SANTA CLAUS MADE A PIT STOP in Cisco two days before his standard down-the-chimney arrival. His sleigh —a low-on-gas, stolen, dark blue Buick; his elves—two ex-cons and one family man hard up for cash; his mission—a get-rich-quick job seemingly guaranteed to make any man jolly.
Marshall Ratliff, a Huntsville-hardened 24-year-old, strolled toward Cisco’s First National Bank in the final days of 1927 disguised, yet completely recognizable to boys and girls who clamored out for the beloved gift-giver. Henry Helms, Robert Hill, and Louis Davis followed St. Nick into First National and drew their guns.
In the early twentieth-century, Texas banks were taking a beating, especially those in tiny towns short on law enforcement personnel. Three or four banks a day found themselves the targets of armed robbers, who didn’t seem to care that holding up a bank was a capital offense. In the fall of 1927 the Texas Bankers Association attempted to curb the rampant stickups with what came to be known as the “dead robber reward.” The association would dole out five-thousand big ones to anyone who killed a bank robber in the act, “but not one cent for a hundred live ones.”
Who knew that little six-year-old Frances Blassengame could stake a claim at a piece of that reward. She eyed Santa as he walked into First National and begged her mother to take her across the street so she could submit one final Christmas wish. Mrs. B. P. Blassengame grudgingly agreed, and the pair walked into the bank mid-holdup.
Upon seeing the pistols, Mrs. Blassengame grabbed young Frances and tried to turn and run, but the front door from which mother and daughter had just entered was now guarded by a man with a gun in each hand. So toward the back door they headed, pushing for freedom, undeterred by the shouting of men whose weapons legitimized their calls to halt. Into the alley Mrs. Blassengame and Frances darted, beelining for the police station and hollering for help.
Cisco was a good-sized town of nearly eight thousand in 1927. Mrs. Blassengame may have intended merely to alert the police of an unlawful matter, but her cries did more than simply send Chief Bit Bedford and officers George Carmichael and R. T. Redies into duty. They signaled the masses to grab a pistol, a rifle, or a shotgun and head for the bank as reinforcements. Many, no doubt, had that $5,000 reward on the brain.
Louis Davis, a family man in his late twenties lured into his present situation by the promise of big rewards, was a last-minute addition to the scheme. Ratliff, Hill, and Helms, all veterans of the state penitentiary, had planned on using an experienced safecracker, also an ex-con, as their fourth man, but days before the robbery, number four came down with the flu and bailed on the operation. Helms pulled Davis, a country boy acquaintance who’d never had any trouble with the law, into the mix. Davis didn’t say much, just that he didn’t want there to be any shooting.
Santa pulled a potato sack from under his signature red coat and instructed a teller to fill it with cash, checks, bonds, and all valuables held within the bank’s vault. With loot in hand—more than $12,000 in cash and $150,000 in paper—Santa turned from the vault and saw a pair of eyes peering in the front window. Helms and Hill noticed too. They had been discovered, and one of the three fired involuntarily. Someone from the mob outside answered with a single shot in return. Hill fired four more times into the ceiling just in case those waiting to ambush missed the message the first time—these guys were armed. Message received and answered. A fusillade of gunfire ensued.
Understanding that safety rested with numbers, the robbers herded the sixteen people in the bank out the back door and into the alley where the getaway Buick awaited, ordering the hostages to get into the vehicle. Amid the ping-ponging shoot-out, some escaped, others took bullets, but the armed foursome got their hostages—Laverne Comer and Emma May Robertson, two young girls. Ratliff, Helms, Hill, and Davis escaped from First National with their hostages—Laverne in the front seat and Emma May in the back—but not before fatally wounding Chief Bedford and Officer Carmichael.
Ratliff and Davis also suffered hits—Davis’ so severe that he lay passed out in the rear of the Buick—but the most pressing trauma of the moment was the state of the Buick. Gas tank running on empty, rear tire running flat, the getaway car was in no shape to get anywhere. And with an angry mob in pursuit, the criminals were desperate for a healthy mode of transport.
The Harris family came to town in their brand-new Oldsmobile to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. Fourteen-year-old Woody Harris stopped for a Santa in need, never expecting Santa to be the gun-toting kind. The Harrises exited their Olds at gunpoint, and the robbers sprawled an unconscious Davis across the backseat, flung the sack of money to the rear, and piled Laverne and Emma May into the front. They were once again ready for their getaway, but just as getaways require gas, so too are keys a necessity. And the keys to this Oldsmobile were in Woody Harris’ pocket. Ratliff, Helms, and Hill reloaded the Buick, consciously leaving an ailing Davis in the Oldsmobile but unconsciously leaving the loot behind too. Ratliff, Helms, and Hill eventually abandoned the Buick and the two girls, and headed out on foot. Davis died later that evening at a Fort Worth hospital.
In the following days, Ratliff, Helms, and Hill would steal two more cars, take another hostage, and do their best to evade authorities amid the woodsy terrain along the Brazos River. Santa was eventually gunned down by a deputy sheriff outside South Bend; Helms and Hill escaped temporarily before being captured by authorities in Graham. The wounded count, including the robbers, reached eleven.
Robert Hill pleaded guilty to armed robbery and was sentenced to 99 years in jail. He escaped three times, was recaptured, and was eventually paroled in the mid-forties.
Henry Helms, 32, took his seat in the electric chair on September 6, 1929.
Marshall Ratliff was sentenced to 99 years in prison. On November 19, 1929, a mob stormed the Eastland County jail, dragged Ratliff out, tied his hands and feet, and hanged him from a nearby power pole.
No one ever claimed the “dead robber award.”