I recently wrote about a film that Jimmy Cagney planned to make but didn’t. It wasn’t described well in the sources I found, just that it was about Irish Travellers and would be a musical. I have become convinced that this was to be a film adaption of a novel called “The Three Wishes of Jamie McRuin.”
I have no solid evidence for this, but some circumstantial evidence. Firstly, the book is about two Irishmen who travel to America, one older, one younger, and Cagney’s film was to star him as an older man and Dennis Day as a younger man. Secondly, the book concerns itself with the community of Irish mule traders who met annually in Atlanta, and that was to be the subject of the film; the book explicitly references Peachtree Street, as did Cagney when talking about the film.
The entirety of Ireland’s pagan-seeming sense of the world as a mystical place comes with Jamie and his cousin, and so America becomes a land of ancient curses, holy wells, syncretic Catholicism, and antiquated courting.
The book was published in 1949, a few years after Cagney made his announcement about the film he wished to make, and so it is likely the book was being shopped around when Cagney gave his interview. And the book’s author, Charles O’Neal, was a screenwriter. I can’t find any direct connection between him and Cagney, but I have managed to get my writing into the hands of some very established actors and I am nowhere near as established as O’Neal was — in fact, O’Neal has a son who is a very famous actor named Ryan O’Neal.
I contacted the O’Neal family to see if they knew more, but haven’t heard back, and might not. So, for now, we can say that either O’Neal’s novel was the basis for Cagney’s unmade film, or it wasn’t an is just an example of the enormous coincidences that sometimes occur.
The book was made into a musical called “Three Wishes for Jamie,” but I will address that in a future essay. For now, I will discuss the book.
Firstly, a quick summary of the plot: It tells of a fanciful young Irishman named Jamie McRuin and his older cousin, a matchmaker. Jamie believes himself to have been given three wishes by the queen of the fairies: That he will travel; that he will marry the girl of his dreams; and that he will have a child who speaks Irish. Each wish comes true, after a fashion, and never in the way you might expect, and this quickly leads Jamie and his cousin to join the Irish Travellers trading mules out of Atlanta.
O’Neal told the press he had never been to Ireland when he wrote the book, and I think it shows: His Irish characters are the sorts of twee, florid, half-comic and half-cosmic figures Americans love, speaking in a lilting brogue about ancient battles and fairy folk. But O’Neal is supposed to have spent two years researching the Irish Travellers in his novel, which means that, despite it being a fiction, the novel would show an intimacy with its subjects that I have yet to find elsewhere.
The book’s Travellers are suspicious and clannish, but hard-working an honorable. They are explicitly linked with Travellers back in Ireland, who are also livestock traders, and while both groups are superstitious and quick-to-fight, the novel treats this as a typically Irish affectation, rather than one specific to Travellers. In fact, the characters who engage in the sorts of behavior usually associated with Travellers, including thieving and dishonest dealing, are the heroes, Jamie and his cousin, who are everyday Irishmen.
The book is set around the time of the Spanish-American war and shows the Travellers growing rich providing mules for the US Army — a story from Traveller history that I have read elsewhere, but have yet to find confirmation for. O’Neal has the Travellers set out in Gypsy-style caravans, taking their mules and their belongings with them and living in tents when they stop for any length of time. In his telling, the Travellers have a reputation for excellence when it comes to dealing mules, although mostly this comes from them tending to their animals and treating them well. Mules who belong to outsides are not treated as well, staved and worked to death, and one gets the sense that the real genius of the Travellers is simply that they buy mistreated animals and tend to them until they are healthy again, at which time the animals sell for a considerable profit.
O’Neal’s Travellers are fiercely Catholic — each tent has a Crucifix on the center tentpole, and an Atlanta priest is one of their few friends outside the world of Travellers. They prefer life on the road, and when their fortunes rise as a result of the war, they grow uncomfortable with the fact that this interrupts their annual perambulations around America. And they are very Irish — so much so that Jamie McRuin — with his hot temperament, flowery Irish oratory, and fantastical worldview — fits in very quickly and is accepted as a fellow Traveller, despite being an outsider.
In fact, I don’t know how correct any of this is. It is consistent with newspaper accounts of Travellers of the era, which tended to treat the group as honorable and hardworking but Gypsy-like and mistrustful. It is possible that O’Neal’s research consisted mostly of the same sort of research I do: he just read about the subject in newspapers. A Greensboro Daily News article from August 14, 1949 explicitly states that O’Neal had very little dealings with Travellers.
But, then, this book does not claim to be a documentary, and is so filled with fancy and whimsy that nobody would ever mistake it for one — there is a moment when one of the characters literally transforms into a fairyfolk. So the book is probably best understood as a fiction inspired by then-common perception of Travellers and less by real encounters.
It’s hard not to wonder how much truth there might be in the book, though. O’Neal may not have had many direct encounters, but he demonstrated himself to be a superlative researcher. For a non-native Irish speaker who had never been to Ireland, O’Neal filled “Three Wishes” with so much Irish language that he really should have provided a glossary at the back of it; based on my own experiences with the language, he seemed to use it right, too.
Ultimately, what works best in the novel is how effectively O’Neal transfers Irish myth to American soil — or, at least, his version of Irish myth. The entirety of Ireland’s pagan-seeming sense of the world as a mystical place comes with Jamie and his cousin, and so America becomes a land of ancient curses, holy wells, syncretic Catholicism, and antiquated courting.
This book proposes that staying in one place isn’t necessary for the Travellers. Wherever they step, there is Ireland.
This works because O’Neal set the story among the Travellers, even if he fictionalized them. Jamie McRuin is able to stay as Irish as he is in America because the Travellers, by very nature of the fact that they have clannishly maintained their culture, are so Irish. McRuin’s cousin carries a satchel with dirt from Ireland wherever he goes, but he really needn’t have bothered, because the Irish Travellers might as well just be carrying an Irish county around with them wherever they go.
It’s an interesting conception of Travellers, who are usually treated as being rootless and peripatetic. But this book proposes that staying in one place isn’t necessary for the Travellers. Wherever they step, there is Ireland.
One of the only books about Travellers written by somebody who has regularly interacted with their community.
I should take a moment to mention “Scammed by Society: A Moral Ethnographic Study” by John M. Stygles, a Memphis-based pastor in the United Catholic Church, who, thanks to his clerical work, has much direct experience with Irish Travellers. His book is a combination of direct observations and material drawn from other sources, many of them academic. According to Stygles, and I am paraphrasing, much of the most accurate information about this ethnic group is locked away in obscure academic texts, while what appears in more popular publishing venues tends toward gossip.
Stygles book is especially interesting in that he puts a lot of the Travellers’ social activities in the context of assimilation — or, more properly, the tools small groups use to protect themselves from becoming assimilated.
