Fear, Force, and Leather: The Texas Prison System&rsquot;s First Hundred Years 1848-1948

Henry Helms on his way to the electric chair, September 6, 1929

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Henry Helms was executed on September 6, 1929, for his role in the so-called Santa Claus robbery in Cisco. On December 23, 1927, Helms was one of four men who entered the First National Bank in Cisco, one of them dressed in a Santa Claus costume to avoid being recognized. The foursome cleaned the bank out of $12,000 in cash and some $150,000 in securities, but were unable to make their planned getaway due to the quick action of police and townsfolk, who already had the bank surrounded. The bandits took 16 hostages inside the bank and entered into a terrifying shootout with the police in which Cisco's police chief and one officer were killed and eight others wounded, including two of the robbers.

Taking two young girls (ages 10 and 12) hostage, the bandits then managed to steal a car and make a desperate getaway. Over the course of the next two days, one of the bandits died of wounds he suffered in the shootout. In the meantime, the other three--Helms, Marshall Ratliff, and Robert Hill--had abandoned the car and the two girls, but stolen two more cars, taken another hostage, and engaged in multiple shooting incidents with pursuing law enforcement and civilians eager to collect reward money. By the time the three men were taken into custody following a car chase through an oil field, eleven people, including the robbers, had been shot.

Marshall Ratliff and Henry Helms were both sentenced to death for their role in the crime spree. Robert Hill was sentenced to 99 years in prison and paroled after serving 20 years. Helms kept his date with the electric chair in 1929, but Ratliff suffered an even more gruesome fate. He was returned to Eastland County to be tried on a related charge, where he murdered a jailer in an escape attempt. On November 19, 1929, he was dragged from the jail by a mob of outraged citizens and hanged from a telephone pole.

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Photo of Henry Helms on his way to the death chamber, September 6, 1929

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Excerpts from the death row file of Henry Helms (#70), September 6, 1929. Historical death row files, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Archives and Information Services Division, Texas State Library and Archives Commission.


Page last modified: February 10, 2016