The serious personnel shakeup in the aftermath of the recent rape scandal that’s unfolded Baylor University is shocking, but it isn’t a first for the Waco school. As far back as 1897, the forced early retirement of Dr. Rufus Columbus Burleson amid a controversy that attracted national headlines would never have come to fruition if it weren’t for the stubbornness of a vitriolic Waco journalist, whose diatribes would result in the violent deaths of four of Waco’s leading citizens. Aside from that body count, today’s Baylor rape shame shares much with its 1890s forerunner.
The Apostle of the Devil
In 1895, fiery journalist William Cowper Brann settled in Waco, where he resurrected his failed Iconoclast magazine. This time around it was a roaring success: Brann’s outrageous invective garnered close to 100,000 readers at its peak. Among his favorite targets were the British, high society, and Baptists. In particular, the Baptists at Baylor University.
“I have nothing against the Baptists,” he once wrote. “I just believe they were not held under long enough.”
(For someone who loved to champion minorities such as Mormons, Catholics, and Jews, Brann reserved some of his most vicious attacks for African Americans—his vile racism was virulent enough to astonish even his contemporary readers, and stands as an unforgivable blemish on his name.)
Above all else, Brann despised hypocrisy, which he found in abundance in Waco. The city of 24,000 was home to no fewer than fourteen Baptist churches and three Baptist magazines, but along with Omaha, Nebraska, this most pious of Texas towns was one of just two American cities where prostitution was legal.
“Waco, we would have you know, is the religious storm-center of the Universe, and one of the few places that licenses prostitutes—a fact for the consideration for the students of cause and effect,” Brann wrote. That analysis caused one prominent Baptist to dub Brann “the Apostle of the Devil,” a moniker he wore with pride.
Baylor and the Brazilian Girl
The same year that Brann settled in the town, a missionary named Zachariah Taylor brought an eleven-year-old girl named Antonia Teixeira to Waco from her native Brazil. Ostensibly, the plan was to foster Teixeira in the Baptist faith then return her at sixteen years old to her homeland, where she could share her beliefs with the Papists. Teixeira was given room and board at the home of Baylor president Dr. Rufus Burleson and his wife, Georgia, in return for domestic service.
When Teixeira was thirteen or fourteen, it became apparent that she was pregnant. Her condition was concealed from the public for several months, but on June 16, 1895, the Waco Morning News dropped a bombshell story. Teixeira claimed that she had been drugged and raped on multiple occasions by H. Steen Morris, brother of Burleson’s son-in-law who took his meals with the Burlesons.
The girl claimed that she had told Georgia Burleson about the attacks, but that “nothing was done about it,” and so they continued. At some point, the pregnant Teixeira was handed over to a Catholic woman. The Burleson-Morris clan had hoped that the girl would deliver her baby under her roof and return with it to Brazil, and the whole thing would blow over.
Meanwhile, Morris’s friends floated the story that she had taken a black lover, but that tale came to naught when Teixeira gave birth to a white baby, prematurely, two days after the Morning News story broke. In Brann’s words, the sickly child lived “just long enough to develop a striking resemblance to H. Steen Morris.”
In an attempt to quell the swelling controversy, Burleson dashed off a four-page pamphlet entitled “Baylor and the Brazilian Girl.” The girl had never said anything to Georgia about Morris, he claimed. The accusations were “black and damnable lies” concocted by a troubled young girl.
“With exceeding great reluctance,” Burleson claimed that the girl was “utterly untrustworthy,” and “in addition to her other faults, crazy about the boys.” All of this in spite of the fact that he had treated her just like his granddaughter, Burleson wrote.
Furthermore, Burleson went on to reassure readers that Baylor was a perfectly safe place for young women to receive their Christian educations, before reminding the good people of Waco all that Baylor had done for their city. “Rise up and vindicate Baylor University,” Burleson urged. As for Brann and his lot, they needed to “repent and confess openly their sins and receive forgiveness, before they are everlastingly lost.”
The Apostle Fires Back
Burleson’s threat of eternal damnation fell on deaf ears in the Iconoclast office. In the next issue, Brann called Burleson’s pamphlet “a screed [that branded] as little better than a public bawd a child in short dresses, who to this day refers to him as ‘gran’pa’!”
Brann continued: “It was then that all of the power of Baylor University was exerted, not to ferret out the criminal and bring him to the bar, but to forever blacken the character of the little orphan and to shield the alleged author of her shame.”
Teixeira’s case was not isolated, Brann wrote. Teixeira was “not the first young girl to be sent from Baylor in disgrace” nor “the first to complain of assault within its sanctified walls.” Later, he called the school a manufacturer of “ministers and Magdalenes,” a nineteenth century euphemism for a fallen woman.
Burleson, Brann claimed, was also guilty of what we would now call human trafficking. “Instead of being prepared for missionary work, this ‘ward of the Baptist church’ was learning the duties of the scullion—and Dr. Burleson has informed the world through the public prints that she was not worth her board and clothes.”
Brann further noted that the Reverend Taylor, the missionary who had brought Teixeira to Texas, was now claiming to have known all along that she had always been “a foul prostitute.” That was at variance with Taylor’s original story—that he had rescued an innocent eleven year old from her courtesan mother and other rotten relatives. Taylor, Brann said, gave Teixeira “a certificate of good character” on her arrival in Waco. But when “her downfall cast a shadow over the great Baptist University,” he was painting her as a child harlot.
