Romani on Ellis Island/ Pariah Syndrome

Romani Family by Augustus Sherman

This Romani family emigrated from the Kingdom of Serbia and was photographed by Augustus Sherman on the roof garden. Although several thousand Romani passed through Ellis Island, some were detained as „professional beggars“ and „vagrants“. In 1911, many Romani were accused of these offenses and deported.

Augustus Frederick Sherman worked as a clerk at Ellis Island in the years 1892-1925. He was an untrained, yet highly gifted photographer who created hundreds of images documenting the new arrivals to America. Fascinated by the diverse origins and cultural backgrounds of his subjects, Sherman created a riveting series of portraits, offering viewers a compelling perspective on this dynamic period in American history. (…) Sherman took photographs of families, groups, and individuals who were being detained either for medical reasons or for further interrogation.[1] In some cases, such as his images of a gypsy family, the subjects of photographs were deported. Over the course of his career at Ellis Island, Sherman took more than 200 pictures, often encouraging his subjects to open their suitcases and put on their elaborate national costumes or folk dress. He captured images of Romanian shepherds, German stowaways, circus performers and women from Guadeloupe. (

The Pariah Syndrome
XIV. The Contemporary Situation of Gypsies in North America

It is a sad reflection on the state of justice in the United States that, despite its unconstitutionality, Gypsies remain the only American ethnic minority against whom laws still operate, and who are specifically named in those laws. As with Balkan slavery and the Nazi genocide, it too illustrates the general lack of awareness among non-Gypsies of the true details of Gypsy history, despite the vast number of literary works having Gypsy themes. This fact also serves to demonstrate the enormity of the separation between the fictional and the real Gypsy. Some of these laws, only the first two of which were still in effect at the time of writing, include:

gypsies … for each county … shall be jointly and severally liable with his or her associates [to a fine of] two thousand dollars (State Code of Mississippi, Section 27-17-191).

The governing body may make, amend, repeal and enforce ordinances to license and regulate … gypsies (New Jersey Statutes, 40:52-1).

After the passage of this act, it shall be unlawful for any … gypsies … to … settle … within the limits of any county of this state [without having first obtained a yearly license to do so] (Pennsylvania Statutes,  Section 11810).

Any person may demand of any … gypsies that they shall produce or show their license issued within such county, and if they shall refuse to do so … he shall seize all the property in the possession of such [Gypsies] (Pennsylvania Statutes,  Section 11803).

Gypsies [in the State of Maryland] must pay jurisdictions a license fee of $1000 before settling or doing business. When any gypsy is arrested, all his property and all the property of members of any group with which he may be traveling, can be confiscated and sold to pay any fine a court may levy against the arrested gypsy. Sheriffs are paid a $10 bounty for any gypsy they arrest who pays the $1000 fee after he is arrested (Logan, 1976).

Whenever … gypsies shall be located within any municipality … the county department of health or joint county department of health shall have power … to order such [Gypsies …] to leave said municipality within the time specified (Pennsylvania Title 53: Municipal and Quasi-Municipal Corporations, Chapter xvii, Section 3701).

It is illegal in Pennsylvania to be a Gypsy without a license … Any Gypsy who insists on being what he was born – a Gypsy – without a license, is liable to up to $100 fine and 30 days injail. A constable may confiscate and sell a convicted Gypsy’s possessions to satisfy the sentence … any person may demand to see a Gypsy’s license. If the Gypsy cannot produce a license, the person may turn the Gypsy in to any convenient justice of the peace (Smart, 1969).

Upon each company of … Gypsies, engaged in trading or selling merchandise or livestock of any kind, or clairvoyant, or persons engaged in fortunetelling, phrenology, or palmistry, $250 [is] to be collected … [from those who] live in tents or travel in covered wagons and automobiles, and who may be a resident of some country or who reside without the State, and who are commonly called traveling horse traders and Gypsies (Georgia Acts and Resolutions, 1927, Part I, Title II, Section 56, p.3).

Texas law refers to “Prostitutes, Gypsies and vagabonds” in the same breath, and charges the Romany people $500 to live there (Bernardo, 1981:108).

