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When Dayton was the Home of the Gypsies

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, May 10, 1931


When Dayton was the Home of the Gypsies

By Howard Burba


     Back in your boyhood days, days when you picked out the meat of your walnuts with a horseshoe nail roving bands of gypsies probably provided you with a bit of satisfying romance.  No matter where that boyhood may have been spent, so long as it was spent in the United States, at some time or another in your life you paused to watch the passing along the dusty highway of the gaudy colored wagons of these strangely happy nomads.

     Today, as you dust off those boyhood pictures so long hanging forgotten in memory’s gallery, you may get an added thrill through learning that the leader of all these gypsy clans of your boyhood days made his home in Dayton, and from Dayton directed their wanderings.  For up to within recent years this city was the recognized headquarters of the Stanley, Jeffries, and Cooper tribes of gypsies, tribes from which all others were offshoots and closely related auxiliaries.

     Today one need only pause at a grass-grown plot in woodland cemetery here to call back the entire history of the gypsy in the United States.  Standing above the broad single grave in which repose the bodies of King Owen Stanley and his Queen, his successor, King Levi Stanley and his Queen, Matilda, and the still more recent “Sugar” Stanley, one realizes there lies buried the royalty of a kingdom that once was a picturesque and colorful part of American life.

     For centuries this strange race of people were the object of comment and wonder in the civilized world.  It still is generally admitted that they were of East Indian origin.  A Persian writer as early as 420 A. D. gives us our first known account of them, stating that 10,000 of them were called into Persia about that time to act as musicians to the poor.

     They made their first appearance in Europe in the twelfth century, for by that time they were accustomed to travel from one country to another in great hordes.  It was said that they had been conquered by the Saracens and forced to renounce Christianity.  Another writer contended that in consequence of their defeat Pope Martin V had imposed on them as a penance for disloyalty to the peace of that part of the world that they should become wanderers for a certain number of years.  Another early belief was that they were condemned by God to wander over the world because of the inhospitality shown Joseph and Mary.  For be it known that for long years they were considered direct descendants of the Egyptians.

     While always restless and wandering, they eventually acquired, to a certain degree, a nationality.  Thus there were English, German and Spanish gypsies whose habits grew to resemble in a measure those of the people of other nations.

     Among the leaders of the English tribes of gypsies were the Stanleys.  They constituted a large family, and were easily the most prominent and influential members of their race in England.  The progress of civilization cut off many of their resorts in that country and curtailed their liberties, so they sought a less thickly settled territory where they could maintain the privileges they had once enjoyed.  America appealed to them as an ideal place for their wanderings.

     The first gypsies came to the United States in 1856, headed by Owen Stanley, then recognized “King” of the various tribes.  His wife, Harriet, was naturally accepted as their “Queen,” and from the moment of their landing the counsel of these two determined the daily life of the nomads.

     Harriet Stanley survived but a little more than a year after reaching this country.  Owen Stanley, having seen his tribe established here, succumbed four years later, in 1860, while traveling through Indiana.

     Shortly after reaching this country the Stanley gypsies came into the Miami valley.  Accustomed as they were to outdoor beauty, acquainted with all that goes to make a favored land, it is not difficult to understand the appeal that this section held for them.  King Stanley called his followers about him.  Here, he told them, in this beautiful valley, he would establish his permanent abode.  Here he would invest his money in lands—something no gypsy in all the world had done up to that time.  Here, he insisted, his sons and daughters, and their husbands and wives and children, should have a permanent abode to which they could turn in the winter months, when the elements made wandering difficult.  And here, he told them, all should be laid to rest in one great grave when the final summons came to each.

     Owen Stanley purchased a small tract of land five miles northeast of Dayton. On it he took up his residence with his queen.  The farm provided the Stanley family with forage for their stock during the winter, and a safe and comfortable haven in which they could, during the long cold months, plan their wanderings through the spring and summer.  As neighbors they were known as quiet, industrious people, somewhat peculiar in their habits, but never interfering or giving offense.

     After establishing their headquarters here they became much interested in what for many years has been known as the Smith farm, a few miles out of the city, and when it was disposed of at public sale at the courthouse in the early sixties Mrs. Stanley Jeffries, a daughter-in-law of King Owen Stanley, purchased it above all other bidders.  Early history records that she appeared at the courthouse on the day of the sale richly attired in silks and jewelry, with a bright red cape above her shoulders.  She was highly regarded by the tribe, being wealthy and having a great deal of influence.  She died about 1877, and was soon followed to the grave by her husband, both being buried in the same grave at Woodland.

     Owen Stanley’s crown, passing from his widow to his eldest son, Levi Stanley, was quickly found to be upon a worthy head.  Levi Stanley not only directed the affairs of the gypsies from the old home place here, but he encouraged his followers to invest in Miami valley and Dayton realty as they became possessed of worldly goods through their one and only activity—horse trading.  Much of that property, and some of it among the most valuable in the county, is still in the hands of direct descendants of the original Owen Stanley, and by the Jeffries and Cooper heirs, all related by marriage to the Stanley family.

     The Stanleys were men of fine personal appearance, and some of the women of the tribe were beautiful.  They had a noticeable taste for loud colors.  These, however, were more subdued among the older members of the family.  “Sugar” Stanley, another of the older generation of sons, also had several sons and daughters, all born in America, and they were loyal followers of the customs of their forefathers.  All the gypsy children were bright and intelligent, all could read and write, and most of them, while of school age, attended local educational institutions.  Educational advantages were also seized upon by other members of the tribe who wintered elsewhere, but who kept in constant touch with gypsy headquarters here.

