Though never present in great numbers, Gypsies have long been noted throughout West Virginia, part of the history and folklore of the state. The Gypsies fascinated the communities they camped near. Many myths surround them, and many places have tales of Gypsy travelers or Gypsy camps. The community of Gypsy, Harrison County, was named for the traveling nomads who once favored the bottomlands of the West Fork River as a camping spot.
A group of Gypsies settled permanently in Stumpy Bottom in Princeton, a small piece of lowland now overshadowed by U.S. 460. The original settlers came in caravans of covered wagons and set up tents in the mid-20th century. They initially traded horses and then fixed stoves. They ran a septic business and later established a paving business. Their community has endured some scandals, including a murder trial in 1995.
Gypsies are thought to have originated from India, later becoming nomads traveling through Europe. They appeared in Europe by the 15th century. Gypsies, especially in Europe, often call themselves Roma. Their language, called Romany, is still spoken by some Gypsies. Gypsies came to America among the early settlers, sometimes having been deported from European countries. However, most American gypsies came during the big migration from eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were organized into ‘‘kumpanias,’’ similar to unions, each with an elder or chief to decide matters for the community.
Kumpania chiefs were often mistaken as Gypsy ‘‘Kings.’’ In November 1931 Weirton was the site of the funeral of one such ‘‘king,’’ Zeke Marks. More than 10,000 visitors came to the Schwerha funeral home. Marks lay unkempt in a bronze casket. A scarf sealed his mouth, and a rope bound his ankles. His hands were on his chest, and he held a $5 gold piece. Around him lay his possessions, including the paid bill for the funeral.
This Article was written by Jane Kraina
Sway, Marlene. Familiar Strangers: Gypsy Life in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Kraina, Jane & Mary Zwierzchowski. Death of a Gypsy King. Goldenseal, (Winter 1998).
Strange Rites over Body of Gypsy King. Weirton Daily Times, 11/21/1931.