Waco Journalist Gunned Down on April Fool’s Day 1898 After Insulting Baylor University
Humanity's made a lot of progress since 1898, but thanks to social media and the 24/7 news cycle, too many of us are still fussing and fighting constantly. I don't ever see that changing, really. Humans just love to complain and argue with each other. (See my previous article about the world's oldest written complaint for perspective.)
Chances are you've gotten into at least one heated argument on Facebook or Twitter, but hopefully it never escalated into a gunfight in the street. Infamous Waco journalist William Cowper Brann wasn't so lucky. His constant trolling of Baylor University got him killed in 1898. Appropriately enough, it happened on April Fool's Day.
First, some background on Brann courtesy of the Handbook of Texas. He was born in Illinois in 1855 and sent to live with neighbors after his mother passed away. He ran away at 13 and worked some odd jobs before finding himself working at a printer's shop. He had bare basic schooling, but was sharp enough to write scathing editorials that would eventually get him in big trouble with just about everyone.
Brann moved around quite a bit and was the editor for a number of Texas newspapers before settling in Waco in 1895 and using his own publication, Brann's Iconoclast, to let loose and tell everyone exactly what he thought of them. At the height of his fame, he had about 100,000 subscribers.
Among his many targets were women, Black people, the British, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Baylor University. (He once referred to Baylor as a "great storm center of misinformation".)
Here's where things get really insane.
According to a Baylor historian, Brann took on then-University President Rufus Burleson after it was revealed that a 14-year-old Brazilian orphan, who'd been placed in his care after she was brought to the U.S. by Baptist missionaries, had become pregnant. The brother of Burleson's son-in-law was accused of having raped the girl, and was ultimately acquitted. The scandal led to Burleson losing his position and being named president emeritus.
Brann, who was never a fan of the Baptist university to begin with, seized the opportunity to go after the school and Burleson with renewed vim and vigor. Some people say he was genuinely concerned about the girl, while others believe he was just happy to have a chance to go off on Baylor. (Who knows? It could have been both.)
Either way, Baylor students, alumni, and supporters weren't thrilled with him. He was reportedly kidnapped by several students who dragged him across campus by a rope around his neck, and on another occasion was beaten in the street by three Baylor supporters.
Brann did have friends and admirers, though. The Waco History Project records that in November of 1897, McLennan county judge G. B. Gerald, a Civil War veteran and friend of Brann's, got into a gunfight with the pro-Baylor editor of what's now the Waco Tribune-Herald, James W. Harris, and his brother, William A. Harris. Gerald was upset that Harris hadn't published a piece the judge had penned in defense of Brann. Both Harris bothers lost their lives in the duel, and Gerald's arm had to be amputated afterward.
It all ended on April 1, 1898, when the father of a former Baylor student shot Brann in the back on the street. Brann, who took six bullets, was able to use a gun he'd borrowed from Judge Gerald to shoot his attacker. Both men died a short time later, and some bystanders were wounded.
Brann was buried in Waco's Oakwood Cemetery two days later, but he wouldn't rest peacefully. His gravestone, carved in the likeness of a "lamp of truth", was vandalized many times before it was stolen in 2009.
There's a lot of talk these days about the thin line between censoring free speech and holding people accountable for what they write and say, but it's really nothing new. The mediums have changed, but even in the 19th century people's drama was spilling into reality and turning violent.
The more things change...