LOCAL LORE: “Gypsies" in Edgewood

While researching the history of Edgewood and Metropolis View, I came across an 1895 story in the Washington Times headlined “Where the Gypsies Live.” Although the term “gypsy" is today considered an ethnic slur by many, it has long been a common term used for any dark-skinned nomadic peoples, whether of Romani origin, or from Turkey or South America or even Ireland. In this particular story from 1895, three different colonies had set up camp in what was then called Berry’s Woods, near Glenwood Cemetery in present-day Edgewood.

1888 photo  from the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress. Click to enlarge. 

I had never fully realized just how extensive the nomadic life was in this country at that time, nor how regular was the occurence of these encampments in the Washington area. Bladensburg, Congress Heights, Rock Creek and Berry’s Woods were all places where many clans frequently spent the winters.  

Another surprise for me was the tone of the article in the Washington Times. It was a feature piece that displayed local residents' fascination with an intriguing, exotic culture. Going to a gypsy encampment to get one’s fortune told was a very popular pastime and provided a major source of income for the nomads. Though allegations of thievery and myths of child kidnapping had long been associated with gypsies, there was no sense of distrust or suspicion in the article. In fact it pointed out their patriotism, the neatness of their wagons and campsites, the diversity of the different colonies. The reporter took the streetcar up 4th St NE, where he could see the colorful wagons and tents:

Immediately on the roadside is the camp presided over by Madam Burnett and her husband, a thrifty horse-trader. The madam is a tall, commanding appearing woman and an adept fortune teller…. The records in the camp show that there are between 4,000 and 5,000 Gypsies in this country, wandering from state to state. Those in Berry's Woods are a typical lot, from the troops of laughing children to the grizzled and gray old veterans who assist locomotion with the aid of a stout staff made from a hickory sapling.

gypsies04a

Another photo from the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection at the Library of Congress. 

But that idyllic description soon changed. Three days later, a number of the clans got into a brawl that metastasized into what the police called “a riot.” There were some injuries and it took a sizeable number of police to quell the violence. The clans were given a day to pack up and depart Berry’s Woods, even though they were paying the landowner a dollar a week to camp there. Some moved down Bunker Hill Road and tried to camp near the Brookland railroad station, but the police shooed them away from there as well and they headed toward Rock Creek Park. Another report in the Times, three days after the feature piece ran, had a decidedly different tone: 

The gypsies differ much in cleanliness, comfort of living, and intelligence. Some of the tribes gathered here are brown, dirty, half-clad, and unable to speak English. Hardly any of them can write their own tongue, except in the rudest way. Others are well-dressed and well-informed and on the streets can be distinguished from the ordinary citizen only by the most practiced eye.

The topic of how nomads in the United States were perceived, discriminated against and gradually absorbed into American culture would be fascinating history, but is beyond the scope of this blog. There are some good books available you might want to check out: 

Roma: Modern American Gypsies by Anne Sutherland.

The Romani Gypsies by Yaron Matras.

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Sources:

“Where the Gypsies Live,” Morning Times, August 18, 1895.

“Election of a Queen,” Morning Times, August 21, 1895.

“Gypsies Made to Move,” Evening Times, August 21, 1895.

“Brookland Items,” Evening Times, August 22, 1895.

© Robert Malesky 2017