Steven Cornelius was born and raised in Northeast Mississippi and is married to a beautiful, auburn haired second generation Irish woman with deep roots in Galway and Sligo. His love of books began at a very early age. When night fell on the farm and chores for the day were complete, he and his family sat around the fire and read until bedtime. Many of his childhood adventures are featured in his writing. He attended the University of Mississippi, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees while participating in Air Force ROTC. Steve completed more than thirty years Air Force service in the US and overseas. For the Distant Traveler Trilogy, he drew upon experiences and memories collected during assignments around the world. After retiring in 2015, Steve decided to get serious about a lifelong passion for writing. His most recent work has been published in Mississippi magazine (October 2022) and Louisiana Living (November 2022). He just finished a multicultural novel set in Cuba and Houston Texas featuring Hispanics as the main characters. Steve has written one hundred and five short stories collected in two volumes and posted stories on the Mississippi Folklore and True Appalachia webpages and has a following of more than 3,000 regular followers on each page.
Gypsies in Mississippi
By Steven Cornelius
Most of us go about our daily business giving as much thought to Gypsies as we do life on the planet Neptune. Gypsies, also known as Romani, pass through our communities with about the same frequency and impact on our lives as a comet or asteroid, making appearances in their brightly decorated caravans. Sometimes fate intervenes and their appearance in our communities takes on greater significance. One such event in their history is tied to Mississippi and played out one hundred and seven years ago. A story in RoadsideAmerica.com describes it as follows; “On January 31, 1915, Kelly Mitchell died in a Romani camp in Coatopa, Alabama. The “Queen of the Gypsies” — her title on her tombstone — was trying and failing to give birth to her 15th child at age 47.
Kelly’s husband, King Emil, chose to have her buried 40 miles west, across the state line in Meridian, Mississippi…one practical reason for choosing burial in Meridian was that it was the nearest place with ice and a morgue. The Queen needed refrigeration because it took 12 days before America’s Romani population could assemble — from every corner of the country — for her funeral. It was an elaborate service, reportedly attended by over 20,000 people who arrived in the city on special trains. Cameras filmed it for early movie newsreels. Kelly was buried in royal robes of green — “barbaric splendor” was how the Meridian Dispatch described it — and wild stories quickly began to circulate that her casket was made of precious metal, and that mourners had tossed $20 gold pieces into her grave.
The Queen’s cracked capstone testifies to the presence of ghouls who’ve smashed it several times over the years in search of the rumored buried treasure. King Emil’s new Queen, Flora, was his sister. He outlived her as well, and when he died in 1942, he was buried between his two Queens. The graves of the King and Queens, but especially Queen Kelly, are easy to spot in the cemetery; they’re festooned with Mardi Gras bead necklaces, trinkets, flowers, costume jewelry, and offerings of whiskey, beer, and loose change. Some of these may be tokens of affection, but others are self-motivated, left in the supposed belief that they will entice Kelly, Flora, or Emil to enter your dreams and solve your problems.”
During my senior year at Ole Miss, one day after class, my sociology professor smiled and handed me a slip of paper with “Gypsies” written on it, saying, “I think you’ll like this one.” I glanced at the paper and gave him a blank look, “Where am I going to find Gypsies?” He laughed, “Try Senatobia, there’s a large group of them camped there. Better hurry though, they don’t stay in one place for very long.” I walked slowly down the hallway lost in thought before heading to the library; I needed to read up on Gypsies.
A week later I made the fifty mile drive up to Senatobia to meet and interview those exotic Gypsies. Once in town I flagged down a police cruiser, “Can you direct me to the Gypsy camp?” The cop frowned, “What do you want with them folks?” I gave him a three word answer, “School research paper.” He shook his head, “Follow me.” I rolled along behind his black and white for a mile or so before he stuck an arm out the window and pointed left. I waved my thanks and swung into the large fairgrounds parking lot, noticing brightly painted wagons clustered in twos and threes, and old trucks scattered everywhere. The caravan wagons were roughly twenty feet long and eight feet wide, riding high off the ground; a kaleidoscope of emerald green, yellow and crimson splashed along their sides, finished with round metal roofs and truck tires mounted on brightly painted spoke wheels.
Notebook and pen in hand, I stepped from my car and walked over to a clump of young women and kids playing stickball in the bright fall sun, waved and said hello. The kids scattered and the women turned away from me. Rather than wander uninvited through the middle of their camp, I stood for a couple of minutes watching the crowd and suddenly spotted a middle aged man with a long black ponytail rushing toward me. A livid scar ran down his right cheek like a menacing lightning bolt. He stopped a couple of feet away, scowled at me and shouted, “Who are you and what do you want?” I took a step back, a little intimidated, and then offered my most disarming smile, “Good afternoon, I’m a student writing a paper on Gypsies. I’d appreciate a few minutes of your time if that would be okay.” He shook his head and yelled, “NO! It is not okay! Go away!”
I was shocked and put off by his aggressiveness and turned to leave, but paused and thought, screw that, my professor will not let me off the hook and I’ve driven all this way…so, I followed about ten feet behind him as he headed toward an old blue Chevy truck. The hood was up and as I looked closer, noticed the man’s hands were very greasy. As we neared the truck, I asked, “Having trouble?” He turned and opened his mouth to yell at me; but I slipped past him, leaned across a rusty fender and looked over the engine. It was a filthy mess. I turned my head toward him, “No wonder this truck won’t run right, it’s in terrible shape.” He grunted and spat on the ground, “What would you know about trucks, Mr. College Student?” I smiled, “My dad is a damned good mechanic. I learned from him. If you’ll let me ask you and some of the other Gypsies a few questions, I’ll fix your truck.”
