On Dec. 23, 1927, no one really thought much about seeing Santa Claus walking into the First National Bank in the small town of Cisco, Texas. However, Santa and his gang were about to attempt one of the most bizarre crimes in Texas history.
Present day Cisco has just over 3,000 residents. But in 1927, the city was an oil and gas boomtown boasting over 15,000 citizens.
1927 was a prosperous year for Texas. According to Texas State Historical Association, the banks were flush, which attracted an inevitable criminal element, and robbers were hitting three to four banks every day, which prompted the Texas Banker’s Association to offer a $5,000 reward (over $70,000 in today’s money) to anyone bold enough to shoot a bank robber.
So when Marshall Ratliff and his gang decided to rob the First National Bank in Cisco, they had a predetermined price on their heads.
Ratliff was a convicted bank robber who had already served time for robbing a bank in Valera, Texas. A pardon by Texas Governor Ma Ferguson released him only a year into his sentence.
A former resident of Cisco before his arrest and imprisonment, he donned a Santa suit and beard so that he wouldn’t be recognized.
For this particular crime, Ratliff joined forces with fellow ex-cons Henry Helms and Robert Hill, along with help from Louis Davis, a desperate family man and relative of Helms.
As Ratliff walked in, he was happily greeted by delighted bank tellers who called a cheerful, “Hello, Santa!” Their delight soon turned to horror when Hill barged in, pointed a gun at bank employees and yelled, “Hands up!”
Helms and Davis followed Hill into the bank as Ratliff, still disguised as Santa, shoved past the gate and armed himself with a pistol from under the desk. He then forced a bank employee to open the safe and he filled a bag with over $12,000 (more than $170,000 today).
At this point, the crime began to fall apart.
A woman and her daughter walked into the bank hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa. When they realized what was going on, they ran from the bank shouting about the robbery.
In response, the police and armed citizens surrounded the bank and exchanged fire with the gunmen, who escaped by taking two young girls as hostages. Ratliff and Davis were both shot in the melee.
A flat tire and waning gasoline in the getaway car prompted Ratliff and his henchmen to abandon their automobile in favor of one they hijacked. The driver turned over the car and fled, but wisely took the keys with him, causing the robbers to have to return to their beleaguered ride in order to escape. However, in all the hubbub, they left Davis (who was gravely wounded) along with all the loot, in the immobile hijacked car.
Though the money was returned to the bank, the robbers were not off the hook. What followed is considered to be one of the biggest manhunts in Texas history.
In the end, the criminals were caught, and six people were killed, including three of the robbers.
Cisco Chief of Police Bit Bedford and officer George Carmichael were shot as the robbers exited the bank. Davis died of gunshot wounds he sustained in the escape. Helms was executed for the murders of Bedford and Carmichael. Ratliff, however, met a more violent end.
Ratliff feigned insanity and was able to get ahold of a gun from a desk drawer at the Eastland County Jail. He then shot jailer Tom A. Jones to death.
After Jones was murdered, a mob lynched Ratliff, hanging him from a nearby light pole.
Robert Hill was the only one of the Great Santa Claus Robbery perpetrators to survive the event. He served time and was eventually released.
The building that housed the First National Bank in Cisco still stands, a memorial to the bloody and bizarre tragedy. A historic marker remains to tell the tale of what happened there.