Just Call Us Kin-cinnati: The Travelers Who Visit Spring Grove Cemetery

Over the past 150 years, the secretive families of Scottish and Irish travelers developed an unbreakable bond with Cincinnati.

Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

Since the late 1800s, local law enforcement and media warned of the springtime “invasion” of nomadic peddlers, fortune tellers, and tinsmiths from all over the nation. Curious in customs, speech, and dress, the visitors rode into town in barrel-shaped horse-drawn wagons; camped along the Mill Creek in Northside, Carthage, and Lockland; and cooked on open fires.

They came to swindle residents, said the warnings, divide up territory for organized crime, and possibly steal children. (They needed the babies, you see, to breed into their gene pool, which was perverted by intermarriage.) As railroads were built, they began shipping their dead here for burials.

What sounds like a crackpot fable has a few surprising kernels of truth and astonishing staying power. You may have heard of the “Gypsy funerals” in Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum over Memorial Day weekend, or even seen for yourself the oversized floral displays laid at the foot of red granite gravestones. Maybe you remember the Cincinnati Business Courier, from 2009 through 2016, using the relative modesty or copiousness of what the paper called “gaudy” floral displays as bellwethers indicating the general economy’s direction.

Spring Grove is one of two local cemeteries where Irish and Scottish Travelers meet each spring to bury and honor their dead.

Photograph provided by The Necro Tourist

Perhaps you are unaware of the tradition, as many locals are. Either way, it’s a thing. A misunderstood thing.

About 400 of these nomads come through Cincinnati annually, according to past police figures. (Cincinnati Police officials did not respond to requests for updated information.) Prior to World War II, their presence was more visible. In clothing more starkly different from ours than it is today, they would draw water from public pumps and bring it back to campsites observable from the road. They were called Gypsies then, and often still are today.

The first thing to know about these “Gypsies” is that they aren’t gypsies in the traditional sense. The second thing to know is that gypsy is a pejorative word, offensive to those more accurately known as Travelers (who are mainly indigenous to the British Isles) or Rom, Roma, or Romany (originating two millennia ago in India). The third thing: Whatever you’ve heard about Travelers in Cincinnati is second-hand information, including this article. Because, importantly, fourth: Travelers do not talk to outsiders.

In the U.S., many Travelers, whose numbers are unknown, maintain customs such as making large purchases with cash and working as psychics or mobile repairmen. It’s not a monolithic culture, of course. Many descendants of Travelers are indistinguishable from the average Joe. Others are more quietly Old World, similar in many ways to the more traditional Roma.

Cincinnati has its share of Rom residents and visitors, but Travelers are more numerous here. To split a hair, the Scottish and Irish Travelers who circle through Cincinnati are for the most part not Rom or have little Rom blood from intermarriage. But they’ll often have lifestyle likenesses with Roma, the result of a similar itinerant life.

Most Travelers in the U.S. are Christian. Like fundamentalists or cult members, though, quite a lot of them cleave to practices that keep them intentionally separate from “gadje,” or non-Roma: intermarriage, restrictive cleansing rituals, a marked difference in gender roles, a disinclination to send children to high school, and a belief that outsiders are “unclean.”

By definition, Travelers move—though less so in the U.S. than elsewhere. They’re more under-the-radar here, especially compared to their more impoverished and persecuted European counterparts. As the diaspora continues to span the globe, Cincinnati stands as an unexpected yet important locus for those based in the U.S. It isn’t just a regular stop in their journeys—it’s the national headquarters for many.

“You could say Cincinnati is a temporary capital,” says podcast host Sam Biagetti. The most popular of the 140 episodes of his Historiansplaining show is about Travelers.

Baby-stealers or colorful bohemians? There’s an idealized view of itinerant people. They are exoticized as flamenco dancers and music-makers, carefree ramblers living off the grid. They eschew “homogenous Netflix culture,” as Biagetti puts it. They are not losers who can’t afford homes, but modern hunter-gatherers whose closeness to extended family provides a connectedness that gadje sorely yearn for. They inspired the #vanlife and #gypset brands of on-the-go chic.

Reality is somewhere in between. “They’re different,” Robert Winter says of the Travelers who have patronized St. Joseph New Cemetery in Price Hill since 1872. The Gorman and Hamilton surnames reign, with some 350 plots between them. “They always pay in cash. Two or three guys will come in and pull out rolls of $100 bills,” says Winter, who, as general manager of the Catholic cemetery, has served Travelers for more than 40 years. “They try to outdo each other with monuments. There’s a black faceted one with gold lettering, and so last year a 10-foot slab went up.”

