when santa came to town
You better watch out!
You better not cry!
You better not pout!
I’m telling you why,
Santa Claus is coming to town!
I don’t know about the rest of you, but for me, December is usually a slow month insofar as new clients coming through the door. In most years, I can’t wait for mid-January to roll around to get back in the flow. I typically view anything new that comes in from mid-December on as a gift.
I wonder if that was the state of affairs in late December 1927 for lawyers J. K. Baker of Coleman and J. Lee Cearley of Cisco. I can imagine the two attorneys hoping to end the year with one more file to open. Well, be careful what you wish for.
On December 23, 1927, Marshall Ratliff strolled down the bustling streets of Cisco dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, complete with a mask. The streets were crowded with last-minute Christmas shoppers, and as Ratliff made his way, children flocked to him and ran alongside. As Santa neared the First National Bank of Cisco, he stepped inside. Some of the children who had been understandably excited to see St. Nick followed him into the bank. Among those were twelve-year-old Laverne Comer, ten-year-old Emma May Robertson, and six-year-old Frances Blassengame, who entered a few moments later with her mother.
When Ratliff walked into the bank, cashier Alex Spears called out “Hello Santa!” Ratliff did not respond, and the teller again shouted “Hello, Santa!” Spears knew Ratliff, who was from Cisco, but he couldn’t recognize him behind the mask, and Santa remained eerily silent.
Suddenly, there were shouts of “Hands up! This is a robbery.” Can you imagine the terror in the minds of those in the bank, especially the kids? Three armed bank robbers . . . no, wait, there was now a fourth, as Santa himself was standing there with a pistol in his hand!
Santa’s helpers were Robert Hill, Henry Helms, and L. R. Davis. All but Hill were ex-cons. Ratliff had been caught robbing banks previously with his brother, Henry Ratliff. The Ratliff brothers had received prison sentences—18 years for Marshall while brother Henry got 10. They both had been conditionally pardoned by Governor Ma Ferguson. Very shortly thereafter, Henry Ratliff was revoked for a burglary or he probably would have been right there in the Cisco bank alongside his brother, Santa.
With their guns drawn and barking at the bank employees, Ratliff pulled a sack from under his Santa suit and proceeded to fill it with cash and bonds. While this was happening, in walked Mrs. Blassengame with little Frances in hopes of seeing Santa up close.
Mrs. Blassengame immediately realized a robbery was in progress. She quickly reopened the door and pushed Frances back outside hollering, “Run! Run!” Although one of the robbers threatened to shoot her, Mrs. Blassengame skedaddled through the door and ran for the police department a block away screaming, “They’re robbing the bank! They’re robbing the bank!” as she ran.
As the robbers finished grabbing what loot they could, the police and many citizens who had now been alerted, ran toward the bank and took up positions toward the front of the bank. Police Chief “Bit” Bedford stationed himself at one end of the alley that ran alongside the bank, while Cisco Officer George Carmichael covered the other end.
Many citizens armed themselves to assist. It’s hard to tell if they were compelled into action as a result of a sense of civic duty, or if they themselves had deposits in the bank, or maybe the reward was the reason. For you see, there had been such an epidemic of bank robberies in those days that the Texas Bankers Association had offered a $5,000 reward for dead bank robbers. Whatever their motivation, the people of Cisco rallied to the bank.
As the robbers started to exit the bank into the alley where the getaway car was parked, gunfire erupted. The robbers grabbed hostages and held them as human shields. They snatched the two girls, Laverne and Emma, along with Marion Olson, a Harvard College student who was home for his holiday break.
Holding the hostages in front of them, the robbers blazed away toward both ends of the alley. And, despite the human shields, some folks were firing back. In the hail of gunfire Chief Bedford and Officer Carmichael were mortally wounded. Several other folks were wounded including Spears. College student Olson was also hit, but he managed to leap from the moving bandit car despite having a gun to his head. Of the bank robbers, Ratliff had been shot and so had Davis—Davis mortally so.
