The Tragedy of William Cowper Brann, Waco's Infamous Firebrand

By the later decades of the 1800s, Waco, Texas, had become the epitome of a western town. Violent duels were all too common on its dusty streets—Waco earned the nickname “Six Shooter Junction.” On the evening of April 1, 1898, another gunfight ensued in which both of the men involved died from fatal wounds. Why have we singled out this particular altercation (aside from its date, 115 years ago today)? Because one of the duelers was one of Waco’s most controversial figures, William Cowper Brann.

William Cowper Brann

William Cowper Brann in his Iconoclast office in Waco, undated

Brann gained significant clout as the editor of Brann’s Iconoclast, a journal he started in Waco in February 1895. Throughout his lifetime, Brann had striven to succeed as a writer. In the late 1890s, Brann discovered his niche in the central Texas region. The Iconoclast had an enormous circle of influence, with a readership of approximately 100,000 people across the nation. Such fame did not come without a price, however. Brann, who was openly critical of Baylor University, Baptists, Episcopalians, women, African Americans, and the British (to name a few), made a number of enemies. A sample of his writing:

“The Tyler Telegram humbly apologizes for having called that wide-lipped blather-skite, T. DeWitt Talmage, ‘a religious fakir.’ Next thing we know our Tyler contemporary will apologize for having inadvertently hazarded the statement that water is wet. …The Iconoclast will pay any man $10 who will demonstrate that T. DeWitt Talmage ever originated an idea, good, bad or indifferent…. The man who can find intellectual food in Talmage’s sermons could acquire a case of delirium tremens by drinking the froth out of a pop bottle.”—Brann on Talmage, a significant religious leader during the mid- to late-19th century.

Brann's Iconoclast, November 1897

Brann’s Iconoclast, November 1897. In this issue he describes one of the times he was attacked for his writings: “When we find a contumacious sinner we waste no time in theological controversy or moral suasion, but promptly round him up with a rope and bump his head, and we bump it hard.”

But as usual, there’s more to Brann’s story than meets the eye. Indeed, his life was truly tragic, from beginning to end. Brann was born the son of a Presbyterian minister on January 4, 1855, in Coles County, Illinois. After his mother passed away two years later, Brann was given over to the care of a neighboring couple. By the age of thirteen, Brann decided to head out west to find his fortune.

Brann married Carrie Martin of Illinois in 1877. They had three children, one of whom eventually committed suicide at the age of twelve. In addition to his family struggles, Brann could not find stable work in editing. His first attempt at starting a newspaper in Austin failed miserably. Not until he relocated to Waco did Brann find success.

"The Brazilian Girl and Baylor University," 1895

In 1895, President Rufus Burleson sought to defend the integrity of both his family and Baylor University by calling into question the character of the young Brazilian girl.

One of the most controversial issues Brann wrote about was the impregnation of a fourteen-year-old Brazilian girl. Baylor University President Rufus Burleson took Antonia Teixeira, an orphan brought to the US by a Baptist missionary, into his home to care for her. After it was revealed that the young girl was pregnant, Brann seized the story and used it to tarnish the reputation of Burleson and Baylor. Steen Morris, the brother of Burleson’s son-in-law, was accused of rape but ultimately acquitted. Burleson’s transition from the Baylor presidency to becoming president emeritus was in part due to the scandal.

Brann received much criticism for his assaults on Baylor University—he was even attacked. Newspapers from the time period (including the Iconoclast) report that Brann was kidnapped by a large mob of Baylor students and dragged through campus by a rope secured around his neck. On another occasion, Brann was jumped by three men— reportedly a Baylor trustee and two students—beaten, and left in the streets to die. Yet Brann was not swayed from his purpose.

William Cowper Brann funeral notice, 1898

This is the original funeral notice printed after Brann’s death. He died several hours after the gunfight and was eventually buried in Oakwood Cemetery, not far from The Texas Collection. Brann’s funeral service took place in his Waco residence which has since been torn down. He was 43 years old.

On April 1, 1898, Brann was approached from behind by Tom Davis, a disgruntled father of a Baylor student. Davis shot Brann three times. Amazingly, Brann had the wherewithal to turn around and fire all six of his bullets into Davis. Both men eventually died from the encounter, and a number of bystanders were also wounded.

William Cowper Brann's tombstone in Waco's Oakwood Cemetery

Brann was buried in Oakwood Cemetery on April 3, 1898. His unique tombstone represents the “lamp of truth” and has been the unfortunate subject of much vandalism over the years. It was stolen in 2009.

 

Some have admired Brann for his devotion to presenting what he believed was the truth, while others discounted him as a radical seeking to stir up the masses. The Texas Collection houses the William Cooper Brann collection and a sizable run of Brann’s Iconoclast, among other resources on and relating to him in our library and archives. I encourage you to make the trip to our reading room and decide for yourself!

By Thomas DeShong, Archival Assistant and Digital Input Specialist

This entry was posted in Baptist history, Baylor University, Benajah Harvey B.H. Carroll, Iconoclast, Rufus Burleson, Texas Baptists, Waco, William Cowper Brann. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Tragedy of William Cowper Brann, Waco's Infamous Firebrand

  1. Charles Guittard says:

    Great post on W.C. Brann. Reading Brann’s writings in the Iconoclast reinforces your conclusion that Brann, a man of almost unlimited literary talent, led a tragic life and ultimately died tragically.

  2. Alice Campbell says:

    Great story. Shame about the tombstone.

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