Goodbye, Mr. Chipps

J. Frank Norris

A week before his murder trial in January 1927, the Rev. J. Frank Norris announced that his Sunday sermon would be on the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate. Norris was clearly putting himself in the position of Christ; he was a righteous man oppressed by the forces of a state that wanted him silenced.
 
When that argument failed to sway the general public, the Rev. Norris went to the Old Testament Book of Esther which recounts the story of Haman and Mordecai — a gallows built by the king’s favorite prince, Haman, to execute Mordecai was instead used to hang Haman, a biblical lesson that all princes and hangmen should take to heart. Like Mordecai, Norris was convinced that his trial was a vendetta sponsored by those who opposed him speaking the truth.
 
A media-savvy man before his time, Norris, who was a world-famous Texas Baptist evangelist and well-known foe of evolution, hosted a radio station at his church, published a newspaper, and broadcast his sermons nationwide. One can imagine what he would have done with the Internet or cable television.
 
“Since the death of William Jennings Bryan, Dr. Norris is considered the outstanding defendant of fundamentalism in the United States,” wrote an INS wire service reporter. “He was a close friend of ‘the Great Commoner‘ and is said to possess the last letter (Bryan) ever wrote — a letter dealing with the victory of the fundamentalist forces in the Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee.”
 
Although he was well-known among those on the evangelism circuit, the mainstream Baptist churches of the United States did not have much use for the minister. Twice he was refused a seat at the Baptist General Convention, as were other representatives of his church.
 
Perhaps it was his background which gave the church elders some concern: This trial would not be Norris’s first time in the docket. In 1912, his church in Fort Worth burned and he was indicted in connection with the fire, deemed to be arson. With a defense paid for by a supportive congregation, Norris was acquitted of arson and perjury. Following the burning of the church Norris said he received written death threats.
 
“The minister defied his enemies and on the night he was ordered to leave he stood on a box on a downtown street near where he said his enemies ‘had headquarters and preached,'” an anonymous reporter informed readers. “He waged an unceasing war against evil as he saw it, and in his church organ, the Searchlight, as well as in the pulpit denounced individuals by name for sins of which he said they were guilty.”
 
The homicide victim, Dexter E. Chipps, was almost as famous in Texas as his killer. Chipps was a wealthy businessman and pioneer in the hardwood lumber business of the state, according the San Antonio Light. Chipps was shot and killed in the minister’s study on July 17, 1926. According to the prosecution, a drunken but unarmed Chipps went to Norris’s house to protest against the evangelist’s criticism of the businessman’s close friend, Fort Worth mayor H. C. Meacham.
 
Norris claimed Chipps attacked him without provocation.
 
“Mr. Chipps had previously threatened the Rev. Mr. Norris with violence,” said defense attorney Marvin Simpson. “The minister shot to protect himself when he was called upon within the precincts of his private office.”
 
Both sides would present witnesses who claimed to see Chipps in the office building the day he was gunned down. They differed on just where they saw the lumberman, however.
 
Whether or not Chipps was shot in the minister’s office or in the vestibule outside the study was the major question in the case for on it hinged Norris’s self-defense claim. An easier case for self-defense could be made if Chipps was killed in the study, while the state attempted at trial to show Chipps was leaving the meeting when he was shot.
 
Chipps was shot five times: one through his left side four inches below the collar bone, two wounds through the right shoulder, and two others close to the heart. One of the bullets passed through Chipps’s body and through his left elbow. Chipps died on the stretcher in the church office without making any statement, the ambulance driver testified.
 
Although there was a blood stain about the size of a half-dollar found in the vestibule, its presence there was inconclusive. It might have left there when Chipps’s body was removed. To bolster Norris’s claim of self-defense, a bullet hole was found in the ceiling of his office. That could have been the bullet that passed through Chipps’s body.
 
The case of the Rev. Norris was great fodder for the newspapers of the time, and Norris had no problem talking to the press.
 
“How do you reconcile the killing of Chipps with the Commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill?'” asked one reporter.
 
“That is not difficult,” the pastor replied. “The New Testament commandment sic) against killing means killing with hate. The reason my shooting of Chipps was not murder is because my bullets were not winged with hate,” Norris preached, obvlious to the location of the 10 Commandments in the Old Testament. “There was no hate back of them. God did not intend man to run from a rattlesnake.”
 
During jury selection after the case had been moved at the request of the defense to Austin, Norris said the only thing that could convict him of murder was if there were too many Catholics on the jury.
 
“It was the purpose of the Catholics who had been drawn to qualify and go on the jury. Everybody can draw their own conclusion,” he told reporters. “It was the determined purpose of the prosecution to send the case to a large city where there was a big percentage of bootleggers, Roman Catholics and other enemies of evangelical Christianity.”
 
On the other side, Norris, a reputed member of the Ku Klux Klan (he denied this), had the support of that organization.
 