Stygles book is especially interesting in that he puts a lot of the Travellers’ social activities in the context of assimilation — or, more properly, the tools small groups use to protect themselves from becoming assimilated. This is something that sometimes seems extraordinarily difficult for many Americans to understand; they seem to be unable to conceive of why any group would not willingly abandon a cherished cultural, national, or ethnic identity in favor of joining the undifferentiated American masses. You will see it sometimes on online forums where Travellers are discussed, in the United States but also in Great Britain and Ireland, where the authenticity of the Traveller identity is often questioned or dismissed as simply being a lifestyle choice.
This is something that anyone who has a nonmainstream identity will experience. The Irish-American identity, as an example, probably couldn’t be much more popular in the United States, as it is claimed by roughly 33 million people. And yet you’ll often find people who insist that these sort of hyphenate identities are nonsense, that you are either Irish or American, and anyone who insists that the Irish have had a particular, identifiable history and culture in America is indulging in some delusional nostalgic fantasy. There is special pressure –internally and externally — for ethnic whites to give up their ethnic identity. When they refuse to do so — in fact, when they take heroic efforts to keep distinctive elements of their culture — they are sometimes met with suspicion. This is especially true when these groups engage in behavior that is seen as being exclusionary or “clannish.”
But, as Stygles points out, this behavior is the mechanism that Irish Travellers have chosen to keep their culture. They are an extraordinarily tiny group and they seem to have two anchors, the family and the Catholic Church. They have a history and a culture that is far enough outside of the mainstream that it runs a tremendous risk of simply being swallowed up, and so they keep their group identity by keeping the group small, close-knit, and exclusive. This shouldn’t be surprising, as these are precisely the tactics many similar groups use. I’ve known quite a few members of Orthodox or Fundamentalist religious sects, and they likewise tend to prefer to marry others from their own group, and mostly keep to themselves.
Nothing the Travellers do is unique to them, even given that some of it is unusual by mainstream standards, including arranged marriages, marriages at a young age, and marrying distant family members. In fact, by international standards, the Irish Travellers are in some ways decidedly mainstream: UNICEF estimates that 90 percent of marriages in India are arranged, and the practice is still common in many places worldwide; In the Middle East and African, marriage between second cousins is still common (in some nations, half of all marriages are between cousins), and Professor Robin Fox of Rutgers University estimated that 80 percent of marriages in history were between cousins. Stygles also points out that these marriages were once quite common in Ireland, and so it is not so much that Irish Travellers adopted these marriage practices to battle assimilation, but that they simply maintained these practices because they were culturally useful.
There is a tendency to exaggerate how much this happens as well. From other reports, you would think that Irish Travellers sell child brides to leering adults as soon as the girls reach puberty, but Stygles — who has officiated at these events — describes marriages between girls age 15 and up and young men in their early 20s. Certainly this is young by the standards of many Americans, but, with parental approval, these marriages are entirely legal in the states where they take place. In the context of an effort to rebut assimilation, this solution may not be ideal, but is understandable, and seems related to the Travellers’ tendency to remove their children from public school at relatively young ages. It is not because Travellers have any demonstrable preference for teen brides or despise education, but instead because the longer a child is exposed to the outside world, the greater the risk of assimilation. Again, I have often found similar stories among religious minorities, with them favoring private school and tending to marry at a younger age. And many of these groups live in relatively settled communities — imagine how much harder it is to keep a group identity when you are part of an ethnic group who are partially defined by being independent and itinerant.
Stygles also addresses the question of Traveller criminality, although he addresses it late in the book, seemingly out of a sense of unhappy obligation. He starts out by addressing Don Wright’s book, “Scam,” devoting a fair amount of space to authors who find Wright’s book to be less-than-credible, such as Larry Otway, a paralegal and activist who has worked with Travellers since 1977. Otway dismisses the books as being an example of writing about Travellers by “sensationalist press, authors without credentials, or the police.” Otway makes no bones about his belief that Wright has no credibility as a writer, and decries his book as factually inaccurate.
“Everybody always knows of a better deal,” he says, “but we get holding the bag for their complaint …”
Stygles own discussions with Irish Travellers has them distressed by these charges, arguing that while there are some who self-identify as Travellers and are criminals, “they don’t belong to this community.” Worse still, because of warnings about Travellers engaging in home-repair scams, one complains that he finds himself ob the receiving end of a bad deal. He will meet with somebody to do some work, agree on a price, and then, when the work is done, they will complain that they have decided they are being overcharged. “Everybody always knows of a better deal,” he says, “but we get holding the bag for their complaint …” The Traveller ends up getting paid considerably less than was agreed upfront, or sometimes must eat the cost of the job altogether or face unsympathetic police officers. This happens often enough that the subject of the interview finds himself wondering who the real con artists are — the Travellers, or the people who demand a cheaper or free job once the work has already been started or is complete.
This is a side of the story we never hear. Even contractors who were for established companies with stable headquarters regularly must deal with clients who default on payments, and the history of itinerant and migrant employment is one of relentless abuse directed toward the worker. Don Wright, in “Scam,” was quick to do some back-of-the-envelope math and come up with the preposterous figure that Travellers are responsible for a billion dollars in stolen revenue per year, but he didn’t bother to investigate how often scrupulous or competent itinerant workers are paid less than the agreed price, or not paid at all. He didn’t consider the possibility that some of those who claimed to have been scammed might themselves be justifying their decision to refuse to pay an itinerant worker.
Of course, part of the issue is that Travellers don’t have any sort of united mechanism for presenting their experience — there is no Anti-Defamation League for Travellers. Not that they don’t individually address these charges — the Amazon page for Wright’s “Scam” has a review from someone who claims to be a Traveller and criticizes the book for being “based entirely on hearsay.” I see these sorts of comments often; Travellers are not entirely mum on their own experience, although they do tend to prefer anonymity when commenting. But the Travellers are famously private, and, moreover, approach decision-making with what Larry Otway described to USA Today as being anti-bureaucratic and based on “consensus democracy.” Couple this with a culture that discourages extensive contact with non-Travellers and it is easy to imagine that Travellers would not feel comfortable taking on the role of community spokesperson, not would they feel the need to constantly answer ludicrous charges from outsiders based on gossip and conjecture.
One woman’s experience 80 years ago; apparently still applicable.
You don’t often find Irish-Americans referring to Irish Travellers, but I did find a February 14, 1908, article in the Washington DC Evening Star in which the Gaelic League of the District of Columbia invited a speaker, Dr. Joseph Dunn, to speak about Shelta, the language of Irish Travellers. He “illustrated his talk with specimens of their written and spoken language.” From other publications I learn that Dunn was Professor of Celtic and Lecturer on Romance Philology at the Catholic University of America.
There are some sizable word lists of Shelta online, including one at the at-the-moment kaput Travellers’ Rest, although author Richard J. Waters cautioned that the list consists of words that are no longer in wide use, so that modern Shelta can stay the private language of the Travellers.
