Victims of Galveston

Pompeo Coppini's Famous Missing Statue Inspired a Local Artist to Create his own Interpretation of it for the Community

By Kathleen Maca
Victims of Galveston 

Part 1: The Mystery of Coppini’s Famous Statue

In October 1900 just a month after the Great Storm, newspaperman William Randolph Hearst organized a benefit for the Galveston orphans to be held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Artists and sculptors were invited to submit artwork to be auctioned during the benefit, and renowned sculptor Pompeo Luigi Coppini donated a small maquette of a design he titled the “Victims of the Galveston Flood.”

The high bid for his piece brought him to the attention of Texas society, and within a year the sculptor moved to San Antonio to pursue commissions. When the opportunity to create a sculpture for the St. Louis World’s Fair Palace of Fine Arts presented itself, Coppini’s heart was drawn back to the “Victims” design that had been so popular three years earlier.

After initial sketches that outlined a distraught mother with her children draped across her lap, he created a lifesize plaster of a nude mother and children portraying the victims as having their clothing ripped away by the force of the storm, much as many had been in reality.

His third incarnation was a realistic, 11-foot-tall plaster portrayal of a female survivor holding her deceased infant and standing with a little girl whose arms wrapped around the woman’s waist, head pressed against her mother. The group stood upon a precarious mound of debris from which a lone arm reached up in a last grasp toward rescue.

The artist held an open exhibition of the piece in his small San Antonio studio in early 1904, and more than one thousand people passed through the doors. The solemn crowd included art lovers, storm survivors, and others who had lost friends and loved ones in the tragedy, and many became tearful at the sight of the statue.

Once the visitors returned home, Coppini sat on the steps of his studio and wept, overcome with emotion at the response.

Victims of Galveston

“Victims” was shipped to St. Louis for the fair in 1904. Unfortunately, the statue was misplaced when it arrived on the dock. It was discovered in cold storage labeled as “fruit” two weeks later but had missed the deadline for display in the Palace of Fine Arts competition.

Fair organizers made the decision to display the piece in the less prestigious Texas State Building, especially disheartening since Coppini was hopeful that recognition of the work during the fair might result in a commission of a bronze version by Galveston leaders.

Providing further disappointment, Galvestonians thought that the portrayal was “too painful” to display in their city so soon after the tragedy and declined to fund its casting.

The emotional figures returned to Coppini’s San Antonio studio after the World’s Fair, where they remained for ten years. During those years, the artist created numerous art pieces still admired around Texas, including work for Major George Littlefield who was involved with the University of Texas. When the artist decided to move his studio to Chicago, he offered to donate 24 of his works, including “Victims,” to the university rather than moving them across the country.

Despite not having a building in which to exhibit the pieces, university officials accepted the gift with a promise to put them on display. They arrived on campus in May 1914.The crated statues were stored in the chemistry building in a storeroom beneath a lecture hall before being stored in basement corridors in the east end of Old Main, now the site of the UT Tower.

Students from the Longhorn Magazine found the crates there in 1918 and published an article demanding that they be displayed as was originally promised, stating, “He has given the University a princely gift. It must be admitted that we accorded it but a beggarly reception.”

The statues were finally exhibited for five days in the education building, now known as Sutton Hall, during the Christmas season of 1919.

The plaster statues included busts of Jefferson Davis, A. S. Johnston, General T. J. Jackson, and Robert E. Lee, executed for the Confederate monument in Paris, Texas. Also included were the studies for busts of Mark Hamburg the Russian pianist; Lieutenant Richard Hobson; former Mayor A. P. Wooldridge of Austin; Major G. W. Littlefield and Mrs. Rebecca Fisher. Among the bas-reliefs were the central figure of General Sam Houston and the accompanying allegorical figures of History and Victory used for the Sam Houston Memorial at Huntsville and “The Falling Trees” of the Falkenburg Monument in Denver, Colorado. Also displayed were studio pieces titled “Woman with Parasol” and “The American Boy,” depicting Norvel Welsh Jr.The two grandest examples were displayed on the ground floor of the building: the brave “Texas Pioneer” which served as the plaster cast for the bronze that tops the Independence Monument at Gonzales, and the “Victims of the Galveston Flood.”

The only documentation of the display is a story in the 1920 UT Cactus yearbook, which states that there were “several colossal figures in the basement which were too badly broken to set up.” The brief exhibit was the last time “Victims” was seen, seemingly vanishing without a trace.

That year Coppini was planning the Littlefield Fountain that would be dedicated at UT ten years later after numerous battles with the university concerning costs and redesigns affecting his vision. It was offense added to the loss of his statuaries, which enraged the artist. He occasionally even referred to the pieces as having been “destroyed,” suggesting vile actions by university representatives.

