Sunday, March 9, 2008
Samson Palmer and Aaron Boswell, King of the Gypsies
[Gravestone photos by Michael Colbruno; Drawings from the Oakland Tribune]
Samson Palmer, Plot 11
Aaron Boswell, Plot 14B
About a year ago, on one of my many walks through Mountain View Cemetery, I stumbled across a tombstone that read, “Samson Palmer, Killed by Dick Woodruff, In Minn., Oct. 25, 1885. Aged 45 years.’ I had never seen a grave marker with someone’s killer on it before so I ran home to Google the name, but nothing came up. Finally, a few weeks ago, I found an old newspaper article from 1906 that solved the mystery and created a new one.
Samson Palmer was a gypsy who was killed by his nephew Dick Woodruff “in a fit of temper,” according to a 1906 article in the Oakland Tribune. But the article went on to state that Aaron Boswell, the King of the Gypsies, was also buried at Mountain View Cemetery. With the help of docent Stafford Buckley, who often accompanies me on my walks, we located the location of his grave. I was shocked to find that Aaron Boswell, King of the Gypsies, lies under an old oak tree not far from the glorious Colton mausoleum, with nothing left but a broken and abandoned gravestone. Boswell’s cemetery records read, “Aaron Boswell aged 47. Born in England and Died of Dissipation.”
The newspaper accounts describe a funeral service that many of us probably never imagined occurred in Oakland. I have never heard about the gypsies in Oakland and I’ve read most Oakland histories and spent countless hours in the historical archives at the Main Library.
According to the Tribune of Sunday, December 3, 1907:
“The cemetery attendants who were at the funeral say the kings were buried in iron coffins and that the funeral services were conducted by Episcopal ministers. The Gypsies came in their camp wagons and wore their usual gaudy colors and bright beads. All except the royal family. They never wear bright colors or anything showy.
“King Boswell was born in England…He did not have to work unless he wished, for the band always supported him and everything he said was listened to and abeyed with the greatest of reverence. He was a handsome, dignified old man, very popular with his people. When he died he had wagons, harnesses and other property which was valued at over $8,000. These were all destroyed, for it is a custom of the Gypsies to burn everything belonging to the dead – their wearing apparel, wagons, harnesses and even the jewelry. The silver after it is melted is sold again.”
Old newspaper accounts tell of gypsy encampments in the city of Oakland and Emeryville as well as in the East Bay hills, where they could be found cooking vegetables and rabbit, or other animals hunted down in the vast wilderness.
According to the article on Boswell and Palmer, Gypsy encampments had been in Oakland for twenty-five years at the time of their deaths.
Around the beginning of the 20th Century, Gypsy populations in California were estimated at around 300 people. American gypsies generally came here from Europe, often England and Scotland, and their roots can be traced back to India. Even their language, which is a peculiar form of English, has Sanskrit elements. Gypsy lore claims that the Romany people started to drift into Europe after the Tartar Khan drove them from India around 1235. After about 1300, they began spreading throughout Europe and much later made their way to America.
The preeminent gypsy historian Konrad Bercovici claims that gypsies first came to America around 1790.
The rule of the Gypsy King was a tradition of English gypsies that made its way to the clans who settled on the West Coast. Occasionally, they would be ruled by a queen, but it was uncommon. The flashy gypsies of modern folklore who traveled with monkeys and other animals were rooted in southern European gypsy culture and not common to this area. Most of the gypsies in Oakland wore plain clothing and traveled in drab wagons, unlike their flashier counterparts.
They moved around in caravans for two reasons, work and social attitudes. For many gypsies in California seasonal farm work was all that was available to them. They would pick crops during the harvest season and then move on. Upon arrival in Oakland they would set up carts on street corners and offer services like fortune-telling, knife sharpening or sell their wares. Because they were often unkempt and mistrusted, they were asked to leave and, thus, they were nomadic.
There is some dispute as to the religious beliefs of gypsies. Most of the Oakland gypsies were descendants of the Catholic or Episcopalian faiths. A 1923 Oakland Tribune article claimed that “the Romany tongue holds no words for God, the soul, or immortality” However, records show that parts of the Bible have been translated into the Romany language.
Thirty years after Boswell and Palmer were buried, the Gypsies made news again in Oakland when a 15-year-old girl was kidnapped by a band of Gypsies. An account from the December 10, 1915 Oakland Tribune gives her account of life with the Gypsies:
“The life in the Gypsy camp was horrible. For over a year I have not had a bath. It was hard to be allowed even to wash my face and hands. I was made to sleep sometimes upon the bare earth
“Last night one of the Gypsy women became a mother. They gave her a piece of canvas for a bed. No doctor was called, but she did not seem to mind. She had no trouble, and if her man ordered her she would carry her day-old baby along the road or sit in one of the wagons all day while the camp moved to another city.
“It was a horrible life. It has left its mark upon me and life will never seem the same.
“There are other girls who have been kidnapped who have never been heard of. I have talked with them in other Gypsy camps. They have never been able to escape and the terrible life has ruined their bodies and their feelings.”
After her story made the news, federal authorities began an investigation and local authorities from the health department checked out the conditions in the camps and promised that the Gypsies would be permanently removed from Oakland. Apparently, the authorities weren’t completely successful, as I found accounts of gypsies in Oakland for a revival meeting in 1923, led by their then King, Naylor Harrison.
According to Dr. Walter Starkle, a leading expert on gypsies, their demise in America occurred around 1933 when the United States abandoned the gold standard. Gypsy wealth was predicated on their ownership of gold and once it was abandoned their wealth was quickly squandered with the new paper currency.
[Original text by Michael Colbruno]
Subscribe to Michael Colbruno's Mountain View Cemetery Bio Tour by Email