“It Grew Epidemic” 1895

Port Isabel in the News: Podcast Episode #1

The Curious Mania Which Swept Over a Texas Town.

Sane People Organized to Subdue the Craze Created by a Demented Preacher Who Did Strange Things.

Wichita Daily Eagle [Wichita, Kan.], March 29, 1895

“You will doubtless feel incredulous when I tell you that a Texas town was once afflicted with an epidemic of insanity.” The speaker’s remarks were addressed to a reporter for the Dallas News. “it was early in the ‘70s, in the beautiful little town of Point Isabel. I resided there at the time, and I know, of course, whereof I speak. Among the four hundred inhabitants of the ‘Point,’ as we call it, was a Montenegran named Speero, who went insane over religion. Speero insisted that the second coming of Christ was at hand, and that the event would be heralded by the appearance at daybreak of a white deer on a little hill near the cemetery. Speero, like so many of his countrymen, was a jack at all trades. He could shoe a horse, build a boat, make a suit of clothing, cobble old shoes and shingle a roof. Thus useful his humble residence became a sort of rendezvous, and when it became known that he claimed prophetic powers all his acquaintances flocked around him. He told about ‘Jesus and the bees,’ and several other parables which, though not related in the Bible, enter strongly into the religious tradition of the people of eastern lands. Several of the more constant visitors who first pitied the condition of Speero gradually began to believe that he was inspired and finally embraced his doctrines, some of which were not strictly orthodox. An Italian, who was a prosperous grocer, closed up his store, paid all his debts and insisted on giving all his goods to the poor. A Spaniard named Camisa lost his head and commenced preaching hurricane sermons from the housetops. Others became similarly afflicted and twenty or thirty began to show premonitions of the prevailing epidemic, which consisted in looking for the white deer, walking the streets in a gloomy mood and flying into a passion when anybody denied or doubted that Speero was a prophet. In time the people of sound mind became alarmed and forbade their children to approach Speero’s sanctuary.

“A climax was finally reached. Speero had a vision that he must take his six-month-old baby and baptize it in the river Jordan. Mrs. Speero, whose mind had not given way, objected. Speero insisted in proceeding according to the revelation and Mrs. Speero yelled and alarmed the neighborhood. Speero and one of his insane companions slipped the baby into an oyster skiff, pushed the frail craft out into the Laguna Madre, set their leg-of-mutton sail and squared away for the Holy Land. A party of rescuers was made up. They started in a lighter belonging to the Rio Grande Railway company and overhauled Speero’s boat as it was approaching the bar on which the sea was breaking. They overpowered Speero and his companion and brought them and the baby back to Point Isabel, where Mrs. Speero was found walking up and down the beach tearing her hair and crying about her baby. The sane men of Point Isabel now took immediate action. They repaired to the custom house and organized. An old politician who wrote obituary notices when prominent citizens died offered a set of resolutions designed to end the craze. Then the meeting adjourned to round up the insane and corral them in a box car. Speero was the first run in and then the trouble commenced. Camisa, on learning that the prophet was a prisoner, armed himself with a butcher knife and started to carve the crowd, but Constable John Whittaker succeeded in arresting, disarming and binding him. There was no trouble in managing the others. Several of the unfortunates were sent to a lunatic asylum, but Cameron county was hot with Speero for being the originator of all the trouble, and he was sentenced to the penitentiary at Huntsville on the charge of assault with intent to murder, to which he pleaded that he was a prophet sent to announce the second coming of the Master. The attention of the Australian consul having been called to his case, that the authority investigated it, had Speero released and sent home to Montenegro. The action of the citizens broke the backbone of the epidemic and Point Isabel has since been free from afflictions of every sort save an occasional gulf hurricane.”