Want to see the graves of Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, and Charles Darwin? Then it’s off to London’s Westminster Abbey. Want to see the grave of Kelly Mitchell, aka “Queen of the Gypsies,” then it’s off to the Rose Hill Cemetery in Meridian, Mississippi.
If you’re like me, this statement raises two questions: Exactly who is the Queen of the Gypsies, and why on EARTH is she buried in Meridian, Mississippi? I’ve seen my share of famous graves, but I don’t really consider myself a grave hunter, which according to the UK’s Daily Mail is a “dead end hobby.” But I couldn’t pass up the Queen of the Gypsies – no way.
The Romani people (Gypsies), originated in India in the Middle Ages. After leaving their homeland, they first migrated to Europe, and today are spread around the world.
At the time of Mitchell’s death, most gypsies lead an itinerant lifestyle. Her death occurred on January 31, 1915, while she was camped with her family near Coatopa, Alabama (approximately 40 miles east of Meridian). At age 47, she died giving birth to her 15th child.
Because Queen Kelly’s family was so widely scattered, the decision was made to delay the funeral as long as possible to allow far-flung relatives to attend. And because Meridian was the closest city with enough ice to preserve her body for six weeks, it was chosen as the site for her funeral and burial. Members of the Mitchell family, one of the largest Romani groups in the country, came to the Rose Hill Cemetery from all over to pay tribute, and it’s estimated that 20,000 people viewed the body of the dead Gypsy Queen.
These events occurred in 1915, but from the offerings and gifts left on her grave, it’s obvious that lots of people still believe the myth and folklore. Believers think that the Romani people have psychic powers, and consequently, can see the future. Today’s devotees also believe that an offering will entice Mitchell’s spirit to visit them in a dream and provide answers to their problems.
The day of our visit, the headstone was festooned with colorful beads, and the stone slab over the grave was littered with offerings. There were trinkets of all descriptions, wine and beer bottles, car keys, coins, CDs, a Sunkist bottle (apparently the Queen loved orange soda), small stuffed animals, superheroes, and a tiny plastic figure of Yoda. I don’t normally believe in this sort of thing, but I left a nice set of purple beads that we scored in the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival parade – just in case.
Another myth that inspired a different type of devotee was the rumor that thousands of gold coins (to be used in the afterlife) were buried with the Queen. The huge cracks in the grave cover are the handiwork of would-be grave robbers searching for her fortune.
After the burial of Queen Kelly, the Rose Hill Cemetery became one of the main Romani burial grounds in the Southeast. Her husband, Emil, King of the Gypsy nation, her successor, Flora, and numerous other Gypsies have been buried alongside her.
The grave sites of Queen Kelly and her court were not our usual cemetery fare. For me, one of the interesting things about cemeteries is how the living choose to remember the dead. And after my trip to Rose Hill Cemetery, I know that the memory of the Queen of the Gypsies will live forever.
James & Terri