Cisco Beat: Santa Hits the Bank

Eighty-four years ago today, at his final age of 30, pulp writer Robert E. Howard shot himself in the head outside his home in Cross Plains, Texas.

To commemorate the somber anniversary we bring in lifelong REH fan Brian Leno. Part convention report, part book report, part REH history and all Texas history, Brian’s got a tale to tell you. In honor of Two-Gun Bob.

Here’s Brian:

It was raining hard in Cisco during the Summer of 2009 when my three road companions and I booked rooms in one of the local motels. The rooms were only necessary for sleeping, because we were planning on spending most of our time 23 miles away in Cross Plains.

Festivities were in full swing honoring Robert E. Howard that weekend in Cross Plains — the weekend closest to the date he killed himself. I had been twice before to view Howard’s home, once in 1967, and the last time in 2007.

This one was special however. One of my traveling companions was Donald Sidney-Fryer, an expert on the poetry of Clark Ashton Smith, Howard, and many others.

A high point came when we rescued DSF from participating in a mind-numbing reading — by rank amateurs — of Howard’s verse. Known as the Poetry Throwdown, this sophomoric event sometimes even degenerated into these would-be poets reciting their own lackluster rhymes. 

We hustled Donald back to the Cisco motel and the night was spent drinking beer and listening to an actual poet recite bits of Howard’s and Clark Ashton Smith’s poetry. An intellectual acrobat, DSF kept the interest alive with many excursions into the realms of writing, including comments on J. D. Salinger, pulp verse — he even dipped a toe into tales of a book he was writing on the history of ballet.

It was good times.

What wasn’t such good times, however, and something I didn’t know much about, was a bank robbery that had occurred in the little town of Cisco on December 23, 1927, over 80 years earlier.

The so-called Santa Claus Bank Robbery was a story I had heard about, of course, but the Kris Kringle business had conjured up images of a gang comprised of members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the Bowery Boys.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Recently I was fortunate enough to purchase The Santa Claus Bank Robbery (Tudor 1988), by A. C. Greene. This copy once belonged to the late Glenn Lord, for many years the literary agent for the Howard estate, so out of respect for this greatest Robert E. Howard scholar, I cracked it open and began to read.

It was a book that really was too good to put down, and that is a rarity. Once finished, hard to forget.

There were four bank robbers who stepped into the First National Bank in Cisco on December 23, 1927. Henry Helms, who ended up getting the electric chair. Louis Davis, who died during the intense manhunt following the robbery. Robert Hill, who was paroled eventually and lived the rest of his life under a different name.

The fourth member of the gang, Marshall Ratliff, was the only one of the robbers known by sight to the Cisco townspeople.

A woman named Midge Tellet, a friend to the robbers, was making a suit for her husband who was going to dress as Santa Claus for Christmas that year, and Marshall Ratliff borrowed it. Red coat, no pants, but she had a Santa hat and fake beard.

Ratliff apparently felt a jolly Santa getup would keep him from being recognized — and not draw too much attention.

Just not-thinking-it-through of the highest order.

Ratliff told his buddies to drop him off a few blocks before the bank.

By the time Ratliff got to the First National he had a mob of screeching kids tugging on his Santa coat, wanting to know if he had received their letters. Was he bringing them what they had asked for? Would he buy them some ice cream?

Ratliff probably figured taking the bank would be easier than getting the damn brats off his back.

He was wrong.

If you read the book, it appears that everything that could go haywire during the robbery did, including the fact that the crooks forgot to fill the getaway car with gas — and it was running on empty.

Anyway, Bad Santa Claus ended up in a jail cell in Eastland, just a few miles distant from Cisco. There Ratliff started acting like he was crazy, hoping to escape the electric chair.

But Ratliff soon found a chance for a jailbreak and ended up shooting Tom Jones, one of his jailers. The escape attempt failed.

A mob formed. After subduing the lone jailer left standing, they started climbing the stairway to Ratliff’s cell, laughing and yelling “Come on out, Santa Claus, we’re coming to get you!”

Greene’s writing, always decent throughout his book, takes on new life here, and it’s undoubtedly one of the most harrowing and terrifying passages I’ve read in many years.
After showing Ratliff a knife and threatening to feed him his own testicles for lunch, they burst into his cell, tearing his clothes off and dragging him down the stairway, laughing as his nakedness on full display for the sizable group of ladies that made up part of the mob.

They beat the hell out of him.

The first attempt to hang Ratliff failed. His body hit the ground with an audible thud.

But the second try, with a group of people grabbing the rope to pull Ratliff off his feet into the air, succeeded. Ratliff’s strangling body gave up the ghost.

His corpse was left to sway in the breeze — like a ghastly made-to-order scarecrow, to frighten would-be robbers away.

All of this happened within a short drive of Robert E. Howard. In a famous July 13, 1932 letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Howard goes into hyperbolic overdrive and describes that after a wild night of drinking with his pals, he was asked to join the “man-hunt” but refused, stating “we were in no shape to even lift a gun to our shoulders, much less confront a band of desperate outlaws.”

I have trouble believing that Howard wouldn’t have joined a posse if asked.

But after reading Greene’s book I’m glad he didn’t.

I’m really happy that the Texas writer was not part of the mob that hanged Ratliff, because there is a bit of mob mentality in all of us, and we can sympathize — even if just a little — with Ratliff, because if times get desperate enough who knows what any of us might be capable of doing.

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