In 1904, Baltimore was buzzing with scandal – Jessie Key Habersham had disappeared again. This was not the first time that Habersham, the daughter of a Baltimore canned goods broker, had gone missing. The young debutante had once escaped to Europe for several months with family friends, before her father convinced her to return home. But she had never given her family too much cause for worry, always returning home eventually. This time, however, Habersham left behind no trace, and her family was left to worry and wonder for two long years.
Finally, a letter arrived at her childhood home addressed to her father, Alexander Wylly Habersham. The Baltimore belle informed her father that she had run away with a clan of Gypsies. She explained that she had grown weary of society life and longed for the excitement and adventure that her former life of debutante balls and fine mansions could not provide her.(1)
Habersham did not simply join the band of Gypsies, she became “Queen” and matriarch when King Jorgas Michele, the clan’s chief, took her as his wife.(2) She informed her father that she had fallen in love, and would now spend her life traveling the United States as part of King Jorgas’ caravan of nomads. In a letter to her father, she wrote that, “Where lies most peace in choice between/ A queen of fashion or a Gypsy queen.” Habersham spent over six years wandering the states with her new family.
She had become enamored with the Gypsies’ nomadic lifestyle after a chance encounter with a caravan one day after school. The capricious youth and some friends from her private school in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. decided to go for a stroll when they came upon a nearby Gypsy encampment. The Gypsy women invited them into the camp and dazzled the girls with tales of their travels. Habersham made many more visits to the camp, befriending its inhabitants, until her teachers banned her from returning, worrying about the effect of the Gypsies’ stories on her impressionable mind. They were also concerned with possibility of kidnapping, which the Gypsies often found themselves accused of. The intervention, however, came too late. The group moved on, but Habersham would not soon forget the time spent in their company.
Her fate to enter a life of wandering was sealed on her return voyage from Europe, a year or so prior to her departure. According to an April 5, 1910 Baltimore Sun article, Habersham met a “Hindu,” on the ship who taught her fortune-telling techniques and “interested her in the occult.”
When she joined King Jorgas’s clan, she used these new premonitory skills on the road, predicting the future for paying customers as the clan traveled across the United States. In her role as Queen, she also helped her husband organize the fairs hosted by the group in each new city, promoted the events, and ensured that all of the proper permits were secured. Among the Gypsies, the young woman stood out – in a letter to her father she recounted that “The white-faced society women [came] to her to have their fortunes told and wonder at her pale skin and beauty.”
Habersham seemed to find the life she was hoping for among the Gypsies. She wrote in her diary that there “is more love and truth beneath the canvas of a Romany tent than in any mansion. There is no sham and no hypocrisy here. I love my husband and he loves me. If our very tents are taken from us, we could live under God’s generous skies and we would be happy.” Her words paint a romantic picture of the Romany people’s world. However, life in Maryland for the wandering people was far from easy. They often faced discrimination and persecution when their travels brought them back to the state.
The first accounts of Gypsies in America date back as far as 1580. Before the boom in the African slave trade, they were sent along with other criminals to work the tobacco plantations in the Maryland and Virginia colonies. In lieu of execution, local sheriffs in England, Scotland, and Ireland would round up those convicted of offenses – ranging from vagrancy and petty theft to murder – and send them across the ocean. Queen Elizabeth I passed several anti-vagrancy acts in the late 1500s to quell a rising tide of wanderers, migrants, and beggars. Many Gypsies and other nomads, such as migrant workers, found themselves in violation of these laws and were subsequently impressed into labor. Several records show men and women, identified as Gypsies, embarking at such ports as Greenock, Scotland, and London and Middlesex, England.
Notorious English mischief-maker, Bampfylde-Moore Carew, was one such Gypsy criminal sent to Maryland for his misdeeds. The King of the Gypsies, as he became known, was exiled in the mid 1700s for the misdemeanor of frightening a Justice’s horse while dressed as a beggar. Carew had been initiated into the Gypsy society as a schoolboy after encountering a group of them at a tavern. He and some friends had taken shelter in the tavern to avoid the wrath of a local headmaster after chasing down a prized deer owned by a Colonel who resided nearby. The deer had ended up dying of exhaustion and several fields were destroyed during the chase. But instead of facing the music, the young men ended up partying all night with their new Gypsy friends, where “flowing cups of October, cyder, &c. went chearfully round, and merry songs and country dances crowned the jovial banquet….” The more booze the boys imbibed, the more enamored they became with their new companions – “in short, so great an air of freedom, mirth, and pleasure, appeared in the faces and gestures of the society, that our youngsters from that time conceived a sudden inclination to enlist into their company….”