Norris had a solid argument that he could not get a fair trial in Tarrant County: At the change of venue hearing, Mayor Meacham admitted that he had agreed to pay $15,000 (about $200k today) personally toward the prosecution of the minister for the murder of his friend.
 
The gallery was packed by observers — mostly members of Norris’s church — when the trial opened. His loyal supporters had already raised about $20,000 (approximately. $270k today) for his defense.
 
The weather was unseasonably cold for Austin, so the choice seats were near the coal-burning stove on the side of the courtroom.
 
A special prosecutor had been appointed for the state: William P. (Wild Bill) McLean, described as “a picturesque figure of Southwest court circles,” was an unusual choice; he was usually a defense attorney.
 
Norris was successful during jury selection: all 12 men on the jury professed a literal interpretation of Genesis and disputed the idea of evolution. The jury was overwhelmingly Protestant.
 
The prosecution’s star witness was Roxie Parker, widow of a Tarrant County judge. She had been trying to interest the minister in buying her farmhouse for use as a Sunday School camp. According to Parker, the minister agreed to come look at the property but had never shown up. As a result, she decided to drop by his office to see if he was still interested.
 
“It happened that the day and the hour she selected for the visit was that fatal day and hour when Mr. Chipps lost his life while on a mission of protest,” Wild Bill explained to the jury in his opening statement. “As she stepped to the door of the anteroom leading to Norris’s private office, a man came out of the inner door. She stood at the threshold of the room and it proved to be at the threshold of a tragic adventure.”
 
Thanks to reporters who used to get paid by the word, we know that when she took the stand, Parker appeared as “a little widow in black, past middle life, a little white-faced woman in gold-rimmed spectacles, a small lace collar, gray gloves, and with a soft voice.”
 
The man who appeared in the anteroom was a hale and hearty, albeit angry, Dexter Chipps, she said.
 
“The man had one hand on the door knob,” she said. “He stepped through the inner door just as I arrived at the outer door. I heard the man say, ‘I’ll be back.'”
 
As Chipps said he would return, he turned slightly and for a moment appeared to be heading back into the office, she said.
 
“I saw Dr. Norris. He had a gun. There was a shot,” she recalled in dramatic fashion for the jury. “The man staggered and reeled toward the wall. I turned and went down the stairs. Before I reached the stairs I heard two or three more shots.”
 
According to Parker, Norris was standing about five feet away from Chipps when he fired the fatal shots. During cross-examination Parker stood behind her story, rarely even deviating from the words she used during direct.
 
“I saw Dr. Norris shoot the man when the latter was leaving Dr. Norris’s private office,” she testified.
 
A second witness, Harold Rains, was employed by a tire company that rented part of the first floor of the building where the shooting took place. He testified that he heard the shots and raced up the stairs where Norris told him, “I’ve killed me a man.”
 
One of the first witnesses for the defense was a former Fort Worth police officer who described Chipps as “a dangerous bully and an almost habitual drunkard.”
 
“I was in Dr. Norris’s office the day before the killing to talk to him about the sheriff’s race and I told I had heard Chipps threaten to kill him and told him the kind of man Chipps was,” testified Fred Holland.
 
The defense presented testimony by L. H. Nutt, a deacon in Norris’s church, who, not surprisingly, testified that the shooting took place in the pastor’s study. According to Nutt, who said he witnessed the shooting, Chipps refused to leave and threatened Norris .Nutt said that Norris fired in self-defense after Chipps “made a motion as if he would draw a gun and said, ‘Now, let’s go to it.'”
 
“I will kill you if you don’t leave my friends, Meacham, Roach, and Austin alone,” he said Chipps yelled at Norris.
 
Norris on the standOf course, the star witness was the Rev. Norris himself, who took the stand as the defense’s last witness.
 
Norris said he first spoke with Chipps on the day of the murder by telephone and that the businessman arrived at his office about 20 minutes later.
 
“He closed the door and stood for perhaps a minute staring at Mr. Nutt. After remarking to Mr. Nutt that he knew him, Chipps turned to me and said he would kill me if I didn’t stop talking about his friends.”
 
Norris said he went to the door to the anteroom and demanded that Chipps leave.
 
“He walked out of the study and into the anteroom. When almost even with the telephone desk, he turned and said: ‘Remember what I have told you. I mean every word of it.'”
 
With tears in his eyes and an uncharacteristic tremor in his voice, Norris said he saw Chipps reach back to his hip, at the same time he began moving toward the minister.
 
“Then I shot him.”
 
After hearing the prosecution call for the death penalty for “the pistol-packing parson,” the jury retired to deliberate. It took the members just two ballots and less than 90 minutes to find Norris innocent of murder.
 
Wild Bill McLean was angry with the verdict, but like Pilate, washed his hands of the matter.
 
“When he goes back and begins slandering people again, and you open up the paper and see where he has killed another man — not a poor drunken man this time, he’ll be your criminal and not mine,” he said.