Madisonian’s have had a number of interesting encounters with gypsies over the years. On August 19, 1879, the Madison Democrat reported that gypsies were encamped on the road to Syene beyond the Davenport place. “Many young people are going to have their fortunes told by black-eyed gypsy maidens.” At the same time, there was another gypsy camp near Dead Lake (Lake Wingra).
On August 9, 1904, the Madison Democrat described a large gathering in town:
“Seventy or so gypsies have infested Madison for the past two weeks. They are camped on the highway at the rock cut two miles south of the city, near Colonel Thomas Reynolds old farm. One girl is 16, was married at 14, lives apart from her husband, and expects to marry again in the fall. A few women are good looking and neat. Some men are intoxicated. Trading is their sole business, and they have no scruples. Police had to force them to return money for a horse sold under questionable claims. They lie and steal and play the deadbeat on every occasion. They steal chickens, apples from orchards, vegetables from gardens, hay from fields, and corn. Farmers hate them. A few women wander into stores and try to extort money to tell fortunes. They decamped late Friday night when two inebriated men, riding their horses across the bridge over the rock cut, saw a ghost on the bridge.
In April 1919, Madison had its most interesting encounter with gypsies.
In March Rosie Nicholas, a 15 year-old Romanian girl whose parents, Jack and Lena, had recently immigrated from Serbia and settled in Chicago, was sold by her parents to a band of gypsies, Milano Wiki Campania, for $1,600. She was forced to marry 17 year-old John Work; the three-day wedding feast featured pigs, turkeys, chickens, wine, beer, and whiskey. After a month she learned she was her husband’s third wife. Members of the band tried to teach her to tell fortunes and pick the pockets of drunks, but after she refused they beat her and threatened her with a knife. After several men in the band took indecent liberties with her, she fled to Madison, where she was put under the care of the Associated Charities (the city had no welfare agency at the time) and a long battle for her custody began.
On April 23, as reported by the Capital Times, the gypsy band, “eight gypsies strong and headed by the queen herself, a pipe smoking lady of generous proportion, took possession of superior court. They claim Rose Nicholas has $590 of their money and they want it. If they get it, they will shake the dust of Dane County from their feet.”
The court ruled against the band and left Rosie in the care of Associated Charities. Her mother, a Romanian who dressed like a gypsy, came to Madison in late July and threatened to commit suicide if Rosie wasn’t handed over to her. Five days later Judge Hoppmann awarded permanent custody of Rosie to Associated Charities. The organization planned to send her to a Greek Catholic school.
The Capital Times noted on September 4 that the parents were still trying to gain custody of Rosie. A St. Paul lawyer had taken the case for them. “Judge Hoppmann’s remarkable way of dealing with the case has aroused much interest in child welfare and social worker circles. Gypsies don't come under the jurisdiction of the country. They don’t have to send children to school. When caught stealing they must refund the money, not go to jail. They openly admit to selling girls.”