Among the graves in Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery is that of Meliva Mitchell. Mitchell died at Duke Hospital on Friday morning, Sept. 10, 1948, and within hours of her death rumors spread that she was “Queen of the Gypsies.”
Information on Mitchell and her nameless gypsy “band” is scarce. Census records suggest that she was born in Chicago in 1906, the daughter of Eli Yanko, a Greek immigrant, and Swita Stephens. At some point, however, Meliva became the daughter of Dick Mitchell, the “King of the Gypsies,” and settled near Indianapolis with her husband Robert Mitchell and their eight (or nine) children. She was dying from high blood pressure and other complications when Robert brought her to Duke Hospital.
The Durham Sun broke the news of her death in a story headlined “High Gypsy Leader Dies At Hospital.” Although relatives refused to confirm or deny Mitchell’s regal status, the paper offered what it considered revealing facts. Not only was she listed at multiple addresses – Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Tulsa, Okla., – but a nephew described her a “‘priestess,’” adding that “‘A great many people think we are bad, we are not. We are Brazilian gypsies. We are catholic people.’”
The Sun ended its story with news that sparked one of the largest, most unusual funerals in Durham’s history. The gypsy queen would be buried in Maplewood Cemetery on Sunday, at 4 p.m., following services at the Immaculate Conception Church in Durham.
The gypsy watch was on. The Durham Morning Herald opened eyes on Saturday morning with a front-page photograph and story. The picture shows Mitchell’s husband and three other men of “her tribe” standing next to her open casket at the Hall-Wynn Funeral Home. Exotics they are not; they appear to be ordinary middle-aged men dressed in dark trousers and long-sleeved, white shirts. The caption reads “Gypsies Pay Homage To Dead Queen” while the headline of the accompanying story is more titillating: “Gypsies Gathering For Final Tribute To Their Queen, Approximately 400 of Band To Attend Funeral Services.”
The Hall-Wynn Funeral Home quickly became a spectacle of mourning gypsies and curious, wide-eyed locals. Thousands of residents from Durham and nearby towns filed past the open casket, pausing briefly for a glimpse of the gypsy queen. Clad in a red satin dress, with a large gold medallion at her throat, she bore chips of incense on her lips and eyes and cradled a crucifix and coin in her hands. Stuffed in next to her, at the sides of the casket, were several familiar items. Soap, a mirror, and makeup; a cloth, a needle, and thread – she needed them to keep clean and busy in heaven, her husband told a reporter. And money, he was asked, would she also have money if she needed it? He refused to say.
Some 5,000 people turned out that Sunday for the interment of the gypsy queen. It was the largest crowd ever to witness a burial in the new section of Maplewood cemetery.
What Durham learned from its visitors is not clear. Coming closest to suggesting a lesson, perhaps, was the pastor of the Immaculate Conception Church, Monsignor William F. O’Brien, who said of the gypsies and their queen: “Her people loved her, there was no question about that.”
Walter E. Campbell is an independent scholar and filmmaker living in Durham.