The “Victims of the Galveston Flood” statue’s history is dizzying and perplexing. Theories for how UT “lost” the entire 24 piece statuary including “Victims of the Galveston Flood” heroic statue in order of the most/least plausible. It is a fact that we have documentation showing that all 24 plaster-paris statues and portrait busts, by piece, were received and signed for by UT in April 1914.
The UT Cactus Yearbook of 1920 chronicles the exhibition of many of the pieces, including the Victims heroic statue, during the Christmas break of 1919 on the UT campus. By the early 1920’s the trail goes dead as to the whereabouts of the Victims heroic and the rest of Coppini’s statuary. UT stonewalled Coppini for three decades (1920-1950), not responding to his letters re: “What happened to my things”? Here are my theories:
• Broke up and fell apart – People who moved the crates holding these plaster-paris works of art were careless and dropped them one too many times from the basement of Old Main to other storage locations on campus. UT may have directed maintenance people to just take the whole kit and caboodle of plaster chunks to a dump yard on the sly. Coppini’s inquiries as to what happened to his treasure trove of sculptures were completely ignored. UT never responded from the early 1920’s through Coppini’s death in 1957. The Victims heroic is the only piece that received media coverage between 1904 and 1919.
• Destroyed – Coppini said, more than once, that he felt the statuary had been destroyed. He had suffered through poor relations with UT architect Paul Cret during the installation of the Littlefield Fountain and related statues on the UT campus. Cret summarily removed four statues from the fountain to install at various other locations on campus without asking Coppini permission. J. Frank Dobie was a harsh critic of Coppini, not for his work but for his being an immigrant (in my opinion). This is born out in a 1986 Texas Monthly article of substance by Steven Harrigan. There was another extremely bizarre occurrence at the San Antonio International Fair of 1904. The Victims heroic vanished from a loading dock upon arrival. A search lasting two weeks found the statue in its crate marked “fruit” in a cold storage warehouse.
• Stolen – I only consider this an option given that according to correspondence in the Coppini-Tauch Papers at the Briscoe Center at UT someone seems to have been “out to get Coppini”. We have no proof. However, it is impossible to square all 24 pieces disappearing. One could understand a few pieces being broken up but not the entire statuary. Also, the inhumane way in which UT stonewalled Coppini smacks of guilt.
• Given Away – Total conjecture. However, UT did have a history of giving items to benefactors as souvenirs.
Ralph Elder, the professional proxy researcher who had been an archivist for the Briscoe Center for American History for 25 years worked with me to research all things Coppini in their Coppini-Tauch Collection. He also poured over communications from the UT regents, UT presidents, department heads and more. After two years of work, we never found a smoking gun.
I was able to twist UT’s arm to do a search of their facilities, both on campus and at the cavernous Pickle Research Center in late 2016 and early 2017. Result – they found nothing whatsoever. I have their official letter on file stating that the effort had produced naught.
The entire odyssey surrounding the Victims heroic, including how this project came to me, is both little mind boggling and fascinating.
Hence, we are on to Plan B which intends to fine a benefactor and/or foundation to finance the re-creation of the original statue, from photos, in bronze at its original height of 10 feet tall. The statue will be donated to the City of Galveston.