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Renowned fundamentalist Texas preacher on trial: murder or self defense.

Book Review: The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America by David R. Stokes

Late in 1926, Dexter Eliot (D.E.) Chipps, a divorced lumberman, walked into the First Baptist Church office of the nationally renowned fundamentalist preacher J. Frank Norris. He was there to warn the preacher against his continuing his attacks on the Fort Worth mayor and other political crones that Chipps considered his friends. What exactly happened in that office is a matter of dispute, but what isn’t in dispute, is that Chipps was never to leave that building alive. Either in self defense or with murderous intent, an unarmed D.E. Chipps was shot, shot three times, shot by J. Frank Norris, shot with a gun he kept in a drawer in his desk. The story of the killing, the tensions that caused it and trial that followed — a trial as notorious in its day as the trial of Casey Anthony today — is the subject of David R. Stokes’ popular history, The Shooting Salvationist.

It is a remarkable story filled with religious and political conflict and Stokes does his best to milk it for all its drama, but unlike many of the more prominent legal battles of the early twentieth century some of the early parts of the narrative are burdened with the need for a good bit of exposition. People famous and infamous in their day have become meaningless names; institutions and organizations that once dominated the country have faded and disappeared. The modern reader needs a good deal of information to understand what is going on and why it’s happening. This kind of background may be necessary, but it can stall the narrative. Stokes is very good at supplying the needed information, although there are times the reader might have hoped he could have done so with a bit more style and a little less repetition.

He is careful to set the story in its historical, cultural context, constantly relating it to some of the more well known events of the day: the death of Harry Houdini, the Dempsey, Tunney fight, the death of the last of Abe Lincoln’s sons, the Scopes Trial. He talks about the influence of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Catholicism in the fundamentalist churches. He describes the political infighting in the city of Fort Worth and in the state of Texas. He emphasizes the importance of the church in the lives of parishioners and in the community in general.

Norris, as the spiritual leader of the largest congregation in the city, indeed one of the largest in the nation, was one of the most prominent people in Fort Worth. His sermons and his writings were published around the country, and he was sought as a guest preacher all over the nation. Although earlier in his career he had been tried for arson and perjury, he had been acquitted and was now a community stalwart. Stokes describes his position: “…by the middle of 1924, J. Frank Norris had the largest Protestant church in America, a newspaper that went into more than fifty thousand homes, and a radio station and network that could potentially take his voice to millions.”

That such a man should be on trial for his life was the kind of scandal dear to the hearts of the tabloids of the day, a fundamentalist sequel to the recently ended Monkey Trial, but this time with even greater personal stakes for the accused. If this trial didn’t quite feature a battle between mythic giants like Darrow and Bryant, it did have the cream of Texas lawyers butting heads in an Austin courtroom. It is in the description of the trial, often using actual transcripts, that Stokes is at his narrative best. He looks at the attorneys and their strategies. He looks at the press coverage. He shows the effects of the trial on Norris and his family, on Chipps’ ex-wife and his friends. It is a comprehensive account, but it moves with the kind of pace and intensity that makes for truly exciting courtroom drama.

If The Shooting Salvationist doesn’t quite match up dramatically with some of the top level popular historical accounts of recent years, books like Eric Larson’s The Devil and the White City or even with Donald McRae’s more scholarly The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow, it is still a book that will both keep you reading and teach you some things you may not have known about the first couple of decades of the 20th century.

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