Bad Santa Sparks Massive Manhunt in Texas
One of the biggest manhunts in Texas state history was for none other than Santa Claus.
But before I go further, let me set the scene:
Dead Bank Robber Reward Program
While “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” is the phrase commonly associated with bounty posters, back in 1927, the Texas Bankers Association (TBA) did away with the, “or alive,” clause and began offering a reward of $5000 for each dead bank robber that citizens or law enforcement could produce.
Called the Dead Bank Robber Reward Program, this bounty was in response to a massive crime wave in the 1920’s and 1930’s. By the late 20’s, Texas was experiencing an average of three to four bank robberies every single day!
Most vulnerable were financial institutions in little podunk towns with only a sheriff or two to protect them. Texas is big and sprawling and full of such towns, which made easy pickings for bank robbers.
Unfortunately, the TBA’s $5000 reward inspired some unscrupulous people to trick others into robbing banks for them. There were many variations on this scheme, but they all ended with the perpetrators being killed by their “friends” who would then collect the reward. There are even accounts of corrupt cops taking part in such shenanigans.
In response, the TBA said that even if a person had been duped into robbing a bank, they were still a bank robber and deserved their fate. They did, however, amend the wording for the Dead Bank Robber Reward Program ever so slightly, by adding that from that point on the bounty only applied towards, “legally killed robbers.”
The Santa Claus Robber of Cisco, Texas
Now, let’s get back to our tale of a Santa Claus gone bad. Shortly after being paroled for bank robbery in the town of Valera, Texas, Marshall Ratliff decided to strike again. This time, his target would be the First National Bank in Cisco, Texas.
Ratliff had lived in Cisco prior to going to jail and the local sheriff G.E. “Bit” Bedford had helped put him away for his earlier crime. Not wanting to be recognized by Bedford or any other local citizens, Ratliff donned a Santa outfit before heading to town in a stolen car along with his three accomplices.
Shortly after noon on December 23, 1927 a deviant “Santa,” sauntered down Main Street in Cisco, Texas while his companions parked the getaway car in an alley. By the time Ratliff stepped into the First National Bank, he had several children in tow.
“Hello, Santa!” a bank teller called out upon seeing him. Ratliff did not reply, so the teller repeated his greeting.
Moment’s later, Santa’s little helpers burst through the door, but instead of spreading Christmas cheer, the trio brandished guns. As one told the cashier to put his hands up, the other two forced bank workers to open the safe. Meanwhile, Santa/Ratliff began stuffing a large sack with money.
Yes, Frances, there is a Santa Claus
In the midst of all this, a six-year-old girl named Frances who had seen Santa earlier convinced her mom, Mrs. B.P. Blassengame, to take her into the bank to meet Santa.
Mrs. Blassengame quickly realized what was really going on, and even though Santa threatened to shoot if she did not stay put, Mrs. Blassengame grabbed little Frances, charged through the middle of the bank and straight out the back door.
Along the way, she warned employees in the bank’s back offices of the robbery in progress.
Mrs. Blassengame quickly shuffled Frances off to safety then ran down the alley to the police department, yelling the whole way in order to warn others of the robbery.
Shootout Sparks Surge in Gun Sales
As soon as the police arrived on the scene, bullets began to fly. It’s unclear exactly how the shootout began, but it was intense. Remember that Dead Robber Reward Program?
Once word spread that a bank robbery was in progress, what began as a shootout between the four robbers and a trio of local law enforcement agents quickly ballooned into a huge gun battle involving many of Cisco’s citizens, many of whom were already armed with pistols or rifles. Those who weren’t, including a couple postal workers, ran to the local hardware store to buy guns and ammo so they could join in!
It must have been like a scene out of a Tarantino movie. Over 200 bullet holes were counted in the bank . Who knows how many shots were fired in the subsequent chase and shootouts along the way?
Robbers Foiled by their own Stupidity
As bullets flew, the robbers forced the customers out of the bank, keeping two little girls aged 10 and 12 as hostages as they fled in their getaway car.
