Saturday, July 4, 2015

Singleton tells of how gypsies had a reputation for snatching children

George Buster Singleton
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Arrival of gypsy caravans was a time of excitement,” was originally published in the March 21, 1996 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

Silver coins that jingle, jangle
Fancy shoes that dance in time.
Oh, the secret of her dark eyes,
They did spell a gypsy rhyme.

The time for the arrival of the gypsy wagons was usually in the early spring as the cool days of Old Man Winter slowly faded from across the countryside.

As a small boy of four, the line of slowly moving covered wagons with brightly colored banners streaming into the breezes was a sight to behold. Too young to attend school, this small barefooted boy waited patiently beside the country road for the first view of the wandering people who were sure to stop and camp down the road aways. Word that the gypsy caravan was coming always preceded the wagons by a day or so.

The old fireside tales would begin anew about how the gypsy nomads lived and how they could tell anyone’s fortune. The stories were that the gypsy women could look into the palm of your hand and read the signs of how long a person would live and if happiness or tragedy was forthcoming in their lives.

Watch small children

The farm help had strict orders to look after the small children very closely, because someone had heard that gypsy people would take small children and hide them inside their covered wagons until time to move on. Then, they would take the stolen children and raise them to be wanderers and vagabonds as they were. The story was that after a few short weeks with a gypsy family, a child who had been taken would not be recognized even by its own mother.

Everyone knew that the gypsies were a people who liked to trade. They liked to trade everything from the horses that pulled their wagons to personal jewelry. They would even trade items that they had made for chickens and eggs; milk and butter were also great items of barter. So, as the covered wagons of the gypsy people pulled into the camping area, the crowd of curious onlookers had already begun to gather.

As the gypsy camp came to order, various items that were to be up for trade would appear hanging on the sides of the covered wagons. The camping area was atop a high bank overlooking a large stream, or creek, as it was called. Here the horses could be watered easily while the gypsy band got their drinking water from a large, overflowing artisan well in the center of the camping area.

As the shadows of the evening gradually crept across the large creek and the camping area, the growing darkness was pushed aside by the light of several campfires that had been built at the front of each wagon. These small fires were kept going the entire time that the camp was there. These fires cooked the food and furnished the light for the many dances that were surely to come later in the evenings after the trading was done and the swapping had ceased.

Beside one wagon, a small tent had been erected. Here was where the fortuneteller took her customers so they wouldn’t be distracted by the goings-on around the fires as stories and events were told and retold.

Across the area, over in the edge of the camp area, the medicine woman, or healer, plied her trade. She would remove a wart or mole for a dime. She could cure a toothache by placing a piece of bark on the patient’s gum at the base of the hurting tooth. You could also get a drink of tonic that was guaranteed to rid your body of any impurities, such as boils, poison oak or poison ivy.

My grandmother always said that the old gypsy woman couldn’t do anything that she couldn’t do. So, for this reason, we never patronized the old healing woman. We knew that in due time, Grandma would bring out her remedies, and we kids knew we would take them, whether we wanted to or not.

Strange music

As the activities began to wind down, the faint sounds of a strange music began to ride the winds of the evening. As the music grew louder and faster, out of one of the wagons dashed five or six colorfully dressed young gypsy women.

A small boy of four stood spellbound at the edge of the crowd as they began to swirl and dance to the sound of the strange music. It seemed that the musicians had appeared from nowhere. They had appeared from out of the darkness into the fire-lit area as if by magic; the music and dancing grew faster and faster. The local country folks stood breathless and wide-eyed.

The dancing went on for quite some time. A tambourine was passed around and through the crowd, carried by a beautiful, dark-haired gypsy girl. A few coins could be heard hitting the sheep skin of the instrument as the local farmers coughed up what little money they could afford to give.

A small barefoot boy of four fell instantly in love as the beautiful dark-haired girl paused just long enough to bend down and kiss his cheek for a fleeting moment.

As the hour grew late, a well-dressed man in gypsy clothing stepped into the center of the dance area and announced that the festivities would continue tomorrow night. As the local folks made ready to leave, the small children were counted and all filed into the darkness, where home and soft beds awaited, with a four-year-old’s dreams of traveling with the gypsy caravan.

The gypsy wagons would camp there by the overflowing well for three or four days. A small, wide-eyed boy was always in the crowd as the swirling dancers whirled to and fro in the dim light of the evening camp fires. The small boy hoped to get a glance of the beautiful, raven-haired beauty who had won his heart in that one fleeting moment a night or so before.

But time has a way of changing all things. Gone are the days of the gypsy caravans that traveled the back country roads with their covered wagons. Gone are the communities where happiness and laughter rode the winds of the evening, as the country folks gathered for a time of fun and frolic. Where once was the overflowing well and the gypsy campground, now is an asphalt highway and a long concrete bridge across the large creek. The times of happiness that once could be found there have faded into oblivion. All that remains are a few of the memories.

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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