last name was O'Reagan. No one seemed to remember the man's given
name when in the early 1880s former Victoria
newspaper editor Victor M. Rose got around to writing a history of
the mid-coastal town, but it's a safe bet that Mr. O'Reagan had Irish
Whatever his full name, O'Reagan must have been quite a character.
He was in Victoria
early in the Civil War, making a poor-to-modest living as an ambrotypist,
a professional photographer who captured images on chemical-coated
pieces of glass called wet plates. Developed in the 1850s, the technique
was soon superseded by tintypes.
Rose said O'Reagan was "an eccentric individual" who "lived in a hut
made of dry goods boxes, on a vacant lot, which he surrounded with
a solitude of Palma Christi bushes, or trees" as high as 20 feet.
(Palma christi is an ornamental, flowering tropical plant that produces
the seed from which castor oil can be made.)
Not only did O'Reagan act eccentrically, he looked the part. He wore
his hair long, "disregarded his dress and appearance entirely," and
was "upon the whole one of the oddest specimens of humanity that one
ever encountered." In a town with fewer than 2,000 residents, more
than a quarter of those being slaves, the photographer really stood
Being eccentric in manner and appearance was enough to set any man
apart, but on top of that, O'Reagan was a Unionist, someone opposed
to the notion of the Southern states seceding. When the Civil War
broke out in April 1861 his reaction was natural enough-he wanted
to decamp for the North as soon as possible.
Getting out of Texas, however, was not so easy a proposition. Travel
by stagecoach was arduous and expensive-not to mention the fact that
he would have to make his way through the whole South before reaching
friendlier territory. Since Texas did not yet have any interstate
rail lines, the only realistic means of escape was by ship.
The Gulf port of Indianola
was less than a day's ride from Victoria,
but President Lincoln had already imposed a naval blockade on the
South. At that point, though the details are unknown, O'Reagan relied
on his intellect and building skills. He would construct a small vessel
of some kind that could get him to one of the Union warships lying
off the Texas coast.
But when it became known that he was building what Rose called a "novel
craft," locals became suspicious. According to Rose, when O'Reagan
refused to reveal why he was building his otherwise undescribed "novel
craft" he was arrested.
German immigrants to Texas, having fled European militancy, generally
held Unionist views. But not the old German in command of the local
militia force who, according to Rose, told the person guarding the
strange prisoner: "For three days you no eat [feed] him-you no drink
him [give him water]--an ven he runs, you make a fire [shoot] on him."
Somehow, O'Reagan managed to get out of town without someone making
"a fire on him." Again proving that he marched to his own drummer,
he returned to Victoria
in 1865 after the war. A year later, when during in the early stage
of Reconstruction Texas had to come up with a new state constitution,
O'Reagan "made a vindictive address [and] announced himself as a candidate
for the constitutional convention."
Apparently, he did not get elected. Or lynched. But what became of
him after that is not known. Judging from a short death notice in
the Galveston News of Feb. 10, 1889, he may have moved from Victoria
and settled in Houston.
If he was the O'Reagan who had been in Victoria,
his first name was Michael.
This O'Reagan, according to the paragraph devoted to his demise, had
lived in Houston "a number
of years" and had become "a local celebrity in connection with spiritualistic
performances, his hobby being the exposure of the tricks of persons
claiming to do...deeds by the aid of spirits." The article continued:
"No matter how great the reputation of the so-called spiritualist,
Professor O' Reagan was sure to be one of the spectators, and whenever
anyone was called from the audience he would generally get to one
of them, and would succeed in making some kind of an exposure before
the evening passed."
That certainly sounds like the behavior of an intelligent, eccentric
fellow, the sort with the cheek to admit his pro-Union sentiments
in the South during the Civil War and the inventiveness to come up
with an idea for a "novel craft."
Michael O'Reagan had died in Galveston's
St. Joseph's Infirmary after "lying ill there for several months."
The notice said he had no known family and was about 55 when he died.
Presumably he was buried on Galveston island, but the locale of his
final resting place has not been determined.