From Sunday, July 21 through Friday, July 26, Sweetums and I drove 2,150 miles from Huntsville, Alabama, to Fort Worth, Texas, and back again. He had to go to Fort Worth on business and, because I needed to take photos for my upcoming guide to oddities in the South, we made it into a road trip. Some of you followed along on social media but I promised more detailed posts on all our stops. It will take a few weeks to get to them all. I am planning to post in order of the trip, although that may not always be possible. The map is below. Meanwhile, go check out my personal Facebook page or Kelly Kazek’s Weird South or Instagram.
Here is Stop No. 1:
The Graves of the Gypsy Queen and king
Rose Hill Cemetery, 701 40th Avenue, Meridian, Miss.
I have long wanted to visit the grave of Kelly Mitchell, queen of the Romany gypsies, who died in 1915 in Sumter County, Ala., and was buried across the state line in Meridian, Miss. I wrote about her for AL.com in 2014; you can read that story here.
The grave was just as I’d seen in photos: An elegant granite cross covered in Mardi Gras beads, fake flowers, trinkets and bottles of booze in honor of the queen. (As an aside, I was curious about why Meridian is known as “The Queen City.” Turns out, it has to do with railroads and not the gypsies, according to the Meridian Star.)
Kelly Mitchell was 47 years old and had given birth to 14 children when she died in childbirth in a camp in Coatopa. Her husband, King Emil Mitchell, even sent for the town physician, Dr. Forrest Hester, and offered him $10,000 to save Kelly’s like, to no avail. (I’m not sure what happened to the child).
She died on Jan. 31, 1915, and her body was taken to the nearest funeral home with refrigeration, which was Horace C. Smith Undertaking Co. in Meridian. Refrigeration was a necessity because the funeral was postponed for 12 days to give ample time for other gypsy clans to attend. The event was described in newspapers across the country.
A 1915 article in The Meridian Dispatch said more than 20,000 gypsies crowded into the town to witness the service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Feb. 12. Most had to stand outside.
The newspaper described the funeral:
“At one side of
the parlors, with candelabra at the head and foot stands the magnificent
silver-trimmed metallic casket. Hermetically sealed within, in all the barbaric
splendor of a medieval Queen lays Mrs. Callie (Kelly) Mitchell
Queen of the Gypsies of America.
Her swarthy face with its high cheekbones is typical of Romany tribes and the head, the upper portion of which is covered with bright silken drapery pinned at the back with pins, rests upon a cushion of filmy silk and satin. The hair is braided Gypsy fashion and the dark tresses shine. The body is attired in a Royal robe of Gypsy Green and other bright colors contrasting vividly with the somber hues usual under such circumstances.
Two necklaces are around the neck, one of shells, an heirloom that was descended through generations. The lower part of the body is draped with ‘Sacred Linen’ treasured by Gypsy bands for the use only when death overtakes one of their numbers. When the children arrive, each will put a memento of some kind in the casket and it will devolve upon the youngest child to place her mother’s earrings in the ear.”
Kelly’s burial in Rose Hill Cemetery began a tradition for the Mitchell clan. Emil is buried beside Kelly, as are other family members. Visitors to the grave sites leave trinkets, such as Mardi Gras beads, coins, fruit and whiskey.
Emil, was born in 1857 and came to America with his parents in 1862. He became king in 1884 at the age of 27. After Kelly’s death, he married a woman named Lapa. He died in 1942 in Albertville, Ala. News accounts said that hundreds of gypsies gathered on Sand Mountain in Marshall County to honor him before he was transported to Rose Hill Cemetery for burial.
An article with a Mississippi dateline was published Oct. 20, 1942, in The Tuscaloosa News about his funeral:
“Only the war, it was explained, prevented the American gypsies from giving their leader a funeral like that for his first wife, who died in 1915. Then a special train brought gypsies from all over the country, three bands supplied music, and the queen was buried here in a gold casket.”
It is highly unlikely the legend that Kelly was buried in a gold casket while adorned with valuable jewels is true, historians say, because gypsies were known to hoard their money. That didn’t stop people from trying to rob her grave, which is now reinforced with rebar and concrete.