In February 1915, thousands of Romany people from all around the United States slowly but surely made their way to the town of Meridian in Mississippi. Their queen had died and they wanted to pay their respects to the head of the clan.
Queen Kelly Mitchell passed away on January 31, after suffering complications during the birth of her 15th child (some reports put the number at 14), while the family was camped out in Coatopa, Alabama. Her husband, King Emil, had sought local medical assistance and even offered a fee of $10,000 if doctors could save her, but the efforts were in vain. The couple were the leaders of the Mitchell clan of Romany people, one of the largest in America, and Emil, who was born in Brazil, had moved to the country as a child and had been crowned king in 1884.
Romany people are a traditionally nomadic group, thought to originally belong to the northwest of India. They were once commonly referred to as “gypsies,” but that term has now taken on a negative racial connotation. Widespread movement across centuries has led to their presence all around the globe, where they assimilated the culture of the different places they live in but also retained a distinct Romany identity.
After Mitchell’s death, it was decided that she would be buried at the Rose Hill Cemetery in nearby Meridian and her body was placed in state for 12 days, to allow time for more people to come and pay tribute.
Queen Kelly’s funeral was a distinctly Romany event, which nearly 20,000 people attended, creating a musical party atmosphere in the overflowing town. A newspaper report about the funeral read, “Her swarthy face with its high cheekbones is typical of Romany tribes and the head, the upper portion of which is covered with bright silken drapery pinned at the back with pins, rests upon a cushion of filmy silk and satin. The hair is braided Gypsy fashion and the dark tresses shine. The body is attired in a Royal robe of Gypsy Green and other bright colors contrasting vividly with the somber hues usual under such circumstances.”
Rumors that an extravagant coffin was crafted out of gold for her at a cost of $15,000, and that gold coins had been thrown into the casket at the time of the burial, took root, and the site was damaged several times by grave robbers before it was reinforced with better materials.
Despite these attempts, the gravesite is a festive corner of the cemetery, with its many trinkets that people leave, hoping that the gifts will please her and their problems will be solved. Crush orange soda cans also dot the grave, as this is rumored to be have been the queen’s favorite drink. Beads, coins, whiskey, and cigarettes are some other common offerings to the deceased Romany leader. Her husband, who died 27 years after her, is buried next to her, along with some of the other members of the Mitchell family.