishing
their guns and commandeering a passing car. They transferred the loot,
the little girls, and their injured comrade.
They hadn't reckoned on one smart Texas kid, 14-year-old Woodrow Wilson
Harris, who had been driving the commandeered car, and had removed
his key from the ignition when he had been ordered to stop. The bandits
could not start the car.
Back at the scene, Chief Bedford and Policeman Carmichael lay dying
of their wounds and six ordinary citizens were wounded. Onlookers
rushed to hardware stores for pistols and rifles. They opened fire,
and a rifle bullet struck one of the fugitives in the arm and "spun
"This is getting too hot," shouted the leader, the two-gunned bandit
who was found later to be named Henry Helms. So they jumped back in
their car with the flat tire and the two little girls. They left behind
the wounded bandit, and Santa's sack with $12,200 in cash and $150,000
in non-negotiable securities.
Quoting House again, "They raced out Main, two of the desperadoes
firing back at the automobile filled with pursuers. The driver swing
onto a dirt road and his companions tossed roofing nails out to puncture
the tires of the posse's machines. then he turned into a lane and
at last out into a pasture but as the car dashed through cactus, mesquite
and scrub oak, the growth became so heavy that further progress was
"The men warned the little girls (Emma May Robinson, ten, and LaVerne
Comer, twelve) to crouch down in the car and then the thicket swallowed
up the trio."
Sheriff John Hart and his deputies of Eastland,
the county seat, had been called by long distance and given the news
of the bank robbery; they piled into automobiles and sped to the spot
where the bandits had abandoned the car. Then, as now, reporters,
including Boyce House, followed the action in another vehicle. Since
House was an eyewitness, these are his own words:
"Officers and citizens poured in from all that section of the state
and such a manhunt as Western Texas had never seen before was soon
in progress .... Many members of the posse were horseback or on foot
as they beat their way through clumps of trees, searched high grass
in the bottoms of ravines and peered around bounders in canyons.
"There came an excited shout, for one party had discovered an overcoat
and bloodstained gloves. Later, citizens found a suitcase and a pile
of bloodstained rags. In the suitcase were cotton and gauze, showing
that the bandits had entered their enterprise with the knowledge that
there might be shedding of blood, including their own.
"The pursuit continued all through that Friday afternoon, Friday night,
and throughout Saturday and Saturday night. One of the results of
the Yuletide crime was its tragic implications for little children
in Eastland County.
On Christmas Eve, a church in Eastland
was filled and as jolly Saint Nicholas entered, a little boy called
out, with a quaver in his voice: 'Santa Claus, why did you rob that
Chief Bedford died on Christmas Day, and Policeman Carmichael a few
Claus was really a crook named Marshall Ratliff, who had lived in
Cisco before being tracked
down and imprisoned for a bank robbery in Valera
by the very same Chief Bedford. Though Ratcliff was given a long prison
sentence, he had been paroled just before the Cisco bank robbery.
Since he knew he would be recognized if he returned to Cisco,
he decided to conceal his identity by disguising himself as Santa.
Such a disguise would also allay any suspicions by people in the bank.
Who would suspect Santa?
During the shootout, Ratcliff suffered two wounds, one in the chin
and one in the leg. Robert Hill, the one who had followed Santa into
the bank, had been struck by a rifle bullet at the point of the aborted
transfer from the getaway car to the one driven by clever teenager,
Woodrow Wilson Harris.
Afoot, the desperados, Ratliff, Hill and Helms, were able to steal
a car, find food, and eventually, con a young driller into the use
of his automobile, taking him along as prisoner. Old man Wylie, father
of the young man, seized his shotgun and fired after the fleeing car.
The bullets struck his son.
After hiding out all night with nothing to eat but oranges, which
they did not offer to the injured young hostage, Helms, Hill and Ratcliff
came up with a brilliant idea. They would hide in plain sight. They
would return to Cisco!
In Cisco again, they stole
a car, and released the wounded driller. "Soon, a posse was hot on
the trail. Next morning, a force of pursuers was in the little town
of South Bend,
in Young County,
when a single-seated machine with three occupants was seen approaching.
The driver caught sight of a gun in the hands of one of the officers
and began backing rapidly down the road. Then, as the members of the
posse scurried into their automobiles, the car whirled and rushed
"In the second car of pursuers was Deputy Sheriff Si Bradford of Eastland
County, one of the most noted officers of Western Texas. Early
in the century, he had brought law and order into the coal fields
of Strawn and neighboring
towns; then he served as an officer in Ranger
during the turbulent oil days. His career was filled with gunfights
in which Bradford's coolness and marksmanship always brought him out
If that isn't exciting enough, the bandits fled into an oil field
where they ran toward the wells. "Before Bradford's car had rolled
to a stop, he was out with Old Betsy, his double-barreled shotgun,
an extra pair of shells in one hand. Bradford fired once and one of
he fugitives fell. Bradford reloaded before firing again. "I did not
want to be caught with an empty gun if they turned and made a stand,"
he explained afterward. The bandits ran on, firing back over their
shoulders. Again Bradford shot, and a man went down but arose and
staggered on. The officer shoved the other shell into the gun and
shot again and the third desperado slumped to his knees but got up
and reeled on, disappearing among the derricks."
