A Visit by the Gypsies

A Visit by the Gypsies


(Early 20th Century in rural Alabama)


By Elton Camp


            About once a year a small band of Gypsies visited Marshall County.  They arrived in three colorful wagons pulled by horses.  One of Milas’ neighbors, Bill Self, always permitted them to set up free in his pasture.  Their presence caused a wave of excitement to spread throughout the community.


            “Th’ Gypsies ez here ’gain,” a woman called out to a neighbor who was passing by on foot.  “Bill’s put them up this yeer too.  I sorta wish he wouldn’t do thet.  They scare me.” 


            The wagons were brightly painted with intricate designs.  A single door opened from the back of each. The sides featured windows with curtains.  The space within was divided into two areas.  One was for cooking.  The kitchen end had a stove with a metal chimney that extended upward through the roof in addition to a closet, storage chests, pots, pans, and dishes.  The other portion of the wagon served for sleeping quarters.  Numerous items hung on nails or pegs on the walls.            


            The Gypsy women did most of the work and were the main generators of income.  They make baskets, prepared remedies from herbs, and told fortunes.  Cooking and cleaning also fell to them. 


            Two of the older women actually spoke a dialect of Romany in addition to English.  They had no success when they attempted to pass the language to their descendants. 


      “Granny, that’s old stuff.  Nobody needs to know that anymore,” one of the children countered when the matriarch attempted to instruct her in Romany. 


            “They’s heer t’ steal chillen,” Mrs. Barnette avowed.  “Y’u best keep yore boys ’n partic’lar locked up ’till they leave.” 


            That belief was one of the many stereotypes country people held about the Roma.  It was based on stories from unspecified places where children had supposedly mysteriously disappeared following departure of the travelers.  It was firmly held to be true, but nobody could supply specifics.  The parental threat, “I’ll give y’u t’ th’ Gypsies,” usually was scary enough to bring a naughty child into compliance. 


            The day after their arrival, two of the women began to visit homes.  They took with them a girl about two years old.  The presence of the child lessened fear of speaking to them.  Their objective was to obtain money or items of value.  Traditional Southern hospitality combined with a superstitious dread of a “Gypsy curse” caused most people to open their doors to them. 


            “Do you have anything you can give us?” they asked Mrs. Heaton. 


   The woman, a widow, had little to share, but recalled Jesus’ advice to give to the poor.  Perhaps He’d want her to help them.  If she turned them away, they might put a hex on her.  She’d heard of that being done. 


            “Come ’n ’n’ I’ll see whut I kin find t’ spare,” she replied. 


            She presented the women with some potatoes and onions.  To the child, she gave a piece of peppermint candy left from Christmas. 


            “We are poor and have no money to pay for these fine things, but I want to do something for you,” the older Gypsy woman offered.  “I will tell you about your life and what the future holds.” 


      Superstitious people generally believed that Gypsies had magical powers to tell fortunes.  The crone, with colorful scarves and dangling earrings, had deliberately dressed to fit the part. She had a mysterious look in her eyes.         


            “Let me look at your hand,” she requested in a tone that allowed for no refusal.  Mrs. Heaton extended her shaking hand, palm up.  She was curious to know what the woman could tell her, but was apprehensive that the report might reveal some horror. 


            The Gypsy traced four lines on her palm and described the nature of each.  “This is the heart line, this the head line, here’s the life line, and finally we see the fate line.” 


            The woman went on to speak in generalities about present and future matters.  She adapted her statements to what she could see about Mrs. Heaton and her surroundings, especially family pictures. 


            “Your children sometimes disappoint you, but you love them.  I see that you’ll be coming into a small amount of money.  Yet you’ll have problems in your life.  Sickness will come your way, but you’ll recover.  Something unexpected will happen and you must decide what to do.”


            The Gypsy watched her reaction and continued with general statements that could apply to almost any person on earth. 


      “Sometimes you are friendly and like to be around people, but at other times you like to be left alone.  You have learned it can be best not to let others know what you think.  You have things you fall short in, but you can usually make up for it.  You want other people to like you and think well of you.”


            Mrs. Heaton took the generalities and applied them to aspects of her life, specific events that had already happened, or things that took place in the months ahead.  She became astonished how much the Gypsy woman had been able to tell her about herself and the future.  Her testimony encouraged other women to listen to the fortuneteller when she came to their houses. 


            “If you truly appreciate knowing these things, you should reward me in some way.  Perhaps a little money?” the woman coaxed.  Soon she was on her way with a few jingling coins in her pocket. 


            “I delcare, they purt ner knew everythin’ ’bout me,” Mrs. Heaton confided to a neighbor that afternoon.  “Hit was jest shockin’, like she could see rite inside me.”


            A few of the Roma weren’t above outright stealing.  Milas entered Poe’s Country Store at the crossing near the school to find the proprietor standing behind the counter with a blank stare on his face.  An older Gypsy woman stood beside him, opening the drawer where he kept his cash. 


            “Whut air y’u doin’?  Git out o’ heer rite now,” he ordered. 


            She spit out a sentence in Romany and began to stare into his eyes and point the fingers of both hands in his direction. 


            “Y’u can’t hypnotize me like y’u done him.  Now git away from thar.  Keep yore hand out o’ th’ cash drawer.” 


            The woman slowly backed away empty-handed, all the time muttering under her breath in frustration at his interference.  As she dashed for the door, her bracelets and earrings jangled.  Her long skit swept the floor and knocked over a display of soap powder.   Even after she was gone, the unpleasant scent of her perfume lingered.  The business owner, left in a state of hypnosis, didn’t feel normal for several days.  He recalled little about the incident. 


            Milas reported the incident to the sheriff who cut short the visit of the band.  “Don’t b’ comin’ back heer enny more,” he ordered the group’s leader.  “Unless y’u want t’ b’ put ’n jail.” 

            It was an empty threat since the victim was unable to testify against them, but it had the desired result.  The caravan continued its travels, but only far enough to be out of the jurisdiction of the Marshall County sheriff.  It would return the following year despite the warning.  The sheriff, a bit leery of their power, would take no action unless another incident arose. 


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A band of Gypsies made an annual visit.
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