Gypsies and Bank Mules. Yes, Gypsies and bank mules. To my surprise this blog has had over 8,500 unique visits to the site, and those are the two most accessed of my posts.
Bank mules, I guess, because people are looking for the definition of the term. As for “gypsies,” I assume it is because so many are still fascinated by them and their lifestyles. And beguiled by the tales, myths, and fears associated with them. In the opening to blog series I did on the Demetro John murders (October 2011) I mentioned the paranoia and warnings that swept through Consolidated School with the arrival in the early 1960s of a group of gypsies with a carnival in West Terre Haute. That fear of Gypsies and what they might do or steal was a long standing one in America.
The earliest mention I have yet found of Gypsies in the West Terre Haute area is an article from the March 3, 1859 (Terre Haute) Wabash Express. It noted that a band of Gypsies was camped just north of the town. It appears that even at this early time negative views of Gypsies were firmly in place. They are “fortune tellers, of course” said the article and “laboring under the strange hallucination that whatever they see, they have the right to appropriate for their own use.” It was not quite lock up your women and children and hide your possessions, but the warning was implicit. And shows that antipathy towards the Rom was inherent, even though few Gypsies were then in the United States.
This band was most likely part of the Romnichel, aka English Gypsies. According to the Smithsonian English Gypsies began migrating to America around 1850. Various reasons have been offered. Many were fleeing from the Enclosure Acts that were “privatizing: common lands in England that had been temporary homes to Gypsies. Gypsies were horse experts and horse traders and their skills and stock were important in an American economy that relied on draft horse both on the farm and in the city (think of the Budweiser Clydesdales). Various Gypsy groups from Eastern Europe did not start to migrate to the United States in any numbers until the 1870s.
But many Americans had long standing views on Gypsies based on folklore and 19th-century versions of urban myths. The reputation of these travelers preceded them and were not good. In 1885, Charles Godfrey Leland, a writer and early folklorist with long knowledge of Gypsies, tried to set the record straight. He was featured in an article that was syndicated across the country and appeared in several Indiana newspapers. Called America’s leading expert on Gypsies, Leland stated that the Gypsies’ reputation as petty thieves and horse thieves was simply not deserved. If something was stolen within five miles of a Gypsy, he said, the travelers would be automatically blamed. It was unfair, Besides he noted, “all Gypsies are rich” and had no reason to steal. They were actually more honest than “many Christian folks of superior standing and higher culture.” He pointed out that their “avocations” were horse-trading and fortune-telling. Interestingly, Leland declared their culture was an example of “pure atheism.”
Leland’s article did little to change people’s views, and an incident that began in Macksville (West Terre Haute) only confirmed the worst about Gypsies to many.
J.T Brentlinger was a brick mason from Terre Haute. In the summer of 1892 he was part of the crew building the new school in Macksville. He occasionally allowed his 14 year old son Albert to accompany him to work. Albert, pole in hand, would spend the day fishing while his father was on the job. Near the pond was the camp of a small band of Gypsies. Albert became acquainted with them.
As he was quitting work and packing up his tools on Saturday, Mr. Brentlinger kept an eye out for Albert. The boy was usually pretty good about returning to the worksite before his dad was ready to leave. Brentlinger headed toward the pond, calling Albert’s name. It is unclear if registered in the back of his mind that the Gypsy camp was gone. The anxious father headed back along Paris Avenue asking after his son. Storekeeper Webb Bayless told Brentlinger that the last time he had seen Albert he was with a Gypsy named Sharp. Brentlinger returned to the camp site. The Gypsies were gone. So was his boy.
Brentlinger informed the Terre Haute police about the “abduction.” Word went out and they thought they might have the band in Brazil, but they got away. Brentlinger began placing ads in newspapers throughout Indiana, and Ohio seeking information about Albert’s whereabouts. He described Albert and the clothes he was wearing when last seen, blue cottonade pants, calico shirt and straw hat with a calico band. In September word reached him of a possible sighting in Bedford, Indiana, but again the band was gone by the time authorities arrived.
There was no further trace of Albert until a letter arrived from Ohio in December. It was from Albert. He said he needed money to come home, that he had been very ill, and “blind in one eye and very nearly so in another.” Mr Brentlinger thought the letter looked forced, scattered and wondered if it was an attempt at extortion or ransom.
He and Albert’s older brother set off for Ohio. They found Albert living with a kindly farmer named Pierce near Circleville, Ohio. Albert told his tale.
Albert said he was fishing near the Gypsy camp when they grabbed him, tied him up, and forced him into their wagon. They covered him in blankets so no one would see him. They did not untie him and let him up until they were in Illinois. They warned him they would kill him if he tried to escape. Giving him a comb and brush they ordered him to clean their horses. They were quick to strike him with a whip if they thought he was shirking. His job became to clean and brush the horses each day from dawn until noon.
He said he was only fed a slice of bread and a cold potato twice a day. He was never given meat during the entire ordeal. In each town they visited he was sent to the streets to scavenge cigar butts, which were taken to camp, washed and dried to provide pipe tobacco. One of the women acted as his guards during these forays. While on his knees retrieving butts in Louisville his leg was run over by a fire wagon on a run. He was taken to the hospital, but the Gypsies kept a tight guard on him so he could not tell his story or escape.
After his release from the hospital, the band moved on into Ohio. Near Circleville, he said, two of the men (there were four men and three women in the group) got into a fight over him. One, named Gypsy Mike, cracked the other over the head with a whip handle and took Albert into Circleville, where he “released” him. After staying in Circleville for several days, nearly starving, Albert went off into the countryside. There Pierce found him, looking destitute and with bruises on his face and body that appeared to be from whip cuts. It was then he wrote his father.
Albert was home by Christmas.
So what to make of Albert’s story? Many historians who have studied the history of Gypsies claim there has never been a documented case of child-napping. So was this a case? Or was it an example of a young man seeking a bit of adventure that spun out of his control? Was it Albert’s version of running away to join the circus? And, if it was so bad why did he not seize opportunities (as when he was in the hospital) to runaway, or ask for help? We now know much more about the psychology of captives and captors (think Patty Hearst) and that it is not always physical constraints that keep people in such situations. But if he truly wanted to get away, did he try? And what do we make of the two Gypsies “fighting over him?” It was only then that Albert was “released.”
Anyone no more of the Albert story? Or similar ones? Let me know.