(Image credit: Texas Co-op Power Magazine)
William Cowper Brann was born in Coles County, Illinois in 1855 and was raised by a local farmer after his mother died when he was 2 1/2. His first job was to serve as a bell boy at a local hotel. Following that, he worked as a painter, a drummer, a grainer, a printer, a reporter and an editorial writer. It was written that he talked his way into a position as chief editorial writer for the Houston Post. Brann earned a reputation for being a hard worker at whatever he attempted to do.
After working for others for a number of years, he founded Brann’s Iconoclast in Austin in 1891. Never at a loss for words, he promised “to hurl all unclean gods from the pedestals in the public pantheon.” This version of the periodical was unsuccessful and Brann was forced to close it down after a few issues. Brann sold his paper and printing press to a fellow writer named William Sydney Porter, who became better known as the author O. Henry. After this unsuccessful venture, Brann returned to writing editorials for the Globe-Democrat of St. Louis, Missouri and the San Antonio Express and is also known to have lectured. Brann contacted Porter some time later to request to be allowed to use his old publication’s name and Porter consented.
In 1894, Brann relocated to Waco, Texas where the following year he resumed publication of the Iconoclast. His writing was witty and at times humorous, but he became best known for pointing out individuals and entities that he deemed to be shams, frauds, hypocrisies and the like. His targets included the British royal family, East Coast American aristocracy, religious institutions, religious leaders and African-Americans. As acerbic as his writing may have been, in the balance, he also had a personal reputation for being a friend to the poor and needy. He found an audience for his work and his Iconoclast circulation is reported to have reached 90,000 to 100,000 at its peak.
Once in Waco, Brann became fond of attacking Baptists and the local Baptist college, Baylor University. He drew the ire of many by ridiculing all of this group at every opportunity. For instance, he is quoted as having referred to the Baptist practice of baptism by immersion by opining that Baptists were not held under the water long enough. When Steen Morris, a male student at Baylor (not a direct relative of the president, but rather a brother of the son-in-law of the university president), was accused of having sexually assaulted and made pregnant a teenage female Brazilian student, Brann took the opportunity to make various accusations against the university, the university president and others. In June of 1896, the accused, Steen Morris, was tried with the trial ending in a “hung jury.” Before a second trial could take place, the complaintant swore to an affidavit exonerating Steen Morris. The complainant then left the country and the matter was dropped, though Brann continued his attacks on the Baptist Church, the university and the student body.
It is unknown whether the disagreement noted below was directly connected to the above matter, but the Waco News-Tribune noted that the father of novelist Dorothy Scarborough (then a Baylor professor) and her brother accosted Brann on the street at 4th and Franklin in downtown Waco. Brann was injured but drove around Waco in his buggy while still wearing his bloody clothing and “won considerable sympathy.” Not long afterward, Brann was kidnapped by a small group of male Baylor students, again according to the Waco News-Tribune, and brought to the campus. The students reportedly threatened to hang Brann if he did not sign a document recanting certain certain accusations he had made. Brann reportedly was rescued, though he signed the document before Waco city police arrived.
Another incident not directly involving Brann occurred in which a judge by the name of G. B. Gerald had written and submitted an article in support of Brann to J. W. Harris, who was then the proprietor of the Waco Times-Herald. Harris refused to print the article. Some time later, Gerald either fell or was pushed down some stairs when he came to the newspaper office to retrieve his manuscript. The argument escalated between them with Harris printing an article stating he had indeed pushed Gerald down the stairs and Gerald penning a leaflet referring to Harris in derogatory terms. Their disagreement culminated in a shootout on November 18, 1897 which ended with several men being shot. Gerald survived, but Harris and his brother were fatally wounded by Gerald. Gerald was reportedly indicted by a grand jury but at this writing, we can find no record of a trial. Gerald eventually lost an arm as a result of the shooting, but was reelected and again served as a judge.
A final confrontation occurred, this time between Brann and Tom E. Davis, a local real estate dealer. It has been noted that this disagreement stemmed from statements written by Brann, including one calling Baylor “a factory for the manufacture of ministers and Magdalenes” at the same time that Davis’ daughter was a student. The term “Magdalene” was a derogatory reference to a biblical character named Mary Magdalene. Although never thought to have been supported by a majority of biblical scholars, there was a line of thought originating in the Middle Ages that associated Mary Magdalene with an unnamed prostitute referenced elsewhere in the biblical narrative, although the association is not made in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John in the Bible. Whatever the reason, Davis took exception to Brann and his writing. On April 1, 1898, Brann and a friend were drinking in a downtown Waco saloon at 4th and Austin while Davis was visiting a fellow realtor in a nearby office. Davis noticed Brann passing outside, left the office and reportedly fired one shot, striking Brann in the back and causing internal injuries, including a punctured lung. Brann turned around and returned fire, hitting Davis with six shots from a revolver, previously loaned to him by the above mentioned G. B. Gerald. Both Davis and Brann died of their wounds shortly thereafter and were buried the following Sunday, April 3, 1898. Davis was buried at the old First Street Cemetery and Brann was buried at Oakwood Cemetery.
Following the death of Brann, The Iconoclast ceased publication for the last time, not long after Brann’s wife removed the publication to Chicago. Brann’s monument still stands at Oakwood Cemetery in Waco, though it has been vandalized from time to time since it was first installed. Rufus Burleson, the Baylor president, passed away in 1901 and is also buried at Oakwood. Steen Morris later married, had a family, died in 1911 and is believed to be buried in Louisiana. Antonia Teixeira, the female student later named, reportedly returned to live in Brazil and is thought to have died and been buried there.
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