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Indiana, that it shall be unlawful for any band of Gypsies … to camp in tent, wagon or otherwise, on any public highway in this state, or lands adjacent thereto … Any person or persons violating the provisions of this Act shall be deemed guilty … and upon conviction shall be fined not exceeding twenty-five dollars or imprisoned in the county jail not exceeding thirty days, or both (State of Indiana Statutory Regulations, Section I). “This statutory law has been used so often against the Gypsies in that state, that Indiana has not been visited by Gypsies for a long time” (Marchbin, 1939:152).

Many of these laws, a list of which fills thirty-four pages (Gilbert, 1947:567-601), were inherited from Europe and were intended to be used against the earlier Gypsy populations in the United States; they have since found new application against the more recently arrived, and more visible, Vlax-speaking Rom. Smart (loc. cit.) pointed out the injustice inherent in such laws: “Because the state does not require an Irishman to have a license to be Irish, or an Italian to have an Italian license, it is both un-American and discriminatory for the state to require a Gypsy to have a license to be a Gypsy.”

Steve Kaslov, who founded the first Romani benevolent society in the United States, the Red Dress Association in New Jersey in 1927, and who met with Franklin D. Roosevelt to try to get some support for the plight he saw his people in, believed that it was the police, enforcing such laws, who posed the greatest threat to American Gypsies:

In county after county, state after state, troopers whisk unwanted Gypsies over the boundary … Steve tells of one such journey: “We were not allowed to stop for rations” … Real tears ran down his cheeks at the bitter memory of that experience … In New York, as in other places, the law is often applied to them with needless cruelty. Only a few weeks ago, a five weeks old nursing baby died of starvation in an unheated room when the mother, who was arrested on a charge of stealing a wallet, was held in the custody of the police for three days (Weybright, 1938:142,145).

Ironically, while the earliest Gypsies were being brought to America as unwilling immigrants, the U.S. Government sought to ban their entry at the end of the 19th century:

… after passing in the early ‘eighties the Chinese Expulsion Act and the Act that barred European contract labour … the welcoming arms of the goddess of liberty that surmounts the huge pedestal on Bedloe’s Island at the entrance of New York harbour, holding aloft the torch of enlightenment to a darkened world, were at the end of the nineteenth century extended to selected immigrants only. The bias against Gypsies which has obtained for generations in Europe had, through distorted stories in continental newspapers, by this time reached America and produced a profound effect. By the year 1885 Gypsies arriving in parties, as they usually did, on the shores of the North American Continent were frequently denied entrance, and the steamship companies were obliged to take their human cargoes back by the same boat (Marchbin, 1934:135).

Trigg adds to this:

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, many more Gypsies, mostly from Slavic countries, were to arrive in the United States. By 1885, however, Gypsies were excluded by immigration policy, and many returned to Europe (1973:224).

Benton’s 1985 history of Ellis Island refers to “massive deportations” of Gypsies by U. S. Immigration Department authorities in 1905 and 1909 in particular, while Pitkin quotes from the Tribune for July 25th, 1909, which supported Commissioner William Williams’ upholding of the government’s exclusion policy: “the whole country is better off without them, even though their wealth per capita was several times greater than the amount commonly required” which was $25 (Pitkin, 1975:60). A detailed account of Romani immigration into the USA is found in Marchbin (1939).
Anti-Roma policies towards the end of the 19th century probably derived their impetus from the increase in discrimination evident at the beginnings of Reconstruction, following the abolition of slavery in America; there are several references to Roma as a “people of color,” i.e. as a visible minority, in the literature of that period. In 1866 President Andrew Johnson expressed his fear that the requirements of the Civil Rights Bill were designed “to operate in favor of the colored, and against the white, race” because they “comprehend the Chinese of the Pacific States, Indians subject to taxation, the people called Gipsies as well as the entire race designated as blacks” (Legislation for the Colored Man, Philadelphia, February, 1866). This presents the possibility, at least, that Vlax Roma from eastern Europe were already finding their way into the United States at this early date.
Calahane indicates that the effects of the American policy had repercussions even on the other side of the Atlantic; one group, which had reached Britain from the Continent, could not find a company willing to bring them across:

We find record of one hundred Gypsies who arrived by train at Liverpool in July, 1886. They were called the “Greek Gypsies” and had started from Corfu, but according to their passports, had come from all parts of Greece and European Turkey, bound for New York. The United States being closed to pauper immigrants, no steamboat would accept them, and they encamped at Liverpool … Their subsequent fate is unknown. No doubt at some later date some of them, at least, succeeded in reaching these shores (1904:326-327).