There have been occasional non-Travellers who have developed an interest in the Traveller language, such as folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland, who I have mentioned before. Online slang books regularly reference Cant, another name for Shelta, although almost always as examples of the language of criminals. There are some sizable word lists of Shelta online, including one at the at-the-moment kaput Travellers’ Rest, although author Richard J. Waters cautioned that the list consists of words that are no longer in wide use, so that modern Shelta can stay the private language of the Travellers. I shall likewise respect this privacy, and so will simply discuss the moments when the press became aware of the language without revealing too much about the language itself. I couldn’t anyway, as I am neither a linguist nor versed in Shelta, although I understand some of it is derived from Irish.
In 1946, journalist Westbrook Pegler, writing for the Idaho Statesman, mused on the doubletalk and
bafflegab of politicians, mentioned an Irish-American tradition he had heard about called “swerve” in Boston, which consisted almost entirely of nonsense phrases. Pegler dug deeper and discovered Shelta, and, upon being informed that there were still speakers of the language in New York, set out to find some. He fails to find any and ends his article asking “why the tribe of tinkers vanished from the earth.”
Of course they hadn’t, although interest in the use of the language mostly languished, but for some scholarly interest in it. Joey Lee Dillard mentioned use of the language in 1985’s “Toward a Social History of American English,” where he claimed that most American Irish Travellers spoke Cant, a derivative of Shelta consisting of about 150 “secret words,” and few could speak the more than 1,000-2,000 Irish-derived words of Shelta. I’m not sure how correct this is, or even if there is any way to gauge its accuracy, without communities of Travellers who are willing to discuss the language and its usage, and that seems unlikely.
There was an uptick in discussion of the language after the release of “Traveller” in 1997, such as a series of letters written to The Dallas Morning News on October 10, 1997, in response to an article about itinerant con artists. The helpful but bigoted letter writers wanted to alert the author to the fact of Irish Travellers, Murphy Village, the movie “Traveller,” and the language Shelta, which one letter writer, with supreme confidence in their own unsourced knowledge, claimed is a “kind of a backward slang — ‘pig Gaelic’ — invented by Gaelic-speaking tinkers a couple of centuries ago to confuse the Irish and Scottish authorities.”
A 2000 truck accident that killed five young Travellers also brought the language to the fore, as newspapers caught a whiff of controversy when family members proved less than eager to talk to the press, especially as some of the boys may have had false IDs. The Dallas Morning News, in a story on January 23 of that year, wrote “The discrepancies fanned long-held suspicions that the Irish Travelers are more than they seem. Don Wright, an Elkhart, Ind., writer who spent more than a decade investigating the group, says they’re accomplished professionals at running assorted home-improvement scams and other frauds.”
We’ll come back to Don Wright, a travel writer and self-declared expert on Travellers who has probably been the single-most pernicious defamer of Travellers, ever eager to get in front of cameras and claim that every single Traveller is a criminal. But for now, back to the article:
They share a secret language – alternately called Shelta , Gammon or Cant – a linguistic cauldron with roots in English, Gaelic, Hebrew and Greek. It can still be heard on certain citizens band radio channels.
And this is how it goes: News articles that insist Travellers are a criminal conspiracy then bundle their language in as part of that conspiracy, implying if not stating outright that the language is mechanism for hiding their wrongdoings. The New York Daily News provided a depressing example of this in writing about Madelyne Toogood, the woman who was caught on camera beating her child in 2002. “Monster Mom is the Product of a Sad Irish Subculture” read the September 24 headline, authored by Denis Hamill, an author of thrillers who had written a book called “Fork in the Road” which tells the story of an Irish-American who falls in love with a Traveller in Ireland, who turns out to be a thief from a family of thieves. Hamill presents himself as being an expert on the subject and insists that Toogood isn’t an aberration, but comes from a world ” where women and children are often abused.”
He offers no evidence, although he claims he met many “tinkers” (a word he insists on using despite admitting that it is considered pejorative) when he spent a semester in school in Dublin, and “there was something sad, lost and heartbreaking in the eyes of many tinker children.” Apparently, one semester in Dublin and seeing a few sad-looking children is enough to make him a specialist in the subject, although he also cites a book called “Nan: The Life of an Irish Traveling Woman,” which he describes as definitive. In fact, in “Fork in the Road,” he credits the book as one of his primary sources, and in the article Hamill claims the book “reveals a life of squalor, beatings, infant mortality, childhood illnesses, alcoholism, incest, illiteracy and general unbearable sadness.”
The idea that we can take this story and extrapolate from it some universal description of Traveller experience, much less apply it to a woman in America 70 years later, is ludicrous, but this is exactly what we see happen repeatedly with Travellers.
Firstly, to get this out of the way, “Nan” is the story of one Traveller, mostly set during the 1930s, in Ireland and England, and the abuse she suffers is almost entirely at the hands of one man, her second husband, an alcoholic. The idea that we can take this story and extrapolate from it some universal description of Traveller experience, much less apply it to a woman in America 70 years later, is ludicrous, but this is exactly what we see happen repeatedly with Travellers.
Hamill has this to say about Shelta: “The research for this novel was complicated because very little has been written about this subculture, the history of which exists almost entirely in oral tradition, and which has its own impenetrable language called Gammon or Shelta, a kind of Gaelic pig Latin.”
I can’t help but read a sort of casual contempt in this phrase. There is evidence that Shelta dates back quite far. As early as 1904, Irish scholars were noting that Shelta seems to have more in common with Old Irish than modern Irish, which puts its origins back somewhere around 900 AD. Modern English, by comparison, only dates back to about 1500 AD. While the sorts of Shelta words that are regularly published do seem to involve some pidgin language uses and some backslang, it is a private language used by a private culture, and so little of it is broadly known outside the Traveller communities.
I generally feel it is a good idea to be cautious when discussing a language you know little about from a culture you’ve mostly read about, and calling the language a “Gaelic pig Latin,” especially as part of an article that argues that Travellers everywhere are impoverished, pathetic, and abusive, is not that.
As you may have noticed, part of the difficulty in surveying news stories about Irish Travellers is that the press gave them so many names, and knew so little about the group, that stories about Travellers appear under a variety of search terms (just the endless ways newspapers chose to spell “Gypsy” is enough to have the researcher buffaloed), and it can be hard to tell if the story is about Travellers or just about itinerant Irishmen.
It is very possible that the earliest stories about Irish Travellers in America had them identified as “Irish pedlars,” but I base this on a March 19, 1794, article in the Philadelphia Gazette that spoke of pedlars in the contemptuous way Travellers are historically spoken of, and name them with the nationalities we now identify as Traveller. I quote: “Would a farmer differ with his wife & daughter about the pedlar they would give a preference to in purchasing their gewgaws; whether they would employ the English, Scotch, or Irish pedlar when one of them was stealing the sheep, and wantonly sporting with the property on the farm. No, certainly they would unite and drive the thief off.”