The captured outlaw was Ratliff. He was a "walking arsenal, for he
bore no fewer than six pistols" including the one he took from the
bank. Santa had been caught!
"The territory into which Helms and Hill had escaped was traversed
by the winding Brazos River [which offered] ideal concealment. The
hunt, directed by Ranger Captain Tom Hickman, was pressed on, to allow
the wounded men no opportunity for rest. Airplanes were used but were
not able to spot the fleeing men. However, their trail was picked
up and it seemed evident that the end of the chase was not far because
the footprints were close-spaced, showing that they were wearing from
the long chase and weak from loss of blood. Marks showed that, to
climb even a small rise, they had been forced to crawl."
Hill and Helms were not apprehended until December 30th, seven days
after the bank robbery. They had been attempting to find the location
of a rooming house in Graham,
but the man they asked for directions noticed their pistols and notified
the authorities. Hill was captured with three pistols, and Helms with
greatest manhunt in the history of Western Texas had ended. And the
most celebrated of all the trials ever held in Eastland District Court's
old courthouse, was also the last. At the end of this trial, the building
It was little ten-year-old Emma May Robinson's testimony that identified
Ratliff as the man disguised as Santa Claus who had robbed the bank
and kidnapped her. The jury's verdict was ninety-nine years. On the
way to his cell, Ratliff muttered, "That's no hill for a high-stepper
Helms was sentenced to death, and Hill, who cried for mercy and told
of his unhappy childhood, was given a sentence of life imprisonment.
Ratliff was tried again, this time for the murder of Chief Bedford,
and he got the death sentence.
But that was not the end of Ratliff. No indeed. Feigning paralysis
to his unsuspecting jailers while awaiting execution in the hot seat,
the man who had played Santa managed to get hold of a six shooter,
fatally wound one jailer, and violently fight the second jailer in
hand-to-hand combat, sometimes able to get off shots which thankfully
missed their mark. Most of the town, including the fighting jailer's
daughter, watched helplessly through the jail windows, unable to break
open the steel door to help.
At last the courageous jailer pinned Ratliff down and beat him into
unconsciousness, then returned him to his cell.
Eastland Countians have erected a marker and picket fence around a
utility pole in back of the Majestic Theater on Mulberry Street. (It
may or may not be the actual pole.)
TE Photo 1999
Van Ostrand's Christmas
Once upon a time in Mexico, a little boy was walking to church on
Christmas Eve. He wanted to see the Nativity scene. He thought hard
about a gift to bring the Christ child, but had no money to buy
Once upon a time just a few years ago, a little pine tree stood
in the deep forest, isolated and naked. He wondered aloud why he
was so small and skinny while a big pine tree standing just several
feet away had so many full and lusty branches.
Not that the commercialization of Christmas has totally taken over
... Las Posadas begins on December 16th and continues each night
through Christmas eve. ...
Christmas shopping for me will always be the once-upon-a-time of
memory: walking on Fifth Avenue ó it's probably snowing, windows
decorated like the fairy tales of childhood...
Christmas Gifts: It Is Harder to Receive Than to Give
Crookedest Christmas Tree
There's something obscene about spending so much money at Christmastime.
Itís not like weíre the Three Wise Men hiking across the desert
to gift the baby Jesus. I donít even know what frankincense is,
let alone myrrh. So letís get down to the most important symbol
of all: the Christmas tree itself...
In the vast fellowship of Christendom, December 25th is a time to
celebrate the birth of Christ by attending church, singing carols,
and watching "It's A Wonderful Life." The Christmas season is an
occasion for tree-trimming and the giving of gifts to loved ones
-- gifts once symbolic, now spendaholic.
Truth About Rudolph
Each reindeer can pull up to twice its own weight, making it an
ideal animal for pulling a sleigh loaded down with Christmas gifts
Want to have a wonderful Christmas without fighting traffic, battling
mall moms, or spending any money whatsoever? It can be done, trust
me. The best Christmas in my family was a broke one. I had lost
everything in a fire just two weeks before Christmas...
Night the Posse Chased Santa
"[T]he most spectacular crime in the history of the Southwest ...
surpassing any in which Billy the Kid or the James boys had ever