Cast Of Characters
John Franklyn “J. Frank” Norris, A fiery fundamentalist pastor during the Roaring Twenties, Norris’ penchant for controversy and sensationalism brought him fame and fortune, not to mention several criminal indictments along the way. His abilities as an orator and organizer drew thousands into his orbit, but his intemperate and often violent tendencies ensured that he would never be accepted as a mainstream religious leader in America—a role he craved. He built his church, First Baptist in Fort Worth, Texas, into what was for a time one of the largest in the world. It was America’s first megachurch.
Henry Clay “H.C.” Meacham, The first mayor of Fort Worth, Texas, under a new city charter approved in 1924, Meacham had already made a name for himself as the owner of one of the city’s most successful department stores. His tenure as mayor would be marked by conflict with J. Frank Norris, who apparently never heard of the adage “you can’t fight city hall.”
Ossian E. “O.E.” Carr, Hired as the first city manager for Fort Worth under the new charter, he brought to the city on the Trinity River vast managerial experience. One of his specialties was to find ways to collect new revenue for municipalities, even if it meant raising taxes or looking for those who, in his opinion, had not paid a fair share. He wasn’t on the job very long before he started examining J. Frank Norris’ enterprises.
Amon G. Carter, The wealthy and powerful owner of the Fort Worth Star Telegram, as well as radio station WBAP, was Fort Worth’s chief booster in the 1920s. He and a tight-knit band of unofficial oligarchs virtually ran Fort Worth in those days from the elegant confines of the Fort Worth Club. One of the few newspaper owners to beat William Randolph Hearst at his own game, Carter was the city’s first media baron.
Dexter Elliott “D.E.” Chipps, A wealthy lumberman who ran a successful wholesale business from his offices in Fort Worth’s Wheat Building, Chipps was a proud member of the Fort Worth Club. He and Mayor Meacham became close friends. His visit to J. Frank Norris’ office one hot Saturday afternoon in July of 1926 ended with him being carried out on a stretcher. Was he there to simply defend the honor of his friend, Mr. Meacham? Or was there another agenda?
Mae Chipps, The estranged wife of D.E. Chipps had long hoped she could be reconciled to her husband for the sake of their 14-year old son, Doughtery. She had never stopped loving Mr. Chipps. Grief-stricken by his death, Mrs. Chipps was determined to see J. Frank Norris pay for what he had done, with his own life.
Lillian Gaddie Norris, A pastor’s wife, strong, and passionate. Mrs. Norris was a full partner in life and work with her lightning rod of a husband.
Jane “Miss Jane” Hartwell, The devout daughter of Baptist missionaries, Miss Jane, as she was known, was Norris’ secretary, office manager, and gal Friday. She carried herself with a slightly aristocratic air and was referred to at times as “the Generalissimo”— though never to her face. Hartwell was, above all, a fierce defender and guardian of her pastor, someone who would do just about anything for him.
Marcet Haldeman-Julius, One of the most famous journalists of the era, Marcet was the co-publisher of a highly popular monthly journal—one that sold millions of copies in the 1920s. She was determined to get all the details of the story, though she never planned to become, herself, part of it.
Jack Gordon, A popular writer for the Fort Worth Press, his reports provided readers color and detail about Norris and his antics. This was possible because the preacher seemed to be willing to talk to him. Gordon never figured out why, but he was just glad to have access.
W.P. “Wild Bill” McLean, One of the best known lawyers in the American Southwest in the 1920s, he was known for his “colorful” and highly effective courtroom methods. He also hated J. Frank Norris. Accustomed to working as defense counsel in high profile murder cases, he decided to play prosecutor when Norris killed Chipps. And he was paid well for it.
Dayton Moses, Also a highly popular Texas lawyer, he put his reputation on the line by defending J. Frank Norris. The standoff between Moses and McLean became a story itself.
Lloyd P. Bloodworth, A long-time Methodist minister who was persuaded to become a Baptist under the influence of J. Frank Norris, ultimately being ordained by Norris and placed on the First Baptist Church payroll. He also happened to be the Grand Dragon of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
William Jennings Bryan, The Great Commoner, as he was known, was in the twilight of his career when he visited J. Frank Norris and First Baptist Church. He was clearly impressed with the ministry—and the minister. Norris cultivated, some might say exploited, a relationship with Bryan. And when Bryan died, J. Frank Norris sought his mantle as America’s premier fundamentalist leader.
THE DOOR OPENED at exactly nine o’clock on Friday morning, January 14, 1927, and the bailiff shouted his instruction so all in the corridor could hear.
