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W.C. Brann, the “Iconoclast,” Was Killed in Waco in April 1898

Loved, hated, admired and reviled, the journalist William Cowper Brann was shot and killed on a Waco street on April 1, 1898. His death ended a long feud with supporters of Baylor University–an institution that he had accused of producing “ministers and Magdalenes,” based on the alleged corruption of a Brazilian maid by an official at the Baptist institution.  Here is an excerpt about Brann from the Handbook of Texas, written by the late Waco historian Roger Conger:

“Brann took obvious relish in directing his stinging attacks upon institutions and persons he considered to be hypocritical or overly sanctimonious. He by no means confined his distaste to Baptists, but directed it generously to Episcopalians, anything British, women, and, perhaps with the greatest harshness, blacks. Among his targets was Baylor University, a Baptist institution that he scourged as ‘that great storm-center of misinformation.’ On October 2, 1897, Brann was kidnapped by student-society members and taken to the Baylor campus, where he was asked to retract his statements about the university. On October 6, having failed to leave town, he was beaten by a Baptist judge and two other men.

“In November 1897 occurred a street gunfight between one of Brann’s supporters, McLennan county judge G. B. Gerald, and the pro-Baylor editor of the Waco Times-Herald, J. W. Harris, and his brother W. A. Harris. Both Harrises died, and the judge lost an arm. On April 1, 1898, on one of Waco’s main streets, Brann was shot in the back by a brooding supporter of Baylor University named Tom E. Davis. Before the editor died he was able to draw his own pistol and kill his assailant.”

As a young Wacoan, I read Charles Carver’s Brann and the Iconoclast, shortly after the University of Texas Press released it in 1957.  (My mother had unwittingly paid for the book; good Baptist that she was, I am certain that she was unaware of its contents.) The book was fascinating, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. Looking back on it now, I see it as a precursor for my interest in some of William Faulkner’s writing, for Waco in 1898 was a lot like Faulkner’s fictional city of Jefferson, a place where violence was a virtue for men who defended the honor of their women, or their own reputations. It is noteworthy that the man who killed Brann had a daughter attending Baylor; he took the reference to “Magdalenes” (i.e., prostitutes) personally. Violence in the name of honor has deep roots in the South, and of course in Texas.

Brann was an associate of William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, who purchased Brann’s original Iconoclast in Austin but probably never produced any issues. Brann bounced around Texas as an editor or columnist for several major papers–San Antonio, Galveston, Houston–before going to work for the old Waco Daily News.  Soon after, he revived the Iconoclast, in February 1895, and eventually won a worldwide circulation of almost 100,000, an amazing figure for the time.

Part of the success was due to Brann’s flamboyant style and astounding facility with words, given that he ran away from home at the age of 13. But as a journalist in need of money, Brann knew that the best way to boost circulation was to choose controversial topics, and what topics were more controversial in his day than women and religion? This was specially the case when the topic was women and their desire, or lack of same, for sexual activity. As for religion, Brann saw himself as Jeffersonian, mostly deistic with a preference for a remote God who wielded the instruments of a grand architect while creating a universe without dogma.

Of the Bible, he said: “He that accepts it in its entirety–gulps it down like an anaconda absorbing an unwashed goat; who makes no attempt to separate the essential from the accidental…may, like the ass which Balaam rode, open its mouth and speak; but he never saw the Angel of the Lord; he utters the words of emptiness and ignorance.”

There are Brann devotees to this day, but for me, even though the racism he embraced was prevalent in Waco and the South, his own expressions of it are so revolting that there is no giving him the benefit of acting under the influence of his times.

In an article titled “The Buck Negro,” Brann opens with these words:

“I once severely shocked the pseudo-philanthropists by suggesting that if the South is ever to rid herself of the negro rape-fiend she must take a day off and kill every member of the accursed race that declines to leave the country. I am not wedded to my plan; but, like the Populists, I do insist that those who object to it are in duty bound to offer something better.”

He continues:

“Drive out the ” n . . . [ a racist term for African Americans] young and old, male and female – or drive him into the earth! It may be urged that the ‘good negro’ would suffer with the bad. It is impossible to distinguish the one from the other until it is too late. It were better that a thousand ‘good negroes’ -if so many there be- should suffer death or banishment than that one good white woman should be debauched. We must consider ourselves first, others afterwards. The rights of the white man are paramount, and if we do not maintain them at any cost we deserve only dishonor.”

That this type of vile racism, grounded in the alleged protection of white women, would later erupt in a terrible lynching in my hometown a few decades later, is all the more disturbing. The Klan was strong in Waco in the Twenties, and the story is that they would meet on a hill near what is now North Twenty-Fifth Street. Were they the ignorant gap-toothed followers that we mostly see today, along with a little skinhead seasoning?

I found an answer to this question that struck home, truly, back when I was still living in Waco in the late 1980s.  My sainted grandmother had just died, after living out the last eight years of her life with me and my family. After her death, we found in our garage, folded neatly in a long, white cardboard box, a robe, or costume if you like, that had belonged to my grandfather. And so, wearing these detestable garments of the Klan, my grandfather might have been among those standing on that hill all those years ago, screaming out hatred from the basest and smallest part of himself.  A respected businessman who worked downtown, he might also have been at the lynching that took place not far from his store. Now, I can only hope that he was not.

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