Gypsies

The trouble with common knowledge is that it tends to be so common that people forget to write it down, thus, it gets left out of the historical record.  Take Gypsies, for example.  Supposedly, bands of Gypsies were a regular sight in Little Falls.  One wouldn’t know that from reading past issues of the Little Falls Daily Transcript (LFDT), however.  In scanning numerous issues of the newspaper between 1899 and the 1930s, I discovered that articles about Gypsies in the city are rare.

Of those infrequent articles, a bonanza of two was found in the Transcript on May 27, 1910.  One headline read Fortune Tellers Become Too Bold:  Fair Members of Swarthy Band Said to Have Relieved Bachelor of His Money, while the other stated, Wanted to Sell Her Little Girl:  Gypsies Offer Six-Year-Old Girl for Sale at Buyers’ Own Price.

After a long dearth of local Gypsy stories, a few more were found in the newspaper in the early 1920s.  In August 1922, “a local man was separated from $8.00 by the band of gypsies who went through [Little Falls] in five automobiles.”  (LFDT, Aug. 26, 1922)  The following year, there were several articles about Gypsies moving south through the state, some heading to the American Legion convention being held in Faribault, Minnesota.  The police were at the ready.  On August 2, 1923, “the police spent two busy hours . . . rounding up four automobile loads of gypsies, who came into the city from the direction of Brainerd, and getting them out of town.”  (LFDT, Aug. 3, 1923)  Citizens were told, “Anyone seeing gypsy bands in the vicinity of Little Falls is urged to notify the police department at once so steps can immediately be taken to keep them moving.”  (LFDT, Aug. 4, 1923)  That year’s newspaper also saw a couple of general articles on Gypsy culture, including one on the Wild Knife Dance and one on Gypsy dances performed in Granada. (LFDT, Aug. 18, 1923 & LFDT, Sept. 14, 1923)

The 1930 newspapers contained Gypsy-related articles, but they weren’t local stories.  The headlines read, Gypped by Gypsies in Syracuse, New York, Gypsy Queen Was Crafty Smuggler in Barcelona, Spain, and Gypsies, Camped At Brainerd, Sent On. (LFDT, July 7, 1930, July 24, 1930, Aug. 5, 1930)

While my search through the newspapers wasn’t exhaustive by any means, I did expect to find more on Gypsies.  The fact that I didn’t led to several questions.  For what period of time were they known to visit the city?  How long did they stay?  How often did they visit?  Were there any positive stories about Gypsies, or were only negative interactions reported?  Who were the Gypsies?

A vague definition of Gypsies as traveling people was what I had to work with until I went online.  Most of us also carry an image of a Gypsy woman as wearing a long, colorful skirt and shaking a tambourine or telling a fortune.  While these notions have some basis in fact, the truth about Gypsies is deeper.  As a distinct ethnic group, they are thought to have originated in India, migrating to Europe and North Africa just over 1,000 years ago.  As they migrated, others joined the community, leading to a blending of cultures and a diversification of the ethnicity.  Gypsies primarily made their way to the United States during a massive wave of European immigration in the 1880s.  (1)

The term “Gypsy” is a misnomer, arising from the mistaken assumption that Gypsies originated in Egypt. (2)  Gypsies call themselves Rom or Romany, or by their tribal names, which are based upon particular geographical regions, cultural practices, and dialects.  Many Roma (plural of Rom) are, in fact, offended by the term “Gypsy.”

It was the distinctive language of the Roma that allowed scholars to trace them back to India.  No one is sure what caused the original migration of the Roma out of India, although persecution or political upheaval is suspected.  Since that time, the Roma, due to their ethnicity, continued to be persecuted.  This was one of the primary factors leading to their nomadic existence.  For five hundred years, Roma were enslaved in Romania.  They were singled out for their race and interred in concentration camps during the Holocaust, which led to the extermination of an estimated 500,000 to 1.5 million Roma.  (2)(3)  Discrimination of the Roma is ongoing and persists to this day, especially in Europe.

Part of this discrimination involves the stereotypes attached to the Roma population.  Non-Roma people tend to either despise or overly romanticize the Roma.  The Roma have a reputation for being physically dirty, and are thought to be thieves and con artists.  The overly-romanticized version is that of the free-spirited, musically inclined, mysterious fortune teller.  Because of their traveling tradition and relative secrecy, dispelling these notions as the caricatures they are can be difficult. (4)

Looking back at the newspaper articles, it’s readily apparent that the negative aspects of the Roma life were reinforced.  Obviously, some of the Roma stole or conned local people out of money, sometimes using fortune telling as their ruse.  According to the article, Fortune Tellers Become Too Bold, “The members of the swarthy band made a practice of stopping people who passed along the road and insisting upon telling their fortunes.  One old gentleman, who was a bachelor, by the way, was accosted by two of the fairer members of the band, who so confused the man while endeavoring to convince him that he should have his fortune told that they relieved him of $6, which he carried in a pocket book.”  The article goes on to say, “Residents near the brickyards have reported that they have been troubled by the gypsies, who have begged from house to house and stolen that which they could not gain by begging.”  (LFDT, May 27, 1910)

