June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
“Cleveland is a ‘strong man’ exactly as the hog is a strong animal. Stubborn without courage, persevering without judgment and greedy without gratitude.… There are several other points of resemblance; but I have no desire to be hard on the hog.”
Thus William Cowper Brann memorialized his Chief Executive when Grover Cleveland left office in 1897. Not that Brann loved Cleveland’s successor: “The election of McKinley means that all hope … is past.…” In fact, Brann hated more things more noisily than anyone else in turn-of-the-century America. He hated doctors, temperance, atheists, Baptists, woman suffrage, plutocrats, public education, politicians, the jury system, and Englishmen. At the same time, he defended Catholics and Jews in an era when such a stand was far from popular, he revered William Jennings Bryan, and he wrote of the sanctity of womanhood with a fervor that would have embarrassed Sir Walter Scott.
Brann gave furious voice to his opinions in his magazine, the Iconoclast , “an intellectual cocktail” which, he boasted, “strikes to kill.” And people listened. By 1898 the Iconoclast , with a circulation of upwards of fifty thousand was one of the most successful monthlies in America.
Brann had come to this success after four restless decades of failure. Born the son of an Illinois minister in 1855, he was given over to a farming family after his mother died. His foster parents treated him well, but he loathed farm life, and at thirteen he slipped out of his bedroom window during a storm, headed for a preposterously American career: he worked as a drummer for a printing house, then as a printer’s devil; he fired a Texas freight locomotive and put in a stint as a brakeman on the Great Northern; he pitched for a semiprofessional baseball team, and managed a tank-town opera company. All this was behind him by the time he was twenty-one, when he fell in love with Carrie Martin, the daughter of an Illinois doctor. His letters to her reveal little of the articulate savagery that would make him famous; they are quiet, worried, and diffident. But apparently not too diffident, for the two were married in 1877. About that time, Brann took his first newspaper job, with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat , where he began cultivating his particular brand of invective—grandiloquent polemic spiked with folksy insult.
A decade later he joined the Galveston Evening Tribune . “Well, Billy,” he quoted his father as saying about the move, “you allers was a mighty bad boy. I kinder cackalated as how you’d go t’ hell some day; but, praise God, I never thought y’ was bound for Texas.”
Texas suited Brann, though, and soon he left Galveston to write editorials for the Houston Post . Not long after the move, a young boy stopped by his home and left flowers for his twelve-year-old daughter, Inez. Brann accused her of encouraging her admirer and, when she denied it, of lying. Shortly afterward, her parents found her dead. A note she had left began: “Dear Momma: Tomorrow this time I will be dead. I took all of that morphine. I don’t want to live. I could never be as good as you want me to.”
The tragedy strengthened Brann’s adoration of female purity—which he had earlier revealed in three incredibly mawkish plays—and, perversely, his hatred of blacks, whom he came to see as lustful animals ever primed to rape white infants. Drive them from the South, he wrote in a typical passage, and the North “will have to put sheet-iron lingerie on her marble Goddess of Liberty or some morning she’ll find the old girl with her head mashed in and bearing marks of sexual violence.”
In 1891, having become too fierce for the Post , he founded the Iconoclast as a platform for his increasingly venomous opinions. It fizzled after a few issues, but left him with a reputation as a barbed and entertaining editor. Three years later he moved to Waco—“You will recognize the place by a structure that resembles a Kansas section-house that has been held by the vandal Time while criminally assaulted by a cyclone”—and tried again. This time, the magazine took hold quickly. Brann flailed away at various “intellectual animalculae” and “flatheaded old ganders” to such effect that the influential Midwestern editor William Marion Reedy wrote, “the editorials have Colts and bowies strapped-around their waists, and the paragraphs have the circle and whoop of the lasso and the sharp crack of a cowboy’s whip.”
Waco citizens were less pleased by his efforts, but Brann and his fellow townspeople lived together in uneasy amity until it came out that a young Brazilian girl being trained as a missionary at Baylor University, a local Baptist college, had gotten pregnant. Baptists and a despoiled innocent—here was a combination which provoked Brann to near-hysteria. Baylor and the “Baylor University stud,” he wrote, would “stink forever in the nostrils of Christendom—it is ‘damned to everlasting fame.’” In issue after issue he attacked the college, throwing the town into a turmoil around him. Accused of being too harsh, he replied, “I have not yet mastered the esoteric of choking a bad dog to death with good butter.” He wouldn’t let the matter drop. A year later he was still printing his hope that the Iconoclast ’s exposé of “Baylor’s criminal carelessness will have a beneficial effect—that henceforth orphan girls will not be ravished on the premises of its president, and that fewer young lady students will be sent home enceinte .”
By this time he was starting to receive threats on his life, and he took to practicing with a revolver in the woods behind his home. On April 1,1898, he was walking through Waco when Captain T. E. Davis, a patron of the school, passed by him, then turned, shouted, “You damned son-of-a-bitch!” and shot Brann in the back. Brann drew his own pistol and emptied it into Davis. Davis lived on until the next afternoon; Brann died that night.
He was buried in Oakwood Cemetery beneath an elaborate marble monument that bore a lamp labeled “Truth” and his carved profile. It would surely have given the polemicist a measure of bleak satisfaction to know that, a few weeks after the burial, someone crept into the cemetery and—cheated of a living target—blew a chunk out of the stone forehead.