Gypsies in Evansville

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

Did you know that the king and queen of the gypsies lived in Evansville in the latter part of the 19th century and are buried at Oak Hill Cemetery? Let’s take a brief dip into the culture and then I’ll tell you the story.

First, terminology. Gypsy is a pejorative term, dating from the time when this ethnic culture was thought (mistakenly) to have originated in Egypt. “Roma is the word that many Roma use to describe themselves; it means “people,” according to the Roma Support Group, (RSG) an organization created by Roma people to promote awareness of Romani traditions and culture. They are also known as Rom or Romany. According to Open Society Foundations, some other groups that are considered Roma are the Romanichals of England, the Beyash of Croatia, the Kalé of Wales and Finland, the Romanlar from Turkey and the Domari from Palestine and Egypt. The Travelers of Ireland are not ethnically Roma, but they are often considered part of the group.”

It is now believed that the Roma came from India and began their westward migration about 1,500 years ago. “A study published in 2012 in the journal PLoS ONE concluded that Romani populations have a high frequency of a particular Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA that are only found in populations from South Asia.” As further proof, linguistic studies have shown that the Romany language has its roots in Sanskrit and is related to other Indian languages such as Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Punjabi.  There are an estimated 8-10 million Roma worldwide, with some 1 million in the United States. There is much more to learn about the Roma, their culture, myths about them, and how they were/are persecuted, so look at the links listed below.

This map shows the migration of Roma people from northwest India to Europe. Credit: PNAS and https://www.livescience.com/44512-gypsy-culture.html

This map shows the migration of Roma people from northwest India to Europe. Credit: PNAS and https://www.livescience.com/44512-gypsy-culture.html

Meanwhile, back to the Evansville connection.

Stanley-Harrison House, n.d. Source: Ken McCutchan collection, MSS 004-10-5.

Stanley-Harrison House, n.d. Source: Ken McCutchan collection, MSS 004-10-5.

This elaborate house was built at what became 525 East Olmstead Ave. shortly after the Civil War. (It was razed in the 1960’s.) The second set of owners were two Roma families–the Stanley’s and the Harrison’s—Isaac Harrison was married to Adam Stanley’s sister, Elizabeth.  They lived here for about 10 years before moving on.  According to a presentation given by local historian Ken McCutchan (1913-2002) in 1998,

“In the latter part of the 19th century a tribe of wealthy Romany gypsies had their headquarters in Evansville.  The leader of the tribe, a man named Isaac Harrison and his wife, Elizabeth, dubbed King and Queen of the Gypsies, owned a large tract of land along Stringtown Road near Pigeon Creek.  On the property was a large, beautiful Victorian house that they occupied when not traveling.  The house stood in the center of what is now the 500 block of Olmstead Ave.  Harrison reportedly had stables of fine horses, and once a year the members of the tribe would converge on his property and pitch their tents for a tribal convention.” (MSS 004-10-5)

Gravesite of Elizabeth Harrison, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2R6uKCK

Gravesite of Elizabeth Harrison, n.d. Source: https://bit.ly/2R6uKCK

Elizabeth Stanley Harrison (May 17, 1831-November 1895) was born in England, as was her husband, Isaac (1837-1900). Their tribe of Romany immigrated to the United States in the mid-19th century. Little more is known about them, but their funerals (particularly hers) made the headlines. Elizabeth Harrison died in Corinth, MS in 1895, but was returned to Evansville so her widespread family could gather for her funeral. Her funeral did not take place until April 1, 1896, and a crowd, said to number 6,000, showed up hoping to see a spectacle—it had been rumored that her wagons and possessions would be burned.  There was no spectacle—the service, held by a Presbyterian clergyman, was a simple one. Mrs. Harrison’s family and friends had been staying at a place called Lake Park (location not identified) and there was a huge procession of several thousand from there to the gravesite.

Four years later Isaac Harrison was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery. He died in Alabama, but only had to be held in the vault for three weeks until his burial. His death was a tragedy—he was separating his sons who were quarreling, and one of them accidentally shot and killed him. That son (Harry) fled and was persona non grata; he seems to be the only one of the clan not buried at Oak Hill.

“Today, most Roma have settled into houses and apartments and are not readily distinguishable. Because of continued discrimination, many do not publicly acknowledge their roots and only reveal themselves to other Roma.” But it’s interesting to learn about the Evansville connection!

Resources Consulted:

Bradford, Alina.  “Roma Culture: Customs, Traditions & Beliefs.”  Live Science (online), January 16, 2017.

MSS 004: Kennneth McCutchan Collection

“Roma.”  New World Encyclopedia online.  Entry last modified July 2015.

This entry was posted in Evansville, Indiana, Local history, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

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