Kelly Mitchell and the Romani People
A pacifier, a PEZ candy dispenser, a screwdriver, a stuffed bear, a single sock, faded Mardi Gras beads, a hotel room key, a bottle of Orange Crush, a Love Trumps Hate button, an empty can of Schlitz beer, a box of matches, a toy horse, a plastic crown, bangles, a scrap of red carpet, a shiny belt buckle.
“If you have a problem, you come up here and leave a trinket related to that problem on the grave and she’ll solve your issue in your dreams,” said Ricky Whitehead, a board member of the cemetery and frequent tour guide at Rose Hill Cemetery in Meridian, Mississippi, established in 1874.
This ghostly problem-solver is Kelly Mitchell, whose tombstone immortalizes her as “the Gypsy 1 Queen.” She was buried in this Victorian-style cemetery in February 1915. Visitors still leave gifts on her grave today, more than one hundred years later. The items on the grave reflect both Romani traditions and local superstitions surrounding the death and burial of the woman called “the Gypsy Queen,” by her family and the community alike.
To understand the traditions surrounding this century-old gravesite, you first have to understand more about the Romani and their way of life. These distinctive people, also called the Roma, have managed to maintain their language, traditions, and unique way of life for centuries, even in Mississippi.
“We have as strong a culture today as ever and we are at least a thousand years old as a group,” said Ian Hancock, Ph.D., who is Romani himself and teaches Romani Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Often called the leading scholar and expert on the Romani, he is also director of the Romani Archives and Documentation Center at UT.
Hancock pointed out that the name gypsy was created by outsiders and based on a mistaken assumption about the group’s identity – they are not Egyptians, even though some of their burial traditions are similar. The name has negative connotations as well, which is one reason the Romanis keep to themselves as a culture, explains Hancock.
“The only reason we say Gypsies in Meridian is that is what is carved on her headstone,” explained Kelly Mitchell reenactor and fan, Gypsy Rose Hill in a recent conversation. “If they thought the word was disrespectful at that time, they would not have carved those words. Those people revered their queen.”
The Romani people originated in Northwest India about a thousand years ago and then moved on as a result of conflict with foreign invaders. The Roma then made their way first to where modern day Turkey is now.
After their arrival in Europe about 800 years ago, the Roma encountered centuries of persecution, slavery, and misunderstanding, Hancock explains.
The most devastating event was the extermination of the Romani people, along with the Jews, in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. The exact number killed—probably reaching over two million—is not clear because Nazi records were not kept for the Romani people, according to Hancock. Adolf Hitler grouped the “racially impure” Romani in with Jews in his Final Solution plan.
Now numbering about twelve million worldwide, the Romani people scattered into many subgroups over the centuries. As early as the 1880s, groups of Romani were coming to America from Russia, Hungary, England, and other countries in Europe. Romani deny any specific ethnic and racial mix; they all look different. “We can pass as any nationality,” said Hancock. “We come in all flavors.”
Today there are several distinct subgroups of Roma living in the United States, despite their common origin. “The average American is more familiar with the Gypsy myth, rather than the Romani reality,” Hancock said. What unites the culture is a shared language and traditions. The United States now has over a million Romani people, according to Hancock, but this is hard to track since the US Census Bureau doesn't specifically list Romani as an ethnicity.
The Gypsy Queen’s Death and Burial
Kelly, often called Callie, Mitchell was treated to a funeral procession and burial fit for royalty, the likes of which Meridian had never seen or has seen since. Mitchell was forty-seven years old when she died in Alabama after giving birth to her fifteenth child on January 31, 1915, according to area newspaper accounts and the age on her tombstone, which also lists her legendary title: “Queen of the Gypsies.”
Thousands of mourners descended upon Meridian to mourn this mysterious woman whom they followed as their Queen. But according to the foremost expert on the Romani people, no royalty exists in their culture. Who are the Romani? How did they get to Mississippi and who was this woman that we call a queen?
The Romani Queen’s clan, the Mitchell’s, who are mostly buried in Meridian, were most likely Roma from Hungary originally and came to this country via Brazil. 2 Emil Mitchell, Queen Kelly’s husband, was definitely born in Brazil. Also buried at Rose Hill Cemetery, Emil was named head of the Mitchell clan at age twenty-seven in Cleveland, Ohio, according to his obituary in the New York Times at the time of his death in 1942. His first wife Kelly, buried as “the Queen of the Gypsies”, was most likely also born in Brazil. She was given this honorary title, which probably did not include any specific duties, because of her marriage to Emil, the head of the clan.
The story of Queen Kelly’s death starts not in Meridian but in Coatopa, Alabama. Kelly and her family lived there when she died unexpectedly during a complicated childbirth. Newspaper accounts at the time said that her husband Emil buried her in Meridian because it was the closest city to Coatopa with a funeral home that had the ice necessary to preserve her body until the clan could assemble. The funeral would not take place for fourteen more days to give the Romani people from across the country enough time to travel to Meridian, according to Whitehead, the local cemetery tour guide. A Louisiana newspaper account 3 stated, “The funeral was one of the most peculiar ever witnessed in this city.”
More than 20,000 Romanis—came to the city for the funeral at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and burial at Rose Hill Cemetery, according to descriptions in the Meridian Dispatch. A grand procession led by the Meridian High School band followed the black hearse the half-mile to the cemetery.