Ratliff and his cohorts sped up the street with their two remaining hostages. The citizens and a last surviving officer pursued. At the edge of town, the robbers, with their car shot up and one tire running on a rim, stopped and commandeered another vehicle. At gun point, they ordered the driver, 14-year-old Wood Wilson Harris, and his family from their car. The Harrises obliged and ran from their vehicle.
Ratliff, Hill, and Helms carried the two girls, the wounded Davis, and the sack of loot to the Harris’ vehicle. The townspeople at this point had closed in on them, and the two groups continued to exchange gunfire. The bandits must have been stunned when they learned that young Woodrow had outsmarted them by taking the keys with him as he and his family scurried away.
As the gang started to retreat to the original getaway car, Hill was hit. They abandoned the wounded Davis and the sack of money in the Harris vehicle, grabbed the girls, piled into their shot-up car and drove away. The townspeople were apparently delayed at the Harris vehicle long enough, taking the dying Davis into custody, to allow Santa and the rest of the gang to escape.
Some miles down the road, they pulled into a pasture. They told the girls to lie down, cover their eyes and start counting. As they counted, the three remaining robbers slipped away into the brush. The trio remained on the lam for several days, managing to steal a couple more vehicles and evade capture.
Ratliff and Hill were both suffering from their wounds, Ratliff especially so. Near the small community of South Bend, close to the Brazos, they were spotted by police and chased in a running gun battle by two carloads of officers. The second car contained Cy Bradford, a well-known West Texas lawman who had already participated in more than his share of exchanges of gunfire in the oilfields and coal mines of the area.
The robbers pulled off the roadway and jumped from their vehicle headed for thick brush, shooting over their shoulders as they went. While the other officers lagged behind, Bradford sprinted from his car with a shotgun in an attempt to cut them off. Bradford, firing as he ran, dropped Ratliff. Continuing forward, he also wounded and knocked down Hill and Helms, but the two of them were able to scramble to their feet and reach the cover of the thick brush. They got away, but Santa was captured.
When they took Ratliff, he was armed with six pistols, a shotgun, and several belts of ammunition. He was also shot six times, including once in the chin, matching the location of a bullet hole in the recovered Santa mask. Helms and Hill were captured a couple of days later near Graham without more gunfire.
Lawyers Baker and Cearley got their end-of-year, close-out case. They were appointed to represent Santa Claus! Back then, I guess conflicts didn’t matter, as Cearley was also appointed to represent Robert Hill.
The two lawyers must have drawn the ire of the local community for representing such a reprehensible defendant. But, they certainly did their best for their now infamous client.
Ratliff was tried first in the county seat of Eastland for armed bank robbery, which was then apparently a capital offense. The lawyers tried to change venue, based on the fact that there was a dangerous combination of bankers and bank stockholders who were colluding to ensure convictions of bank robbers. Testimony was developed that the local banks had in fact contributed to the aforementioned bounty for dead bank robbers, but the witnesses apparently convinced the judge that bounty only applied to those bank robbers killed in the act, not those convicted and sentenced to death. The lawyers also sought to move the case on pretrial publicity. The State put on ten witnesses to testify Ratliff could get a fair trial. Motion to change venue denied.
The voir dire was obviously heavy on who had heard what and what opinions the venire had formed. Also, the State took a lot of time to ask in detail about those who might have reason to hate the banks and bankers, while the Defense focused on asking about shareholders and those who had deposits in banks. In the end, the jury was comprised mostly of farmers and oil field workers.
The defense team then argued that nobody could identify Ratliff as having been in the Santa outfit and therefore nobody could place him in the bank. That was true, until young Emma testified that Santa, during the getaway, had lifted his mask to check on his injured chin. She told the jurors that as he did so, she got a good look at him and that she could identify Santa as Ratliff, the man in the courtroom. The healing bullet wound lining up with the hole in the mask didn’t help either.
But, the two lawyers somehow managed to avoid the death penalty and talked the jury into a 99-year sentence. While heading back to his cell, Santa reportedly said, “That’s no hill for a high-stepper like me!”
Ratliff was quickly tried again, this time for the murder of Chief Bedford. Baker and Cearley raised double jeopardy as an issue. Denied.
