Where have Dayton’s Gypsies Gone?

The Stanley Family vault in Woodland Cemetery.

Dayton, OH – Woodland Cemetery spreads out across some 240-acres of rolling hills canopied by more than 3,000 trees, several of which are more than a century old. Here you will find buried such luminaries as the Wright Brothers, author Erma Bombeck and African-American poet Paul Dunbar. You’ll also walk above numerous figures whose contributions to progress are more recognizable than their names. Among them are the inventors of the cash register, the electric starter, the folding ladder, the pop-top can, moisture-proof cellophane and the Oh Henry! candy bar. But whose grave I’m here to visit belongs to Matilda Stanley, Queen of the American gypsies.

Queen Matilda was the matriarch of the Stanley gypsy clan, one of three large clans that migrated from England to the Dayton area in the mid-1800s. Initially, the Stanley’s were agriculturists, but over time they became horse traders and acquired sizable wealth. Their prosperity lured others to the county, making the Miami Valley during that period America’s gypsy capitol. Queen Matilda’s husband, King Levi, once told a reporter that the honorary titles of King and Queen were an indication of their peoples’ love and trust for them, nothing more.

According to Sherry Pusat, a volunteer tour guide and historian at Woodland Cemetery,  not much is known about the Stanley’s or the culture they brought here. No one knows to where they traveled upon leaving Dayton during the cold months. Some press accounts described Matilda as a “plain, hardy-looking woman… with a manner indicative of a strong and pronounced character,” as well as a fortune-teller “of remarkable faculty.”

An obituary published in the Dayton Democrat, and later in the New York Times, suggests that Matilda and Levi made a striking couple.

“She and her spouse were well matched… a noble addition to American citizenship,” the paper stated. “In the prosperous future old ways and manners will fade out before the new. But revered will the simple, noble lives and kindly influences of Matilda and Levi Stanley ever be.”

“She was very loved, the most beloved of all the queens,” says Pusat. “But we don’t know why.”

When Queen Matilda, 51, died in Vicksburg, Mississippi on January 16, 1878, her body, per custom, was embalmed, shipped to Dayton and for nine months rested in a receiving vault so that word of her death had time to reach those who wished to arrive and bear tribute to her worth.

By the time her funeral was held on a rainy day in September 1878, more than 25,000 gypsies from the United States, Canada and England descended on Dayton to pay their respects. So full was the cemetery that an estimated 1,000 horse-drawn carriages were turned away at Woodland’s Romanesque gates. It was unlike anything the people of Dayton had ever seen.

“The rather bright colors of apparel and expressive features of these people standing in the rain without umbrellas and vacantly wandering around the grounds under restraint were noticed…” according to the Dayton Democrat.  “It was on Election Day last October that the last caravan of the Dayton gypsies rattled down Main Street for the South. For two years the gypsies had kept in this county, contrary to their ancient custom of migration. This was owing to the illness of Lady Stanley herself.”

The Stanley’s rest in a large subterranean vault in what was then the central part of the cemetery. An angel tops the 20-foot granite obelisk surmounting the site. When King Levi died 30 years later, only 30 family members attended his funeral, which was ignored by the press. “Our children are all learning fast and soon our people will not go roaming any more,” he said at his wife’s funeral.

It’s unclear whether any descendents of Matilda and Levi remain in the area. Woodland employees vaguely recall hearing that either Stanley descendents or other gypsies have visited the grave in recent memory. But as with so much else about this clan, no one can say for sure. About all that anyone can agree on is that Matilda Stanley was, for unknown reasons, greatly adored. Everything else is lost to history.

“The good Queen Matilda was a mother of her people, with rare nobility of nature,” according to her obituary. “This title Queen, so far as it embodies the love and trust of her countrymen and countrywomen, is beautifully appropriate.”

9 Comments

  1. Cathy says:

    Stanley Avenue is named after the Stanley gypsy tribe as it is the route they traveled from their campsite along the river north of dayton, to where they ‘tinkered’.More info on the Stanley tribe may be found in books/writings by Roz Young, a columnist from the ?mid 1950’s-70’s.

    • Steve Flaum says:

      My grandfather owned a welding shop just off s. main St.  He was fascinated by the gypsies and befrinded them, much to the consternation of my grandmother, who feared they would steal from him.  They never did; he allowed them to park their wagons in the parking lot next to his shop; he occasionally welded broken axles for them during the 1920s-30s.  My mother and aunt have good memories of them.

      • Christina says:

        Hello, Steve!I am currently working on researching for a book I may write in the near future about Dayton’s history. (Aside from the Wright Brothers.) I was wondering if I could trouble you for information from your Mother or Aunt about personal stories about Dayton’s Gypsies.My email adress is Christina.Thomas3216@my.sinclair.edu and I would like to thank you in advance for any help that you or your family members can bestow.-Christina

  2. Theresa stanley says:

    I am a direct decent.

  3. Theresa stanley says:

    This is blessed and nice. I live in Louisville ky.

  4. Theresa stanley says:

    There where 12 American native chiefs that attended my grandmother’s funeral as well. She had cancer as far as I know.

  5. Gavin Pearce says:

    Hi Theresa,I’m researching my grandfather Edward James Stanley’s roots. He would have been born in about 1880 and said he lived in Schenectady, New York, as a boy. He also said he traveled around the USA as a young man, before he left for South Africa in about 1900. I cannot find any record of his birth in Schenectady, so was wondering whether he was a Stanley Gypsy, who may have been born elsewhere – any assistance you could provide would be most welcome.Best regards,Gavin Pearce 

  6. Kendall Newell says:

    Can someone help me. My grandfather has always had “bad luck.” Like things bad always happens to him and he has always said something about a curse placed upon the family in his parents generation. He still lives in tge dayton area and he said something about gypsies. I hope this doesn’t offend anyone. But can gypsies do that? I’m just trying to figure out this thing that happened way before my time. (B.1994) 

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