William Cowper Brann, journalist, was born on January 4, 1855, in Coles County, Illinois, the son of Noble J. Brann, a Presbyterian minister. After his mother's death in 1857, he was placed in the care of a neighboring farm couple, William and Mary Hawkins. In 1868, when he was thirteen and in the third grade at school, he slipped away one night, with his few belongings in a small carton he could carry. He never returned, nor did he receive any further formal schooling. He worked as a hotel bellboy, then as a house painter's helper, and finally as a printer's devil and cub reporter. On March 3, 1877, he married Carrie Belle Martin at Rochelle, Illinois. They had two daughters and a son. In Houston in 1890 his daughter Inez took her own life, an event for which Brann blamed himself.
He moved from St. Louis to Galveston to Houston and then to San Antonio and gained a reputation as a brilliant though vitriolic editorialist. He worked for the St. Louis Globe Democrat from 1883 to 1886, then for the Galveston Evening Tribune and the Galveston News. He moved to Austin in 1891, worked briefly for the Austin Statesman (see AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN), and, staking all of his limited savings, launched the first issue of his "journal of personal protest," the Iconoclast. It failed. Brann disposed of his Austin press to writer William Sydney Porter, later famous as O. Henry, and left Texas. He returned in October 1892 as editor of the San Antonio Express (see SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS). Later in the year he moved to Houston as chief editorial writer for the Houston Post, and in 1894 he moved to Waco as chief editorialist for the Waco Daily News. In February 1895 he revived publication of the Iconoclast. This time it was successful and eventually attained a circulation of 100,000.
Brann took obvious relish in directing his stinging attacks upon institutions and persons he considered to be hypocritical or overly sanctimonious. He by no means confined his distaste to Baptists, but directed it generously to Episcopalians, anything British, women, and, perhaps with the greatest harshness, Blacks. Among his targets was Baylor University, a Baptist institution that he scourged as "that great storm-center of misinformation." On October 2, 1897, Brann was kidnapped by student-society members and taken to the Baylor campus, where he was asked to retract his statements about the university. On October 6, having failed to leave town, he was beaten by a Baptist judge and two other men.
In November 1897 occurred a street gunfight between one of Brann's supporters, McLennan county judge G. B. Gerald, and the pro-Baylor editor of the Waco Times-Herald (see WACO TRIBUNE-HERALD), J. W. Harris, and his brother W. A. Harris. Both Harrises died, and the judge lost an arm. On April 1, 1898, on one of Waco's main streets, Brann was shot in the back by a brooding supporter of Baylor University named Tom E. Davis. Before the editor died he was able to draw his own pistol and kill his assailant. Brann was buried in Oakwood Cemetery, Waco.
Before his death he had gained popularity as a lecturer and tried his hand as a playwright. In 1889 he registered three plays at the Library of Congress: Cleon, That American Woman, and Retribution, the last of which was staged in 1893 in San Antonio.