GYPSIES IN TROY AND THE MIAMI VALLEY
Levi Stanley and Matilda Joles Stanley
Levi Stanley (1818? — 3 December 1908) and Matilda Joles Stanley (1821? — 15
January 1878) were accorded the honorific titles of King and Queen of the
Gypsies. Levi explained that the title was merely an indication of his people's
love and trust and not more.
Levi was the son of Richard (Owen) Stanley (1794–21 February 1860) and Harriet Worden (1793–30 August 1857), who preceded as King and Queen. Matilda was the daughter of Ephraim Joles. Levi had a brother named Benjamin who had decided to settle down in New England. Benjamin was disowned by their father and a curse was put on him and the next three generations to follow. When Levi became infirm in old age, their son Levi Jr. "Sugar" Stanley (1835–5 March 1916) succeeded as King.
Born in Reading, Berkshire, England, Levi and Matilda and their families came to the United States in 1856—"when Buchanan was king," as they put it—along with others of their people and soon settled near Troy, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, they selected Dayton, Ohio as their headquarters for the summer months, and it became the center for the Gypsies of the country. Each year as they departed Dayton for warmer climes, their caravans would go in procession down Main Street.
In the federal censuses from 1860 to 1900, ages were enumerated that indicated various birth years, so the accuracy is in doubt; those given above are from their graves. In 1900, Levi gave his birth as November 1808. In his obituary, his age was given as 96 (implying 1812).
Enumerated originally as “wanderers,” in later years they gave their occupations as horse traders. After Matilda’s death, Levi stated that "our children are all learning fast, and soon our people will not go a-roaming any more." The children of Levi’s extended family revealed the extent of their wandering by their birthplaces in the censuses: New York, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ohio, Michigan and others.
Contrary to common perception, they were reverent church people, and the reigning King and his son and heir, known as Sugar Stanley, were members in good standing of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
Matilda was said to have a wonderful faculty of telling fortunes, when she pleased, and remarkable powers as a mesmerist, both qualities being explained by the assertion that they were handed down to her as the eldest daughter in the Stanley family, and were secrets possessed by her alone. She was described in the press as a "plain, hardy-looking woman, with a touch of Meg Merrilies in her appearance, and a manner indicative of a strong and pronounced character." Meg Merrilies was a gypsy queen in the Sir Walter Scott novel, Guy Mannering, made famous on the American stage by Charlotte Saunders Cushman.
It was the tradition of their people on the occasion of a funeral of the Stanley family, to travel to Dayton to bear tribute from across the United States, as well as England and Canada. On Palm Sunday 1877, one of Levi and Matilda's daughters and her husband were buried in the family plot after a nine-mile long procession of colorful wagons and carriages through the rain. Newspaper stories of the time noted the "rather bright colors of apparel and the expressive features of these people standing in the rain without umbrellas." When the minister stood at the head of the wide grave, the only umbrella upraised was over his head.
The Gypsy Queen, Matilda Stanley, died in Vicksburg, Mississippi in January 1878 after an illness of two years, and her body was embalmed so that it was said to "retain the natural aspect of life." It was placed in the Woodland receiving vault in Dayton, and every day members of late Queen's family came with fresh flowers to strew over her. Eight months later her funeral was held, giving time for word to spread and her people to travel to Dayton, and she was interred in the Stanley family plot. Twenty-thousand paid their last tribute to the dead Queen, including a dozen chiefs and their tribes from different sections of the United States, Canada and England.  
Popular expectation that the funeral would consist of some extraordinary rites was not warranted. Rev. Dr. Daniel Berger, of the United Brethren Church of Dayton officiated, the quartet choir of the First United Brethren Church sang hymns, and the transfer of the casket from the vault to the family mausoleum was a brief ceremony.
Her funeral attracted press coverage by the major newspapers of the country and was front page news. Four years later, two more children were interred, and the Dayton Democrat reported that the "attendance was quite large, tent-dwellers having come from all parts of the country — from New York to Mississippi — to be present at the funeral." The story was picked up by the New York Times as well.
