Guest Blog: Author David Stokes
January 16, 2012
Truth, as historians have been saying for years, is indeed stranger than fiction. And this just may be the most famous crime story you have never heard. As CBS icon Bob Schieffer wrote in the foreword: “For all the colorful characters who became part of Fort Worth’s history, surely none surpassed J. Frank Norris, the fiery fundamentalist preacher at Fort Worth’s First Baptist Church, for pure outlandishness … Unfortunately, for all of his oratorical skills, Norris’s horizons were limited by several criminal indictments brought on by his tendency for violence … If I hadn’t grown up in Fort Worth, I would have thought someone made all of this up, but no one did. It really happened.”
The Shooting Salvationist—J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America is a not just based on a true story—it is a very true story. And its been hiding in plain sight for more than 85 years. It’s about scandal, religion, power politics, and the media such as it was back in the 1920s. The decade known as The Jazz Age was also the beginning of America’s fascination with celebrity, whether of the famous or infamous type. And the Reverend J. Frank Norris of Fort Worth, Texas loomed for a time as a larger-than-life figure.
If you like the HBO series Boardwalk Empire—you’ll love The Shooting Salvationist.
If you could build a J. Frank Norris you’d need a little Billy Sunday, a measure of William Randolph Hearst, some P.T. Barnum, and at least a hint of Al Capone. This was no ordinary man of the cloth. His church of 10,000 was the nation’s first mega-church in and he used it was a base to work against vice and conspiracies he saw everywhere. But the preacher didn’t always play by the rules himself. Norris controlled a radio station, a tabloid newspaper and a valuable tract of land in downtown Fort Worth and regularly found things to fight about to stir up controversy as a method of attracting followers.
When the nation’s leading fundamentalist, William Jennings Bryan—a friend and colleague of Pastor Norris—died just days after the famous Scopes monkey trial in Tennessee, the Texas preacher was poised to become one of America’s most prominent and influential religious leaders.
But it all changed in a moment of violence one sweltering summer Saturday in July of 1926 when J. Frank Norris shot and killed an unarmed man in his church office. The famous preacher was indicted for murder and faced an appointment with “Sparky”—the electric chair owned and operated by the state of Texas.
It was a time when newspaper wire services and national retailers were unifying American popular culture as never before and Prohibition was the law of the land. And Norris’s murder trial was front-page news from coast to coast. Ultimately there was an epic courtroom drama pitting some of the era’s most famous lawyers.
Would the preacher beat the rap?
I have known about this story for quite some time, but about four years ago I decided to dig into it in earnest. Along the way, I gathered and indexed more than 6,000 pages of court records, news articles, and archived material in preparation for writing the narrative. I was thrilled when Bob Schieffer of CBS News agreed to write the foreword.
I hope you’ll pick up a copy of The Shooting Salvationist and that you’ll pass the word along to your friends!
David R. Stokes is an author, broadcaster, columnist, and ordained minister. He lives in Fairfax, Virginia. Read more about The Shooting Salvationist at www.theshootingsalvationist.com.