Unwelcome visitors: The story of gypsies during the town’s early days

The following article appeared in the Wellesley Townsman on March 30, 2015.

Every day thousands of people pass through Wellesley almost entirely unnoticed. Mostly in cars on Washington Street or Route 9 and on trains along the MBTA commuter line. They just enter one end of town and exit at the other some minutes later (assuming no traffic delays, of course).

You may not think this is a very interesting fact. But it implies that there was once a time — albeit many years ago — that Wellesley wasn’t like this, when residents actually paid attention to strangers passing through.

Indeed, a hundred years ago, if a group of people who didn’t resemble typical residents came through Wellesley, the townspeople would often gather and stare. And if these strangers stopped for whatever reason, town officials or the police would occasionally do what they could to banish them. Sure, this was blatant classism and racism, but it was the way things were (and still are) in many small towns across America.

One such group who received this form of inhospitable treatment from Wellesley’s residents were Gypsies. Every so often — primarily between the 1890s and 1910s — large caravans of Gypsies (better known today as Romani) would come through town in their horse-drawn wagons, creating much excitement among the locals. These people were just different. They had dark skin, wore bright clothing, spoke an unfamiliar language, and lived this bizarre nomadic lifestyle.

Perhaps the Gypsies could have slid under the radar better had it been only a family or two passing through. But often, it was an entire clan, one account reporting a party totaling 95 men, women, and children that was travelling in two dozen wagons pulled by 65 horses.

Sometimes these groups came through without stopping, but other times they would set up camp in one of the less developed parts of the town — in particular, the Fells and Wellesley Farms. A handful of the Gypsies would then walk into the village centers either to buy supplies or maybe to earn some money by telling fortunes.

Some locals, especially children, found these mysterious visitors fascinating. Others viewed them as a nuisance.

The editor of the Wellesley Townsman at the time was apparently a member of the latter group, as the newspaper was quite anti-Gypsy during its early days. (The following quotes come from the equivalent of the modern-day police log and are a representative sample of what was published regarding Gypsies.)

“A band of Russian gypsies passed through the square on Tuesday and invaded the stores, endeavoring to tell the fortunes of the clerks. The gypsies were outrageously filthy and were not sufficiently dressed, and it is surprising that they have been allowed to travel as far as the Falls.” — September 21, 1906

“Chief of Police Kingsbury was instructed to allow no gypsies to camp within the limits of the town, owing to considerable trouble having been experienced in the past fortnight by gypsies visiting nearby places.” — August 14, 1908

“On Sunday afternoon a band of Gypsies accompanied by a large bear passed through Wellesley Square. When near Wood’s Paint Shop on Central Street, the bear managed to escape and caused much excitement before he was captured.” — July 14, 1916

All that said, Wellesley’s reaction to the presence of Gypsies within the town wasn’t any different from that of other communities across the Commonwealth. In fact, the misunderstanding and persecution of Gypsies is a common theme throughout their existence. To this day, few of us know anything about them. Even their name, Gypsy, is a misnomer — a reference to Egypt, which is where Europeans in the Middle Ages thought these travelers had come from.

Rather, Gypsies are originally from northern India and began a westward migration over one thousand years ago, arriving in Europe by the 14th Century. During the ensuing years, these nomadic people would spread throughout that continent. A small group of them even found their way to the American colonies during the mid-to-late 1600s. But the large-scale immigration of Gypsies to the United States would not occur until the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

What distinguishes Gypsies from most other ethnic groups was their remarkable resistance to assimilate within a culture different from their own. Wherever they went, they largely retained their language, religion, customs, and general lifestyle. Perhaps this was by choice. Or maybe the oppression and maltreatment they experienced kept them ostracized from other societies.

The story of the Gypsies during the last century is emblematic of how they are viewed throughout the world today. On one hand, many societies still profess vast ignorance and even possess disdain for these people, perhaps best symbolized by the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Gypsies in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust.

However, in the United States, where more efforts were taken to understand the Gypsy culture, tolerance and respect for Gypsies has improved. For example, in Wellesley during the 1920s and 1930s, residents seemed to be less determined to expel them from town. Gypsies instead were viewed as more of a curiosity than anything else.

Although their current population is difficult to estimate, there are somewhere around ten million Gypsies worldwide, approximately one million of them living within the United States. Despite that, literature describing these Gypsy populations in great detail is all but nonexistent. Aside from the occasional publication of a book or scholarly article — not to mention the television show, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding — little is out there to help us learn about their history and culture.

Only if this changes will we finally begin to gain an understanding about who the Gypsies really are.