Gypsies from Hungary waiting to be sent back in 1905 (Benton, 1985)
Gypsies were attempting to reach North America from all parts of eastern Europe during these years; well-represented in this exodus were the Rusurja or Russian Vlax Rom, who remember the events leading to their settlement in this country. The late John Megel, grandson of Steve Kaslov and until his untimely death in August 1986, a spokesman for his community, recounted that, prior to abolition, Gypsies in Russia, although in a condition of slavery (Hoyland, 1816:32), were not otherwise being brutalized. With the influx of the thousands of liberated slaves from Rumania, however, this relatively calm situation was affected, leading ultimately to a wave of anti-Gypsyism throughout western Russia serious enough to force many groups to consider leaving for good. Sons were sent out with instructions to return with information about  the best place to make for. The United States was an attractive choice, but immigration laws there made it a problem to enter in the conventional way. It was not difficult, however, to buy Argentinian documents and thus enter the United States as nationals of that country; as a result, many Russian Gypsies sailed for South America, subsequently to make their way overland along the Pacific coast into the USA. The Argentinians soon realized that the Rusurja were coming into their country with considerable amounts of gold, however, and those newly-arriving started to be apprehended and relieved of all their possessions by the local people. Gradually, Argentina ceased to be a principal means of gaining access to the United States, although there is still a small influx of Rom entering the country across the border with Mexico. In 1976, one such group, who had come here from Czechoslovakia and who had been smuggled across the border by Mexicans hired to bring them in, were beaten and robbed and abandoned in the Arizona desert (“Just the Gypsy in their soul?,” The Miami Herald, February 1st, 1976, p.2E). “The border patrol moved at once to deport them to somewhere. Anywhere, even,” and drove them north out of the state, where they were once again abandoned. In this way, the group made its way to New York (“Officials seeking to deport Gypsies frustrated,” The New York Times, July 27th, 1976, p.16) reaching the Canadian border which they crossed, immediately to be detained by Canadian officials, since the U.S. authorities promptly refused to allow them to re-enter.  One of the women in the group attempted to hang herself in her cell, rather than go on living being hounded from place to place (“La mort plutôt que l’expulsion,” Journal de Montréal, August 17th, 1976, p.3) Two anonymous landowners offered the group places where they could live temporarily, although the offers were not allowed (“Gypsy clan offered farm in Canada,” The Montreal Star, 19th August, 1976, p.A3). Not one of the newspaper reports of this tragic train of circumstances indicated the slightest sympathy for the victims, who were eventually deported, but instead made use of all the journalists’ clichés one predictably associates with Gypsies.

Gypsy family being detained at Ellis Island
While the expulsion act against the Chinese was repealed in 1946, the situation regarding the immigration of Gypsies remains unclear and unresolved. The policy of driving Gypsies away, however, is still actively upheld by the American legal system. The June, 1975 issue of The Police Chief (“Official Publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police”) contained the recommendation that

Strict laws and the enforcement of them will deter Gypsies from inhabiting your community. The laxness of the laws in a certain area … will attract Gypsies. Only in this way can you protect your community (Boughourian and Alcantara, 1975:74).

