The Cambria County Gypsy War of 1901
|A gypsy encampment, date unknown|
When I was a boy, my grandmother often warned that if I didn't behave, I would be sold to the gypsies. Even though I had no idea what gypsies were, I imagined that it would be a pretty fun adventure; traveling from town to town in a horse-drawn wooden wagon alongside swarthy mysterious nomads, telling fortunes and reading palms for a living. In my young and impressionable mind, being a gypsy was the next best thing to being a real-life pirate.
Few Pennsylvanians realize that gypsies actually roamed the Keystone State in former times, and in astounding numbers. While gypsies were regarded by some as harmless vagabonds, the common consensus was that gypsies (or "gyps", as they were known to those who abhorred them) were a public nuisance. In fact, in 1909, Pennsylvania Governor Edwin S. Stuart signed into law legislation which required bands of gypsies to pay a fee of $50, to each county through which they traveled, for a license to camp within the state's borders. Since a north-to-south journey through Pennsylvania would require stops in about ten counties, the typical band of gypsies would be forced to fork over $500; approximately the equivalent of $1,852 in today's money. This law, along with the growing popularity of the automobile, helped to put an end to the days of the gypsy wagon caravan.
Tensions between gypsies and the law, however, soured long before Governor Stuart took office. In 1901, a skirmish between gypsies and law enforcement took place in Cambria County and when the smoke of the battle cleared, one person was left dead and several more were left injured.
Here is a newspaper account of the skirmish, as it appeared in the April 13, 1901 edition of the Scranton Tribune:
Fight With Gypsies on the Mountains
Johnstown, Pa., April 12.-- In a fierce fight on the mountains near Lily [sic] last night between a band of gypsies and a posse of officers, one gypsy man was killed outright, a gypsy woman shot through the shoulder. Division Foreman Titler, of Gallitzin, was wounded in the mouth, and Frank Coons, his assistant, was shot through the bowels. The latter is expected to die.
The gypsies had come from Blair county where they are charged with having committed numerous thefts and were followed by a constable who secured assistance when he came close upon them. On the approach of the posses, the gypsies broke their camp near Summit, but seeing that escape was impossible, made a stand and opened fire.
After the fight the gypsies carried the body of their dead companion and the wounded woman to Lilly, where several of the party were arrested and put in jail.