THE GREAT ICONOCLAST William R. Carr
Unless you happen to be from north of Springfield, it may be stretching it somewhat to consider Coles County part of southern Illinois, but I’m willing to stretch things at least that far if it means claiming Coles County native William Cowper Brann as one of our own. Not everyone will join me in the desire to do this, of course. Many will not appreciate Brann as I do, for Brann’s wit was often as abrasive as his language was colorful. But his undeniable genius commands both my respect and admiration—even forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness—for Brann apparently shared what he called a popularly held view of the state of civilization in southern Illinois.
Early Springhouse readers may recall the article titled "Egypt vs. Arkansas" in the Mar/Apr 1984 issue. The article had been an editorial of the type that had made Brann famous throughout the nation. In that article, Brann recounts the war of words between the editor of "the journalistic Jehovah known as the Carbondale Herald" and an editor down Arkansas way. Brann quoted the Herald editor’s scathing description of Arkansas at length, and called it "a pretty good roast," (and indeed it was!) but he stated he doubted its originality. He then paraphrased the "razzle-dazzle" a Missouri paper once gave Egypt—and, in reconstructing it, proceeded to "roast" Egypt quite unmercifully. "...to call a man a son of ‘Egypt’ was considered an unforgivable affront to his family, and meant a fight or a foot-race... I can understand that, before the war, a native of ‘Egypt’ might feel not a little proud of a stray pickaninny ...because he could smuggle it across the Ohio and exchange it for tobacco and booze..."
Though Brann allowed that the people of the "bad lands of southern Illinois" had up-graded somewhat from ante-bellum times, he reminded his readers that "the evil reputation still clings to ‘Egypt.’" What was true then, of course, is still true today. The reputation seems to cling like hot tar—though through no particular fault of Brann’s. One need only read Paul Angle’s Bloody Williamson, or the first chapter of Darcy O’Brien’s Murder in Little Egypt, if any evidence is required.
Printing Brann’s "Egypt vs. Arkansas" article was a rather daring thing for a magazine like Springhouse. At least the editors thought so at the time. Though not nearly as attention-getting as recent articles on the Old Slave House, Brann’s stinging prose earned Springhouse some criticism—but not nearly as much as hoped for. But one elderly reader, (who I fear is no longer with us) actually remembered Brann, and remembered him well and rather fondly I believe.
"Wow!" reader M.J. Carr, of Ramona, California wrote. (Ozark Echoes, in the May/June 1984 issue, and no relation to this writer) "You have finally unearthed the Great Iconoclast Brann (The Texas Terror) on the subject of ‘Egypt’ plus exchanging complements of a forgotten era — Illinois SUCKERS vs. Arkansas RACKENSACKERS.
"Ah! That was the time of personal editorials and journalism, and Brann was right up there on top with the best—or worst, as you please."
"The Great Iconoclast would have been delighted in these times of image makers so he could have had at them. Alas, he had his own Icon shattered by a bullet from the pistol of an enraged politician who could take it no longer."
It was Gary DeNeal, (then Springhouse associate editor) who revealed Brann to me. It followed a chance purchase of some books he’d made at a local auction. That chance encounter brought the "Wizard of Words" to the pages of the Springhouse—and thus again to the attention of Egypt, if not the world. "Egypt vs. Arkansas," while a fair example of Brann’s more colorful editorial style, is nonetheless hardly the definitive piece by which he should be judged. The only thing that recommended it to the editors of the Springhouse was its reference to "Egypt."—that, admittedly, in a most disparaging way. Though the disparagement was not supposed to be Brann’s own, but that of a Missouri newspaper, the Texas Terror was on the editorial attack against the editor of the Carbondale Herald in defense of "Poor old Rackensack."
I’ll have to admit it was mainly the wild-west manner of Brann’s death that sparked my interest. My initial thought was, "Why hasn’t this colorful character been immortalized in western legend? Here was our own Illinois-born western gun-fighter and frontier editor, and nobody knows about him!" Gary had loaned me his Brann texts while the editors of Springhouse, (which at that time included myself) pondered whether to print "Egypt vs. Arkansas." The more I read, the more amazed and interested I became. Forget that he died in a gun-battle. Here was a man who ought to be remembered on his writing accomplishments alone.
BULLETS SWEETLY SINGING‘Nearer My God to Thee’
In 1898, exactly a hundred years ago this April 1st, a native of southern Illinois was, as we might say today, "terminated with great prejudice," on the streets of Waco, Texas. Perhaps it is time, on this centennial anniversary of the event, to take a second look at one of our once widely celebrated, but now long forgotten, native sons.
