In early 1912, the city of Fort Worth, Texas found itself in a firestorm, one that had political, religious, and criminal undertones. At the center of the controversy was a local minister, J. Frank Norris. Determined to make a name for himself, he adopted a sensational approach to preaching. Norris was the predecessor of the all culturally crusading clergymen agitators to come.
Using a tent he had purchased from the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, Norris railed against the sins of the city, especially its notorious Hell’s Half-Acre. The Acre was home to more than 80 saloons, gambling houses, and house of prostitution. Even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had spent a great deal of time there. It was popular with some, but it had become an embarrassment to more civic-minded citizens.
Norris’s “clean up” campaign was opposed by long-entrenched interests in Fort Worth, and by many members of the local Chamber of Commerce and city government. Mayor W.D. “Bill” Davis called the men of the city together one cold night in the first week of 1912. He asked if there were “50 red-blooded men” in town who would silence the preacher.
Not long after this, a series of mysterious things began to happen. These included an attempted shooting and the delivery of mysterious notes threatening the life of J. Frank Norris. Then on the first Sunday of February, the beautiful edifice of First Baptist Church exploded in flames. It was clearly a case of arson. Many in Fort Worth believed that Norris himself set the fire. He was indicted several times for arson and perjury, and his court battles were a sensation followed by newspaper readers in Texas and around the country.
Did J. Frank Norris burn his own church and home for notoriety? Or was there really some kind of sinister conspiracy? Let the reader decide.
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