Irish Travellers in America: The Gipsie Encampment

1859-elysian-fields-game

Elysian Fields in Hoboken, 1859; the approximate date and location of this story.

I don’t like to use the word “tinkers” to refer to Travellers — like “pikeys” and “knackers,” the word is disparaging. But I am ever looking to find the oldest reference to Travellers in this county, and the oldest I have so far found calls them tinkers.

The article is from the New London Daily Chronicle from New London, CT, from September 1, 1851, and the text is as follows:

It would appear from several statements which we see in the New York Express that the little colony of what have been called Gipsies at Hoboken are not Gipsies at all, but a band of Irish Tinkers, who have been counterfeiting the Zingalan trade, and done it very bunglingly. A person acquainted with lingo which the Gipsies speak, has been among them, and found that they know no more of it that they do of Choctaw.
And so we look back and discover that when they were thought to be Gypsies, this particular Traveller encampment caused a surprising amount of excitement in the press.
And so we look back and discover that when they were thought to be Gypsies, this particular Traveller encampment caused a surprising amount of excitement in the press. The Daily National Intelligencer of Washington DC seems to have been the first to notice them, writing about the group on August 5, 1851. The article claimed they have recently immigrated and their point of origin was Dunham and Newcastle, England. “The women and children are said to possess the peculiar physical features of their strange race, having slender figures and an abundance of black hair,” the article reported. The men were tinkers, according to the article, and left the writer uncertain as to their future: “[I]t may be reserved to the United States to solve the problem whether it is possible, under any form of social and political institutions, to amalgamate with other races a strange order of cosmopolites, who have, immemorially, been nomadic in habit, and intolerant of any admixture with a different people.”

While the Intelligencer worried if these so-called Gypsies might ever integrate into mainstream America, the first appearance of this group in the New London Daily Chronicle is decidedly certain that trouble is ahead, writing on August 8, 1851:

Vagabonds of the worst order themselves, they will find the rowdyism of the city too much for them, and if there are not several murders within a short time we shall be very much mistaken.

At the same time, the New York Herald delighted at the possible spectacle, writing:

Those who wish to see a real novelty, and a real curiosity in this country, can do so by taking a walk on the road north of the cricket ground, above the Elysian Fields, Hoboken, where they will see, close by the margin of the adjoining grove, a small colony of genuine Gipsies, living in that filthy and degraded style peculiar to that singular, and often troublesome, class of bipeds. There are, in all, three families, numbering about twenty-five persons, young and old.

The author, despite their frankly racist misgivings, actually entered into the encampment and interviewed a few from the group. He reported that two were born in Egypt, most of the rest were from England, and two from Ireland. One of these Irishmen claimed he had joined the Gyspies in England when he was a boy, and that he was perfectly happy to be part of the group.

I┬áneed not reprint all the articles. They share a mixture of fascination and horror about the new Americans in their midst, and jokey accusations that this group is a band of thieves abound. Additionally, the word “Zincali” is thrown about here and there, or variations (this is likely what “Zingalan trade” referred to in the first story). This is from a book called “The Zincali” by George Borrows, published in 1842 and detailing the Romani people of Spain.

On August 21, 1851, the Baltimore Sun reported with some alarm that all but seven of the encampment had returned to England with the idea of gathering up more Gypsies to bring back to America with them. From that point on, the press’s attention wanes — there were no reports of murders or mass theft. Gypsies are occasionally reported as being in Hoboken from that point on, but it is impossible to tell if they are in any way related to this initial encampment.

Apparently, there was some fortune-telling, if the Middletown, CT, Constitution is to be believed. On September 3, 1851, they wrote that “Ambitious young men, and hopeful young women are particularly victimized by the old hags of the encampment.” Further, “It is contended very strongly by some that they are not gypsies, but a pack of juggling Irish.”

It’s also hard to know what to make of these stories. They are so blinkered by popular prejudices as to be nearly useless as reportage. Perhaps they were right that some in the encampment were Rom, all came from England, and some were Irish. Maybe all were Irish. I suspect their employment as tinkers is true — it shows up a few times in the stories.

Beyond that? I don’t know. The first Irish Traveller to come to the United States is supposed to have been Tom Carroll somewhere around 1849, which is just about the the members of the Hoboken encampment arrive (they tell several interviewers that they have been in America for about a year), but there is nothing to connect Carroll and this group. It’s impossible to say for sure if the Irish who are part of the group are Travellers.

Regardless, this is the oldest newspaper record I have located that identifies a group as Irish tinkers, and, uncertain though it may be in the facts it presents, it nonetheless demonstrates that America in the mid-nineteenth century already had its anti-Gypsy prejudices in place, and was ready to apply them to anyone who fit the bill, even if they weren’t sure of the group was actually Gypsy.

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Max Sparber

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