CISCO, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – Many Texas towns often dream of a white Christmas, but for Eastland County residents, this time of year can bring to mind a Christmas years in the past that was red. The year Santa came to town without presents and left after taking money from the bank and a few lives in the process.
On December 23 of 1927, the little Texas boom-town was aglow with Christmas spirit. Santa Clause arrived unannounced downtown, much to the delight of children shopping with their parents. Marshall Ratliff, dressed as ole’ St. Nick, was followed close behind by his three ‘elves,’ although these elves were thieves rather than toy makers. Duane Hale, Cisco historian at the Lela Latch Lloyd Museum, shared what happened on that fateful day.
“He walks into the first national bank and everybody’s kinda flocking around him. And while they’re doing that, his three little helpers, Hill, Helms and Davis, walk in behind him and rob the First National Bank,” Hale explained.
As Ratliff and his boys threatened violence to any resistance, one woman, Mrs. B. P. Blassengame had just walked in. She took her daughter and exited through a side door unseen. Thanks to her quick action, she was able to run down to the police station and inform the chief, who quickly formed a response.
The police department sat in the old Cisco City Hall, which is now the Lela Latch Lloyd museum. It holds, among other treasures, artifacts on display such as billy clubs, handcuffs, and newspaper headlines of the time. Among these items is an original bounty poster from the Texas Bankers association, offering $5,000 dollars to anyone who could bring in a bank robber near the area of the crime.
Hale said he first heard the story from his Great Grandmother who recalled the day quite vividly.
“Three men came across the hill, south of our farm, and they said ‘there goes the robbers’ and we just kind of laughed about it. Or they did. My great grandmother,” Hale recalled. “She said ‘Luthor’s gun is in there behind the door. I’ll get it.'”
But Hale’s Grandma wasn’t the only one grabbing her gun. By many accounts, the town was ready and willing to hunt these thieves down.
“They had a lot of sports stores and they opened them stores and armed the high school kids,” said Hale.
The Robbery led to a shootout that fatally wounded Cisco’s Assistant Police Chief, George Carmichael, and Police Chief George Bedford. If that wasn’t enough to mobilize the masses, Ratliff and his cohorts had taken two young girls hostage during their getaway.
“One was 10 and one was 12. One was Laverne Comer, the 12-year-old and the other was Emma May Robertson,” said Hale.
The frightened girls found themselves at the mercy of these young men, who were wild eyed and brandishing cold hard steel. Three of those pistols are still in the town, owned by gun collector Herman Eaker.
“What I understand, he shot it five times in the ceiling and held it to her neck. He never did shoot her, but three weeks later her hair was white as snow,” Eaker shared while holding the gun.
Although the robbery went mostly to plan, the crooks getaway hit some bumps. They found a stumbling block in the road when trying to change cars. Reportedly after suffering a few flat tires and one robbers death, they tried to carjack a young man, 14-year-old Woodrow Wilson Harris, who threw his keys into the bushes to stop them.
The men would make it out of town, but not for good. The boys were captured seven days later in Graham, Texas. Ratliff would be tried for robbery and two counts of murder over the course of his incarceration. He was booked into the Eastland County Jail, where he feigned paralysis for four weeks.
“The door was left open and he jumps up and shoots the jailer. 2,000 people surround the jail and some of them are high school students. And they lynched Santa Claus,” Hale explained.
This was recorded as the last known public lynching in Texas history. A gruesome tale that has now been told for 95 years in the Big Country and around the world. Books, TV reenactments, eyewitness accounts, and even a stage play have kept this story alive, thanks to those that pass it down and see to its continued memory.
“If you don’t find out the stories and the information of your family or the area or whatever from, the people that are living, once they’re gone that door is shut. There have been a lot of good people and their names will never be mentioned,” Hale said.
But the people of Cisco and Eastland County will never forget the officers and civilians that fought back the day ‘Santa’ came to town.
This, and more tales of Texas past, can be seen at the Lela Latch Lloyd Museum in Cisco at 116 West 7th Street, open on Saturdays.