I've started watching The Riches on Netflix, and one of my first reactions was surprise at the concept of Irish Travelers (similar to Gypsies) in the United States. Then, by coincidence, I came across a reference to Tryphena McNeil, "Queen of the Gypsies," who died in Waterbury in 1915. Two random pieces of information inspired me to do some research, unveiling an often-overlooked part of Waterbury's history.
Tryphena McNeil's daughter, also named Tryphena, was baptized in the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church at South River, near New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1901. Then seven years old, Tryphena was conjectured to be the "first gypsy ever baptized in the Episcopal Church" by The New York Times (18 July 1901). Although referred to historically as gypsies, their surname suggests they were travelers. There seems to be ongoing debate among scholars, Travelers and Gypsies as to whether or not their tribes are interconnected in this country.
Tryphena McNeil died at Waterbury Hospital in late April, 1915. Accounts in several newspapers said the McNeils were camped at the Simonsville section of town, while others said the queen died during or after stomach surgery. The Hartford Courant reported on April 28 that all her belongings, including her wagon and silk dresses, were burned in a traditional ceremony in Waterbury. McNeil was buried in Guttenberg, NJ on Memorial Day. She was survived by her husband, King Samuel McNeil, and four daughters. The election of her successor took place in Waterbury.
A funeral service was conducted for Queen Tryphena in Waterbury by Rev. J. N. Lewis, Jr., rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, with about 150 people in attendance. At the close of the service, the "representatives of the different tribes placed beads, combs, brushes, hair pins, jewels, etc. in the coffin" along with two hats. The Hartford Courant (29 April 1915) described this as a "Romany gypsy" custom allowing the deceased to travel the river Styx in comfort.
The Courant ran a photograph of the funeral, with the coffin open, on May 3. In attendance was Nellie Palmer, aspiring to be the next queen; Sister We-Ha-Ka, representing a tribe of Cherokee affiliated with the McNeil tribe; Tryphena's sons John and Samuel, daughter Tryphena, husband King Samuel McNeil; and chief John Buckland.
On May 9, the Hartford Courant reported that the McNeils spent a lot of time in Waterbury. Their camp "was pitched on the old rye lots in the southern section" of Waterbury. Despite their nomadic life, the McNeils were not poor. Tryphena's estate was said to be valued at $50,000 and included a tract of land in Providence, Rhode Island. She had an estimated $30,000 in cash, which she kept in a guarded chest, not trusting banks (according to the newspaper article). After her death, King Samuel deposited a valise of money at the Waterbury Trust Company (the article claims the bills were so old and worn they had to be exchanged by the U.S. Treasury).
The McNeils were not the only travelers or gypsies to spend time in Waterbury and surrounding towns. Dan DeLuca's book about The Old Leather Man has a great photograph of a "gypsy camp" in Thomaston as well as an excerpt from the Waterbury Daily American (1 March 1877) reporting that "there are gypsies camped in a bend below us" in Woodbury.
The New York Times reported on May 31, 1879 that "For several weeks past a band of gypsies have been hanging about Ansonia, doing an apparently thriving business in horse-trading, fortune-telling, &c." After a complaint was made about a theft that was cleverly woven into a fortune-telling, the goods stolen were returned and "the chief of the gypsy gang paid a round sum to have legal proceedings stopped." The group decamped and set up a new camp a little further south.
In 1922, a gypsy named Mrs. Annie Marino, a resident of Waterbury formerly of Charlestown, Massachusetts, was reportedly robbed of cash, jewelry and gold coins by three men, one of whom, John Arestos, was the godfather of her youngest child (Hartford Courant, 4 Aug 1922). Marino lived at 10 Chatfield Avenue and may have originally come from Portugal (Hartford Courant, 6 Aug 1922).
Also in 1922, on August 5, Waterbury's Health Officer Thomas J. Kilmartin and the Superintendent of Police George M. Beach launched a campaign to ban nomadic gypsies from Waterbury (Hartford Courant, 6 August 1922). Kilmartin and Beach were responding to "numerous complaints" of thefts related to caravans passing through and cited "unsanitary conditions" of stores rented as fortune-telling parlors, the tendency of "ten or fifteen gypsies crowding into one small tenement" and the "lack of proper facilities." Health officials appear to have issued repeated appeals to property owners, asking them to refuse to rent storefronts for use by fortune tellers. The article went on to detail some of the thefts. Frank Denners of New Haven "was stopped on the Middletown road and robbed of $5" by a young woman. James Hanlon, a local grocer, complained that gypsies stole $15 cash from his register and $20 in groceries, canned goods and jellies. The gypsies disappeared into the woods toward Southington. (The Waterbury city directory for 1922 lists a James Hanlan who owned a delicatessen at 370 West Main Street.)
The city's crusade against gypsies continued into November. Frank Martinoff, said to be the "presiding chief" (Hartford Courant, 6 Nov 1922), was given nine hours to leave Waterbury or spend 30 days in jail. Martinoff was "found guilty" of renting a store at 654 South Main Street under false pretenses, claiming that he was going to open a tinware and crockery shop. The landlord paid a visit and "found it swarming with gypsies. Mattresses, blankets, cook stoves, clothing and various other equipment littered the floor." An estimated four families were living in the store. The article quoted Judge William J. Larkin, Jr. as declaring "There'll be no fortune telling in Waterbury. The city has enough detectives to go out and get the necessary evidence and if any complaints are made the entire band will be compelled to leave the city." The Courant estimated that at least 100 gypsies were camping out in stores throughout Waterbury.
Another band of gypsies were warned out of Waterbury in 1923 (Hartford Courant, 19 September 1923). The group numbered about 95 people, traveling in seven cars and two trucks. They were ordered to leave town by Superintendent of Police George Beach after a steward at the Waterbury Country Club complained that he had "almost" lost money to one of the women of the group.
In 1925, Nicholas John, king of some 48 gypsy families throughout the United States, died in the phrenologist parlor he operated at 166 South Riverside Street in Waterbury (Hartford Courant, 6 Feb 1925). John left a will bequeathing an estate worth $10,000 to his wife, Queen Rambunkah, with mention made of his sons George, Wallace and Miller (no mention was made of daughter Tina, Eula and Ruby; the New York Times reported that their mother explained at the reading of the will that daughters never inherit). Funeral ceremonies, attended by representatives from around the country, were held in Waterbury before his burial in Yonkers. The New York Times reported that there were two rival successors, both claiming to be his brothers: Frank Josef, John's second-in-command, and Ritasra Jurka of Yonkers (11 Feb 1925). A third contender, Frank Mitchell of Harlem, claimed to have been duly elected as the new king.
The New York Times followed the story with in-depth analysis on March 15, 1925. According to the Times, a "strong faction of the Serbian tribe" backed Frank Josef to be the new king. A group in Yonkers backed Ritasra Jurka, while Frank Mitchell, "an Americanized gypsy," announced that he had been elected at New York's Palace Casino Theatre. The Times saw the feud between the three would-be kings as a battle between the Old World and the New World. Josef and Jurka were both over 60. They and their followers adhered to the tradition of a three month period of mourning before the new king should be elected. The "Americanized" Mitchell declared himself to have been elected king within days of the old king's death. The final outcome of the dispute does not appear to have been reported in the newspapers, but Mitchell seems to have held onto his title with at least some tribes.