Carew rose quickly through the ranks of the motley crew. His crooked prowess scammed many out of money and he gained admiration and infamy for his wily ways. He stole; he begged; he tricked; and, the Gypsies elected him king. His crimes eventually caught up with him though, and after a trial in 1739-40, he was banished to Maryland.
In the young colony, Carew remained true to his troublemaking ways. He reportedly twice escaped sale to Maryland plantation holders. On one occasion, Daniel Dulany, a prominent Maryland lawyer, intended to purchase Carew to work as a gardener, but found him lacking the necessary abilities. Instead of returning to the convict ship, Carew caused a ruckus and escaped into the forest. He traveled north with the help of a tribe of Native Americans, swam the Delaware River, and weaseled his way onto a ship returning to England. On board, he faked a case of small pox to avoid being arrested once again. He pricked his face and hands with a knife and rubbed salt and gunpowder into the wounds to affect the blisters caused by small pox. Though his time in Maryland was short, he apparently enjoyed his stay in the colony, stating that Maryland “not only affords everything which preserves and confirms Health, but also all Things that are charming.”(3)
The veracity of Carew’s tale remains a mystery. While he certainly existed, his legend most likely grew larger than his actual misdeeds, and the “Gypsies” he led may have simply been a group of vagrants, beggars, and thieves. The incorrect terminology reflected views of the Gypsy culture that are still pervasive today – to many, the Gypsies were and continue to be tricksters and low-lifes living off of ill-gotten gains.
Newspapers from the late 1800s to the mid-1950s are filled with wild accounts of Gypsies stealing the life savings of nice, old ladies and kidnapping women and children to be slaves. Headlines such as “6 Fighting Gypsies Seized,” “Gypsy Women Snatch $255 from Banks,” and “Stolen by Gypsies” were commonplace. Locations of encampments were frequently publicized to warn people of the Gypsy presence in the area. Letters to the editor and op-ed pieces attested to the evil of the Gypsies. One such article, published by the Sun on February 26, 1931, claimed that “there are many things which make Gypsies undesirable neighbors. They are generally reported to not care much for soap and water. Also they have the reputation of not knowing as much as they should know of the difference between tuum and meum (thine and mine).”
When Jessie Habersham died in a Cincinnati hospital shortly after giving birth to a daughter named Lincka in 1910, similar wild stories arose about her disappearance and family life. The nation was once again enthralled by the Gypsy Queen’s unusual life. Rumors flew about the circumstances of her marriage to King Jorgas Michele. The Oswego Times, out of New York State, ran an article claiming that she had been sold to her husbandfor $900. Her adopted family had held her “under hypnotic influence” and she was “compelled to be the slave and wife” of the Gypsy King. This account appears to be pure fiction. A. W. Habersham told reporters that his departed daughter had gone with her husband out of love, pure and simple.
Habersham is only the most famous of Maryland’s sizable Gypsy population. During the 20th century, the highest concentration of Gypsies was in Baltimore, but encampments were reported across Maryland. Caravans settled under the Hanover Street Bridge or in the neighborhood of Cherry Hill. They also stationed themselves along the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks. In 1931, the city passed an ordinance directed at the Romany that required those camped within city limits to pay a fee of $1000 for each entrance. The Federation of Labor had proposed the measure to the City Council on behalf of the local coppersmiths, who claimed that the Gypsy smiths created unfair competition. This was most likely just an excuse to pass the ordinance. The state government had earlier enacted similar anti-Gypsy laws, but the city had no such rules. According to the state law, anyone caught in violation of the anti-Gypsy law not only had to pay a fine or face jail time, but surrender all of their property, including in some cases, that of others traveling with the offender. To encourage enforcement, the arresting sheriff was awarded ten dollars if the entrance fee was paid upon arrest. These laws were challenged as unconstitutional, but they remained on the books until 1976. Gypsies continue to face discrimination into the 21st century. In 2009, a Gypsy fortuneteller, with help from the ACLU, successfully fought a Montgomery County law that prohibited making a profit from fortune telling.