As Roma groups came into Little Falls, they were quickly ushered out by the police, which kept them nomadic.  It would be difficult to get to know the Roma on a personal level, given the circumstances, yet the Roma preferred this secrecy.  Their culture has a strong foundation of purity laws.  Those not Roma are considered impure, so the Roma wanted to keep their interactions with others brief and superficial.  Incidentally, the long skirts favored by Roma women are also an outgrowth of purity laws.  The Roma believe that the lower half of a woman’s body is impure and needs to be fully covered.  (5)

Because of the constant movement of the Roma, either of their own accord or through forced removal, making a living couldn’t have been easy.  Begging and stealing, as seen in the aforementioned local articles, were survival mechanisms.  Of course, these behaviors made settling down even more difficult.  Contrary to popular belief, the Roma did have means of gainful employment.  Their favored occupations were music (hence the tambourine and dancing), metal work, animal training, peddling, and fortune telling. (6)  Interestingly enough, the Roma did not tell fortunes for each other, only for outsiders for money, and it was women’s work. (6)

The history of the Roma is complex and, while they definitely had a glancing relationship to Little Falls and Morrison County, the documentation of their time here seems to have been chased out along with them.

By Mary Warner
Copyright 2007, Morrison County Historical Society

Sources:

(1) Gypsy Lore – Rom History, Fortune Telling, Holocaust, http:///www.gypsyadvice.com/gypsy_lore.htm, website accessed December 22, 2006.

(2) The Patrin Web Journal – A Brief History of the Roma (Gypsies), http://www.geocities.com/~Patrin/history.htm, website accessed December 22, 2006.

(3) Roma people, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roma_people, website accessed December 22, 2006.

(4) The Patrin Web Journal – Popular Myths, http://www.geocities.com/~Patrin/myths.htm, website accessed December 22, 2006.

(5) The Patrin Web Journal – Romani (Gypsy) Beliefs, http://www.geocities.com/Paris/5121/beliefs.htm, website accessed December 22, 2006.

(6) The Patrin Web Journal – Traditional Occupations, http://www.geocities.com/~Patrin/occupations.htm, website accessed December 22, 2006.

Program cover for The Spanish Gypsy, a play performed by the Senior Class of Little Falls High School on May 2, 1912, at the Milo Theater in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Program cover for "The Spanish Gypsy," a play performed by the Senior Class of Little Falls High School on May 2, 1912, at the Milo Theater in Little Falls, Minnesota.

Cast of The Spanish Gypsy

Don Silva – Commander of Bedmar …..Ray Matteson
Sarca – Chief of the Gypsies …..Chester Longley
Lord of Auilar – Uncle of Don Silva …..Joseph Diedrich
Father Isidor – Prior of San Domingo …..Ivan Kay
Juan – A poet …..Frank Hall
Don Alva – Friend of Don Silva …..Samuel Melby
Captain Lopez – A Spanish officer …..Howard Clarke
Sephardo – An astrologer …..Fred M. Richie
Roldan – A juggler …..Erwin Dunphy
Blasco – A guest of the Inn …..Howard Ferrell
Lorenzo – Host of the Inn …..Victor Brannen
Gypsy Soldiers
Hassan …..Edward Fearing
Nadar …..Otto Brick
Ismael …..Stephen Simonet
Fedalma – Betrothed to Don Silva …..Rosebud Fortier
Inez – Fedalma’s nurse …..Lucile Butler
Pepita – Wife of Roldan …..Rose Bourassa
Gypsy Girls
Hinda …..Florence Schallern
Hinta …..Regina Burton
Tralla …..Katherine Chance
Spaniards, Moors, Gypsies, Soldiers, Etc.
Accompanist …..Hazel Tourtillotte

———-

Class Play a Success – “The Spanish Gypsy” Presented to a Packed House Thursday Night at Milo

The senior class play, “The Spanish Gypsy,” presented at the Milo theater Thursday night was well given and showed the result of much practice.  In spite of the threatening weather, the rise of the curtain found the house packed.

The play is taken from George Eliot’s book, “The Spanish Gypsy,” and the scene is laid in Spain in the latter part of the fifteenth century during the war between Spain and the Moorish tribes.  The costumes were unique and pretty.

The play is in five acts and the scene passes from the town of Bedmar in Spain to the encampment of the Gypsy tribe in the mountains and the astrologer Sephardon’s tower.

The part of Fedalma, betrothed to Don Silva, was well taken by Miss Rosebud Fortier.  She was loved by Don Silva when thought to be a member of the despised tribe and was followed to the stronghold of her tribe by him but it developed that she was the daughter of a Spanish nobleman and had been placed in the hands of the Gypsies by the astrologer Sephardo, who sought to avert the fate of Don Silva as he read it in the stars.

The part of Don Silva taken by Ray Matteson and the part of Zarca, chief of the Gypsies, taken by Chester Longley, were well played.  Ivan Kay as Father Isador, prior of San Domingo; Frank Hall as Juan, the poet, and Fred M. Richie as Sephardo, the astrologer, are deserving of praise.

Rose Bourassa as Pepita made a hit with her singing and the dancing of the Gypsy girls was especially good.

Miss Hazel Tourtillotte played some pleasing selections on the piano between acts and also played for the songs and dances.

Miss Alice M. Lancaster, who had charge of the play, deserves great praise for its success.

Source: Little Falls Daily Transcript – May 3, 1912

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