“All witnesses in the courtroom!”
Like an impatient crowd at any major happening, a large group of people immediately converged on the door and within a few minutes the courtroom was more than full. Many, if not most, of them brought a lunch along, not wanting to risk losing a prized place during a break. The largest courtroom in the old courthouse, the entire county for that matter, would simply not be sufficient to accommodate all those who wanted to be there that day or for many days to come. Nearly 150 folding chairs had been put down, increasing the seating capacity to a little over 300, an unheard of thing for this particular venue. Beyond that, a couple hundred more could stand if they really wanted to.
They really did.
Those entering the room for the first time were immediately struck by the unusually high ceiling. This feature of the room had the tendency to seduce words up and away from those who wanted to hear. “Speak a little louder” was the most commonly used phrase in the room when court was in session, the expression usually uttered by the presiding judge. In fact, he regularly moved his embarrassingly battered and worn swivel chair toward the end of the bench nearer the witness stand in order to better hear given testimony.
The courtroom walls were green plaster with a scuffed appearance. There was a large, glittering chandelier suspended from the center of the ceiling almost directly above an old, rusty stove. The kiln served a dual purpose; it gave off heat and received tobacco remnants and residue.
The courtroom was adorned with several high-arched windows and the judge’s walnut bench very much resembled a large pulpit in an ornate church. The linoleum floor had seen better days; but then, so had the entire room.
And it all really needed a good cleaning.
In spite of its well-worn look, though, this was indeed a very special room for the city and county, in fact for the entire state of Texas. Important decisions had been handed down in this place, some involving monumental amounts of money, others impacting the politics of the day, and many simply for being famous.
Among the throng squeezing into the celebrated courtroom that morning was the largest representation of the local, state, and national press ever to assemble up to that time in a Texas court. The big dailies from New York, Chicago, Washington, St. Louis, and Kansas City had sent their journalistic stars. Five wire services were represented. One of them even brought along the newest, most state-of-the-art printing machine in the country, something that would itself become a tourist attraction during trial recesses. They all prepared to cover this trial even more in depth than they had the now famous Scopes trial in Tennessee a year and a half earlier.
At 9:25 a.m., the door near the judge’s bench opened and a rather short, robed man entered. The bailiff snapped to attention and excitedly called all those not already standing to their feet. As the jurist took his seat, he knew he was the focal point of just about every eye in the room. They saw and sized up a man obviously in his mid-sixties, who had appropriately grey hair, soft blue eyes, barely the whisper of a mustache, and a seriously receding hairline. He was wearing a stiff white collar and little black tie. He wore glasses that were attached to a gold chain that was, in turn, fastened to the lapel of his coat. Like most experienced judges, he exuded an air of self-assurance.
And it was much more than an affectation.
The crowd now seated, the judge leaned back in his chair and gavel in hand he rapped it for order. The murmurs of the crowd were instantly interrupted by abrupt silence.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “proceed with the case.”
The prosecuting attorney stood, turned, and faced the famous defendant. People throughout the room shifted, leaned, and otherwise contorted their bodies to be able to see the man, a radio pioneer, tabloid editor, and pastor of the nation’s largest Protestant church, sitting at a table with one of his many high-powered and similarly priced attorneys. His dark blue suit looked almost black in contrast to his silver streaked hair.
“J. Frank Norris, stand up, please.”
Norris’ attorney instinctively stood quickly. The defendant himself, however, took his time, rising slowly and deliberately, then turning and folding his arms. He glared at the prosecutor, while barely chewing a very small piece of gum. He listened as the indictment was read. Once during the reading the defendant dropped one hand to his hip in one of his characteristic gestures, but as if catching himself, he quickly pulled it back and crossed his arms again.
“The Rev. Mr. John Franklyn Norris did unlawfully and with malice aforethought kill and murder one Dexter Elliot Chipps by then and there shooting said Dexter Elliot Chipps with a pistol in the office of the pastor at the First Baptist Church, 408 Throckmorton Street in Fort Worth, Tarrant County, Texas, on Saturday, July 17, 1926.”
The prosecutor looked up from the paper he was reading, while the judge addressed the defendant and sharply inquired: “J. Frank Norris how do you plead?”
Norris, still glaring at the prosecutor, pivoted while nearly shouting in his firm pulpit voice, “I am not guilty!”
The judge, deciding to ignore the preacher’s inappropriately arrogant body language—at least for now—instructed Norris to be seated and looked over to the prosecutor, inviting him to begin presenting the state’s case.