This is actually not the earliest mention I find of Irish pedlars. Decades earlier, on August 22, 1771, the Boston News-Letter printed the following ad:
Stolen out of a Pasture in New York, last Monday Night, a large black Mare, with a strip of white in her Face, and some on her Legs, Wall Eyes, Paces mostly — the Person supposed to have stole her, is a small Irish Pedlar. Whoever apprehends said Thief, so that the Mare may be had again, shall have SEVEN DOLLARS Reward, and and all necessary Charges paid by me, JOHN CARLILE
The defense pointed out that McArdle had suffered a fire and his property had been stolen, and offered testimony that Hunt had indeed stolen it, and McArdle was found not guilty.
It’s interesting to me that the Old World prejudice against Irish Travellers seems to have been transported to the New World — I will note that while both these articles accuse pedlars of crimes, in the first case it is simply based on suspicion, and in the second case it is simply as a rhetorical move.
By the 19th century, the Irish pedlar was a well-known enough character in the United States to appear in jokes, such as the following, printed in the Boston Daily Advertiser on September 3, 1823, and widely reprinted after that:
An Irish travelling merchant, alias a Pedlar, asked an itinerant pouleter the price of a pair of fowls. “Six shillings Sir.” “In my dear country, my darling, you might buy them for sixpence a pace.” “Why don’t you remain in your own dear country, then?” “Case we have no sixpences, my jewel,” said Pat.
We have not met an actual Irish pedlar yet, and the first one to appear is one Peter McArdle in a property dispute published in the New York American in 1825. There’s not much to the story: McArdle seems to have been in a dispute with one Mrs. Elizabeth Hunt over some missing property, and when Hunt denied having it, he allegedly assaulted her. The defense pointed out that McArdle had suffered a fire and his property had been stolen, and offered testimony that Hunt had indeed stolen it, and McArdle was found not guilty. So, again, a story of a crime, but in this instance our pedlar was not only not guilty, but was, himself, victim of a crime.
From this point on, there are a series of criminal complaints, the most notorious of which was the 1843 murder of Ebenezer Bacon, a wealthy farmer who was stabbed to death during a robbery. Two Irish pedlars, William Bell and Bethuel Roberts, were arrested, and Roberts — an alcoholic suffering from Delirium tremens — confessed. “The Solemn Sentence of Death: Capital Punishment in Connecticut” by Lawrence B. Goodheart summarized the case: Bell and Roberts looked likely to be hanged until Lucian Hall, an ex-convict, confessed. For a while, it looked like all three would go to the gallows, despite the fact that Bell and Roberts now maintained their innocence. Finally, Hall offered up a confession exonerating the other two, and they were released.
Let me note again that I cannot say for sure that anybody in these stories were Irish Travellers. They are identified as Irish pedlars only, although this is almost universally associated with a rootless, itinerant lifestyle, which eventually took simultaneous pedagogic and poetic form in the 1850 book “Old James, the Irish Pedlar,” written by Mary B. Tuckey, a native of Cork, for the American Sunday School Union. I won’t say too much about it, as it was written and is set in Ireland, but it’s interesting that it is meant for an American audience. It presents the character of an Irish pedlar whose peripatetic lifestyle both mirrors and teaches the story of Christ.
Multiple stories in 1875 tell of peddler Pat K. Laferty, who was found in the woods near Memphis with a bullet in his skull, robbed of his possessions, and nearly completely devoured by pigs and dogs.
It could also be a dangerous life, as the Alexandria Gazette pointed out on July 4, 1851, when it told of an Irish pedlar who was found naked and dead on the side of the road by some passers-by, who decided he had died of smallpox and buried him on the spot. The grave was reopened some time later and revealed that he was murdered, and that his belongings were later found on someone else. The following year the Connecticut Courant published a December 11 story about an Irish pedlar was “assailed and throttled” by two armed robbers; they made off with $75 cash and $100 worth of jewelry — about $5000 total in today’s money. Multiple stories in 1875 tell of peddler Pat K. Laferty (sometimes Klaftery), who was found in the woods near Memphis with a bullet in his skull, robbed of his possessions, and nearly completely devoured by pigs and dogs. It’s not surprising to discover that peddlers, who carried a lot of cash and merchandise, were the targets of theft; the future would bring many stories of Irish peddlers who are robbed and sometimes murdered. I would document more of these — and there are many — but for the following fact:
In the 1850’s, the spelling of pedlar converts to the more familiar peddler, and increasingly seems to reference immigrant Irish who sell miscellaneous supplies in their neighborhoods, rather than the itinerant travelling pedlars of the earliest stories. These characters are caught up in the hum and thrum of city life, and the press treats them about as it treats the rest of the Irish community, and immigrants in general: Sometimes as victims, sometimes as criminals, sometimes as local color. Once in a while there is a hint that the Irish peddlers may be Travellers, or still associated with Travellers, such as a March 10, 1871, society story in the Vermont Phoenix that told of a social event that included costumed presenters, including an Irish peddler and a Gypsy woman “in their antique costumes,” which hints that the peddler in this instance was seen as being a sort of kin to the Gypsy.
We start seeing an increasingly theatricalized Irish peddler from this point on. Irish dialect comics added peddlers to their collection of comic characters, such as Vaudevillian Roger Imhoff, who toured in 1917 with a sketch in which an Irish peddler has a troubled stay at an inn overnight; the sketch was called “The Pest House.” There were also more traditional theatrical versions, such as the comic opera “The Highwayman” from 1905. Perhaps the last example of the stage Irish peddler was a children’s play called “Run, Peddler, Run” that debuted in 1939 at Princeton and proceeded to enjoy productions for the next few years at America high schools. This, in turn, was based on a novel, “Bound Girl of Cobble Hill” by Lois Lensky, published in 1937 and telling of an “bound girl” — a sort of indentured servant — in Connecticut in the 1780s. From what I can tell, at least in the stage version, the titular girl is the sister to an Irish peddler, and the play is about his attempts to find her.
I will close with exactly the same caveat that I opened with — that it is extremely difficult to decide whether Irish Travellers are the subjects of news stories, because they were so poorly understood and there was such a variety of words used for them. But there are some lessons we can take from looking at the stories Irish pedlars. Firstly, they were certainly viewed with the sort of mixture of suspicion and romanticization that Irish Travellers were (and are). But, more importantly, despite the fact that they were often treated as an especially criminal class, they were often the victim of false allegations and real crimes, as they were especially good targets for robbers. We’ve seen this in other circumstances — the mentally ill and the homeless, as an example, who are still often treated as potential sources of crime or violence, but tend to be victims of crime and violence far more often than they are perpetrators.
