Pulling a Norfleet

J. Frank Norfleet was an unreliable narrator of his own story. At the very least, he exaggerated his own experiences, and at the worst, he conned his readers in his story of being conned. The basic facts of his pursuit and arrest of Joseph Furey’s gang of swindlers are true and verifiable, but it is the small details that bear examining. There are at least four mysteries in Norfleet’s account that might yet be cleared up. Let’s call it “pulling a Norfleet,” defined as going deeper into the story to outsmart the storyteller.

Can you clarify these mysteries? Talk Back

1. In his memoir, Norfleet claims that he told the story of his swindling to “all the leading newspapers, including the Associated Press,” and that the article ran all across the country, including a daily paper local to Dallas. He says that he appealed to readers for clues, and that “letters from every part of the country poured in for three years.” He says that it was “a clipping from a San Francisco newspaper” which his friend, Mr. S.N. Cathey, read in time to get wise and kick to the police before being swindled. If it exists, Norfleet’s article would have appeared in November or December of 1919, yet no such article can be found in the Plainview Daily Herald, the Lubbock Avalanche, the Dallas Morning News, or the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, nor can it be found in any of the major or minor newspapers around the nation whose holdings have been digitally archived.

2. Was the extremely helpful Mrs. W.G. Ward of Georgia a plot device, or a real woman? Norfleet encounters her on the train from California to Texas. When she introducers herself as a former detective before her marriage, he spills his story to her and enlists her help. Purely on the basis of Norfleet’s verbal description, she locates Joseph Furey in Florida. Did she exist, or did Norfleet invent her in order to cover up the unsavory method by which he actually procured Furey’s whereabouts?

3. Who was Mr. Shaw of Orin Junction, WY, and what did he think of Norfleet’s impersonation of him? Or did Norfleet invent the whole story of impersonating Shaw? Norfleet writes that while he was in San Francisco, he checked into his hotel under the pseudonym of Shaw, a sheep farmer, which led to getting invited to a wool growers’ convention, which led to him addressing the convention, which led to a write-up in the paper the next day under the headline “Wool Grower Pulls Some Wool off the Eyes of His Brother Growers.” No such article has yet been found. Did the speech occur? If not, why did Norfleet make up such a story, which has nothing to do with catching his swindlers?

4. The cliffs over Daytona Beach? I’ve had more mail from readers about this pesky detail than about anything else in the book. When Norfleet chases Furey to Florida, he gets himself ensnared in the big con in Daytona Beach, where a man named Johnson takes him to a private gaming house. In his memoir, Norfleet describes leaving Daytona and driving up a hill through “dense undergrowth which screened the intimacies of the jungles.” After “not more than a half hour” they climbed a last hill, at the top of which was a clubhouse, overlooking “steep cliffs, dropping straight into the churning sea.” He could see in all directions from the clubhouse. As for the cliffs, “their smooth sides shot straight down into a bed of jagged rocks whose pointed reefs rose from a churning sea like huge, sharp teeth in a frothing mouth, upturned to catch its prey.” Yet Daytona Beach is a landscape of smooth, level sand. How could Norfleet have gotten away with inventing that kind of verifiable detail? Not a single review of his memoir mentions this inaccuracy.

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