     The most interesting chapter in Miami co. history contributed by the Stanley gypsies was written back in 1878.  It records the burial at Woodland cemetery of Queen Matilda Stanley, a funeral attended by members of every gypsy tribe then wandering about America, and marked by the largest assemblage of “the curious” ever gathered at a funeral in Dayton.  Twenty-five thousand people saw the casket containing the body of “Queen Matilda” borne to the grave.

     “Queen Matilda” died at Vicksburg, Miss., in February, 1878.  The body was sent to Dayton and placed in a vault at Woodland cemetery.  It was an unbroken custom of the gypsies never to bury their dead immediately following death, but to preserve the body for a period of several months, if necessary, that it might be laid away when skies were bright and the chill of winter was not upon the land.  So the body of the gypsy queen was kept in the vault until Sept. 11, 1878.  On that day the immediate family, along with several hundred gypsies from other sections of the country, assembled along the banks of Mad river in the neighborhood of the present Keowee st. bridge.  Here the funeral cortege formed, carriages having been provided by McGowan and Lake, a pioneer Dayton livery firm.  In the files of a newspaper of that date we read:

     “The funeral services were very simple.  The casket had but to be removed from the vault to the grave.  While the procession did not form until 1:30 p. m., before noon people began to go toward the cemetery from all parts of the city.  The street cars on Wayne and Brown sts. could not commence to accommodate all of those who sought to ride.  It seemed that the entire city had turned out, and that everyone in the rural districts who had a vehicle was in town.  Probably 1000 vehicles, of every description, were grouped about the entrance to the cemetery and far out along every street and alley approaching it.  People covered the hill and strolled about the grounds until the cemetery was black with them.

     “About the vault the mass of men, women and children was wedged so tightly together that it was almost impossible to force a passage through which to carry the casket.  Capt. Clark had a large detachment of police on hand, but all efforts to control the crowd were in vain.

     “The pallbearers were Andrew Hasenstab, Michael Hark, George Dollar, Henry Amend, Louis Haas and Michael Schaeffer.  After an almost superhuman effort they succeeded in placing the casket in the hearse.

     “The choir from the United Brethren church, led by S. E. Kumler, sang at the grave.  The choir was composed of Miss Annie Mitler, Mrs. S. E. Kumler, Mrs. A. O. Schenck, Miss Martha Engle and Messrs. Eugene Shinn, A. O. Schenck, and H. M. Appenzellar.

     “At the grave were Levi Stanley, the king of the gypsies, now an old man and the sons of the deceased, Levi, jr., Paul and Adam, large, swarthy, fine-looking men. With them were their wives and children, some of them just large enough to walk.  Among notable gypsies present were Vally Harrison and family and the Joles family, from Illinois; John Bryce and family, from Vermont; the Jeffries and Cooper families, from Virginia, and the Gray families, from Michigan.  All are closely related to the Stanleys.  The men wore high hats with wide crepe bands about them.  The women were all dressed entirely in black.

     “The body was laid away in the large stone pit that had been constructed at the direction of the head of the Stanley family.  It measures 10 feet long, eight feet wide, and is 10 feet in depth.  The father, sons and some of the women mourners climbed down into the pit after the casket had been placed in it to take their last farewell of their dead.  They threw themselves upon the coffin, kissing the hard wood, and it was with difficulty that they were persuaded to ascend from the vault so the service could be concluded.”

     Along about this time Levi Stanley set about the erection of a suitable marker at the plot.  He found an immense boulder at the entrance to the farm of George W. Smith, at Locksville, Wayne tp., and informed of his purpose, Mr. Smith made him a present of it. It was removed to the city, dressed and polished and now reposes above the pit containing the bodies of the gypsy dead.



Visitors to Woodland, if they will look up the Stanley plot, will find a monument bearing these two inscriptions, the brief record of the original king and queen of all gypsy tribes in America:



Consort of

Owen Stanley,

Died August 30, 1857,

Aged 63 years and 2 mos.

    Died February 21, 1860,        
Aged 66 years.
   A Native of Reading, Berkshire, Eng.


The last gypsy burial of note in the Stanley plot was that of Levi Stanley, the last “King of the Gypsies” to attain prominence throughout the country.  That was on Tuesday, April 13, 1909.  This veteran king of the nomad tribe had died in December of the previous year in Missouri, the body, according to gypsy custom, being kept in a vault at Woodland until the springtime.
     Again the services at the grave were in keeping with those which marked the funeral of the queen many years before.  There was nothing weird or fantastic in the burial rites, a fact that had disappointed the thousands who assembled at the burial of Matilda Stanley in 1878.  Rev. D. D. Berger, who had officiated at the funerals of more than 30 members of the tribe, presided on this occasion, while a choir of singers was again led by S. E. Kumler of the U. B. church.
     There were about 40 members of the tribe in attendance at the burial of their king in 1909.  They came from all point in the west and south, where they had been located during the winter, and from where they had started migrating several weeks before the funeral.
     “Sugar” Stanley, who had been ruler of the tribe since the death of his father, had in reality been directing the affairs of the nomads for several years, his father having become quite feeble.  He had reached the remarkable age of 96 years, and though they recognized his inability to counsel them as in his earlier days, the gypsies would not, so deep was their affection for him, deprive him of his title of “King.”
     Today the gypsy, like so many of the colorful characters that brought romance into our boyhood, is but a memory.  His successor is at best but a rough and uncouth beggar, his successor’s wife but a slovenly descendant of lower types than gave to the world its Stanleys and Jeffries and Coopers.  Gone is the little caravan of gaily-colored wagons that served as their transports; gone is the tinkling of their guitars about campfires built beneath the stars, the canopy of heaven their only shelter in a world that found in them a fine example of happiness and love; of devotion to nature and to nature's God.