Irish Travellers in America: Scam! Inside America’s Con Artist Clans

Who's scamming who?

Who’s scamming who?

Author Don Wright wrote and self-published “Scam! Inside America’s Con Artist Clans” back in 1996, and for some reason it is still kicking around. As you can guess, Wright had a specific meaning when he used the phrase “America’s Con Artist Clans” in the title: He was talking about Irish-American Travellers. And he would continue to talk about them for years afterward, popping up here and there in the media when the subject was discussed, claiming he had spent 15 years researching his book, claiming that he had interviewed dozens of Irish Travellers, and claiming every single one of them, man, woman, and child, was a con artist. As an example, here are a few quotes from a 2002 interview Wright did with CNN:

I’ve never met an Irish Traveler who wasn’t a con artist, and I have been associated with them for about 25 years now. …

If you talk with an Irish Traveler that you know and one who knows you, as I’ve done, and you ask that person if he has ever known an Irish Traveler who wasn’t an con artist, the answer is no. …

As you can tell from Wright’s quotes to the media, he considers the Travellers an inherently criminal enterprise, and Travellers as a whole are held to be collectively responsible for any single crime committed by anybody that Wright identifies as a Traveller.
Wright has said this sort of stuff for a while to whatever news outlet would listen. In the Dallas Morning News in 2000: “They have no legitimate source of income.” In 2002, speaking to the St. Louis Post Dispatch: “Irish and Scottish Travelers go around swindling people.” In the Indiana Post-Tribune the same year: “Their scams are just never-ending … These people are con artists from the cradle to the grave. They’re always thinking of ways to scam people.” And again in 2002, in The State in Columbia, SC: “That’s the way they were trained from birth – to be master scam artists. They are taught that anyone who is not an Irish Traveler is a potential victim.”

I don’t know what has become of Wright. There hasn’t been a peep from him in quite a while, and perhaps he is no longer with us. His book is, however, and it claims to be an in-depth look at the private world of this American ethnic group. The claims Wright makes in the book still have considerable currency and are still parroted into the unmoderated comments section of online versions of newspapers. I am convinced that Wright’s book — or his earlier writing on the subject, which appeared in RV enthusiast magazines — are the uncredited sources for the 1997 movie “Traveller,” which duplicates many of the claims of the book.

So I read the book. It was, I must say, quite a slog: Almost 500 gormless pages, with a few storylines arbitrarily spread out over the course of the book, which doubles back, again and again, to several claims: That Irish Travellers regularly engage in RV scams (this subject is worried to death over the course of the book), that they are responsible for a majority of home improvement scams in America, and, in their free time, they engage in hundreds of little con jobs and regularly shoplift.

As you can tell from Wright’s quotes to the media, he considers the Travellers an inherently criminal enterprise, and Travellers as a whole are held to be collectively responsible for any single crime committed by anybody that Wright identifies as a Traveller — although his identification is fraught with problems, which we will discuss in a moment. There are endless examples of contradictory and incomplete reportage in the book, and there is some remarkably unethical reportage as well. And this may be understandable in regards to the author, as he experiences as a writer seem limited to publishing in RV magazines — but it is simply astonishing that the mainstream press has ever treated Wright as a credible source, especially since all he had to say to them is that an entire ethnic group is simply a collection of criminals. I find it hard to believe that anybody saying the same thing about any other ethnic group would be given ink or airtime, and it says a lot about how poorly understood Irish Travellers are that Wright was not simply thrown out of the press room as a racist.

I don’t know Wright’s motives in writing this book. Charitably, I think they were honorable. I think he had seen people lose money to con artists and wanted to write a book to expose the fact. I think he stumbled on a few bad sources, a few renegade lawmen who were engaged in a mixture of conspiracy theorizing and group profiling, and he just went down a rabbit hole that he refused to leave. I expect it was exciting for Wright to believe that he had cracked a secret, that he was privy to an otherwise unknown gang of outlaws, and this is where my charity ends. Because Wright did not author a true crime book. He authored a vicious slander, supported by a chain of weak and questionable evidence, and spent years demonizing an already despised minority group. This does not make him a lone truthteller, revealing a hidden, evil world. It makes him just another version of Henry Ford republishing the anitsemitic “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or Lothrop Stoddard publishing the anti-Asian “The Rising Tide of Color.”

There are a few insurmountable problems with Wright’s book, and the largest is one of sources. He mostly relies of law enforcement and victims of scams for his interviews, and the only usable information he gets from them is that there are indeed itinerant con artists engaged in a variety of scams in the south. The people in law enforcement have wildly different and often contradictory theories about what is going on, with some calling any itinerant con artist a “gypsy,” some crediting most of the cons to the near-mythical Terrible Williamsons, and only a few evidencing any knowledge of Irish Travellers. The victims just know they have been conned. It is Wright himself who glues all of these stories together into an overarching narrative of a rampantly criminal ethnic minority.

