THE DRAMA OF THE IMAGINATION

Newspapers around the country in 1860 called it “the Texas Troubles.” Rumors—fanned by letters written by Charles R. Pryor, editor of the Dallas Herald—claimed that a mysterious fire on Sunday, July 8, which burned the newspaper office and all the buildings on the Dallas square except the brick courthouse, was an abolitionist plot “to devastate, with fire and assassination the whole of Northern Texas . . . .”

On the same day, other fires destroyed half of the square in Denton and burned a store in Pilot Point. Fires also erupted in Honey Grove, Jefferson, and Austin. The city leaders of Dallas (population 775) first believed the extreme heat—105 to 113 degrees––caused spontaneous combustion of the new and volatile phosphorous matches. They concluded that the matches, stored in a box of wood shavings at a drug store, ignited and quickly consumed the entire building before spreading over the downtown. Citizens in Denton, after experiencing similar problems with “prairie matches,” concluded that spontaneous combustion caused their city’s fire.

In Dallas, however, white leaders stirred by the prospect of Abraham Lincoln’s election and encouraged by Pryor’s claims, decided on a sinister slave plot hatched up by two white abolitionist preachers from Iowa. They jailed the preachers, publically whipped them, and sent them out of the county.

A committee of fifty-two men organized to mete out justice to the slaves in the county. At first, the vigilante committee favored hanging every one of the almost 100 Negro slaves in the county, then cooler heads prevailed and decided to hang only three. Two days later the men were hung on the banks of the Trinity River near the present Triple Overpass. The remaining slaves, out of consideration of their property value, were given a good flogging. Later, a judge who had been part of the vigilante committee said that the three murdered slaves were probably innocent, but because of the “inflamed state of the public mind, someone had to be hanged.”

The “troubles” were not over. By the end of July, towns throughout North and Central Texas organized vigilance committees to find and punish the conspirators. The committees terrorized the slave community. Interrogations focused on white itinerant preachers who were cited as insurrection leaders.

Despite fears of a slave rebellion that lasted until after the Civil War, there was never an organized group of slaves in Texas that shed white blood. Vigilantes often obtained “confessions” and evidence points to white leaders spreading the rumors to garner public support for secession.

Estimates vary from thirty to 100 Negroes and whites who died before the panic subsided. One historian described the times as “the drama of the imagination.”

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William Cowper Brann–The Iconoclast

William Cowper Brann

William Cowper Brann

His supporters called him a visionary and a brilliant writer. Some even dubbed him the “Prairie Voltaire” and the “American Carlyle.” His detractors called him the “Devil’s Disciple.” Even his biographer Charles Carver described him as “a mean Mark Twain.” Upon his death, after a gun battle that also killed his assailant, those who hated him said, “At long last he’s in hell where he belongs.”

W.C. Brann acquired a third grade education, ran away at age thirteen in 1868 from the Illinois family who took him in after his mother’s death. He bounced around the country until he found work as a printer’s devil and cub reporter. He wrote for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, Galveston Evening-Tribune, Austin Statesman, San Antonio Express, and Houston Post, soon gaining a reputation as a brilliant though vitriolic editorialist.

Brann and his wife had two daughters and a son. After his thirteen-year-old daughter committed suicide in Houston in 1890, the family moved to Austin where Brann decided his editorial experience and the publication of three of his plays offered reason enough for him to use the limited family savings to begin publishing his “journal of personal protest,” the Iconoclast. It quickly failed.

Brann sold the journal to William Sydney Porter, the Austin writer who later became famous as O. Henry. After several more moves Brann ended up in Waco in 1894 as chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News. The following year he acquired the journal from Porter and started publishing the Iconoclast. This time the savagery of his writing gained attention across the U.S. and in many foreign countries, growing the circulation in three years to almost 100,000.

His articulate criticisms, even cruel comments fascinated his readers. He raged against the status quo and insulted people and institutions he viewed as overly sanctimonious or hypocritical. He held Episcopalians and Baptist in equal disdain but his attacks on Baptists garnered even more sensation because he published the Iconoclast in Waco, home of Baylor University, Texas’ premiere Baptist institution. He wrote that Baylor was “that great storm-center of misinformation.” He is quoted in a local publication as saying, “I have nothing against Baptists. I just believe they were not held under long enough.”

Despite his screeds against fundamentalism and its preachers, he wrote very little about religion and did not attack theology. In one essay he deplored the commercialization of Christmas. In another he said, “Remember that God is everywhere—even in church.” The subjects of his opinion pieces ranged from cats, to cows, to cold feet. He called politics an “unsavory stew of Macbeth’s witches.”

Brann’s hatred included wealthy eastern socialites such as the Vanderbilts, anything having to do with Great Britain and its people, the New York social scene, and women. He reserved his most vicious remarks for African Americans, and after reading one of his essays it is hard to imagine his popularity even in a day when lynching was accepted in many communities.

Despite his many friends and supporters, the anger he stirred in Waco boiled over in October 1897 when a group of Baylor students kidnapped Brann and demanded he retract his statements about the university. A few days later a Baptist judge and two other men beat Brann.

Finally, on April 1, 1898, the father of a female Baylor student, shot Brann in the back on one of Waco’s downtown streets. Despite having taken a bullet, Brann turned and began firing at his assailant, emptying his borrowed Colt Single Action Army Revolver into the man’s body. Brann’s attacker, writhing in agony on the ground, continued firing until he emptied his gun. Both men died the following day.

The word TRUTH is engraved on Brann’s monument in Waco’s Oakwood Cemetery. Beneath the word is Brann’s profile with a bullet hole in it.

Baylor University holds the William Cowper Brann Collection in its Texas Collection.

The Complete Works of Brann The Iconoclast

The Complete Works of Brann The Iconoclast