It was a typical Spring day in the bustling town of Waco. The streets were crowded with Friday’s early evening activity. The saloons and shops where busy. Men stood on corners and in doorways in idle conversation. Women bustled in and out of shops. Children played their idle-time games, running and laughing. The sounds of horse’s hooves, and the rattling of wagons and buggies, could be heard. A streetcar clanged and jostled in its tracks, stopping now and then to discharge or load passengers. There was no hint of tension in the air. There was no indication that trouble was brewing.
Two men, W. C. Brann and W. H. Ward, (familiar figures on the streets of Waco) were seen walking side by side, talking amiably as they ambled down Fourth Street. They were well-dressed men, appropriately appointed in the style of the day. They were tall, Texas men, lean and handsome, in wide-brimmed hats. They were proud and exuberant men, full of life, ambition, and purpose. They were men with dreams—men with promising futures. Their joint prospects were about to undergo a radical and abrupt change.
The two had just passed the door of the business office of one Tom E. Davis—a real estate man. When they were perhaps ten paces beyond, in front of the adjoining newsstand, Davis emerged from his office door, revolver in hand. Without warning, he fired into the back of one of the two men walking away from him. The bullet penetrated deeply into the one he knew as W. C. Brann. At the sharp report, followed almost immediately by several others, the men, women, and children in the street scrambled for cover, diving into doorways and ducking behind corners. They knew the sound all too well. As recently as the previous November 19th, a similar shooting had occurred, killing two, permanently maiming another, and injuring an innocent bystander.*
The wounded man both heard and felt the shot that would kill him within hours. But he neither dove for cover nor knelt for mercy. He turned to face his assailant, drawing his Colt as he did so. Above the haze of blue smoke, he immediately recognized his adversary—a bitter enemy of long-standing. One can only imagine the thoughts that must have passed through Davis’s mind as he unexpectedly made eye-contact with the gaping bore of Brann’s weapon. He didn’t have much time to reflect, for no sooner had that startling discovery been made, than Brann’s pistol began to bark. When it did, Davis felt a searing pain in his breast, and the would-be killer, who had thought he’d accomplished his dastardly deed in relative safety, went down.
The Waco Weekly Tribune, of Saturday, April 2, 1898, continues the account:
Had the above account been taken from a pulp western, or quoted from the script of an old B movie, the hero would have recovered and gone on to star in other shoot-em-ups. But is was not fiction, and our William Cowper Brann, having walked away from the scene victorious, died early the following morning. He was 43.
Brann was born in Humbolt township, in Coles County, Illinois on January 4, 1855. His father was the Reverend Noble Brann. Brann’s mother had died when he was two and a half, and Reverend Brann placed his son with a Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins, a Coles County farm family, with whom he remained for ten years. Though Brann always referred to his foster parents affectionately, he left their care early in search of adventure in 1868, at the age of 13. His first job was as a bell boy at a hotel, probably in St. Louis. He learned the trades of painter and grainer, then printer and reporter. Finally, after the required period of self-education, he became an editorial writer. As such, he is said to have become well-known throughout Illinois and Missouri before finally settling in Texas. At one point, according to at least one account, he was ordained a Baptist minister, but to quote Brann himself: "I came very near being a Baptist... but reneged when an attempt was made to baptize me in cracked ice on a winter’s day."
For an untutored farm boy from the prairie lands of Illinois, Brann could by then already be considered something of a success, merely "driving a pen" for others. At any rate, he was making a living, and successful enough by 1877 to take a wife in the person of a Miss Carrie Martin, on March 3rd, at Rochelle, Illinois, (Ogle county, west of Chicago). Yet years of struggle and poverty remained before he would become known as the Great Iconoclast and enjoy a degree of editorial freedom and financial success.
It was July of 1891 when the first issue of Brann’s Iconoclast appeared in Austin, Texas. Unfortunately, the enterprise failed after only a few issues. Interestingly, one of Brann’s admirers is remembered by today’s world, and may have owed some of his success and writing style to W. C. Brann. William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, was at that time a drug clerk in Austin. Having literary aspirations of his own, Porter jumped at the chance to get into publication. Purchasing Brann’s press and the Iconoclast name for $250.00, Porter attempted to keep the paper alive with his own brand of journalism. The Iconoclast fared no better in O. Henry’s hands than in Brann’s, however, and failed after only two issues. Later on, in 1894, Porter started a humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone. It too failed, and he became a Houston Post reporter before ultimately becoming a literary icon in his own right. Meanwhile, Brann had resumed editorial work at the Globe Democrat at St. Louis, and later at the Express of San Antonio.