Yet, by the time King Levi Stanley died in Marshall, Texas thirty years later, the national press did not even mention his passing. In the article on the arrival of his remains in Dayton by train, it was noted that the aggregate wealth of his family was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, made equally from horse trading and fortune telling. By then, the family owned substantial tracts of real estate, mainly in the north Dayton area. In the tradition of the family, the burial was made the following spring, and was attended by only thirty members of the family from around the country.
More than fifty members of the extended Stanley clan—including members of the Harrison, Jeffry, Young, Broadway and Joles families—are interred in the family plot at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio. Thus, Woodland has three Kings and two Queens of the Gypsies buried there. The vault of Levi and Matilda is a box made of stone slabs, 2 feet deep and 10 by 4 feet in dimension. Over the grave is a 20-foot column surmounted by an angel in white marble.
Queen of the Gypsies
In 1856, Owen Stanley, king of gypsy tribes in England, came to the U.S. with many of his group because England was so thickly populated. He wanted to make Dayton his permanent home. He bought land in the City of Dayton as well as Harrison, Wayne, Mad River, and Butler townships so they could raise horses and winter there, renting out their farms while they took to the road as soon as the weather became warm.
Gypsies were a group of nomadic people whose ancestors are said to have originated in Eastern Europe. Within their groups they have rulers, sometimes women, who decide what is best for their tribe. British gypsies had so many kings and queens – from King John Bucelle in 1657 down to the Gypsy Queen of the U.S., Matilda Stanley, royally buried at Woodland Cemetery in 1878. It is rare that such royalty would be buried here, or that an American clergy would preach at the funeral of a queen, but that happened.
Queen Matilda had died of cancer in February. Her husband, Levi Stanley, son
of Owen Stanley, sent her body to Woodland to be kept in a vault for burial in
September. Newspapers here and in many large American cities sent special
reporters who printed long columns of accounts before and after the funeral. The
Sunday of the event, thousands of people came in from surrounding places by
special trains. An estimated crowd of 25,000 swarmed over the avenues and
grounds of the cemetery. Police were needed to make way for the funeral
procession. The newspaper said a procession of 1000 carriages began downtown and
was so long it had to be refused admission at the cemetery gates. Around the
gravesite there were so many people that the minister had to deliver his sermon
while standing on a wooden plank laid across the open grave under an umbrella in
the rain. The king and his tribe, being heartbroken, stayed around the Queen’s
still open grave as the great crowd left. Her younger daughters were so upset
that they jumped down into the grave onto the marble slab to be closer to their
mother and sobbed tenderly.
A granite monument marks the grave of King Levi and Queen Matilda Stanley. Funerals of the Stanley gypsies were quite elaborate. They spared no expense to give their loved ones dignity and show their regard for the dead. The funeral coaches, the undertaker’s hearse, a long procession, a rich casket, and a great profusion of flowers were all a part of the event. The women came dressed in their best silks, satins, or velvets. Their fingers were adorned with much gold. The gypsy woman who possesses money does not hesitate to buy expensive things when she has set her heart on them. When you visit the Stanley graves, look for the messages and verses carved on their slabs, called ledgers.
On Jan. 31, 1915, the life of an icon came to an end in Coatopa, Ala. Kelly Mitchell, Queen of the Gypsy Nation, died at age 47 while giving birth to what is said to have been her 14th or 15th child.
With so many children, it's no surprise that she had a large funeral. But, according to a 1915 article in the Meridian Dispatch, her funeral wasn't just large, it was what might warrant use of the term 'gi-normous,' with as many as 20,000 Romani people showing up at the ceremony.
"Gypsies were camped all over hell's half-acre," said Rose Hill Cemetery caretaker and tour guide Walton W. Moore of the event. "They camped everywhere in Meridian; in church lawns, parks, schools, anywhere they could squeeze in."
The funeral ceremony took place at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which was far too small to fit even a small fraction of the funeral-goers, most of whom gathered around outside the church to participate in the celebrations.
"A college that was here at the time provided the band, and they marched down the street playing a slow funeral march," said Moore, "and the gypsies told them, 'Snap it up, it's party time'."
Though Mitchell died in Coatopa, Meridian was chosen as her burial place because it was the nearest city with enough ice to preserve her body until the time of the funeral.