Since the publication of that article, a whole book has appeared written in the same vein, by an ex-policeman and a lecturer on legal matters from Chicago (McLaughlin, 1980), and a number of police department “Gypsy Divisions,” reminiscent of those in pre-war Nazi Germany’s police state have been established around the country, some with specially-assigned resident “experts.” Needless to say, this kind of legalized discrimination is leveled at no other ethnic minority, although there are presumably Italian, Navaho, Irish, &c., criminals as well preying upon the American public. In 1981, Terry Getsay (“a nationally-recognized Gypsy expert”), who at that time headed the Illinois State Police’ Gypsy Activity Project, published a particularly vicious three-part article entitled “GYP-sies: the people and their criminal propensity” in Spotlight; his lecture tours in the northern states have led to a marked increase in the harrassment of Gypsies by members of local police departments who have attended his talks. He also presented his views on television station WDIV in Detroit in 1984, in a three-part documentary entitled “Gypsy scams and schemes.” In an article in another police magazine, Centurion, he is quoted as believing that

The label of ‘Gypsy’ refers to any family-oriented band of nomads who may be from any country in the world … The only measure of respect a Gypsy woman can get is based on her abilities as a thief (Schroeder, 1983:59,63).

Gypsies at Ellis Island awaiting deportation, 1909
Detective Sergeant William Bradway, chairman of the Michigan State Police Gypsy Criminal Activity Task force, defines Gypsies as “domineering, very loud, outspoken, cunning and quick-witted … they are completely comfortable with a lifestyle centered around victimizing others. They are not very nice” Willing, 1984:3A). A year earlier, a documentary on the NBC news program Monitor began “American Gypsies, known as Travelers: if you’ve never met the Travelers, lucky you!” (NBC transcript for March, 1984).
The association of Gypsies with crime is deep-rooted. Some of it is justified; Gypsies have often turned to theft in order to survive in a universally hostile environment. Much of it is not justified, however, and is the result of exploitation of a stereotype by a popular press which is less interested in the honest Gypsies who have not been equipped to challenge this misrepresentation. Journalist Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, in his review of Peter Maas’ highly defamatory King of the Gypsies, went so far as to refer to Gypsies as the “slag in the [American] melting pot,” and to call them “an ethnic sick joke” (The New York Times for October 28th, 1975). The notion of Gypsies as criminals has received scholarly sanction too, in the past. A study of crime by a professor of psychiatry and criminal anthropology at the University of Turin, published by the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology in 1918, described Gypsies thus:

They are the living example of a whole race of criminals, and have all the passions and all the vices of criminals. “They have a horror,” says Grellmann, “of anything that requires the slightest application; they will endure hunger and misery rather than submit to any continuous labor whatever; they work just enough to keep from dying of hunger” … they are vain, like all delinquents, but they have no fear or shame. Everything they earn, they spend for drink or ornaments. They may be seen barefooted, but with bright colored or lace-bedecked clothing, without stockings, but with yellow shoes. They have the improvidence of the savage and that of the criminal as well … they devour half-putrified carrion. They are given to orgies, love a noise, and make a great outcry in the markets. They murder in cold blood in order to rob, and were formerly suspected of cannibalism … this race, so low morally, and so incapable of cultural and intellectual development, is a race that can never carry on any industry, and which in poetry has not got beyond the poorest lyrics (Lombroso, 1918:40).

This appeared in a textbook which for years provided a basis for American legal attitudes, and has been relied upon, just as Lombroso relied upon Grellmann before him, by subsequent specialists. Similar biases were found even earlier in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Cleanliness is not one of their characteristics … they are self-professed liars … The Gypsies can, with some justification, be called parasites … Both the men and the women are gaudy, ostentatious, boastful, arrogant and superstitious … those who wish to think of them as verminous dirty wastrels will be able to find examples to back … their claim,” while at pp. 43-44 in Volume XI of the 1956 edition of the same work, these attitudes are even more plainly stated:

The mental age of an average adult Gypsy is thought to be about that of a child of ten. Gypsies have never accomplished anything of great significance in writing, painting, musical composition, science or social organization. Quarrelsome, quick to anger or laughter, they are unthinkingly but not deliberately cruel. Loving bright colors they are ostentatious and boastful but lack bravery. They have little idea of time, proportion or measurement and are superstitious about childbirth, fertility, food and sickness. Their tribal customs sometimes have the force of law. Believing in charms and curses, they admit the falsity of their fortune telling. They betray little shame, curiosity, surprise or grief and show no solidarity.

Pariah Syndrome: An Account of Gypsy Slavery and Persecution by Ian Hancock