I don’t know how often Travellers are targets of crime and violence — the press is happy to identify their ethnicity when they are suspects of crimes, but doesn’t seem to have the same eagerness when they are victims.
Before you write about Irish Travellers, ask yourself a few questions.
Hello, journalists! Spring is right around the corner, and there is a good chance your newspaper is going to try to tackle that hoary spring cliché, the story of how Irish Travellers are descending on your town to bilk old people with a series of con jobs.
Please stop and read the following. Because you run the very real risk of writing an inaccurate piece that slanders an ethnic minority in this country.
There is a good chance that a representative of law enforcement, the Better Business Bureau, or a self-declared expert on con artists will have brought the story to you, and their press release will sound authoritative. It will identify Irish Travellers as an itinerant dynasty of roving con artists who travel America in the warmer months committing a variety of crimes, including home improvement scams.
A cursory search of earlier news stories will produce an abundance of similar stories, all telling roughly the same story. And so you’ll set to work, warning your readers to watch out for these modern-day mobile thieves and their nefarious ploys.
Before you write this article, please stop and read the following. Because you run the very real risk of writing an inaccurate piece that slanders an ethnic minority in this country. So before you begin, let me ask the following:
1. Is the ethnicity of the scam artists essential to the story?
This should always be your first question — it is, in fact, a well-established principle of journalistic ethics. The Poynter Institute’s Keith Woods pointed out that identifying a subject’s race or ethnicity rarely has any intrinsic value and instead tends to reinforce stereotypes.
Irish Travellers are repeatedly painted as being a criminal class, but this is an identification that has no evidence to back it up. I defy any organization to produce any statistics that show that Irish Travellers perpetrate crimes at any higher rate than anybody else. Their ethnicity has no bearing on the story, but printing it reinforces some longstanding and hateful stereotypes about the group, some of them borrowed from racist stereotypes about Roma Gypsies, who are not related to Irish Travellers.
2. Are you sure the con artists are Irish Travellers?
If you decide that their ethnicity is, in some way, essential to the story, have you determined that the subjects of the story are, in fact, Irish Travellers? Author Richard J. Waters, author of the Travellers’ Rest website, has pointed out that con artists are often identified as Irish Travellers without any evidence whatsoever, based on them being itinerant, working in home repair, and driving a pickup truck.
Do not presume that law enforcement officials or self-declared experts have any real expertise in this. There is a long and tragic history of these agencies profiling entire groups as criminal, and it is our job as journalists to make certain we do not pass along this profiling uncritically.
“Irish Traveller” is not just another word for itinerant con artist; it describes a specific ethnic group. If someone claims they were conned by Irish Travellers, ask them how they know, and, keep in mind, even if the con artist identified as a Traveller, they are a con artist, and should not be taken at their word.
3. Is there a reason to link them to Murphy Village or another Traveller neighborhood?
Police enforcement officers will often mention Murphy Village, which is predominantly Traveller, and it is tempting to use that fact in the story. But unless the con artists have been proven to be Traveller, have been proven to come from a Traveller neighborhood, and these facts are essential to the story, publishing the name of the neighborhood merely serves to criminalize an entire group of people.
4. If you are going to publish information about Irish Travellers, are you sure of your source?
Don’t simply assume that because something was published, it is correct. Irish Travellers in America make a virtue of privacy, and so very little information about them comes from real Travellers. As a result, a lot of misinformation, or information that lacks context, is out there.
It is incumbent on journalists to approach this subject with extreme caution, as they would writing about any poorly understood minority culture. If you can’t track down the source of a fact about Travellers, or if that source is someone who has limited or no direct, long-term experience with Travellers, you may be reprinting slander.
Generally, it is advisable to have somebody from the minority group vet your writing, but this may be impossible with Travellers, who prefer not to talk to the press. You may be able to report around this by speaking to members of the community that regularly interact with Travellers — Priests, as an example — but it is also worth asking if the private world of the Travellers is essential to the story, and, if not, leave it out.
5. Are you sure a crime has been committed?
A whole range of behavior is often classified as flim-flammery where Travellers are concerned. There is a difference between overcharging or doing shoddy work and committing a real crime. Be cautious in conflating these things. If everyone who overcharged could be arrested, then inner-city convenience stores are engaged in a massive criminal conspiracy. If shoddy work were a crime, then most of us would have looked at prison time at one moment in our life or another.
Additionally, it is worth recognizing that itinerant workers will often refund money or pay fines when they are innocent of any wrongdoing, simply to speed up the process of moving on to their next job. Being held over in a town not only prevents an itinerant worker from making any new income, but can actually cost a lot of money thanks to hotel costs, parking fees, etc. The fact that an itinerant worker left quickly — even if they jumped bail — should not be assumed to be an admission of guilt, but rather a decision that was forced by the economics of the profession.
6. Is it necessary to bring up other cases?
There will be a temptation to mention high-profile cases, like that of Madelyne Gorman Toogood, who was caught on video abusing her child in 2002. But there is no evidence that Travellers are abusive toward their children in any greater number than any other group, and mentioning unrelated cases simply perpetuates the idea that there is something inherently criminal about Travellers.
Knowing this …
By all means, write a story about itinerant con artists who commit home repair scams. They do exist and readers should be alert to the various scams they perpetrate. But before you associate Irish American Travellers with these scams, please remember to ask these questions:
Is the ethnicity of the con artist essential to the story?
Are you sure the con artists are Irish Travellers?
Is there a reason to link them to Murphy Village or another Traveller neighborhood?
If you are going to publish information about Irish Travellers, are you sure of your source?
Are you sure a crime has been committed?
Is it necessary to bring up other cases?
Asking and answering these questions will make sure that you have been appropriately diligent in reporting your story, and will help make sure that you are reporting conscientiously and ethically, and not perpetuating stereotypes and slanders about a little-understood ethnic group.
A photo of Travellers’ Rest author Richard J. Waters from his site.
I don’t know when the website Travellers’ Rest disappeared off the web — it seems to have been recently, as I recall looking at it in the last year, but now it’s a placeholder with some advertising on it. I know the author, Richard J. Waters, had health problems, and I hope he is well and that Travellers’ Rest returns. (I have emailed to check on both the status of the site and the author; if I get a response, I shall update this entry.) If not, well, it is still available via the Internet Wayback machine, and worth reading.
On the site, he often took on the role of a gadfly, referring to news stories about Travellers and dismantling them, pointing out how little real information was in them and how many relied on repeating slanders about Travellers.
Waters self-identifies as a Traveller, and, as a result, this is the only extended document I can find of the Traveller experience from an insider — of a sort. Waters’ mother was a Traveller, and he spent extended time with his extended family in his childhood, but he is extremely cautious to point out the limitations of his experience and to defer to the wishes of Travellers who were raised more fully within the group. Waters was notorious for turning down interviews with the press, saying, on no uncertain terms, that he was not a spokesperson for Travellers and would not take that position. He also expresses a deep, and, I think, well-deserved distrust for the press. On the site, he often took on the role of a gadfly, referring to news stories about Travellers and dismantling them, pointing out how little real information was in them and how many relied on repeating slanders about Travellers.
