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Texas History

Naughty Santa

Jolly disguise turns 1927 bank robbery first into hapless spectacle then into deadly shootout in Cisco

On December 23, 1927, a man in a Santa Claus suit got his name on the naughty list. How? He held up the First National Bank of Cisco, in north-central Texas. The crime reached astonishing heights of infamy and ineptitude. The thief, Marshall Ratliff, had been jailed previously for bank robbery but was pardoned by Gov. Ma Ferguson after serving only one year.

Ratliff persuaded Henry Helms, Robert Hill and Louis Davis to assist in the heist. He borrowed a Santa Claus suit from his landlady in Wichita Falls, stole a car and set out with his cronies for Cisco. Ratliff considered the Santa suit a perfect disguise. His decision was proved wrong soon after he got out of the car and headed for the bank. Several children on the street spotted Santa Claus entering the bank and trooped along behind, hoping to tell him what they wanted for Christmas. Meanwhile, Hill and Helms parked the stolen car in the alley behind the bank. The men entered the bank. In the crowded lobby, bank employees heard someone shout, “Stick ’em up!” Guns were drawn.

Six-year-old Frances Blasengame dragged her mother into the bank for “one last wish for Santa” just as guns appeared. Frances burst into tears, crying, “They’re gonna shoot Santa Claus … they’re gonna shoot him!” according to A.C. Greene in “The Santa Claus Bank Robbery” (The New American Library, 1972). Blasengame headed for the back door, pushing Frances in front of her. One of the bandits yelled, “Come back here, lady!” but she kept going right out the back, where she ran across a vacant lot to city hall and alerted the police.

Santa had filled a cloth sack with cash and started for the back door just as one gunman noticed movement outside the bank. He fired. A fusillade of bullets answered, ricocheting around the inside of the bank. Excitement surged through town as folks yelled “Bank robbery! First National!” Clerks in the hardware store passed rifles and shotguns out to customers.

Police Chief Bit Bedford and two deputies took up positions in the alley just as the robbers bustled out of the bank with hostages. They shoved Laverne Comer, 12, and Emma May Robinson, 10, into the getaway vehicle. As the car sped away, Bedford charged around the corner of the bank and fired a shotgun blast before falling to his knees, mortally wounded.

Within moments, the getaway driver noticed a serious problem: No one had put gas in the car, and its tank was nearly empty. Outraged citizens of Cisco were in hot pursuit. Near the intersection of 14th Street and Avenue D, the bandits flagged down the driver of a brand new Oldsmobile. The bloody men dragged the frightened family out of the car and climbed in, not noticing that the driver, 14 year-old Woody Harris, pocketed the key as he ran away.

The posse, stopped a block away, fired repeatedly as Santa ordered everyone back into the getaway car, leaving Davis, hit by a shotgun blast, behind. Within blocks, Santa realized they had left the loot, $12,200 in cash and $150,000 in securities, in the Oldsmobile with Davis. Distracted by the unconscious robber and the cash, the posse lost sight of the getaway car.

Laverne and Emma May remained in the car when Santa warned them they would be shot if they got out. Ratliff didn’t realize that Laverne had recognized him when he took off his mask. When the posse arrived, she identified the crook, but the outlaws had disappeared.

A massive manhunt commenced. Two of the three robbers were wounded. They had no food, and a blue norther had arrived with icy winds and sleet, but the last of the Santa Claus bank robbers evaded lawmen until December 30, when they were re-united in the county jail.

The Santa Claus bank robbery might seem comical were it not for the six people killed and eight injured. Ratliff later escaped from jail and was lynched by an angry mob, considered the last mob lynching in Texas history.

Martha Deeringer, a member of Heart of Texas EC, lives near McGregor.