But he doesn’t show his work. He tells of con after con after con (again, mostly involving the sales of RVs), and, whenever he names a con artist, he appends the word “Traveler” to the front of their name. But how does he know? It’s not as though the Traveller population in America has some sort of master list of members that he can consult, and he admits that the con artists travel under a variety of false names and IDs, and that few of them are ever caught. So, again, how does he know who these con artists are, where they come from, or what their ethnicity is? I suspect he worked in reverse: That is somebody engaged as a con Wright had identified as being something typical of Travellers, he went ahead and blamed them for it, especially if they had an Irish name. Never mind that the Irish are the second-largest ethnic group in America, and that much of the south was settled by Scots Irish, so it is no surprise to hear Irish names down there, and there’s no reason to assume that they are Travellers.

There are a few issues with Burke’s testimony. The first, and largest, is that Burke is a compulsive liar.
Wright does have one Traveller as a source, a character he becomes obsessed with. This is Jimmy Burke, a career con artist who Wright meets when Burke is in jail, and Burke proceeds to obsessively badmouth Travellers to him. At the outset, there are a few issues with Burke’s testimony. The first, and largest, is that Burke is a compulsive liar. Burke’s tells Wright a number of stories in which Burke lies to get what he wants, and yet Wright never seems to think that Burke might be lying to him too. This is the case even when Wright investigates the South Carolina Traveller neighborhood of Murphy Village, which Burke had described as a sort of criminal slum, and discovers it to be filled with middle class homes and professionals who are in the middle of putting down long-term roots. And yet Wright continues to believe everything that Burke tells him about Travellers, even when he admits that he had paid Burke for his testimony and sent him care packages in prison. There is reason to believe that Burke was simply telling Wright what he wanted to hear, and Wright gives us little reason to think he isn’t a gullible stooge for these stories. Burke’s own life stories feel improbable and largely fabricated, but they are reprinted without any indicated that Wright investigated them. Additionally, as a reporter, you are generally not supposed to pay your source, and if you do, the fact should be highlighted, rather then mentioned as an aside.

But even by his own testimony, Burke was an outside in the world of Travellers. He was a product of mixed marriage and spent much of his childhood away from other Travellers, who he had painful memories of treating him as a non-Traveller. His stories of adult criminality have him inevitably partnered with non-Travellers — there are points in this story when non-Traveller con artists seem to outnumber Traveller con artists two to one. But they are treated as supporting characterd, their presence unremarkable, and this is one of the most damning things about the book: For author Wright, when most people commit crimes, they are individually responsible for it, and it reflects back on nobody but themselves; when Travellers (or even outsiders with Traveller roots, like Burke) commit crimes, it condemns all Travellers, and they are collectively guilty for it.

Burke was involved in a notorious scam, an attempt to defraud Disneyland in Florida by staging a rape and then suing the company for a then-predictable incompetence in their response. This is a story that Wright returns to again and again, in florid but frequently numbing detail. The scam is inconsistent with any of those Wright describes elsewhere in the book, was cooked up by Burke and a few of his family members, all of whom were as distant from the Traveller world as he was. And yet, because Wright bookends the story with this failed con, it is held up as being some sort of culminating event, a necessary and inevitable outcome of a certain type of criminal lifestyle. Wright claims, or Burke claims, that the reason for the scheme was to pull some sort of ultimate Traveller confidence game, something that would be legendary in Traveller communities. This is never supported by any other Traveller that Wright speaks to.

Although, frustratingly, he speaks to very few. His list of acknowledgements at the end of the book spans several pages, but lists only “[s]everal members of the Traveler clans.” He does not name them, and, indeed, they do not appear in the book as unnamed sources. They are apparently just floating in the background of the book, verifying Wrights’ reportage in a way he does not feel he needs to do in the text, despite some claims that are so dubious as to be idiotic.

Most egregiously, because Travellers have a well-documented tendency to marry within their own group, Wright repeats claims that this leads to higher rates of retardation in the Traveller community. He provides no sources for this, and later claims it is common for Travellers to be born with one leg due to inbreeding. Now, there is an increased likelihood of genetic disorders in tight-knit groups, but almost all documentation regarding Travellers insists they do not marry first cousins, and neither is there any evidence of an increase in these disorders. In fact, in 2003, the National Traveller Health Strategy concluded a two year “Traveller Consanguinity Working Group” by determining that intermarriage in the Traveller Community of the British Isles had not proven to be inherently harmful and that the risks of two parents carry the same genes for certain illness can be addressed with health counseling — which was true of both the Traveller and non-Traveller communities.

A few actual Travellers do show up in the book, always protesting their innocence, always met with scoffing by Wright. Several of them contacted him after he initially published his exposes in the RV magazines, livid, accusing him of bad reportage and racism. He dismisses these, insisting that the critics are not credible, mostly because they are Travellers. It’s a wonderfully circular world wright created, where Travellers are, by their natures, con artists, and so the only thing that they can be trusted to be truthful about is their criminal activities. It doesn’t really make any sense — if anything, a con artists is more likely to lie about his or her crimes, rather than less. But it means that Wright could accept any information that supported his thesis and reject anything that didn’t, which you see him do again and again in the book. If a Traveller claims to be honest, they are a liar; if a Traveller claims to be a liar, they are telling the truth.

