It was 1927. Times were tough. The economic slump called the Great Depression would soon hit the cities. Out in the farmland however, times were already tight. Rural banks like this one in Cisco, if thay managed to stay open, had become prime targets for wandering bandits. This town was in desperate need. As if in an answer to prayer... on December 23 who should appear walking down Main Street? Santa Claus.
Walking down the middle of the avenue came jolly Saint Nick. Small dust clouds rose around the children's excited feet as they clamored to pass their requests. The jolly elf laughed. He patted some on the head as he bellowed holiday cheer. So was the trek down Main. Stopping only to look to his left and to his right before going into the National Bank. The Children gleefully followed.
"Hello Santa!" the cashiers joyfully cried. Santa... well he just walked to a central Island in the bank and stood silently. It was almost as if Santa was waiting... waiting... but for what. The answer arrived soon enough. Suddenly the lobby was filled with a thunderous explosion. No, it wasn't the crash of reindeer on the roof, it was the bombastic entry of three men. They were brandishing guns. They announced that it was a hold up. Well what about Santa? He took his red bag and began to demand the tellers put their money in the bag. When this was completed, he ordered another to open the vault. What? Santa? How could he?
Well you see this wasn't Santa. No, it was Marshall Ratliff. He had already spent time in jail, although he was pardoned after a years internment by Texas first female governor, 'Ma' Ferguson. He had planned this robbery. It was supposed to have happened in Wichita Falls. But the safe cracker had contracted the flu. This led Ratliff to make a change in plans. The strike would be at Cisco.
So here they were. The robbers had the money in the bag and were preparing their escape when the cops arrived. Who warned them? Well some say it was a bank patron Mrs. Blassengame who had suck out of the bank unseen to the alley where she let out a yell. Others say it was a young girl who had been in the bank. As her excited requests to Santa had gone rebuffed, she knew something wasn't right. Choose your tale. It doesn't change the fact that Police Chief Bit Bedford had altered his force. In a show of bravado, Santa... I mean Ratliff laughed as a bullet from his gun pierced the plate glass window in front of the bank. One of the gunmen, Robert Hill, caught a shadow out of the corner of his eye. He fired through the glass. Someone outside fired back.
Who fired back? We aren't really sure. By this time many of the citizens had joined the police in forming a bulwark against the bandits. The citizens had gutted the general store of rifles and ammo. Customers from the bank flooded out of the building... and right into the fire. The president of the bank, Alex Spears, ans several others were wounded. But what about Santa... I mean Ratliff? Well, thinking quickly, the bandits took two little girls hostage: Emma May Robinson, ten, and LaVerne Comer, twelve. As they exited the bank more than a hundred shots were fired. One of the cashiers took a strike in the jaw, the other struck a customer in the jaw. Police Chief Bedford and another policeman were mortally wounded. As shots filled the air, the robbers made it to the car. Perhaps that is when one of the robbers noticed that he had been struck. The car started up, but one bullet struck the tire. The robbers would not be outdone.
Turning their guns on a passing vehicle they commanded it to stop. Hurriedly they began to transfer their wounded comrade and loot to the new vehicle. The driver of the car, fourteen-year-old Woodrow Wilson Harris slid the key to the ignition out of the lock and walked away. Upon this discovery, the frustrated robbers went back to the impaired vehicle with the two girls. They left behind the wounded bandit, the $12,000 and $150,000 in non-negotiable securities they had taken from the bank. But they were free. Maybe for only a moment... but they were free. Tossing roofing nails onto the road to slow those who might pursue, Santa rode out of town.
Well he didn't get far. Undergrowth in a thicket they sought shelter in prevented further passage by auto. Warning the hostages to stay low, the group took off by foot.
Citizens and law enforcement from all around the county came to find the rascally ruffians. Discarded clothes were found as night turned to day and day turned again to night. On the night of Christmas Eve, a Santa entered a church celebration causing one young boy to softly question "Santa Claus, why did you rob the bank?"
But the hunt did not end. The robbers had taken another hostage of a West Texas rig hand, stole his car, and the rig hand's father, trying to prevent the robbery, had fired into the car. Sadly, his son was the one who received a majority of the buckshot.
Then the Texas Rangers arrived, Cy Bradford and Ranger Captain Tom Hickman. This fake Santa could not escape. Airplanes were called in for spotting. The citizenry was on the alert. Cy was ready to follow the trail. They would not give the guilty time to rest. From the tracks the fugitives left the short spaces in the paces displayed that the fugitives were getting weak. They were captured December 30th near Graham ,Texas ending the largest manhunt in Texas' history.
At the trial, it was the ten year old Emma May who identified Ratliff as the fake Santa. Ratliff, who first was given ninety-nine years, was brought on his next charge for the death of Bedford. For this crime he was given the death sentence.
Well is that the end of the man who dressed as Santa? No. Incarcerated in Fort Worth, Ratliff feigned paralysis. It was enough to fool the guards. They took their eyes away for a moment... but a moment was all this scoundrel needed. He lept upon one of the unsuspecting guards, Tom Jones, took his six-shooter, and mortally wounded him. The other jailer, Pack Kilbourn, after a scuffle, pinned this fake Santa to the ground and pummeled him into unconsciousness.
By the next night, the town was enraged. They had very little patience for the man who dared to fake Santa. The crowd numbered close to a thousand. They rushed the jail. They grabbed Ratliff. I will let you look at the headline below to see what Texas did to the Santa gone bad.
Ratliff got a burial in Olivett Cemetery in Fort Worth. The bank, though in a new building in Cisco, has a historical marker and a painting to remind all: Don't Mess With Texas, Don't Mess With Santa.