No mention was made in university publications about the statuary until 1928, when ten of the portrait busts were found on the third floor of Old Main. From then the trail runs cold.

Artist Waldine Tauch, Coppini’s protégé, wrote a letter to the president of the university in 1943 asking if he had located “Victims.” He responded that he had not but promised to conduct a search soon. It was the last communication from him on the matter. Coppini also conducted searches for the statuary, repeatedly contacting the university with no response.

His 1949 autobiography From Dawn to Sunset mentions his distress about the disappearances multiple times complaining, “No one has been able to this day to give me information as to their whereabouts.” The loss of “Victims of the Galveston Flood” was particularly upsetting. “Who could have been so naïve as to plan its destruction? Will I ever forget such a crime?”

Coppini died in 1957 without ever learning the fate of his missing works. Since his death, more than 80 individuals and institutions have been involved in the attempt to solve the mystery, but no definitive answers have been found.

The best-case scenario is that they are stored unnoticed but safe, in an unsearched storage section of a building on the UT campus, but theories abound. They include the possibility that the statues may have been destroyed in a fire in the chemistry building in 1927. If university administrators were aware that the pieces were involved in the losses, they declined to admit it to Coppini.

When Old Main (where the artwork was last displayed) was torn down in the 1930s, its bricks were stored in a nearby World War II era magnesium plant. Perhaps the statues were shipped to the same location. That plant is now the J. J. Pickle Research Center.

Another likelihood is that the plaster sculptures were carelessly damaged or broken during moves around the campus or maybe they are unwittingly dispersed across the state, sitting in someone’s backyard. For now, the final fate or current location of “Victims of the Galveston Flood” remains unknown.

Mattie GallagherPart 2: Coppini’s Muse
Many of the most beautiful works of art have been created with the help of muses, and “Victims of Galveston” was no exception. The vision for the beautiful woman in this work did not come from Coppini’s imagination, but from the appearance of an 18-year-old model named Martha Mathilda “Mattie” Gallagher. Her eight year old sister Bess posed for the portrayal of a terrified girl clinging to her mother’s legs, and their niece Fern served as inspiration for the drowned baby cradled in Mattie’s arms.

Austin antique and art dealer James Powell is the great nephew of Mattie and Bess, and knew them well. His grandmother Estelle Powell, who was a sister to the two models, even studied with Coppini.

Powell vividly remembers his Aunt Bess reminiscing with him about how meticulously her mother had sewn the seams and tucks at the bottom of the chemise she wore while modeling for Coppini, wanting them to be perfect for the artist. It is a detail that always draws his eye when he sees photos of the sculpture.

In addition to her beauty, Mattie was a talented singer. Powell says, “She studied music in New York, and she had the same voice coach as Caruso. I’m told that when she walked down the streets of New York, people would turn around and look.” At one point she even co-wrote and copyrighted a song with her brother Jules.

Mattie lived past the age of 100, and left behind a legacy of beauty, talent, and an extraordinary personality.

Mattie GallagherCoppini published an autobiography titled From Dawn to Sunset which included details about his works.

“I actually have the book which he inscribed to [Mattie] with a lovely inscription in the front. On the page where it shows the lost statue and says what year it was created, she crossed the year out and made it 10 years later,” Powell laughs. “At that time women were a bit more phobic about having their true ages revealed.”

Reading from the autobiography, Powell proudly shares a quote from Coppini. “In Austin I was often royally entertained by many friends, and by friends of my friends. But I must not fail to mention the Louis Reuter couple, as Mrs. Reuter posed for my group of the ‘Victims of the Galveston Flood’ when a girl... She was a daughter of the large Gallagher family, all beautiful and very talented children of a talented father who had written many worthy poems.”

Coppini continued, “Mattie however had the most beautiful, perfect and dramatic features I ever saw along with an extraordinary talent for music and singing. My wife and I were extremely fond of her, and I was invited to spend a weekend at their new home in Rosedale Terrace. I had not seen her for many years but she was still beautiful as a matron and very happily married.”

Powell has a photograph of Coppini standing in the courtyard of her home during this visit, enjoying the view. A bust of Mattie created seven years after “Victims” appears in the background of photos of Coppini’s San Antonio studios.

Mattie’s home on Rosedale Terrace in Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood is now in the United States Register of Historic Places. At the time she lived there with her husband, it was a social gathering place for the artistic community. Among her many talents was writing poetry like her father, so it is appropriate that the home was the birthplace of the Austin Poetry Society.

“My aunt’s house, which used to be on a big piece of land, is one of the most beautiful houses in Austin,” muses Powell. “It’s a little Italianate villa with an incomparable view.”

Powell holds out hope that the missing “Victims of the Galveston Storm” his relatives posed for will some day be found, although he suspects there may have been some malice involved with the disappearance of the Coppini statues from the University of Texas campus.

