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Santa Robber

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Charles 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 course.

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 pole.

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. It reported:

“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.


© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" December 6, 2007 column

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