In the Summer of 1894, Brann and his family, settled in Waco, Texas, where he went to work as an editorial writer for the Waco Daily News. He obtained permission from William Porter to resume the Iconoclast name and reestablished the publication in 1895. His renewed effort was successful from the first issue. That a newspaper like the Iconoclast could have attained much success at all in a small western town, alongside already established papers, was amazing. That by the time of Brann’s untimely death, the Iconoclast had attained a circulation of 90,000 was nothing short of miraculous. The Iconoclast enjoyed a readership that rivaled many of the big city dailies and magazines of the time, and Brann’s name, along with that of his paper, gained national renown. He was reviled by many, but loved by many more. But even his most ardent detractors never missed an issue of the Iconoclast, for if they were not being "roasted" they wanted to know who was. Additionally, Brann had become a much sought-after lecturer, and traveled far and wide speaking to a surprising assortment of groups, in addition to carrying on his publishing and editorial duties.
BRANN vs. BAYLOR
"Revolvers, Ropes, and Religion"
Before Brann came to town, Waco had been best known as the proud home of Baylor University. After Brann’s arrival, Waco became much more widely known as the home of the lively Iconoclast newspaper and its fiery editor. While Brann would have liked nothing better than to sing the praises of Baylor, and stay on the right side of its venerable administrators, he found it impossible to do so. He wasn’t one to automatically worship at the feet of college administrators merely because they cloaked themselves in the lordly garments of academia and Christian righteousness. He had a problem with hypocrites, and soon observed that Baylor had at least its fair share of the breed. Brann hadn’t hastened to sanctify the Iconoclast by glorifying Baylor. In fact, Brann found his paper boycotted by Baylor official edict even before it had a chance. This being so, there were those at the university, and city hall, who came increasingly to resent Brann’s presence. Some found his growing influence and popularity alarming, and seized every opportunity to undermine his standing in the community. He was attacked as a sinner, an atheist, and an anarchist.
Thus, relations between Brann and the Baylor faculty were strained from the beginning. Waco was too small for an Iconoclast of Brann’s audacity and a Christian university to coexist without a certain amount of conflict. For some time the conflict was rather innocuous and sometimes even almost amiable, at least on Brann’s part. Eventually, however, a scandal surfaced at the university concerning a certain young female student. She was an orphan from Brazil who had been taken under Baylor’s wing at the age of eleven. Taken into the chief administrator’s household, at age 14 she was found to be, ah, with child. Such things do happen sometimes—even in upstanding Christian colleges. But Brann considered the manner with which the administration subsequently handled the matter deplorable. They dumped her into the street and didn’t bother to find out who the guilty party was. Instead, she was falsely accused of having had an amorous affair with a Negro. The Iconoclast took up the young lady’s cause and, in so doing, publicly exposed a lack of morality, or at least criminal negligence, on the part of the young lady’s guardian. Baylor suffered a humiliating black eye before the entire nation, thanks to Brann. Discretion might well have proven the better part of valor in the case, but Brann was incapable of conforming to that mold. When the guilty were free and the innocent condemned, Brann could not be silent. The Brann-Baylor relationship was thus soured beyond repair. But it remained for another "affair" to turn the relationship really ugly—and ultimately deadly.
The beginning of the end for Brann was the day Baylor University imported a lecturer by the name Joseph Slattery. Brann attended one of Slattery’s lectures. Slattery, an ex-Catholic priest married to an ex-nun, (who was reputed to have been kicked out of the Church for reasons of gross immorality) proceeded to "roast" the Catholic Church unmercifully. Brann, to be sure, was no more a proponent of Catholicism than he was a champion of the Baptist cause. But he was a champion of truth and decency. When Slattery slandered Catholic nuns in a most shocking and unforgivable way, the Apostle was outraged. He arose, pointed his finger at Slattery, and said, "You lie and you know it, and I refuse to listen to you." He then turned and walked out amid the hoots and hisses of the audience, consisting mostly of the faculty and future Baptist ministers. He came close to being mobbed right then.
Brann then hired the same opera house and replied to Slattery. He also replied on the pages of the Iconoclast, of course. He roasted Slattery, and Baylor for having invited him to town. In taking Baylor to task for catering to the likes of Slattery, Brann made a comment to the effect that Baylor was manufacturing "ministers and Magdalens." This gave Brann’s enemies the handle they would flay him with, by making people believe Brann had equated all of Baylor’s female students with Magdalen—an outrageous and unforgivable insult that required action. That it was intended as a jab at the University’s administration, no longer mattered.
To the use of that single word, "Magdalens," are attributed two mob actions against the Apostle, as Baylor’s male "students" answered the call. In the first instance, Brann’s home was invaded by a mob who sought to kidnap him. Not finding him there, they found him in town and proceeded to administer their brand of "saving grace" with ropes, revolvers, and cudgels. He was pistol-whipped; stripped; spat upon; pulled around the campus with a rope around his neck; almost lynched; (for that had apparently had been their intention) and finally forced to sign a "confession" and apology. Bloody and shaken, Brann was then ordered to agree to leave town. In the second instance, he had been waylaid on the street from behind one night by several men. He was pistol-whipped, reminded that he had a redemptive train to catch, and then cudgeled senseless. Of course, Brann didn’t leave town—after recuperating for a few days with his "head in a sling," as he put it, he fought back with his pen with renewed vigor and with devastating, (ultimately suicidal) effect. He continued to publish the Iconoclast and "roast" the parties who were giving Baylor University a bad name.
