The Santa Claus Bank Robbery happened in Cisco, Texas on December 23, 1927 and resulted in the last public mob lynching in the state. The details are well-known in Cisco and Eastland, and the story is notorious in Texas, as it was one of the last true examples of the wild west. Readers can find more detailed, historical accounts on the internet and in books, but this is my lazier account.
One hundred miles west of Fort Worth, Eastland County was in an oil boom in the teens and twenties of the last century. The populations of Ranger, Eastland, and Cisco swelled, and each town boasted new theaters, new, fancy hotels, and all manner of accommodations previously unknown in what had until recently been inhabited by Comanches.
Boom towns attracted some rough characters, too. A young man in his twenties named Marshall Ratliff decided it would be worthwhile to rob the First National Bank of Cisco. He recruited some help (Davis, Helms, and Hill), and they drove from Wichita Falls, Texas down to Cisco, dressed up like Santa Claus, and stormed the bank with guns.
In those days, as in these, many citizens in Eastland County carried guns. Also, because of several recent bank robberies in Texas, the state offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who shot a bank robber during the crime. It wasn’t long before Santa and his elves were in a shootout with citizens and law enforcement. People died, good and bad (including two police officers and Davis, the one bandit who had no prior criminal activity), but Ratliff, Helms, and Hill escaped town.
After “the largest manhunt in the history of West Texas,” which involved the Texas Rangers, the bandits were apprehended in Graham, Young County, and sent to Huntsville—Texas’s most well-known state prison, where Helms, the robber identified as having fatally shot the two police officers, died in the electric chair. Hill received a sentence of 99 years, was paroled in the 40’s, and died a productive citizen in 1996.
Ratliff (Santa) received a death sentence but pretended to be insane and caused delays. The citizens of Eastland County, meanwhile, grew impatient, so the local judge had Ratliff extradited on a bench warrant for the theft of an Oldsmobile (the getaway car). Ratliff was shipped to the Eastland County jail just a block from the courthouse in downtown Eastland.
While there, Ratliff continued his tom foolery. He pretended to be sick, and when the guards took him out of his cell to render care, he snatched a gun and killed his host.
In those days, as in these, the citizens of Eastland County didn’t put up with trouble from outsiders. Locals gathered outside the jail demanding Ratliff, who soon decided his accommodations weren’t so bad after all. The crowd grew to over 2,000. Eventually, they stormed the jail, restrained the guard, and took Ratliff across the street where they slung a noose over his head.
The first rope, hung from a utility pole, failed. The second, however, was successful. Ratliff swung into eternity from a pole that was just at the corner of where my garage now stands. Instead of becoming rich, he became famous, and 100 years later I think of him every time I take out the trash and glance at the marble marker that tells his last story.
The hotel where I now scrub toilets was built in 1918, so it witnessed the lynching of Santa Claus. When guests ask if it’s haunted, I say, “Not that I know of,” but tell them the story of Ratliff, who now lies peacefully in Mount Olivet, Fort Worth and hasn’t bothered anyone in nearly a century.