Gypsies in Shrouds, Gypsy in a CagePosted: July 8, 2012
In “Death Cry of the Gypsy” I related the story of Demitro John (Tsine), a Brazilian-born Rom who murdered his wife, father-in-law, and another Gypsy at their camp in West Terre Haute in 1914. Since then I have been able to uncover more information about what came after the sensational case, involving Gypsy rituals and a long drawn out court case.
After John was taken to jail, the Gypsy “tribe” gathered to arrange the burial of their dead. The bodies were taken to Hickman’s funeral home in Terre Haute. Soon, a man named Steve Miller was summoned from Peoria, Illinois. Terre Haute newspapers conjectured he was an adopted member of the tribe and related he “claimed” to be a Freemason in the Chicago lodge and a member of the Odd Fellows in Peoria. Evidently, he was one who acted as a liaison between the Rom and authorities whenever he was needed. The tribe had moved to east of Terre Haute to remove themselves from the death scene.
Miller and tribe members set out to make arrangements for burial. Hickman gladly offered his most expensive casket and it was eagerly purchased. Soon, the more upscale stores in Terre Haute were visited by the spectacle of exotically attired Gypsies shopping for the finest goods available to clothe their dead. Socca, John’s murdered wife, was placed in an expensive “silk dress of brilliant colors and oriental design.” On her head was wrapped a red silk scarf, her feet covered by red silk hose and leather slippers. Her father, Bob, wore a dark suit and felt hat. Slain son-in-law Joe in a light suit, costly Panama hat and low cut tan shoes. Both men were clad in silk underwear. Pipes and tobacco were placed in the coffin. The bodies were covered with white silk sheets. An aged woman broke down, wailing, murmured Demetro John’s name while mimicking the signs of a hanging.
On May 16, 1914 the bodies were moved to Highland Lawn cemetery. At the burial site “strange balls of incense” were placed around the graves. The caskets were lowered through haloes of smoke accompanied by the wailings of women and beatings of breasts. When the graves were covered wine bottles were broken and their contents poured in shapes of a cross on the graves.
In the meantime, John was arraigned in city court on May 8th. Despite pleading not guilty, he was charged with murder four days later, with the trial scheduled for September. It was just the start of a two-year process.
After two continuances, it was thought the trial would finally take place in September of 1915. Members of the tribe gathered for the event, some staying in a boarding house on North 4th Street in Terre Haute. The night before the trial a “babblement” at the boarding house led to calls for the police. A row had strted in one of the rooms when a supporter of John’s trumpeted that he was paying $300.00 to get Demetro out of jail. Terre Haute police had to push through a curious crowd of Hauteans to enter the house. There they found an uproarious scene of Gypsies arguing and feuding. Police had to draw their guns in the melee. Finally, they took seven men through the crowd into a waiting paddy wagon and on to jail. After practically the entire station finally calmed the ongoing storm, all but one of the men were released.
Thinking the storm had passed, the police were chagrined when, about midnight, a member of the clan appeared at the station to file a complaint against boarding house owner Charles Grubb. Grubb was accused of stealing $40.00 from under the pillow of Demetro John’s mother. Grubb was arrested.
The next day at the trial the Gypsies were searched before being allowed entry into the courtroom. John sat in a chair surrounded by his son and three deputies. After much legal maneuvering, the case was postponed yet again. “Little” Dick Wereneke, the prosecutor, argued against it, citing costs of once again bringing back witnesses to testify.
The trial was then moved to Rockville, Indiana in a change of venue requested by the defense. Again the prosecution had opposed the move as it would cause difficulty and cost the taxpayers over $600.00. In January, 1915 the court met in Rockville. The Demetro John who appeared in court was a much reduced man. He had lost 60 pounds and prison pallor washed his face. Jail had been a psychic and physical assault on a man previously unbound by walls or borders. He was weak. Jailers reported he had collapsed when being moved from jail to courthouse. They said John “worries about his problems and seldom eats.” He claimed his confinement was costly in another way. He entered jail in 1914 with $5,000.00 in his possession. Now he was broke. The costs of his defense and supporting family had emptied his pockets.
Once again, the trial was postponed.
The denouement finally came in April, 1916. In a sort of plea bargain two of the murder charges were dropped and John agreed to plea guilty to the second degree murder of his wife. On April 20th he was taken to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. The long trial was completed.
At the prison, records noted John was convicted of 2nd degree murder and given a life term. He was 58 years old and had been born in Brazil, SA to G. and Stalca John. He was illiterate and his mental condition was listed as insane. He was a Roman Catholic and his profession was as a coppersmith. His associated were called “mixed.” A brother named Steven, of South Carolina, was listed as next of kin.
John spent much of his time in the prison hospital. Jail had taken its toll. The government of Indiana took mercy, or wanted a sick prisoner off its hands (through which a bribe might also have been passed). On the 12th day of December, 1916 Governor Goodrich paroled Demetro John. The parole stated that John had no previous criminal record, was in poor health, bordering on insanity, and suffering from locomotor attaxis which prevented him from walking. He was to be taken back to Brazil by his son to die. He was released on December 13th. As noted in the previous blog, John was sent to the Thema or unknown land at a time not recorded.
His wife and other victims lay in a Terre Haute Cemetery far from the lands of their births. It has been long noted in Terre Haute that Gypsies make almost annual pilgrimages to visit the graves.
(An excellent article on what happened to family members in the decade after John’s parole may be found in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society. The excellent article by Sheila Salo is available in fulltext online for those interested in the rest of the story.)