Waters also provides an index of Cant words, although a deliberately dated one, stripped of Cant that is used by contemporary Travellers. This pained him, as he worried that the language would be lost, but he respected the wishes of others that it be kept private.
And Waters repeatedly stressed the privacy of the Traveller community, writing:
I was taught that the highest praise among Travellers (for Travellers and Country People alike) is “He (or she) tends to his (or her) own affairs.”
Waters often seemed concerned that he was not being sufficiently respectful of the affairs of other Travellers, and admitted that, when he started the site, he received some pushback from Travellers; however, as the site continued, he received a lot of supportive emails from Travellers. And while Waters would not speak to the press, he was more than happy to clear up misconceptions about Travellers from people who directly emailed the site; these sometimes wound up getting quoted in news stories.
Imention Travellers’ Rest because I too will be citing it, and because it is a marvelous resource, and because it serves as a reminder that, by pursuing this line of inquiry on my blog, I am not tending to my own affairs. Of course, I am not a Traveller, and was raised in an environment with different standards of privacy and where curiosity was encouraged. But, nonetheless, when addressing a group that you are not part of, it is important to respect their boundaries. As I have mentioned earlier, this project is primarily intended as a critical survey of information already published about the Traveller population in America, and not as a sociological project or a mechanism for uncovering and sharing secrets about the Traveller population.
The more research I do about Travellers, the more I realize how atrocious the media has been in regard to this group, and how much generalized prejudice there is against them
But I do think my project is important, because the more research I do, the more I realize how atrocious the media has been in regard to this group, and how much generalized prejudice there is against them. I come from an environment that believes that it is the obligation of the majority to respect and protect the rights of the minority. It is our job to educate ourselves about a minority group to the level of familiarity they are comfortable with, and represent them accurately, and speak out when they are slandered or misrepresented.
Especially as a journalist, I am shocked by how often newspapers identity con artists, without documentation, as Irish Travellers, and link them with Murphy Village, and uncritically repeat statements by police that represent Travellers as a whole as being a criminal operation. It violates a basic ethical principal in journalism, which is that you don’t name the race or ethnicity of a subject in a story unless it is essential to the story — and, with crime, not only is it almost never essential, but the act of labeling a criminal by their race or ethnicity just encourages bigotry.
I may not be able to document the inner world of the Irish American Traveller, both because of my lack of knowledge and their disinterested in being documented. But I certainly can look at how the media has represented them, and point out gaps in our knowledge, and point out when they have been misrepresented. It shouldn’t be their job to fix what they didn’t break — namely, the way they are treated by the press. It should be our job.
My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding: Not the most respectful title.
I recently watched the only episode of TLC’s “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” to address Irish Travellers in America, and did so with some trepidation. The original Chanel 4 documentary series that inspired this, which mostly followed several families of Travellers in Ireland, has been widely criticized, and the clips I have seen from it seem crass and exploitative.
[The program] had a garish, freakshowish quality to it, as though the producers considered the subjects to be closer to characters from MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” and not a poorly understood and widely despised minority group whose experiences should be addressed with enormous caution.
I wouldn’t say the American version is better — a second storyline in the same episode, following a small group of Romanichal gypsies, had a garish, freakshowish quality to it, as though the producers considered the subjects to be closer to characters from MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” and not a poorly understood and widely despised minority group whose experiences should be addressed with enormous caution.While ordinarily there is nothing inherently harmful in showing a small group of teenagers dancing and trash talking, but when presenting it in this context, it becomes representative behavior — audiences can be expected to assume that this is just the sort of thing Gypsies do. Individual members of a minority group are often held as being representative of that group, and the group is held accountable for their behavior, in a way that doesn’t happen with non-minorities.
We also see the story of Tamara, an 19-year-old non-Traveller about to marry into a family of Travellers from Murphy Village, and while her story is presented with a sort of an uncomfortable leering, there is a degree of remove. For the most part, the Murphy Village Travellers did not consent to be filmed or interviewed, and so they are mostly represented by Tamara’s fiance, a cheerful and somewhat nondescript fellow named Bill, and to a smaller extent by Bill’s father, who looks like a middle manager at an insurance company. Almost everything we learn about Travellers comes from Tamara, who presents herself as having an expertise in the subject that seems superficial. She is, after all, extremely young and we are given to believe her contact with Murphy Village has been brief and not-entirely welcoming. She earnestly wants to fit in, and so attempts to recreate some Traveller traditions, but it is very hard to tell how accurately she is doing this.
When the narrator speaks, it always sounds as though she were describing some sort of alien, primitive culture, but the Murphy Village Travellers look like the sort of people you would see in any suburb anywhere
The whole of it is presented with a sort of pseudo-sociological narration that always irks me. The narrator tries to explain the reasons behind certain traditions — and the show focuses on what it presents as ostentatious displays of wealth on the part of the Travellers. We’re informed, in no uncertain terms, that these displays create a pecking order in the Murphy Village, and are meant to display a groom’s ability to provide for his bride. Maybe — but I find the reason for any public ritual is often complex and sometimes contradictory. Moreover, when the narrator speaks, it always sounds as though she were describing some sort of alien, primitive culture, but the Murphy Village Travellers look like the sort of people you would see in any suburb anywhere, and Murphy Village itself looks like any newer, McMansion-filled suburb, but for a larger-than-average number of front yard shrines to the Virgin Mary.
I mean, rituals are often ostentatious and theatrical, but it is part of the great American tradition to look at other people’s rituals and declare them tacky, and to treat other people’s wealth as suspicious. And so the episode gives us two rituals, one a baby shower called a “jewelry party,” where the new infant is displayed with gold chains and blinged-out baby shoes, and the wedding itself, which is presented on a stage outside Bill Sr.’s house and involves dancing and the recitation of boastful poetry. Neither of these are given any useful context — instead, they’re treated as a bizarre artifact of a people who are still ancient and foreign. At one point, during the jewelry party, the voice-over intones that these events are not attended by men, as child-raising is still treated as being the women’s domain. Maybe so, but in mainstream society, baby showers are still typically female-only events, so it is not as though this were proof that the Travellers exist in some sort of pre-suffrage wax museum.
That being said, the show avoids a lot of the typical accusations thrown at the Travellers of Murphy Village, and that was a relief. And while the show suffers from how much of it comes from Tamara’s limited perspective, I think it is fair to assume that she wasn’t flying completely blind — she has her dress made by Sondra Celli (whose oversized design sensibilities I find delightful; she should have dressed Divine), and Celli has a long history of working with Irish Travellers and seems to think that Tamara has a pretty fair notion of what she’s talking about. So I expect the jewelry party is a real thing and that the wedding is about the way weddings go, including the dancing, which looked to me a bit like something you would see in a 1960s beach movie, with a lot of hip shaking and pointing of fingers.
