There is no rest for the wicked, so goes the saying; even a 112 years after his demise. Just before Christmas the tombstone of William Cowper Brann was vandalized and stolen from Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery.
Brother Brann was one of a kind. The following will catch you up on him, then and now. Charles Carver’s 1956 biography of Brann begins with “They wouldn’t let him rest, even in his grave.” Now can be added the thief of his tombstone.
Brann was an extremely opinionated newspaper publisher in Waco village in the 1890s. His paper in Austin had folded and he sold his press for $250 to a fellow writer, William Sydney Porter (who later became famous as O. Henry), and moved to Waco where he had much greater success.
Brann founded “The Iconoclast” with the stated mission “to expose Frauds and abolish Fakes, to make unrelenting war upon Humbugs and Hypocrites.” He found fame, as one writer reported, “in a flat-roofed Texas town whose intellectual glory was a Baptist college and whose answer to arguments was ropes and revolvers.”
Brann was despised by most of the town’s citizens. Bob Dardin, Waco author, said, “The people who hated him read him out of self-defense … they wanted to know what he was going to say.” He once portrayed the Baylor College as “the alma mater of mob violence … a chronic breeder of bigotry and bile.”
He once said the only thing wrong with Baptists is they don’t hold ‘em down long enough when baptizing ‘em. The war of words ended when the students kidnapped Brann and tried to hang him. The faculty is said to have saved him. He mocked the regents. He wrote that he hoped the school would not continue to “manufacture ministers and Magdalenes.” (Magdalenes was his term for “fallen women”).
He gave the college president, Rufus Burleson, nightmares with his “investigative” journalism. Seems a Brazilian priest had converted to the Baptists and sent a his daughter, Antonio Teixeira, a promising teenager, to study at Baylor. Soon afterwards Brann discovered she was mostly used as a servant in the president’s home. A real scandal was uncovered, but best leave that for another column. (Former local boy and HPU public relations director, the late Joe Swan, was a descendent of that Burleson strain. Joe insisted during a visit to Waco to have his photo made beside President Burleson.)
“The Iconoclast” had subscribers around the world. His financial records show invoices from England, Australia and Japan. Some years his monthly circulation was close to 120,000. It sold for $1 a year, or 10 cents for an individual copy at the Old Corner Drug Store or the McClelland Hotel. Local newspapers, like the Waco Daily Telephone and Waco Tribune-Herald, were no competition for Brann. The also were not as biased.
A few called him a walking dictionary; the Prairie Voltaire or the Wizard of Words. He was endowed with a great vocabulary as his grandson said of him: “I feel such a deep-seated respect for his talent, but I would have used that talent differently if endowed like he was.”
Brann was shot down by a disgruntled critic and is buried in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery, also home to three Texas governors and two Confederate generals. Brann’s grave is the most visited in the cemetery. Possibly because someone shot his tombstone soon after his burial.
He was shot in the back by real estate developer Thomas E. Davis while Brann and W.H. Ward walked down Fourth Street between Austin and Franklin avenues. (A bronze plaque marks the spot.)
Critically wounded, Brann turned and emptied his six-shooter into Davis, who died the next day. Davis told authorities he was mad at Brann’s attacks on Baylor, where his daughter was a student. No moral to this column, unless it would be wise to take heed and think twice when disparaging Baptists. Happy New Year – may it be one of the best ever.
Britt Towery is a former missionary, freelance writer and published author of “Carey Daniel’s China Jewell, story of the Gal from Buffalo Gap.” His columns are published in the Bulletin on Fridays. He welcomes reader feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other columns are available on his Web site, www.britt-towery.