Death Cry of the Gypsy
When I was growing up the Gypsy (more properly Rom) was a potent figure. They were a much despised group associated in the American mind with fortunetelling, curses, kidnapping, thievery and general chicanery. When I was about seven there was a carnival on the west edge of town along the National Road. Gypsies were taking part. At school we gathered in the playground as our elders (sixth graders) told stories of how the filthy gypsies would steal children. Do not let them come to your house we were warned, they will steal everything in sight. Needless to say I shuddered a bit as we drove by the carnival or thought of them invading our house on Larimer Hill.
West Terre Haute was long a stopping point for Gypsy caravans, as it was for hoboes (one self-described King of the Hoboes lauded West Terre Haute in his memoirs as a place with two great “hobo jungles” and accepting citizens.
On May 1st, 1914 about thirty Gypsies moving north from their winter quarters in Kentucky set up camp in West. T. They pulled over their wagons and pitched their tents along Paris Avenue just west of the town limits. They set about fortune telling, horse-trading, and trying to sell handmade goods to the locals. The intrepid visited the camp and the gawkers walked or drove by to catch a glimpse. Shopkeepers maintained a balance between hoping for sales or keeping eagle-eyed surveillance for shoplifting as the Gypsies who entered their stores.
All in all it seemed like any other visit by the Gypsies. West Terre Haute warily accepted their presence. But Sunday evidently became a bacchanal day in the camp. Over the course of the day and night 8 kegs of beer and other drink were consumed among the 30. Neighbors reported the “camp was a scene of brawling and hilarity.” Eventually, most, sated with drink, took to their beds. But in the early hours of Monday, one imposing figure still stalked about the camp.
John Demetro (later research noted his name was more properly Tsina) was a large man with a commanding presence. Born in Brazil, (South America not Indiana) he was a 55 year-old who listed his profession as coppersmith, and was considered a leader of the band. Whether John stayed awake drinking while others slept, or awoke at some point to return to the bottle is unknown. But by 5:30 AM, he was likely dwelling on a history of family troubles (he believed Socca had been unfaithful) and feeling resentment toward his “in-laws.” Around 6:00 an old Gypsy named Katarina, one of the first up that morning, heard gunshots. Panic spread through the camp as it was learned that Demetro had first bludgeoned then shot his wife Socca. He then shot her father Bob Riska and son-in-law Joe Riska.
Terrified members ran to a nearby saloon or perhaps a farmhouse (or both) to report the crime. Police from West Terre Haute and Terre Haute responded. Terrified Gypsies told them to be careful as Demetro was still stalking around the camp, still had his gun (a 16-shot Remington rifle) and promised death to anyone who came near. Cautiously they maneuvered around. They saw him sitting in front of his tent, gun in hand, thinking of what he had done. Instead of resisting Old John calmly handed his gun over and meekly surrendered. Police found Socca and Bob already dead and Joe Riska, wearing only half his face, clinging to life by a wisp. They took John to jail in Terre Haute. The next day Joe died.
The “Death Cry of the Gypsy” echoed across Paris Avenue that day, and the next in Terre Haute.
Two years later after various delays John Demetro was pleaded guilty to second degree murder and was taken to the state prison. Prison is hard for anyone, but to a gypsy used to wandering ways it must have been a brutal life. Fortunately for John Demetro, it was not to last forever. Within 18 months, and against the wishes of his own Board of Pardons, Governor Goodrich pardoned him, which has caused many to suspect bribery may have been involved.
Demetro was sent abroad “to the thema—unspecified foreign land” and there in some unknown place he died.