One grave was recently festooned with floral sculptures depicting a Chicago Cubs logo and a pair of white horses. At the cemetery entrance on Rapid Run Road is a 6-foot disc, evoking a wagon wheel, inscribed “Gorman’s.” The apostrophe may be a grammatical error, but it could also be seen as intentional; the extended family occupies a good chunk of real estate here, more than 500 plots.

“Bernie Hamilton is the person we deal with, their leader,” says Winter. “He’s a big, strong guy with meat-cleaver hands. One time about 25 years ago we were finishing business in the office and one of the younger boys came in and peeled a $100 bill off the pile, put it in his pocket and walked off. The next day, Bernie hauled the kid in by the ear and made him give it back. He told the kid, Apologize! These people have been good to us!” (Hamilton, a 75-year-old roofing contractor in Oswego, Illinois, according to his Facebook profile, did not return phone calls. Messages to several other members of the Gorman family also went unanswered.)

Why poke into the lives of those who want to remain anonymous? I woke up in the middle of the night with this question, posed by a man who does business with Travelers but declined to go on the record. It’s an important part of Cincinnati history, I told him, a chapter that’s been told inaccurately. Another reason is that the Travelers’ quietness has left a void in the public sphere that gets filled by rumors and what scraps of information we do have. Most of the factual records are crime reports. What doesn’t get notated is the significant economic and societal benefit of their presence here.

The story I originally hoped for was not to be. The Travelers would not take the mic and speak for themselves. A single one allowed an interview on condition I not use his real name. I have instead relied on conversations with historians, law enforcement, and those who do business with Travelers supplemented with information from books, scholarly research, documentaries, message boards, and news reports.

We know them best from their burials. The wayfarers return to Cincinnati faithfully, shipping bodies of loved ones across multiple states. Many in these dynasties have no other relationship to the city. And while many aspects of the Traveler lifestyle have changed over the decades—shifting from covered wagons to luxury cars, life on the road to settled existence, floor-length dresses to miniskirts—Cincinnati’s importance as the gathering place remains constant.

The Irish Travelers hold 15-minute graveside funerals instead of the church services of yore. They come throughout the year, not on one appointed holiday as the Scottish do. They don’t dress up for the occasion. “The men are in T-shirts and jeans, and the young women are often, um, inappropriately dressed,” Winter says. “There’s never a problem with them. But they do drink a lot. They drink before, after, and sometimes during the service. If it starts at 11, they’ll show up at the cemetery at 10 and will be here until 2 or 3 in the afternoon.” Fights have broken out, and once a family member stole the car of another. The Crow’s Nest bar, near the cemetery, often becomes the site of a days-long wake.

On the other side of town at Spring Grove Cemetery in Spring Grove Village, Scottish Travelers, who are mainly Protestant (and increasingly Pentecostal), bury and honor their loved ones each Memorial Day weekend. Julie Niesen, a Cincinnati writer and small business owner, makes a point of strolling through on that holiday to catch a glimpse. “What struck me was the children’s graves, where they still place kid-themed floral arrangements,” she says. “One kid had been gone 40 or 50 years, and there was a brand new Shrek-themed arrangement. That melted even my cold, cynical heart.”

Barbara Osterbrock Loukes, a florist, is another longtime observer of Scottish Travelers. She grew up riding her bike through Spring Grove. “I thought, Man, these people spend a lot on flowers!” Now they’re her clients. At Osterbrock Florist in North College Hill, she arranges blooms in baskets and on easels and places them at Spring Grove, predominantly in section 17. The graves bear the surnames Johnston, Stewart, Halliday, Horne, Reid, Gregg, Keith, Williamson, Burns, and McDonald. (It’s important to note that not everyone interred at Spring Grove with those names is a Traveler.)

“We do a lot of placing by death year because there are 100 Virginia Stewarts,” says Loukes. “It’s very confusing.” (Travelers and Roma are known for repeating names within families, even giving multiple siblings the same name, and referring to kin by their nicknames.) Memorial Day, she says, “is like their Christmas. It’s their big holiday. They put out lawn chairs and visit with each other.”