Exit the Brazilian Girl
Morris was tried the following year. The jury deadlocked, with seven favoring conviction, five for acquittal. Burleson had predicted “easy rolling” for Morris, and though it was anything but, the failure of a Waco jury to convict an outwardly pious young Baptist man was no surprise to Brann. After all, he wrote, Baptists were “all-powerful” in Waco. To rule against Morris, Brann wrote, was to risk social, economic, and political shunning.
Morris escaped a second reckoning. In September, Teixeira suddenly signed an affidavit exonerating him, and she set sail for Brazil the very same day. Brann claimed that she had been in conference with Morris and his attorney the day before, and that Morris’s attorney paid for her ticket home.
And now that Teixeira was safely out of the way, Brann predicted that Baylor would “carefully lock the closet in which it keeps its interesting collection of skeletons.” Brann predicted that Baylor “would stink forever in the nostrils of Christendom—it is damned to everlasting fame.”
That turned out to be wishful thinking.
In spite of Burleson’s assurances of safety, 35 young women left Baylor as the controversy raged. With a total female enrollment of about 300 students, this was a significant hit. Burleson resigned as president. Though he publicly stated otherwise, the aged pastor privately groused that he had been forced out. But Baylor softened the blow by creating the position of president emeritus with the same pay as his previous job.
Some were determined to see to it that Burleson was not the only casualty. On October 2, 1897, Brann was kidnapped from his office by four Baylor students, tied up, and taken to campus. A mob awaited, and Brann was beaten, spat on, threatened with a gun and a hangman’s noose, and forced to sign an apology and promise to leave town. Many believe that had two Baylor faculty members not intervened, Brann would have dangled from a campus oak tree.
Just four days later, Brann took another thrashing, this time at the hands of Baylor trustee Judge John Scarborough and his son, George. The Scarboroughs were enraged at Brann’s “Magdalenes” remark, as the elder Scarborough’s daughter was then a Baylor alumna and English instructor. While the son held Brann at gunpoint, the father laid into him with a cane. One of the student ringleaders of the previous incident happened by right then and joined in the fun, lashing Brann with his horsewhip. “So you wouldn’t leave town, eh?” the young man screamed.
Bloody, bruised, and with his wrist broken, Brann managed to escape. Within days he was back to taunting the Baptists, though by this time he and the entire Iconoclast staff never left their building unarmed.
The First Gun Battle
Brann was not without allies, even in Waco, and counted Judge George “Big Sandy” Gerald among them. In November of 1897, the retired jurist, a Civil War veteran with a left arm rendered useless in the service of the Confederacy, wrote a hot letter in support of Brann to James Harris, editor of the pro-Baylor Waco Times-Herald. Gerald asked for its return should it not see print. Harris neither printed it nor returned it. Gerald then went to ask for it in person and a scuffle ensued. Gerald emerged the worse for wear. The much younger, two-armed editor reportedly crowed about the tussle in the next day’s paper.
Gerald responded by calling out Harris as a “liar, a coward and a cur” and challenging him to a duel. A few days later, Gerald saw the journalist standing in the doorway of a downtown drug store. The judge drew his pistol and walked with purpose toward Harris, who opened fire first—as did his brother, Bill, who unbeknownst to Gerald was standing across the street. Gerald took no heed of the crossfire, or the bullet that hit him in his left arm, which would need to be amputated that night. He walked within a few feet of the editor and dispatched him with a single shot. Meanwhile, Bill was struggling with a policeman who was attempting to disarm him. The bleeding Gerald staggered across the street and shot Bill through the head.
Witnesses all agreed that the Harris boys had fired first. Gerald was acquitted of their murders. In 1900, Big Sandy was re-elected as a district court judge.
The Second Gun Battle
Brann danced on the Harris boys’ graves. According to him, James was nothing more than the “pompous amateur editor of an unprincipled little peewee paper,” while Bill was “a frightened jack-rabbit.” “The world is well rid of such bad rubbish,” Brann concluded.
Meanwhile, Brann continued poking the Bears. A rumor was circulating that there was a plot to move Baylor to Dallas. “Dallas doesn’t want Baylor even a little,” Brann sneered. “There isn’t a town in the world that wants it except Waco…. As a small Waco property owner, I will give it $1000 any time to move it to Dallas, and double that amount if it will move to Honolulu or Hell.”
On April Fool’s Day 1898, Brann and his bodyguard/business manager William Ward were walking to the train station, where Brann was going to purchase tickets to San Antonio. Much to the relief of the frazzled Mrs. Brann, the Apostle was planning to take the family on a combined vacation and lecture tour. Perhaps Waco would simmer down in his absence, she hoped. As Ward and Brann walked down South Fourth Street, real estate developer Tom Davis stepped out of his office and shot Brann in the back. Ward scuffled with Davis, who continued firing. Brann managed to return fire, hitting Davis several times. Both Brann and Davis were dead before the next day’s sun had set.
Some say Davis hated Brann because he had dug up a story implicating Davis in a long-ago Lampasas stagecoach robbery. Others believe it stemmed back to that Magdalene crack: Davis had female relatives at the school. And still others believe that he had political ambitions, and how better to curry the Waco Baptist vote than to gun down William Cowper Brann?
Brann was buried in Oakwood Cemetery under an elaborate headstone bearing his profile in bas-relief, topped by a marble Grecian lamp bearing a single word: “Truth.” Within days, a gun-toting vandal had pockmarked the temple of Brann’s profile with a bullet hole.
And in 2009, modern-day vandals stole Brann’s lamp of truth, which is now likely hidden somewhere in Waco, if not at the bottom of the murky Brazos River.