There is poetry at the wedding, which the show insists is tradition, and we meet a young man who writes poetry for these events who is a Traveller, so I think we can assume that this is true. I don’t know if his poetry is representative, but it’s an awful lot of fun — a bit like the sort of rhyming boasts that the African-American community invented called toasts, which formed the basis of modern rap. Tamara insists on calling her groom’s neighborhood Murphy’s Village, and I haven’t heard that before, but nobody corrects her and so I assume that’s a common enough way to refer to it or that Tamara is just getting it wrong and nobody is bothered by this.
Because the Travellers of Murphy Village refused to take part in the episode, most of what we get are gaps in understanding and guesswork, and we learn very little about the world of Irish Travellers.
Because the Travellers of Murphy Village refused to take part in the episode, most of what we get are gaps in understanding and guesswork, and we learn very little about the world of Irish Travellers beyond the few rituals that Tamara recreates. And I think this is useful to keep in mind. I know Irish Travellers in America have a history of being recalcitrant about speaking to outsiders, but I think this is based in well-earned concern — not only have Irish-Travellers been mistreated in Ireland, but they are treated as a criminal conspiracy by police and subject to frankly bizarre rumors from the general population, and the press has proven uncomfortably eager to treat both the police and the public as authorities, rather than the Travellers themselves.
Tamara has said in interviews that her goal in approaching TLC about appearing on the show was to expose the Traveller culture to a broader audience, and I believe her goal was noble, but reality television has a long history of manufacturing spectacle, conflict, and controversy, and I can’t blame anyone from recusing themselves from appearing on it. Further, the British version of the show wasn’t especially sensitive in its presentation of Irish Travellers; why would the residents of Murphy Village assume that the American version would do any better?
It’s a shame, too, because Tamara really seems like she was taken with Traveller culture and really wanted to represent it well, both to the television audience and to the Travellers themselves. But, then, no American culture is under any obligation to open themselves to public scrutiny. As I go ahead with this project, I will try to stay aware of and respectful of this fact, and continue to approach the subject as I already have — to survey and summarize what is already in the public record. If Irish Travellers wish to reach out to me to fill in some details or correct some facts, I am amenable to this, but that is entirely their prerogative. If they want to be left alone, they have that right.
It is impossible to study the history of American Travellers without realizing that their history runs parallel to, and is often conflated with, that of a collection of con artists collectively known as the Terrible Williamsons. While this group certainly existed, it’s a bit hard to separate fact from fiction with them, as they existed as an oversized bogeyman for the police in the mid-20th century. Their legend is an appealing one, as they were supposedly a dynastic family of con artists who could look back to a single ancestor, who was described by the Saturday Evening Post in a story in 1956, reproduced, in part, below:
The first Williamson to cross the Atlantic Ocean and arrive in the United States was Robert Logan Williamson. He first lived in Brooklyn, NY, about 1890 and there he married a woman, who had emigrated from Scotland. He and the little woman had many children. He wrote to family back home in Scotland about how easy it was to con people here. Assorted related family named; McDonald, McMillan, Gregg, Stewart, Johnston, and others also moved here in large numbers and by 1914 and set about their unique employment.
The Williamson story is so large, so majestic, that I have no idea how much of it to take with a grain of salt
According to the article, the Williamsons claim to be Presbyterian but do not attend church, they speak with thick Scottish burrs, and they marry their cousins. They belong to Masonic lodges and they tend to use the same first name and surname to confuse police. “There appears to be a connection with a company named Sweeney & Johnson in Cincinnati, Ohio, founded in 1865 by a pair of Irish born salesmen,” the article states, “which dealt in wholesale by mail order.”
Finally: “The bulk of the clan return yearly to Cincinnati, Ohio, to honor their dead and hold a convention. Each family owns and maintains a family plot in Spring Grove Cemetery, Cincinnati.”
The Williamsons do tend to show up a lot in newspapers, and tend to be treated as semi-legendary creatures. I have been seeing them a lot as I research Irish Travellers. For instance, I wanted to track down the earliest example I could of the notorious driveway repaving scam which is now presented by law enforcement as being a signature Traveller scam. I found it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer from June 16, 1961. The perpetrator was a Williamson, sort of. His name was Reid, but by that time, newspapers were calling the Terrible Williamsons the Williamson-Reid clan.
The Williamson story is so large, so majestic, that I have no idea how much of it to take with a grain of salt, but it is worth exploring, as one of two things happened. Either a relatively settled group of Irish Travellers in the south with no history of organized criminal activities just decided to collectively become con artists and borrowed every single element of the Williamson playbook, or the legend of the Williamsons was lifted wholesale and attached to Irish Travellers. The latter seems more likely to me, especially as law enforcement in the mid-20th century was obsessed to the point of lunacy with cross-country racketeering conspiracies. But we will return to that.
“Business Card” for the gang doesn’t mention that “treated” California roofs leaked worse than ever before.
For the moment, I would like to start with a long article published in the Baton Rouge Advocate on September 11, 1955, and authored by Sid Ross and John Devaney. It is a very long article, so I won’t reproduce it in entirety, but I would like to summarize it. The story is titled “Beware the Terrible Williamsons: Hundreds Strong, They Are Rolling Across the Nation, Cheating Americans Out of Staggering Sums. Here’s a Current Report on an Amazing Gang.”
The article inventories the sorts of scams the Williamsons engaged in: They pretended to be Scottish salesmen and offer bargain wool that turns out to be mostly rayon, and in doing so demonstrated a mastery of dialect that includes Scottish, Irish, and English accents. They also sold “Irish linen,” posing as destitute Irishmen and women, pleading poverty and claiming they were forced by circumstance to let the linen go. The linen, of course, was actually low-priced Chinese cotton.
Let me interject here to say that this is the first place where it becomes possible to see why their might be a tendency to conflate the Williamsons with Irish Travellers. Another is that the Williamsons reportedly engaged in an aluminum paint scam, but the paints was either crankcase oil or gasoline. Irish Travellers from Murphy Village had moved into a sort of corporate profession of repainting barns with aluminum sealant, and this is an obvious place where the two groups might be mistaken for each other. According to the article, the Williamsons also sold fake lightning rods — interesting, although that scam was not shown in the 1997 film “Traveller,” when star Bill Paxton was promoting the film in Austin, this is a scam he insisted Irish Travellers engaged in.