A renewed motion to change venue. Denied.
With all else failing, the lawyers apparently also argued that Ratliff was acting in self-defense as a result of the illegal bounty and the attacking mob of citizens. All to no avail. This time, Santa got the death penalty.
Helms was also convicted, and received the death penalty. He died in the electric chair.
When it came time for Hill’s trial, Cearley had learned from his representation of Ratliff. Hill pled guilty and put on what we today would recognize as a mitigation trial. Hill, crying on the stand, apologized. He told the jury that as an orphan, he had been raised in State homes. At 21, and with no criminal history, he had been led astray by the older ex-cons. The jury spared him the death sentence. He subsequently escaped, and was recaptured, three separate times from the penitentiary. He later made parole, apparently never to be arrested again.
But the story was far from over for Baker and Cearley’s infamous client, Ratliff the Santa Claus Bandit. Having exhausted his appeals, Ratliff filed a motion saying that he should be spared execution because he was now quite insane.
Helms had filed a similar motion and although Helms repeatedly chanted “Ain’t —Gonna—Sing” throughout the process, the Court had rejected his claim of insanity.
Ratliff, who while waiting on Death Row would sing the old hymn “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, I’ll Be There” from his cell as condemned men were led to the execution chamber, had now himself fallen into apparent lunacy and had developed his own monotonous, repetitive chant: “The Lord have mercy on my soul.”
Ratliff was transferred from Huntsville back to Eastland for the sanity hearing. But, the lawyers never got the chance to present their motion.
Ratliff, had convinced the jailers that he was incapable of caring for himself—so they fed him, bathed him, and tended to his needs as he would sit or lie in an almost catatonic state. They became lax. One evening, as they made their rounds checking cells, Ratliff made his way to a desk where he retrieved the pistol of Deputy Tom Jones. As Ratliff tried to locate keys to escape, Jones confronted him. Ratliff shot him three times. The other deputy, Pack Kilborn, rushed in and was able to wrest the gun from Ratliff and subdue him.
The next evening, after it had become apparent that Deputy Jones would not survive, a crowd estimated at over one thousand surrounded the jail. Kilborn repeatedly asked them to disperse and let justice run its course. The mob would have none of it, and Kilborn was overrun.
The Santa Claus Bandit was pulled from his cell. The nude Ratliff was dragged to a spot about a block from the jail. There, under a guy-wire running between two telephone poles, they hurriedly tied his hands behind his back. A rope was tied around his neck, and the other end thrown over the wire above. The naked prisoner was then hoisted into the cold November night.
As he was ascending, the rope broke, and he plummeted back to the ground. As he lay there stunned, he murmured, “God have mercy and forgive me.”
As the crowd scurried to fix the rope problem, I guess someone thought it indecent to hang him naked in front of the crowd, so someone tied a sack around his waist.
With their rope issues resolved, they slipped a noose over Ratliff’s head. Again, they began to pull him skyward. Ratliff was now trying to say something.
Someone suggested they let him down to speak. The men on the other end of the rope obliged and lowered him for a moment . . . just long enough for him to get the words out, “Boys forgive me,” before they pulled him back into the air for a final time.
They left him there for 30 minutes. The next day they exhibited his body in front of a local store until a judge ordered them to take him away, to be held for his mother to come claim his body.
The next day, Deputy Tom Jones succumbed to his wounds. His was the final death related to the Santa Claus Robbery.
The district judge ordered the grand jury to convene that day to investigate who was responsible for the lynching. The prosecutor decried the mob action and told the papers he would vigorously prosecute anyone who was indicted. The governor pledged to give assistance if asked.
But, the local defense lawyers would not get any new December business out of the hanging. No new files were to be opened. The Governor was never asked for assistance. The judge’s grand jury never returned an indictment. And the prosecutor, Joseph Jones, brother of Deputy Tom Jones, never had an indictment to prosecute.
And that my friends, is the story of The Santa Claus Bandit.
P.S.: Don’t tell this one to the kids! Happy Holidays!