Loukes knows it’s one of the clan on the phone when orders start up in the spring. “They all talk alike, no matter where they come from,” she says. “It’s a thick accent. I can’t describe it. They talk very fast and over you and over each other. They repeat themselves a lot, some of them.” Loukes’s associate, Heather McGuire, adds, “They’re very warm. When you finish a conversation, they’ll say, Love you!

Williamson is the best known Scottish Traveler name. The family was the inspiration for the 1997 movie Traveller, starring Bill Paxton and Mark Wahlberg as con men from a tribe that lives in a jumble of mobile homes in the woods. The frequency of the scams said to be operated by them—shoddy contracting, selling fake Irish lace—led to them being dubbed the “Terrible Williamsons” by Newsweek in 1956. The moniker stuck, repeated in publications as established as The Saturday Evening Post. The Newsweek article, a journalistic “patient zero,” seeded subsequent reports. Its exaggerations about the extent of the roving family’s purported crimes were debunked in the academic Journal of American Culture in 1997, but the words had been printed four decades prior, and they spread. It may have been correct, however, when the piece called Cincinnati the family’s “command post.”

“The Williamsons first arrived in Cincinnati in the 1800s,” says Dennis Marlock, a retired lieutenant detective from the Milwaukee Police Department. “Robert Williamson started luring other Travelers to the U.S. by saying, There’s a sea of gullible marks here.” In the 1990s, Marlock developed a seminar to teach cops how to combat crimes associated with Travelers and Roma. (Such profiling still takes place; a training session like Marlock’s was scheduled for this month in Kansas City until accusations of bias forced it to be cancelled.)

Marlock believes Roma and Travelers are “organized crime,” but he allows a caveat. “They were doing roofing and driveway scams, but sometimes they did good work,” he says. “They were capable of that.”

Is the rate of crime by Travelers any higher than that of the general public? It’s impossible to say, since Traveler identity isn’t captured by demographic studies or the U.S. Census. What isn’t questioned is that crimes by Travelers are, by a wide margin, nonviolent, and that police harassment of Travelers has been rife. It began with evicting them from campsites and escalated to barring them from living in certain cities or states—in essence, from existing.

Some of those laws have only recently been struck from the books. Cincinnati Police no longer videotape Travelers at funerals and follow them back to their hotels from the cemetery—something they boasted of doing in the 1980s—but last year the Mariemont Police issued a public warning about scams by “gypsies.” I called to ask when the last such complaint was reported. The answer: Eleven years ago.

Stan Davies knows from profiling and harassment. The 70-year-old is typical of Travelers living in Ohio. A descendant of English immigrants who settled in Dayton in 1855, he has Indian and Anatolian genes, traces of the peregrinations of his Rom ancestors. He grew up with some aspects of Rom culture but has always lived a settled life. He looks and sounds like any other middle-aged Buckeye. Like some Travelers, he still uses the G-word. (Stan Davies is not his real name; he requested anonymity to speak freely. “My friends and clients don’t know I’m a Gypsy,” he says. “I could lose business.”)

“We were always taught not to wash our hair or wash a baby in the kitchen sink,” says Davies. It’s a watered-down particular of Roma cleaning practices, which also involve laundering women’s clothing separately from men’s. His grandmother would make “gypsy” bread, which is pan-fried and unleavened, a vestige of campfire cooking. In a common Traveler tradition of communal family support, he learned home improvement trades and turned over his entire paycheck to his father well into his twenties. Davies bristles at the characterization of Travelers as rip-off artists. “I am a licensed painting contractor,” he says. “We have an A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau.”

Still, the police seminars started by Dennis Marlock “would super-criminalize us,” he says. “The police would say, Be on the lookout for Gypsies. [Traveler] families who may have been there for years would be terrorized. People were encouraged not to pay Gypsies for legitimate work.”

The first prominent traveler to call Cincinnati home was John Gorman, who emigrated from County Cavan, Ireland, in the mid-1800s. Living on Dirr Street, just steps from the Mill Creek in what’s now South Cumminsville, he was friends with Charles A. Miller, whose eponymous funeral home sat at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Knowlton Street in Northside. They were both Civil War veterans and horse-traders. Gorman’s achievements—he ran a rodeo!—were documented in The Enquirer and The Penny Paper, precursor to The Cincinnati Post. His stature made him a beacon for family far and wide.