Sadly, both the police chief and his deputy later died from wounds received in this barrage. Six other citizens were injured.
Shortly after the getaway car sped off, the robbers realized that they had forgotten an important detail: to fill the gas tank!
Bad Santa Duped by Clever Teen
In addition, one of their tires was flattened by a shot from the pursuing mob. At the edge of town, they carjacked a passing Oldsmobile driven by a fourteen-year-old named Woodrow Wilson Harris.
Only after grabbing the loot, the hostages and then scrambling into their newly-commandeered getaway vehicle – while underfire from the approaching mob, mind you – did the bandits realize that Woodrow Wilson Harris had cleverly taken the ignition keys with him as he ran off!
By this time, one of the four robbers, who had taken a bullet early on, lapsed into unconsciousness. The remaining robbers left him behind as they piled back into their original getaway car.
As they once again sped off, the group came to a startling realization: not only had they left their wounded companion behind, but the entire $12,400 they had stolen from the bank, as well.
In desperation, the fugitives drove off the dirt road until the cactus, scrub oak and mesquite became too thick for them to continue. Exasperated, the three remaining criminals decided to leave the car and their hostages behind and stumble on by foot.
As word of the crime spread, a huge manhunt ensued, with citizen volunteers and law enforcement joining in. When the trio of robbers was finally apprehended, Ratliff’s Santa suit had no less than six bullet holes in it, and they were all quite wounded and weak.
Santa Claus Robber Brought to Trial
All three eventually stood trial. Of Santa’s remaining helpers, one was quickly executed in the electrical chair, and the other sentenced to 99 years in prison. After the latter was paroled in the 1940’s, he changed his name, and presumably became a law abiding citizen.
As for Marshall Ratliff, a.k.a. the Santa Claus robber, he was convicted of armed robbery on January 27, 1928, and sentenced to 99 years in prison. In March, however, he was additionally sentenced to execution for his role in the deaths of the police chief and his deputy.
Santa Feigns Insanity
Ratliff responded by unsuccessfully feigning insanity. As hard as he tried, folks found it just a little too convenient that all of his symptoms appeared the moment he learned of his death sentence.
While awaiting execution in Eastland, however, Ratliff’s health declined and he became paralyzed.
This health condition meant that his jailers had to feed, bathe and help Ratliff use the toilet. It was all a ruse, however…
One evening, as two jailers were taking care of him, Ratliff suddently grabbed a gun from a nearby desk and shot one of them to death. A fist fight ensued between Ratliff and the remaining jailer.
The gunshot caught the attention of passersby. They rushed to the scene but were unable to get into the locked cell to help. All they could do was watch as the pair engaged in a lengthy knockdown, drag out fight.
Eventually, the jailer managed to knock Ratliff unconscious and shove him back into his cell.
Bad Santa Lynched in Eastland, Texas
Even though the jailer told the onlookers to go home, the townspeople were infuriated. By morning, a crowd of 2000 plus people gathered in front of the jail. The jailer was overwhelmed by a rush of angry vigilantes who stormed the jail and dragged Ratliff out.
Shortly after, the Santa Claus Robber was strung up between two telephone poles and hung by the neck until dead. Ironically, the site of his lynching was behind the Majest Theater where a play called, “The Noose,” was currently running.
While no one was ever charged for Ratliff’s lynching (big surprise, eh?) I’ve heard that there is a plaque in the town of Eastland, Texas marking the site. I have not yet seen it in person, but after researching this crazy tale, it’s definitely on my list of places to visit!
Oh, and in case you are wondering: The Dead Robber Reward Program was eventually phased out – but not until 1964!
More A to Z blog posts
This was my post for the letter S of the A to Z blogging challenge. Tune in Monday to see what quirky Texan thing the letter T will bring!
In the meantime, click on this link to find out what all the other A to Z blogging challenge folks are posting. There are so many great blogs out there to read and enjoy!