Through his provocative writing career, William Cowper Brann proved that if the pen wasn’t mightier than the sword, it was at least as cutting.
Brann was born on January 4, 1855, in Coles County, Illinois, the son of Presbyterian minister Noble J. Brann. After his mother's death in 1857, his father placed him in the care of a neighboring farm couple, William and Mary Hawkin. In 1868, at the age of thirteen, he departed from his foster family to make his own way.
After leaving the Hawkinses, Brann did not receive any more formal education. He moved about from city to city, working as a hotel bellboy, as a painter’s helper, and eventually in a print shop. There he became a cub reporter, and began to travel from St. Louis to Galveston to Houston and then to San Antonio, gaining a reputation as a brilliant though vitriolic editorialist. On March 3, 1877, Brann married Carrie Belle Martin at Rochelle, Illinois; they were the parents of three children.
Brann moved to Austin in 1891 and there, staking all of his limited savings, launched the first issue of his "journal of personal protest," the Iconoclast. The journal failed, and he left Texas until October of 1892, when he became editor of the San Antonio Express. In 1894, he moved to Waco as the chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News. Still determined, and with a growing reserve of his lurid essays, in February 1895, he recommenced publication of the Iconoclast. This time the paper was successful, and within less than a year Brann's future and that of his magazine were assured.
Brann's writing style was unique: an imaginative blending of the beautiful with the banal and barbaric, poetic tenderness with cow-lot crudity, supported throughout by lightning flashes of original thought, philosophy, and wit. But as the title implied, Brann took obvious pleasure in directing his stinging attacks upon institutions and persons he considered to be hypocritical or overly sanctimonious. Among such was Waco's renowned Baylor University, which he scourged as a "great storm center of misinformation." He by no means confined his distaste to Baptists and was especially keen to express his dislike of Episcopalians, anything British, and perhaps his greatest vitriol was reserved for African Americans.
Brann gained renown in the Waco community outside of the Iconoclast as well. He became sought after for his lectures, and even tried his hand as a playwright. In 1889, he registered three plays at the Library of Congress: Cleon, That American Woman, and Retribution.
The paper attracted a multitude of friends and admirers as well as detractors and enemies, and within a few years Brann had rather effectively divided the community into two camps. In November of 1897, one of his supporters, County Judge G. B. Gerald, engaged in a street battle with pistols with the editor of the Waco Times-Herald, J. W. Harris, and his brother, W. A. Harris. Both Harrises died in this encounter, and the judge lost an arm. On April 1, 1898, Brann was shot in the back by a brooding supporter of Baylor named Tom Davis, but before the editor died he was able to draw his own pistol and shoot his assailant to death.
Long before the age of radio shock jocks and provocative television pundits, William Cowper Brann used his particular brand of incendiary journalism to rally supporters and incite opponents in the heart of Texas.