Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” stands as an enduring classic, but truth
being stranger than fiction, Texas can claim one of the nation’s more
bizarre real-life holiday tales – a story of a Santa Claus gone bad.
On Dec. 23, 1927 four gunmen – including one dressed as Santa Claus
– robbed the First National Bank of Cisco.
They escaped with $12,400, using two little girls for human shields
as the town’s police chief and another officer blazed away at them.
Downstate, Texas Ranger Capt. Tom Hickman sat in the Missouri, Kansas
& Texas depot on Austin’s
Congress Avenue waiting for the afternoon "Katy" to Fort
Worth. As the cowboy-turned-lawman cooled his boot heels, someone
from the Governor's office rushed up.
"Tom, the bank at Cisco
has been robbed by a man dressed like Santa Claus," the messenger
said. "He got away after a gunfight on the street. Get there as soon
as you can."
Reaching Cowtown, Hickman learned that his old friend Cisco
Police Chief G. E. “Bit” Bedford had died of wounds suffered in the
shootout with the robbers. Another Cisco
police officer, George Carmichael, had taken a bullet in the head
and doctors did not expect him to live. One of the robbers, Louis
Davis, also lay mortally wounded. The other three gunmen, including
a not-so-jolly bandit in a Santa Claus outfit, remained at large.
The Ranger learned that Davis had been driven to Fort
Worth in a hearse, a funeral home vehicle also used as an ambulance.
A doctor had done all he could for Davis, essentially just dressing
his wounds and shooting him up with pain killer. The robber would
die, the only question being how soon. His removal to Fort
Worth had not been to afford him better medical care but to save
him from an agitated citizenry not inclined to let nature take its
Shoppers crowded a downtown ablaze with Christmas lights, but at the
Tarrant County jail, Davis did not lie dying in a clean, well-lighted
place. The infirmary smelled of disinfectant, but whatever commercial
preparation the county used did a poor job of masking a permanent
odor built up over the years by drunks and other law-breakers. A bare
light bulb hung down on a long cord from the ceiling as Davis tossed
in semi-consciousness on a bunk, covered with a thin blanket.
Hickman, an affable sort, tried to get Davis to name his accomplices
and say where they might be hiding. But Davis, a down-on-his-luck
family man with no criminal history, had run out of words and time.
Leaving the jail, Hickman noticed the hearse from Cisco
parked across the street. The driver, trying to keep warm, had the
motor running. The captain flashed his smile and his badge and asked
for a ride to Cisco. At
twenty miles an hour on an unpaved road, the trip would take four
to five hours. Having had a long day, Hickman stretched out in the
back to get some sleep.
Arriving in Cisco early
on Christmas Eve, Hickman took over the search for the suspects, directing
one of the largest manhunts the state had ever seen. His sergeant,
Manuel T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas, went up in an airplane as a spotter,
participating in the first aerial search for criminals in Texas history.
When lawmen jumped the three suspects near the Brazos River several
days later, Ranger Cy Bradford wounded one, Marshall Ratliff, in a
wild shootout. Bandits Robert Hill and Henry Helms managed to escape
only to be taken into custody a few days later in Graham.
In eight days the pair had made it only sixty-two miles from the bank
they had robbed.
Of the three, Hill got a 99-year sentence for armed robbery and Helms
eventually died in the electric chair for the murder of the two officers.
Ratliff, the man who had played Santa Claus with a pistol, also drew
a death sentence for his role in the crime.
On November 19, 1929, annoyed at the slow pace of due process, a mob
removed Ratliff from the Eastland County Jail and lynched from a utility
The Eastland Record-Telegram covered the hanging thoroughly. The local
citizenry clearly harbored no holiday spirit for the man who had donned
a Santa Claus suit before sticking up their bank and killing two officers.
“As souvenir hunter plucked at the body, a newspaperman met Clyde
L. Garrett, Eastland county judge.
“ ‘They’ve got Ratliff?’ queried the judge.
“ ‘Yes,’ the newspaperman answered. “ ‘I guess the county will have
to bury him,’ the judge observed.”
As it turned out, Eastland
County only had to pick up the tab for embalming the body. Ratliff’s
family saw to his burial.
"Texas Tales" December
6, 2007 column
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