Despite a history of persecution, Gypsy people continued to travel to Maryland – some even settled here permanently. They blended into the melting pot of nationalities in Baltimore City and spread across the state. In a 1978 interview, Mary Anna Halenski, a Polish immigrant to Baltimore, fondly recalled the diversity of her Fell’s Point neighborhood while growing up during the Great Depression. Among the tiny neighborhood alleys and narrow row-homes, Gypsies lived alongside African-Americans, immigrants from Germany, Poland, and Russia, and other groups. The Gypsies faded into the American landscape just as many other persecuted groups had before them. (Lara Westwood)
*Editor’s Note - In this post we adhere to the common historical usage of the terms Gypsy or Gypsies while acknowledging that the word can be considered pejorative or derogatory. There is no other term that we are aware of that adequately describes the number of different groups that have historically been referred to as “Gypsies.” The terms Roma and Romani, which today are often used in place of the term, describe only one of groups of people historically labeled as “Gypsies.”
(1)Miss Habersham’s famous pedigree only added to the scandal – she was a relative to many eminent Marylanders, including Francis Scott Key, composer of the “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Roger Brooke Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1836 to 1864, through her paternal grandmother, Jessie Steele. Habersham’s grandfather, Alexander Wylly Habersham, opened a canned goods company in 1865 in Baltimore. He attended the NavalAcademy in Annapolis and rose to the rank of lieutenant before resigning in 1860. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederacy and was imprisoned at Fort McHenry for several months. Habersham’s father, also Alexander Wylly Habersham, followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a canned goods broker.
(2)Several different spellings for the Gypsy King’s name were discovered while researching. Newspaper articles have him as Jorgas, Jorges, Georgas, among others, but Jorgas was used most commonly. Several articles used the last name Mitchell, but this also appears to be an error.
(3)From an account of Carew’s life, “The Life, Voyages, and Adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew,” compiled by Thomas Price.
Sources and Further Reading:
“As to Gypsies,” Baltimore Sun, February 26, 1931.
Callahan, Edward William. List of officers of the Navy of the United States and of the Marine Corps from 1775 to 1900; comprising a complete register of all present and former commissioned, warranted, and appointed officers of the United States Navy and of the Marine Corps, regula. New York: Haskell House, 1969. (REF V11.U7C2)
Carew, Bampfylde-Moore, and Thomas Price. The life, voyages and adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew, commonly called the King of the Beggars: being an impartial account of his life, from his leaving Tiverton School, at the age of fifteen, and entering into a society of gipsies, to his death … :. London: Printed for J. Barker ; 1785. (Rare E 162.L72)
Coldham, Peter. English convicts in colonial America 1617-1775. New Orleans: Polyanthos, 1974. (CS 61 .C63)
Dobson, David. Directory of Scots banished to the American plantations, 1650-1775. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co., 1983. (E184.S3D6)
“Federation of Labor Goes on Record Against Gypsies,” Baltimore Sun, February 26, 1931.
“Gypsy Queen Dies in Childbirth,” Oswego Daily Times, November 14, 1910.
“Gypsies Win First Tilt in Council,” Baltimore Sun, February 25, 1931.
OH 8297.028, Halenski, Mary.
Judge, Arthur. Souvenir of the 7th annual convention of the National canners’ and allied associations, Baltimore, Feb’y 2 to 7, 1914, consisting of original articles and statistical data, illustrating the practical development of the various branches of the canning industry and showing the present magnitude of the business a history of the canning industry by its prominent men. Baltimore: The Canning Trade, 1914.
“Man Challenges Ban On Fortunetelling,” Washington Post, August 17, 2009.
“Md. Gypsy Laws Repeal Supported,” Washington Post, January 29, 1976.
“Mr. Habersham Explains,” Baltimore Sun, April 13, 1910.
“Society Girl a Gypsy,” Baltimore Sun, April 5, 1910.
“‘Queen’s’ Child Coming,” Baltimore Sun, November 15, 1910.
“What Will be the Fate of This Little ‘Transplanted’ Gypsy Princess?“ The Spokesman-Review, December 11, 1910.