The man who killed Brann had a daughter in attendance at Baylor, and had joined the frenzied chorus demanding Brann’s exile from Waco. Apparently frustrated at Brann’s failure to make tracks, he took it upon himself to send Brann on a permanent journey. He succeeded by shooting a brave man in the back. As a reward, Brann’s own six-shooter answered, joining that powerful refrain to which he had oft referred when writing of cowards and gun play "...bullets sweetly singing ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’"
So Brann was killed and his murderer immediately repaid in Texas change, a judicial transaction Brann himself had often held was necessary when nothing else would do. The only justice, beyond that of the moment, was that Brann died in peace, and his murderer died less pleasantly. Both bereaved families paid an equal price, and the world lost a great man.
THE UNFORGETTABLE BRANN
Along with the mourning which followed Brann’s death, words of condemnation and praise reverberated around the nation in the editorial pages. From sea to sea, from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border, editors and journalists remembered Brann the Iconoclast. Some were sad, some were mad, and others glad. A few seized the opportunity to step on his memory, smugly secure in the knowledge that his virile pen had been stilled forever. But even some of his detractors rose to eloquence on the occasion of his passing, admitting a great loss, and praising his genius. Words of praise were many—in fact it would be difficult to imagine a single mortal ever receiving more numerous and glowing tributes than those that were heaped upon Brann in the days and weeks following his death.
Here are the kind of comments that appeared in papers across the nation.
"His faults were human; his virtues Godlike." "They could better spare the whole State of Texas than William C. Brann." "He was a hater of shams and defied every form of fraud, hypocrisy and deceit." "Every evildoer and hypocrite feared him, while the upright men and virtuous women had a champion in him." "Brann was an intellectual giant." "In the tragic death of W. C. Brann the world has lost the most versatile pen the century has produced..." "Stilled is the heart that stood alone, defiant, a bulwark ’gainst the wave of corruption that is engulfing our land." "His faith was broad as the universe—deep as infinity. He loved purity; he hated hypocrisy; and for this he died—a martyr." "Scorning the sensual, always against the vulgar, in much the manner of Carlyle, Brann struck the gaffes of truth deep into the sides of wrong in high places, and exposed rottenness wherever found." "Brann attacked hypocritic preachers, snide politicians, shoddy social people, and shyster lawyers."
Though from Coles County, Illinois, Brann was a Southerner, and recognized as such in Texas and elsewhere. Because he was born and raised near the home of Abraham Lincoln, who was of Kentucky origin, some associated Brann with Kentucky. William Marion Reedy, of The St. Louis Mirror, was one. In the April 7, 1898 issue, he wrote:
Another, perhaps more reticent about singing Brann’s praises, was Elbert Hubbard, editor of the Philistine. Nevertheless, Hubbard’s praise was published in the April 14th issue of The St. Louis Mirror. It appeared under the unlikely title of "BRANN, THE FOOL."
In 1898—one hundred years ago, on what we now call April Fools’ Day—a Brave Heart was cut down. For all Brann’s enemies who called Waco home, they were but a relative few compared to his friends. His funeral was more heavily attended than any other that city had ever known. Brann was laid to rest in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery. He was survived by his wife Carrie, and two children—daughter Grace, and son, William Carlyle.
Brann’s friends desperately wanted the Iconoclast newspaper to live on in his memory, and they wanted to continue his work. But they soon apparently determined any attempt to fill Apostle’s shoes would be hopeless folly. They must have realized that no one among them, nor any combination of them, would ever be up to the task. Without Brann, the fire would be gone, and the Iconoclast would become a pale shadow of what it had been. W. H. Ward, and the Iconoclast employees issued only one edition of the Iconoclast following Brann’s death. It was a fitting memorial to the man—and Brann’s Iconoclast closed its doors forever.
Those interested in learning more about Brann the Iconoclast, will be happy to learn that his works are being re-published on the Information Superhighway, thanks to the endeavors of Guttenberg Project volunteers, and the University of Virginia Electronic Library. Volumes I, X, and XII of The Complete Works of Brann The Iconoclast are now available and may be found at http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/uvaonline.html.
* The cause of the previous shooting, in which Col. Gerald killed the Harris brothers, was in some way related to Brann’s difficulties. Col. Gerald was one of Brann’s friends, "a wonderful old man...over sixty...straight as a pine... a light mustache and chin beard, and eyes the color of the blue you see in old china. He don’t know what fear is...thinks it is some kind of disease like smallpox or appendicitis..."
Return to Springhouse Magazine On Line Front Page