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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Who was O'Reagan?

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
His 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 roots.

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 Developed in the 1850s, the technique was soon superseded by tintypes.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 out.

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.
Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" August 15, 2019

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