By all accounts, the visitation and funeral were elaborate. The description of the scene that appeared in the February 7, 1915, Meridian Dispatch said that the Gypsy Queen was laid out at the funeral home in the “finest casket that money could buy” with “the hair of her head, fixed in plaits, carrying the coins of a number of countries.” It went on:
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 lies Mrs. Callie [Kelly] Mitchell, Queen of the Gypsies of America. The swarthy face, with its high cheekbones, is typical of the Romani 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 was attired in a royal robe of Gypsy green and other bright colors, contrasting vividly with the somber hues usual under such circumstances. When her 15 children arrived, each put a memento of some kind in the casket and it will devolve upon the youngest child to put her mother’s earrings in the ear. In order that the journey of the Queen might be without discomfort, the coffin was equipped with comb, brush, and toilet accessories, as well as a supply of working clothes, for use on the other side of the Styx. 4
Hancock confirmed that Roma weddings and funerals are, indeed, huge affairs and “go on for a long time.”
While some Mitchell descendants still live in the area, they keep to themselves and avoid media attention. However, people still remember the funeral of Diana Sharkey Mitchell who was buried as a Queen of the tribe in February 1960. She had been married to a relative of King Emil Mitchell.
John Berry Griffith, who played the trumpet in a brass band that accompanied this more recent Gypsy Queen said, “This sixteen-year-old kid had never seen such a funeral, with the mourners throwing coins and pouring wine into the grave.”
Queen Kelly’s husband, Emil, who died in 1942, twenty-seven years after she died in 1915, is buried next to her. By all accounts, his funeral was not as grand as Kelly’s, but is accompanied by quite a story: Emil’s funeral was a double burial because his uncle was killed in an auto accident on his way to his nephew’s funeral. The two men are buried side by side.
Today, a small portion of Rose Hill Cemetery is a Romani burial ground, where more than a dozen of the Mitchell clan are laid to rest. Locals say the Mitchell clan descendants still travel to visit the cemetery every year, adding trinkets to the gravesites.
Ian Hancock explains that when the Romani people are buried, they are buried with things they might need in the afterlife, just like in ancient Egypt. They are also buried with things that they loved in their earthly life. “That is why you often find a can of Coca-Cola or a packet of cigarettes on a Roma grave,” Hancock says.
Kelly Mitchell loved Orange Crush soda, and a bottle of it is always found on her grave, said Ricky Whitehead, the local Rose Hill tour guide. Newspaper stories from 1915 report that mourners flipped twenty-dollar gold coins into the open casket before it was closed. These accounts led locals to believe that the Gypsy Queen was buried with valuable treasures. Robbers tried to dig up her grave on three separate occasions in 1947, 1959, and 1976. The concrete stones over the grave and the headstones of both Emil and Kelly were broken and cracked. Walton Moore, the caretaker and leader of the cemetery restoration, had steel bars and concrete placed over the vault and under the gravestone to prevent further damage.
Despite the allure of the Romani graves, Rose Hill Cemetery fell into disrepair in the mid-twentieth century. In the 1980s, Meridian insurance agent and history buff, Walton Moore, organized a group to clean up the 100-year-old burial ground, said local columnist and storyteller Anne McKee. Moore researched the story of the Gypsy Queen, as well as other notable figures buried in the cemetery there, including confederate soldiers, an astronaut, and five Meridian mayors. He asked McKee to compile their stories. “He told me, ‘Anne, you’re the only one that can get the cemetery on the map,’” McKee said. Now once a year for the last eight years, the Rose Hill Players, a volunteer drama troupe, tell the stories of the residents of the cemetery on the last Saturday in September. With markers dating back to 1854 and four wars represented by the dead, colorful stories abound and hundreds line up for the annual event. Gypsy Rose Hill became one of the Players because of her fascination with the culture, and she has portrayed both the original Gypsy Queen, as well as Emil’s sister who assumed the title of Queen after his wife’s death, but only until he re-married.
Whether the visitors leave mementos on Kelly’s grave for good luck or good dreams, the pile of offerings can get quite large. The cemetery workers clean off the grave when the trinkets get too dense, Whitehead said. “But then we have another little lady who visits every Saturday to collect the change left on the grave. She takes every bit of money but the pennies.” As for the more valuable gold that is rumored to be buried along with Meridian’s Gypsy Queen, we’ll probably never know whether she is interred with treasure. But the gravesite itself is one of the city’s crown jewels.
Sidebar: Offerings to the Dead
Flowers, flags, and stones are often left on graves around the country, but in Mississippi we remember our revered dead with more interesting keepsakes.
On William Faulkner’s grave in Oxford, Mississippi, visitors leave bottles of liquor, especially bourbon, and more specifically Four Roses Bourbon, his drink of choice. At blues singer Robert Johnson’s grave on Money Road in Greenwood (there are two other graves for him in the Delta), you’ll find liquor bottles and beer cans, hotel room keys and guitar picks for this man who supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his musical talent.
The Mitchell clan graves in Meridian are marked by their assortment of interesting mementos. These are not random offerings, but specific to each individual visitor’s yearnings and dreams.
- ^ In the introduction to Ian Hancock's book We are the Romani People, Hancock discusses the negative connotations of the word gypsy, and he explains that the transition to using Romani in place of gypsy is a slow process. He says, "Writers might help the process along by including a sentences such as "Romanies, popularly though inaccurately called Gypsies..." in their text." Following Hancock’s prompt, this essay’s use of the word gypsy only references the local title for Kelly Mitchell as “the Gypsy Queen.”
- ^ My source is Romani Royalty at the Rose Hill Cemetery by Leslie M. Joyner, published by the Lauderdale County Department of Archives and History, Inc. It is clear that Emil Mitchell was descended from Hungarian Romani people, but not as much is known about Queen Kelly. She is likely descended from a Hungarian Romani who married a Brazilian. Both families migrated from Hungary to Brazil then to America.
- ^ Source: “Special to the Advertiser” article dated May 11, 1916 in The Daily Advertiser.
- ^ From Greek mythology, the Styx refers to a river that forms the boundary between Earth and the underworld, or life and death.