He hesitated for a moment and then said, “Okay, let’s see what you can do.” I glanced down at his pitiful collection of tools laying in the dirt, “Let me pull my car closer, I have my own toolbox. Also, you’re going to need some parts.” Ten minutes later, I gave him a list of tune-up parts, which he handed to a young man who quickly disappeared. I glanced at the older Gypsy, “How did y’all wind up in Senatobia?” He shrugged, “We follow county fairs, working as we can and do other things on our own.” He watched me suspiciously as I removed parts from the old truck, “How did you become a mechanic?” I smiled, “I learned helping one of the best mechanics in the state, my dad.” Thirty minutes later the younger guy walked up, pulling stuff from his jacket pockets. My mouth dropped open! It was obvious the guy had shoplifted what I’d asked for. I glanced over at the older guy, who shrugged, “Don’t ask, just do your thing Mr. Mechanic.”
I quickly replaced all the parts he’d brought and once the owner started the truck, put the finishing touches on a major tune-up. Once the truck was idling smoothly, the older guy’s attitude changed. He reached over and we exchanged a grimy handshake, “My name’s Emil; you do good work.” We then reached a strange accommodation; I repaired all eleven of their trucks and each one I fixed bought me an hour or so of time to ask questions. As I worked on their trucks, I set one ground rule, “No stolen parts; show me receipts for everything we’re installing.” He laughed but agreed. I returned nine days in a row and invested many hours on those trucks. I also spent hours wandering around their camp, until my notebook was almost full of entries…answered questions and personal observations. My skill as a mechanic had opened up this Band of Gypsies to me…mostly. After dark, work stopped, and the women got busy feeding everyone. I ate several evening meals with them and they took good care of me. I had never eaten Naan bread or lamb kabobs and spicy curry side dishes, but I did with them. Everything was delicious, including honey sweetened Baklava, which I gobbled down shamelessly.
On the tenth day, I parked and headed into the camp to wind up my interviews and say goodbye. Emil heard me drive up, smiled and waved me over. We walked deep into their camp, past clumps of men, women and children who now smiled and waved. Emil led me toward a large, very ornate wagon…one I hadn’t seen before. As we approached, an old man with a face brown as a leather saddle bag, broad flat nose and a long silver ponytail yelled hello. When he waved me over, I also noticed that he had tattooed forearms and silver rings on almost every finger. The man stepped down from the wagon, smiled and shook my hand, “So, you are our college student mechanic who is interested in Gypsies; come into my wagon and let’s talk.” I had no idea what an honor this was. Few outsiders ever saw the inside of his wagon, which looked like something from an Arabian night’s tale, draped with swaths of gold and blue paisley, deep crimson brocade panels and brass fixtures lighting every corner.
This old man was their king and oozed charisma. His Christian name was Hanzi, but everyone called him “Duke.” The Duke surprised me by starting our conversation thanking me for all I’d done for them. “You have saved us a lot of money and trouble and you have done so for only the cost of conversation and a few facts about who we are.” I grinned and nodded, “It is for a school paper.” He shook his head, “Why do you bother with school when you can earn a living with your mechanic’s skills?” I was surprised by that question and shrugged, “My momma wants me to get a college education. She doesn’t have much schooling and wants her kids to do better.” He smiled, “Yes, mommas are like that. You must have a good momma.” I nodded, but he saw my troubled expression, “Your momma is not well?” I looked at the floor, tears filling my eyes, unable to conceal my sadness, “Cancer. She hasn’t much time to live.” He sat silent for a bit, “Then you will need another momma soon. Come join us and we’ll become your new family.”
I sat stunned and didn’t speak for several seconds before looking up at the Duke, “That is a kind and generous offer, but I am married to a nurse and will enter the Air Force a year from now.” He casually waved a ringed left hand, “Those are unimportant details. Bring your wife with you and if she doesn’t want to come, that’s okay, we’ll find you a new, pretty wife. We will be a family like you have never experienced.” I looked down, suddenly finding my hands very interesting. The old man reached over and lightly touched my forearm, smiling at me when I looked up at him, “I have given you much to think about. Take a couple of days and then come let me know what you will do. If you join us, we will rejoice and make preparations to bring you into our Romani family. If you choose not to join us, we will mourn the loss for a time and then move on.”
As we stepped from his wagon and walked through the camp, he steered me past several beautiful young women with long, raven hair, each of whom smiled and curtsied as we passed. He patted my shoulder, “You can pick from any of these beauties, and we will build you a caravan to live in, all you need do is say yes.” The Duke walked me to my car and stood watching me drive away. It was the last time I ever saw him or the others in that camp. I did go back two days later to tell him I wouldn’t join them, but the whole band had disappeared like smoke in a strong wind. I was disappointed and relieved at the same time. I had become unexpectedly attached to those charismatic people and dreaded insulting the Duke by telling him I couldn’t accept his offer.
 a member of a traditionally itinerant people who originated in northern India and now live chiefly in Europe and in smaller numbers throughout the world: ROMANI. Unfortunately, Gypsy is mostly used in a negative way to describe a wanderer.
 Graves of the King and Queen of the Gypsies, Field Review by the Team at RoadsideAmerica.com