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]

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Chris Pattillo, FASLA said...


This is a facinating article. I've never read anything about Gypsies in Oakland. Well, for that matter I've never read much of anything about Gypsies. Great post.

Chris Pattillo

Crystal Sarabia said...

Hameline,Samson,as well as Aaron were my relatives.I'm a Romany(Gypsy)from the midwest.My cousin took years on our family tree.I received a copy a few yrs.ago.Hameline Plamer was my grandmother Emma Wharton Harrison's grandfather,I think Samson was her Uncle,but I'm not sure,I'll have to look on fam tree.I have pics. of Hameline,as well as Samson's grave.I've always knew of my family,but never knew where they were buried.This is so weird.I met my husband the first time I visited Cali, 14yrs.ago He is a non-gypsy from S.San Fran.We lived in S.S.F. for a year and go back to visit often,all this time I never knew I had family buried just over the bridge.Next visit to S.S.F. I will stop by and pay respect to my great great grandfather... Thanks for writing about my family...I would love for you to e-mail any info you have on them to share with my family, Thanks, and God Bless, Crystal Harrison Sarabia

Bikey said...

I grew up in Oakland, went to Lakeview School in the 1950s, then Westlake Jr. High and graduated from Oakland High in 1966. In my life I had two encounters with gypsies, first in a strange settlement that is now where the MacArthur freeway and a large apartment building meet on Santa Clara Avenue. It was a large patch of dirt with ramshackle houses built on it. There was a large family of gypsies there for a while and one was my friend so I went to their house often. I don't remember her name, but she was a bright, quick little girl with dark hair who was amazingly adept at caring for her younger siblings. They vanished as quickly as they appeared, and I am sure very few people remember this strange settlement that was populated mostly by 'broken families' (as they were then known) from the southern part of the country. My second encounter was years later - I used to babysit for a family near Fruitvale Avenue. They had four children under five and I would watch them for weekends while the parents went to Reno (I was 15 and it's hard to imagine parents leaving their four children with a fifteen-year old, but it's true). One night there was a large gathering of people in the parking lot, with fires and dancing. I asked one old woman what was going on and she told me that
these gypsies were part of large car caravan that was based in Oakland, but traveled around. They had rented the apartment next door to the one where I was staying but wouldn't enter it because there were bad feelings that had first to be exorcised, which is what they were doing in the parking lot. I had always heard growing up that Oakland was the western gathering place of gypsies and more than once I witnessed the car caravans moving along the streets. But I knew of these two events first hand.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post about the gypsies. I have a question for you cemetery sleuths. Who was Athof Bahl? He has a huge mausoleum .

Unknown said...

This article could have been more rewarding to read had not included the racist sensationalized story about the "kidnapped girl". I am a descendant of Samson Palmer and Aaron Boswell. I would have enjoyed new information more specific to their stories as family histories are always full of gaps to be filled. As a side note, My family has over fifty members interred at Mountain View (and counting). The Aaron Boswell gravestone has been lying loose under that tree for many years despite endless requests by my family to have it repaired. On our last "visit" it was gone completely. It seems that "perpetual care" is not that perpetual. David Wharton

Michael said...

Cushty One, I'd love to have more information on the Palmer and Boswell families, but I can only rely on old news accounts. Feel free to contact me at

Anonymous said...

I do not believe it was racist or sensationalized re garding the story of the kidnapped girl. the words and expression were authentic and I'm sure it was true. Why is "everything racist"? Do we think every culture is alike? Not in our heart of hearts.
When I was a 9 years old girl, in 1946 in Oakland a gypsy woman set up camp near my Dad's store. My Dad was concerned for me and told me to stay away from her. He was looking out for me I know and he certainly was no racist. But I heard he was concerned for my safety. He was being a good and protective father.