The origins of the Scottish Travelers here are less evident. There are more families, and they’re less cohesively related. How did they come to patronize Spring Grove? Oft told is the story that a Traveler child passing through Northside was killed by a horse carriage or a street car. The family could not afford a burial, but Miller offered to take care of it on credit (or for free; versions differ). The interment was at Spring Grove Cemetery, so the story goes. Word of the kindness spread in the wandering communities, and the gesture was repaid with more than a century’s worth of repeat business to both Miller and Spring Grove. (A Spring Grove representative said the cemetery does not comment on clients.)

It’s a heartwarming tale, so it’s too bad that it may not be true. It emerged in a 1990 essay by Paul Erwin, a late University of Cincinnati professor, who said he learned it from Pete Miller, the last relative of Charles A. Miller to be involved in the business. But Erwin’s telling of the story doesn’t include any benevolence on the part of Spring Grove; it was the funeral home that made the grand gesture.

Although there’s a slim possibility the tale is accurate, there is no corroboration of it anywhere and no mention of it in a century’s worth of pre-1990 media coverage of Travelers. Subsequent repetitions and looseness in the press of Erwin’s original words created a game of “telephone,” conflating the two establishments. (In fact, Erwin said the child’s name was Gorman, in which case he or she would have most likely been interred at St Joseph.)

The selection of Spring Grove is probably less due to the cinematic fate of an unlucky child and more to the cemetery’s proximity to the Mill Creek camping spots and the Northside offerings within walking distance: horse-trading, wagon-making, a water pump, and the undisputed home for Traveler funeral services, Charles A. Miller. Spring Grove was also nondenominational, something novel in the 1800s.

Widening the lens from Spring Grove to the city of Cincinnati, geographic centrality is the most logical reason this area became the home-away-from-home for Travelers. It made a convenient meeting point for people edging North in summer and South in winter. As Traveler families multiplied and dispersed across the nation, an agreed-upon time and place for reunions helped maintain customs and relationships. The wakes that anchor the gatherings are only one part of the events: They were (and are) an occasion to announce engagements, arrange marriages for the next generation (that still happens), and—as law enforcement has it—divide up territory for “business.”

Many Traveler women still tell fortunes, modernizing their profession’s name to “psychic reader” or “spiritual advisor.” As for the scams and swindles, yes, they’ve happened. The Cincinnati chapter of the Better Business Bureau, which decades ago regularly warned of Traveler visits, now says it has no records of recent reports. What is likely—but never mentioned—is that the Travelers have poured way more money into Cincinnati’s economy than they’ve ever pulled out. Monuments, cemetery plots, flowers, hotels, restaurants…it adds up.

Chances are great you have come in contact with a Traveler, done business with one, or are acquainted with one, who, like Stan Davies, never told you of their heritage. In this era of self-revelation, identity pride, and “connectedness,” why don’t we hear more about this subculture? “My grandfather said that if everybody knows your business, you don’t have any business,” says Davies. “Hold your cards close to your chest. Love all, trust few.”

Observers of the clans say it’s only a matter of time before its more extreme differences fizzle out. “There are changes in the wind,” says Dennis Marlock. “Because of the internet, it’s getting harder to keep the culture together. The kids can see life outside what they’ve been told their whole lives is the best life on the planet.”

Perhaps. But modern communication methods were said to be degrading the colorful culture more than a century ago. “They are getting used to the telegraph more and more everyday,” reports an 1897 newspaper article. “Poetically inclined persons may agree with the old-school Romany that this innovation is a regrettable one, but the convenience of the wire appeals to the young gypsy.” The Enquirer lamented in 1902 that “the romance of gypsy life is really fast disappearing” because of the automobile. The Post, in 1976, announced, “Gypsies are, shockingly, becoming homeowners.”

Photograph provided by The Necro Tourist

Death customs, though, have not changed. Both Robert Winter, at St. Joseph New Cemetery, and Barbara Osterbrock Loukes, who services clients at Spring Grove, say business is as brisk as ever. A culture that’s been dirt poor, undereducated, and persecuted for two millennia—yet continues to thrive and maintain a semblance of ancestral ways—isn’t easily obliterated by Facebook.

“They would have disappeared long ago if there was not a viable niche and demand for what they have to offer in society,” says historian Biagetti. “Travelers and the settled majority are not opposites that cannot reconcile. They are two sides of the same coin, all part of the same civilization. I don’t see them as a holdover from the past. I see them as part of modern society, just in a different role from others.”

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