If a Traveller claims to be honest, they are a liar; if a Traveller claims to be a liar, they are telling the truth.
Once in a while there is a voice that contradicts Wright, and this bewilders him. Regarding the RV scam, despite Wright going on an on about it, it’s sort of hard to get a handle on what his complaint is. The con artists buy RVs directly from the manufacturers — often knock-off brands — which they then sell to the public, generally with a hard-luck story about having to let the RV go at a vastly reduced price. It’s a sketchy way to make a hard-sell, yes, and I dislike hard-sells as much as the next person. But it’s hardly unique to these so-called Travellers, as anyone who has been pressured into making car repairs they do not need can attest, as can anyone who found their car salesman tacking on all sorts of unneeded extras when a car is being sold.

Instead, the complaints mostly come from RV dealers, who complain they are being undersold. Now, firstly, despite Wright’s repeatedly claims that this is one of the primary sales ventures of Irish Travellers, he doesn’t prove it. No, these unlicensed dealers are referred to as “Gypsy” dealers by both the RV industry and law enforcement, and some of them have Irish names. Additionally, Burke claims he occasionally stole and sold RVs, and Wright just connects the dots. In his world, it must be Irish Travellers.

But he speaks to one of these RV dealers, who says that what is happening is that established RV companies are trying to lock down competition by spreading rumors, and also seem to have created a licensing system that benefits them but not independent dealers. There is some proof of this, too: One law enforcement agent advises a young couple not to buy one of these, or at least to check it out to make sure everything works on it, and is astonished when they check it out and buy the RV anyway. Wright names several of these gypsy dealers who eventually start their own licensed RV dealerships, and he reports with amazement that they have good reputations with the local Better Business Bureau. Wright and local law enforcement scratch their heads over the fact that so few of these gypsy RV owners lodge criminal complaints, and theorize that they are embarrassed to have gotten scammed, or are too ignorant to realize that they were scammed at all.

I have an alternative theory, and it is that the buyers were simply happy with their purchases. That they bought perfectly functional RVs at well below the costs they would have had to pay at an RV dealer, and even with the questionable sob story, they weren’t unhappy with their transaction. That what Wright obsessively describes as a “con” is just independent RV dealers creating their business in an environment stacked against them by an established industry. I might be wrong about this, of course, but, then, Wright hasn’t proven his case either. He hasn’t even proven these salespeople are Travellers. And, ultimately, if there are so few complaints about these RV sales, how serious is the crime? Is it really serious enough to take up so much of such a large book? Is it really so much that, by a process of inept amateur sleuthing, it should be enough to damn an entire ethnic group.

We find similar problems with Wright’s stories about home improvement scams, shoplifting, and other con games: Wright relies repeatedly on rumor, conjecture, and questionable sources. He insists criminals are Travellers without showing how he knows this to be a fact. He ignores other participants in these cons if he cannot insist they are also Travellers, as though they are incidental to the story. We end up not with a document of criminal conspiracy, but with an elaborate conspiracy theory, and any value it might have had as a warning about certain criminal activities are thoroughly undermined by the fact that Wright only cares about them if they support his thesis: That Irish Travellers are, in his words, “con artists from the cradle to the grave.”

There are a few very serious crimes described in the book. In one, a man named Billy O’Roarke wins several games of pool in Tampa and is confronted by a gang of men in the streets, demanding their money back. They beat O’Roarke so severely that he wanders into the street, where he is struck by a speeding car and killed. O’Roarke was Jimmy Burke’s brother in law.

Disgustingly, Wright treats these crimes as cautionary tales, as just being the sort of thing you should expect when you live a criminal life.
There is also the story of Peggy Burke, who reported having been raped by a police officer in Florida. The officer stalked Burke and murdered her, shooting her three times while she was sitting in a car. Peggy was Jimmy Burke’s sister.

Disgustingly, Wright treats these crimes as cautionary tales, as just being the sort of thing you should expect when you live a criminal life. There are other ways to look at it. One way is that it demonstrates that there is no racial or ethnic component to crime, but that terrible deeds are done by all sorts of people, and it is just as preposterous to claim that all Travellers are con artists based on Jimmy Burke and his family as it is to claim that all police are rapists and murders based on Peggy Burke’s awful ending. Another is that the life of any itinerant — con artist or honest dealer — is a fraught one, filled with danger, and, regardless of who you are, if you are on society’s margins you can be driven into oncoming traffic by a mob or raped and murdered by those in power.

Those are lessons worth learning. They represent a humane way to see the world, a way to see the world that is easy to research and demonstrate, a view of the world in which people on its margins are sometimes victims and sometimes victimizers, regardless of their background.

That’s not the story that Wright wanted to tell. No. Over the course of fifteen years, in what he admits in the book (but conveniently forgets to mention everywhere else), in fits and starts, with long gaps when he did no research at all, he concocted a conspiracy. And he dumped every single scrap of supposed evidence he could find, and cobbled it together with suppositions and rumors and gossip. And, from this mountain of mediocre journalism and incompetent policework, he pointed a finger at an entire ethnic group. He didn’t write a crime book, or an expose of scam artists.

He wrote a piece of hate literature.

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.