“I’ve been fascinated and mystified by the work’s disappearance for 55 years. I’ve been asking people about it at every opportunity.”

Powell remembers his grandmother Estelle, also a friend of Coppini’s, telling him that Galveston’s leaders chose not to pay to create a bronze version of the sculpture. “She said she was told it was too painful a reminder, too realistic,” he remarks.

Even more painful now is the loss of such a groundbreaking work by a master sculptor.

Placeholder imagePart 3: Turning “victims” into “Hope” The lost 1904 statue of “Victims of the Galveston Storm” by Pompeo Coppini has inspired a local artist to create his own interpretation of the sculpture for the community. Local blacksmith and sculptor Doug McLean has worked on many projects across the Island, including the Elissa, the Virgin Mary atop St. Mary’s church, and multiple historic properties.

“I’m working on Colonel Bubbie’s iron work right now, which is a big job. Galveston has the third largest collection of contiguous cast iron-front buildings in the nation, and I’ve done a lot of major restorations with those.”

McLean first heard about the Coppini statue in 2006 from David Canwright when they were on the Elissa crew together. “He actually spent a lot of time searching the warehouses at University of Texas looking for the sculpture.” Years later when the artist was creating a commissioned work for J. P. Bryan, Bryan showed McLean a photograph of the statue. “The original composition was just so strong, I was hooked. That was three and a half years ago,” Doug says.

“I’ve been working on the project for two and a half years off and on, between work projects and health issues. I went to school for sculpture and have had traditional training, but that was over 40 years ago. I fell back in love with sculpting about six years ago.”

Working from the two existing photographs of the original statue, his original goal was to create his own version of a bust of the woman’s head and shoulders rather than the full figure. “When I completed that, I was so taken by the passion in her face that I decided to finish the rest,” he explains, adding that he was impressed by the figure’s obvious determination.

“She’s looking at her next step, the placement of her footstep. To me that has so much meaning because it reflects to horror of going through anything traumatic…just focusing on your next step.” In his 31st Street studio McLean approaches each aspect of the figures with care. While spending a week with his threeyear old grandson recently, he paid special attention to the youngster’s features so he could incorporate realistic details like the appearance of children’s feet into his work.

“I was so frustrated by the baby’s face that I had to start over. I couldn’t sculpt it as a dead child, which is what the intention of the original was. I wanted to make her look peaceful,” says McLean. “The original was a plaster study, so it’s very hard from the photographs to tell how it would have looked translated into bronze,” the artist muses. “Several people have asked about the iron beam (at the figure’s feet), wondering if there were iron beams during that time period. I’ve restored about fifteen historic structures, and many of them had these type of beams back to the 1870s.”

An armature pole currently supports the structure but will not appear in the final bronze casting, and a tentative touch of the material being used to create the nine-foot tall sculpture reveals that it is not natural clay.

“It’s plasticine,” McLean explains, “which is oil wax clay which doesn’t harden like clay does.” The artist used actual cloth for the clothing on the figures, painstakingly embedding it with the plasticine. Though the material is not as temperamental as natural clay, McLean must roll the large piece into his air-conditioned office at night to cool it down and keep it from hardening too quickly.

After about 1,600 hours of work on the project, the artist is still moved by the subject matter. “I’d be working on it and look up at it and get very emotional,” he says. “It’s the first full figure I’ve ever done.”

McLean expresses concern about the piece remaining in his Island studio through the hurricane season, knowing the unpredictability of local weather. He hopes that after about 60 more hours of work, that the statue will be able to complete its journey to becoming a bronze. Former Mayor Jim Yarborough approached the artist, offering a permanent location to display the work in a new city park at 823 25th Street currently under development. The park, which is planned to open by December, will take the place of a demolished annex building behind city hall. It will take the support of the community to realize the vision, however. McLean and the city estimate that $175,000 must be raised to finish the molding and casting and complete the installation and landscaping. “It’s a challenge,” he admits. The casting, which will be handled by the Omega Bronze foundry in Smithville, will take four months to achieve from start to finish. “I’m worried about moving it,” shares McLean, “so they’re going to create the mold here on the Island, and then do the casting in Smithville.”

Although the project is looking for major donors from foundations and large families, any amount is welcome. It is an opportunity to personally connect with the history of the Island and the “Hope” for a bright future. McLean attests, “It would be a gift to Galveston from everyone who donates.” For more information about donating to or becoming involved with the project visit

The Funding Campaign for the sculpture has commenced assuring that Doug’s clay study can be cast in bronze at a Texas foundry and be installed in Galveston within the 120th Anniversary year of the Great Storm. A GoFundMe account has also been set up for those who want to contribute to this important project. To contribute visit