Saturday, July 25, 2009



By Sharon Cummins

July 23, 2009 6:00 AM
Gypsies who visited coastal York County every summer starting in the 1880s repeatedly stole blue-eyed children and money from the locals. Or did they?

In 1887, Kennebunkport's summer newspaper "The Wave," reported as fact "A band of Gypsies that passed through here last week had with them a little blue-eyed child that did not in the least resemble his dusty companions. Suspicion was aroused that he might have been stolen and such proves to have been the case. It was the son of James Welch of Nashua, N.H. Pursuit is now being made for the rascals and the little child will undoubtedly be rescued." After the band of Gypsies was followed up the coast by police for a more than a week, a Bath Times reporter wrote that the frantic Gypsy mother of the blue-eyed child finally presented her son's authentic birth certificate to Justice Henry Ragot of Brunswick and the judge declared her innocent of kidnapping. The Gypsies performed in Brunswick that day with their dancing bear and offered Justice Ragot all the money they collected in gratitude for his fairness. The judge refused their gift.

In 1902, Harry Clark of Beverly, Mass., scolded his four-year-old son for standing dangerously close to the kicking feet of his horse. When the father looked for him again he was gone. Immediately, Gypsies were accused of stealing the child €¦ any Gypsies. Many seaside vacationers reported seeing the captive child in Ogunquit and Kennebunk. After fruitlessly searching every Gypsy encampment in Maine and New Hampshire, the press suggested, without a shred of evidence, that it was probably the Indians who had carried little Wilbur Clark away.

To keep them close to home, children were warned, "the Gypsies will get you and turn you into a beggar," but no such case was ever proved. The King of the Stanley Gypsies was asked about this in the 1930s. He said, "Don't you think we have enough of our own children to feed? Why would we want yours?"

Gypsies traveled from Maine seaside resort to resort staying at each until they were chased away. They usually camped on the outskirts of town near fresh water brooks in elaborately painted wagons and tents. Their pet monkeys and bears entertained vacationers at the fairgrounds and along the beach roads. Gypsy women knocked on doors to tell fortunes for money and the men bred and traded some of the finest horses available. Gypsies occasionally used their bad reputation to their own benefit. Attractive fair-skinned young Gypsy girls would trick tourists out of their money by claiming to have been kidnapped and in need of money to get home to their pure, white families. Some Gypsies did cheat and steal to survive, but often they admitted to crimes they had not committed, just to be left alone.

Two Gypsy women appeared at Mrs. Waterhouse's Kennebunk Landing door in the spring of 1931 and offered to tell her fortune. The lady of the house refused to let them in. She later discovered that $20 was missing from her pocketbook and called the police.

Deputies Roland D. Parsons of Kennebunk, Orrison Davis of Biddeford, Irving S. Boothby of Saco, and George L. Simard of Biddeford located the fortune-tellers at a farm the Gypsies owned at Oak Ridge. The two women denied stealing any money but when the police threatened to take the whole band to court, the Gypsies gave them $20.

Tracing the origin of a non-literate culture like the Gypsies' presents obvious challenges. By analyzing words common to the many Gypsy dialects, linguists have traced this unique race of people to India. An Indian origin for the Romani people, as they call themselves, is also supported by recent DNA studies. Early Gypsies led semi-nomadic lives because they were not allowed to own land. Their role in the Indian caste system was to travel from town to town entertaining the upper classes. After being driven out of India around the year 1000 they were widely scattered.

Some tribes eventually established themselves in the southern Balkan countries before 1300. There, they were enslaved. Many Romani bands came to the United States in the late 1800s from Serbia when their nomadic existence was outlawed. Others immigrated after escaping Nazi Germany where half a million Gypsies were put to death during World War II.

When enforcement of zoning ordinances made a nomadic existence impractical in the United States, Gypsies gravitated toward large cities where they could more easily get lost in the crowd. Today, the descendants of the Gypsies who camped along the Maine coast are finding each other on the Internet and learning about their hidden heritage through DNA testing.

Old News columnist, Sharon Cummins, is a historical research professional in southern Maine. She can be reached by e-mail at

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