"They sent her to Webb Funeral Home, back then it was called Watkins Funeral Home, and kept her on ice for six weeks so they could call in all the bands of gypsies," said Moore.
The four bands of gypsies that made their way into the Southeast, Moore said, are called Mitchell, Marks, Bimbo, and Costello. Reports as to which bands had representatives at the funeral are contradictory.
The Gypsies of the world long disagreed over where they originated, but finally their language helped them identify their origin, which is now thought to be northwest India. According to Moore, the Gypsies moved into the Balkans from India and then dispersed into various places, including Portugal.
In the 1700's, the Gypsies were widely persecuted in Europe, with many rulers issuing edicts that all adult Gypsies be unceremoniously beheaded without any sort of trial. During this time, many Gypsies fled to South America, some eventually winding up in the Southeast.
Though popular culture depicts Gypsies as fortune-tellers or nomadic con-men, the Romani people of America have for the most part been absorbed into American culture and are no longer nomadic.
Today, the grave of Kelly Mitchell, whose ancestors migrated to the Southeast over generations, lies at Rose Hill Cemetery, the headstone and wolf-stone (a large, flat stone that covers the grave) broken into many pieces by vandals and would-be grave robbers. Her grave is covered with gifts like packs of cigarettes, cans of soda, and mardi-gras beads.
The trinkets, which take on many forms (Moore says he once found a coconut cake on the grave, half devoured by ants) are, according to Moore, left by people who believe that leaving an offering will entice Mitchell's spirit to visit them in a dream and provide answers to their problems.
Queen Kelly's burial at Rose Hill turned the cemetery into one of the main Romani burial grounds in the Southeast. Her husband, Emil, King of the Gypsy nation, her successor, Flora, and numerous other Gypsies have been buried alongside her.
Mitchell remains an icon to many Meridianites, and her grave is one of Meridian's top historical landmarks. It can be visited 24 hours a day at Rose Hill Cemetery, across from Calvary Christian School on Eighth Street.
Said Moore: "The only time I lock up the gates is on Halloween."
Gypsy Queen: Myth vs. Fact
Myth: The Gypsy Queen was buried in a $15,000 gold coffin
Fact: Queen Kelly Mitchell is thought to have been buried in a "magnificent silver-trimmed metallic casket" according to a newspaper published at the time of her death. Despite a 1942 Meridian Star article claiming otherwise, the coffin was not gold and its cost wouldn't have come anywhere near $15,000, or even $1,500, 1915 dollars. According to Rose Hill Cemetery caretaker Walton Moore, records show that no coffin over $150 was purchased in Meridian the year of Kelly Mitchell's burial. "Besides," he said, "the Gypsies weren't stupid. Even if they had $15,000 worth of gold, they wouldn't have buried it in a grave ... The idea of a $15,000 coffin is ridiculous."
Myth: The Gypsy Queen is buried with a small fortune in gold coins, thrown into her coffin as an homage during her funeral.
Fact: Funeral attendees did reportedly throw coins into Queen Mitchell's casket, in keeping with custom, but the coins would have been pennies, nickels, and maybe the occasional dime. "There might be $50 in there, if that," said Moore, "and that's a lot of digging to do for $50".
Myth: Kelly Mitchell had a passion for Orange Crush soda, which is why orange crush cans can sometimes be found on her grave. At her burial, funeral-goers threw Orange Crush bottles into her grave.
Fact: Orange Crush was invented in 1906, so the idea that Mitchell was a crush fan is feasible. Whether or not funeral-goers threw bottles of the soda into her grave is not known, but the rumor of her affinity for the drink is certainly what prompts the occasional visitor to leave cans of Orange Crush near her tombstone.
Myth: The gypsy queen's casket has been protected with a layer of metal bars and cement.
Fact: A 1942 article in the Meridian Star, the same one which claimed that the Queen's casket was made of gold, reports that multiple grave-robbing attempts prompted the gypsies to bury the Queen's husband, Emil Mitchell, under a layer of concrete. Moore says that Queen Kelly's grave received the same treatment. However, the queen's wolf-stone remains in tatters ...
Article provided by Louise Vanover Vore.
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