“Every Gypsy in the Nation Knows About This” — 1951
by Paula Bosse
by Paula Bosse
In the first few days of March, 1951, Dallas witnessed the influx of hundreds and hundreds of Gypsies into the city, all of whom had been summoned — from near and far — by a call put out over an effective and somewhat mysterious communications network. The reason? A teenage boy (referred to repeatedly as a “Gypsy youth”) had been shot in South Texas by a boy from another “tribe” (or clan, or family) — one family insisted the shooting was intentional, the other insisted it was an accident. This incident ballooned into a huge internecine feud. If the boy died, the “Green” tribe promised that there was “going to be a lot of shooting going on in Dallas” (Dallas Morning News, March 1, 1951). [Note: the word “Gypsy” is sometimes seen as a pejorative. I use it in this post purely in a historical context; it is not meant to be derogatory.]
In December of 1950, 14-year-old “Lawrence Young” (the anglicized name his family gave to authorities) had been walking along railroad tracks with other boys in Port Isabel, near Brownsville, when he was shot with a .22 caliber rifle by a 12-year-old, a Gypsy boy from another clan. The 12-year-old said the borrowed rifle had been malfunctioning and that, while hunting, the gun discharged unexpectedly, and a bullet hit Lawrence, whom the other boys thought was playing when he fell to the ground. Until they saw the blood. The bullet struck Lawrence in the back, near his left shoulder blade, and it lodged in his spine at the base of his skull. Police in Port Isabel determined that the shooting had been an accident. Lawrence’s family, however, said that the other boy had been jealous of Lawrence’s new car and had shot him on purpose. The boy was rushed to the hospital; his condition was not good.
After stays in hospitals in Galveston and Temple, Lawrence’s mother decided to move him to Dallas where she thought the medical care would be better. He was admitted to Baylor Hospital at the end of February. Relations had been tense between the two clans since the shooting, but the Evans clan (of which the 12-year-old boy was a member) had grudgingly agreed to pay for half of Lawrence’s medical bills. The decision by Lawrence’s family to move him to Dallas — where hospital care would be much more expensive — only made things worse between the two groups; the Green clan had heard that the Evans clan would not pay their share of what they felt would be an exorbitant bill. Tempers had been building and boiling for weeks, and by the time things moved to Dallas, things were about to explode.
Word of the increasingly volatile feud had spread, and Gypsies from several surrounding states began pouring into Dallas in a show of tribal support. The first reports estimated there might have been as many as 500 Gypsies in Dallas County, representing at least six different clans, each clan with strong loyalties to one of the two families. If the boy died, the Greens and their supporters promised that retaliation would be swift and deadly. The Evanses — and the clans friendly to them — were ready for whatever came their way. The threat of deadly violence in the streets of Dallas was a very real possibility (if a city could be an innocent bystander, that’s what Dallas was in this unusual situation).
The Dallas police were, understandably, worried. In an attempt to get the warring factions to leave town, homicide detective Captain Will Fritz was reduced to arresting several of the men on charges of vagrancy (“We can’t make them get out of Dallas, but we can keep arresting them for vagrancy until they move on,” Fritz said). Unfortunately, this was a pretty ineffective strategy.
Fifty or so “expensive automobiles” were parked outside Baylor as the time for Lawrence’s surgery approached. Men and women sat inside their cars waiting for a signal from a man they had placed inside the building who was to alert them from a window whether or not the boy had survived. If he died, things would get real bad, real fast. When police learned about the man inside the hospital, they arrested him. The boy was in critical condition prior to the surgery, and tensions among the factions continued to rise.
At some point, a man in Fort Worth who said he was a nephew of the King of the Gypsies in the United States intervened and worked as a sort of intermediary between the Gypsies and Fritz.
“I can’t promise there won’t be any shooting over there,” he told Fritz by telephone. “This thing has gone pretty far. But I will try to stop things where they are.”
“I don’t care how you settle this matter among yourselves,” Fritz replied, “Just do it out of Dallas County. We want no shooting here.” (DMN, March 2, 1951)
Fritz agreed to release two men he had been holding (on non-vagrancy charges), hoping they would take word of the Fort Worth man’s “tribal council” involvement back to their people and calm the situation.
The surgery was, thankfully, successful.
Caption: “Gypsy Youth in Dallas Hospital — Lawrence Young, 14-year-old Gypsy youth gets a drink of water from a nurse at Dallas’ Baylor Hospital. Young was allegedly shot by another youthful Gypsy some two months ago near Brownsville, Texas. He was operated on at Baylor Hospital to have the bullet removed. Two Gypsy clans are reportedly watching with much interest to see that the youth recovers.” (NEA photo and wire report, from the McKinney Courier-Gazette, March 2, 1951)
To the relief of Dallas police, doctors said that Lawrence would recover — a major crisis had been averted, and the hundreds of Gypsies who had been camped around Dallas began to leave town. But just a few days later, a camp was discovered outside Garland, and twenty people were immediately arrested for vagrancy — they were photographed, fingerprinted, fined, and released, with the clear understanding that they needed to move on. ASAP. The next day, Sheriff Bill Decker announced they had packed up and left.:
“I don’t know where the road goes,” said Decker, “but it leads out of Dallas County.” (DMN, March 7, 1951)
Gypsies were generally considered a menace by police departments around the country, as their arrival was usually accompanied by a rise in … questionable business practices. While these … business practices … were usually viewed negatively, it’s interesting to note that in 1950 and ’51 Gypsy “style” was everywhere. Ads for upscale department stores such as Neiman’s and A. Harris, for instance, were filled with Gypsy-inspired fashions — off-the-shoulder peasant blouses, scarves, gold bangles, dangly earrings, and exotic makeup. Cars and household items came in popular colors such as “Gypsy green,” “Gypsy red,” and even “Gypsy brown.” People might not have been excited by their … unorthodox business practices … but they sure loved the way they dressed and were attracted by the allure and romance of their rootless, “wandering” lifestyle.
Neiman-Marcus ad — 1951
Neiman-Marcus ad — 1951
Volk ad — 1951
W. A. Green ad — 1951
And for no other reason than to see how Gypsies were often stereotypically portrayed on pre-PC television, an episode of The Andy Griffith Show called “The Gypsies” can be watched on YouTube, here.
My favorite tidbit gleaned from this brief look into Gypsy culture was discovering that families and individuals with No Fixed Abode often communicated via the classifieds of, of all things, Billboard magazine.
Copyright © 2014 Paula Bosse. All Rights Reserved.