The article lists the Williamsons as being several hundred strong, and likewise claims they are all descended from Robert Logan Williamson, although the clan has been replenished with “fresh blood from Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere.” The surnames common to the clan include McWilliams, McMillans, Stewarts, Johnstons, Keiths, McGavins, and Carrolls, along with Williamson, of course. The article does not name them as Travellers — although later articles would, but has this enormously bigoted thing to say about them:
The Williamsons are strikingly similar to Gypsy families; they have the same itch for travel, craze for fancy cars, morbid love of opulent funerals — and the same talent for larceny in their womenfolk. Yet the Williamsons despise gypsies, won’t come within a mile of their camps.
The cars, according to Ross and Devaney, are Buicks and Cadillacs, and the Williamsons “swarm out of the south” in spring, invading the east, midwest, and west, with many basing their operations in Cincinnati. They winter in Florida and Texas.
The article’s authors reprint text from a series of letters sent to the Better Business Bureau (who has, we are told, been receiving various complains about the Williamsons since 1915!), credited to different authors but, according to the story, all written with the same handwriting. They speculate the author was a Williamson as well, but one who wanted to go straight. Here is the text of one they quote:
The Terrible Williamsons are traveling in big 1955 late model cars and some have big house trailers and put up at Motels and Trailer Courts .. They teach their children from infancy up the rackets and con games. They have a head man who guides and keeps them in line [and tells them] where … the rackets are good. Each Williamson family pays the Big Boss so much each season according to their take and they do not dare to gyp him … as he has three muscle men that make their rounds with the Boss Man and collect [from] each family …
The Boss [is] Uncle Isaac and his wife is the Black Queen, Jennie … They live in Florida all winter … These people live in a world by themselves and only mix with the public when they are out fleecing …Williamsons only marry Williamsons and don’t mix …
The Williamsons racket is not a 5-10 dollar racket … Two of them fleeced $28,000 in 3 months in Iowa and Minnesota … As a Williamson myself I am ashamed of the way my people live and I want to … stop these … con games.
The article’s authors cite a number of newspaper stories about Williamson scams, angrily declaring that the legal system tends to bungle the cases — generally by releasing the Williamsons for relatively little bail, at which point the culprits just run off.
The Williamsons, we are told, tend to pick older middle class targets who are likely to be too ashamed to contact the police, embarrassed to admit that they were fleeced, and even when they are arrested, the Williamsons benefit from a legal system that has more interest in getting them out of town than prosecuting them.
Frisking by Miami Beach police follows Williamson family battle on New Year’s Eve, 1952. Battlers went free.
The article closes by saying that the entire clan converges on Cincinnati every Memorial Day to “honor their dead,” a practice similar to Irish Travellers in the south, who famously had two mass funerals for their dead every year. The Williamson funerals are a source of intense competition within the clan — some spend as much as $25,000 on a funeral — and their competition can sometimes turn violent:
In Oklahoma in 1937, a George Williamson, 31, was convicted of murdering another clan member; the sentence was changed to manslaughter and he only served two years. The most recent battle was in Miami Beach late in 1952. Williamsons, McGavins, McMillans, Stewarts and Johnstons got involved in a Donnybrook that ended with Matthew Carroll having an eye gouged out and 31 members of the clan in jail.”
It is not my intention to get sidetracked into an exploration of the Williamsons, but it may end up happening anyway, as they seem likely to be the sources of many of the popular complains about Irish Travellers.
To begin with: Robert Logan Williamson, the Scottish-born, Broooklyn-raised paterfamilias of the clan? Well, he doesn’t make his first appearance in the news until September 11, 1955, in this very article — and it doesn’t credit its source. I have searched the publicly available genealogical and newspaper records for the man, and, if he immigrated here, lived in Brooklyn, committed crimes, and died in America, he did so with a remarkably low profile.
Unsourced guesswork turns into paraphrased statements of fact, and a mythic group of American con artists with a vague and undocumented past becomes Irish Travellers.
It’s worth pointing out that we don’t actually know the origin story for the Williamsons, but for some unsourced statements and some guesswork, and I think the deadliest was the guess that appeared in Newsweek in 1956. Keep in mind, the article was published only a year after the one in the Baton Rouge Advocate, which lists the Williamsons’ point of origin as Scotland, their starting point in America as Brooklyn, and never suggests the Williamsons were Travellers. Well, somehow, in an article that mostly seemed to be rereporting, without credit, the Baton Rouge piece, Newsweek produced this sentence:
Historically they are thought to be descendants of Irish Gypsies who fanned out from Rhode Island to plunder the gullible.
The very next line in the story is “nobody knows much about them,” but the article went ahead and printed supposition, and the article was widely reprinted. Without a source, the author made the Williamsons not just Traveller but also Irish, and you’ll see that, from this point on, Irish Travellers are the first to be blamed for the various scams outlined in the article above.
I have two examples of this. The first is from Greensboro Record from February 12, 1971, and is entirely written in a sort of awkward style that sounds authoritative but carries no facts. The story is about the sorts of cons perpetrated by the Williamsons, who are name-checked in the story but then disregarded as suspects. No, instead, as the first sentence informs us, “The Irish Travelers were here.”
“They are reported to come from Aikin County,” the author continues — from Murphy Village, no less — and any reporter who writes this sort of passive sentence should have his or her typewriter smashed. Who reported this? What evidence is there?
The story is that someone painted a barn, and it was a bad paint job, probably just tinted water, which is, as we have learned, a classic Williamson scam. And what was the name of the painter? “[T]he man reported that a young fellow by the name of Carroll did the painting.”
Carroll. Let me quote from my summary of the Baton Rouge Advocate: The surnames common to the clan include McWilliams, McMillans, Stewarts, Johnstons, Keiths, McGavins, and Carrolls.
Now, I will note that Carroll is also an Irish Traveller name — there was Carroll, Riley, and Co. But Carroll is also a very common name, and it was an enormous leap to insist that man was a Traveller.
Finally, let me quote from the Washington Evening Star from March 24, 1978, in an article titled “Ready for the Rip-Off Artists,” about the various scams reported earlier. “Little is known about the Williamsons,” the author says, paraphrasing the Greensboro Record, “who are also called Irish Travelers.”
And so it happens. Unsourced guesswork turns into paraphrased statements of fact, and a mythic group of American con artists with a vague and undocumented past becomes Irish Travellers.
Did I ever mention that I worked as a journalist? I did, for two decades. I’ve written for Village Voice Media and for The Guardian. I was editor-in-chief of a newsweekly. I even won an Award: The Frank Premack Award for Public Affairs Journalism.
I say this to preface my next comment:
Journalism is a great, necessary institution in America, but when it is done wrong, when it consists of journalists quoting journalists, when it’s made up of unsourced suppositions, when it blindly references police sources who are themselves simply passing on received but unvetted wisdom, you end up with trash. This isn’t just bad journalism. This is journalism that recreates a historic slander against a despised minority group.
There are a whole lot of typewriters that should have been broken.