IT’S EARLY 1912, and the city of Fort Worth, Texas finds itself in a firestorm, one that had political, religious, and criminal undertones. At the center of the controversy is a local minister, J. Frank Norris. Determined to make a name for himself, he adopts a sensational approach to preaching. Norris is the ancestor of the all culturally crusading clergymen agitators to come.
Using a tent he has purchased from the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt, Norris rails against the sins of the city, especially its notorious Hell’s Half-Acre. The Acre is 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 is popular with some, but it has become an embarrassment to more civic-minded citizens.
Norris’s “clean up” campaign is 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 calls the men of the city together one cold night in the first week of 1912. He asks if there are “50 red-blooded men” in town who will silence the preacher.
Not long after this, a series of mysterious things begin to happen. These include 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 explodes in flames. It is clearly a case of arson. Many in Fort Worth believe that Norris has set the fire. He is indicted several times for arson and perjury, and his court battles are 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? Let the reader decide.