Former renter in Greenwich Village, waiting out the turnaround in Manhattan's midtown. Working on a blog-to-book project about my NYC/NJ ancestors. Everyday I'm amazed by what I find with Ancestry and in old newspapers.

October 16, 2019

Psychics and gypsies: a shared fascination by the women in my family

As I walk past psychic storefronts in the Village I'm tempted to go in and make an appointment but I'm wary. I want to talk to my mother again, and things that happened around her passing have made me seek her out. She wrote a story about the day she found her Grandma Annie with a gypsy and that no one would believe her when she ran home to tell. Was this story true? I made a trip to my mother's hometown this week to look for traces.

Annie's Gypsy
by Barbara Carter

On my way home from kindergarten I would always cut through Annie's backyard. The chickadees were at the pedestal birdbath in her garden . . .
 of rosebushes of all colors and kinds, and two huge blue willows bowed over the goldfish pond where I would play. In the center of the yard was a bright silver gazing ball. When I walked around and around it, a miniature world was created the reflected all the garden's splendor. Everyday I would stop in to see Annie on my way home from school. Her house sat on the corner of our street next door to mine.

Bobbie, in front, with her aunt Doris
who was eight years older, in
front of the goldfish pond

On this day when I tried to open the screen door it was locked and Annie didn't answer my call. I ran around the side of the house and up the back porch steps and found the door to the kitchen locked too. Why had she locked all the doors? Then I remembered and ran down the steps to the basement door; it was unlocked. I looked down into the dark cellar and two bright yellow eyes stared back at me from the old stuffed owl; a neighbor had shot it from Grandpa Snyder's black cherry tree then had it stuffed 'for the fun of it.' The owl's eyes followed me up the curved stairwell to the first floor and I came out into the hall. The house was so quiet. No one was in the kitchen and I walked through the dining room with its cut glass chandelier and doily-like tablecloth Annie had made. Doris was still at school because her books weren't stacked on the table. I kept wondering where Annie was. I called out again. There was no answer. 

The Gypsy
illustration by Barbara Carter
Ahead through the foyer, wallpapered in a jungle pattern of silver and blue ferns, was Grandma, sitting on the cream velvet settee by the front door with her back to the sunny windows. A strange, large woman was seated beside her, and very close. Her skin was the darkest I'd ever seen, and when I saw that large black mole on her face, my hand went instinctively to my mouth and I began sucking my two favorite fingers. She was the ugliest person I had ever seen.

Grandma didn't say anything. She was looking off into space with a delicate serene look on her face. The stranger beside her was wearing a bright red blouse and a long, full striped skirt with yellow sandals poking out; one foot poked the black pottery cat that sat by the front door.  

The stranger's coarse face looked more like a man's. Her thick head of black hair was stuffed under a bright green scarf and gold earrings dangled from long earlobes. Her large hooked nose jutted out, and from under heavy black eyebrows two piercing black eyes squinted back sharply at me. The big flat black mole, the size of a quarter, to the side of her mouth began to twitch.

Cautiously her heavy dark arm, wrapped in gold and silver bracelets, slid out from under her purple shawl and her hand fell on top of Grandma's very white one, caressing the sapphire diamond ring. The thing whispered something to Grandma who slowly turned her head to gaze at me through her silver-framed glasses. Again the stranger whispered and all at once Grandma looked right at me and said, "Bobbie, I have company now. You'll have to go home. You can't stay."

Grandma had never told me to go home before, unless I had been tiring her out by playing the piano too long. The stranger moved her jowled head up and down once and I backed away into the hallway. As soon as I could get out of Grandma's house, I would run home and tell Mom.

I ran up the back walk to our house but Mom wouldn't listen to me. "Don't come home with stories like that anymore. Annie is probably just tired and doesn't want you bothering her." I told her that the stranger looked just like Little Black Sambo's mother but not as nice.

"I can't go barging in down there. Annie wold think I was being nosy."

Later that afternoon everyone said to Mom, "Why didn't you listen to Bobbie? Didn't you think that something strange was happening?" 

The neighbors were coming into Annie's backyard; they had seen the police car in her driveway. In the reflection of the garden's silver ball the whole world was becoming a wild, distorted panorama. People pushed aside flowers and became monstrous shapes. Doc Abbott and Kate came around from the front, cutting across Grandma and Grandpa Snyder's backyard and stepping about the croquet hoops. Cliff was across the street weighing his truck on the coal scales in the alley by Jerry's store. He phoned Ruth to say something was going on at Annie's place. Then Ruth phoned Beth. Soon Beth's Nash pulled into our driveway.

Mom confided to Beth, "I was so embarrassed to be caught in this old house dress when that state trooper knocked on the back door. He could see me though the screen. He was so good-looking, I could have died. Right in the middle of supper and the kitchen all a mess. I pushed Bob outside to talk with him. After all, she saw that creature." Beth laughed relief. At first she thought someone had been murdered. "Th-this was b-bound to happen sooner or later. Annie always wa-wanting to visit those w-weird fortune tellers. She found a good one this time. She must have told her how young and pretty she looked. Th-that's all she really wanted to hear."

Annie and Oscar

When Grandpa Oscar came home from work he found Annie walking in circles, round and round, clutching a small blue book to her breast. She began a dismal, moaning chant, "She stole my money. She stole my money." Later at the kitchen table she pointed to the numbers under withdrawal. "Why'd you do it, Annie?" and she said, "I don't know. I can't remember. She made me do it." This was the story Oscar told to the police.

The trooper in his uniform, like a mounted police, only in gray with black boots, followed Oscar and me through the house trying to recreate the theft, searching for clues and any tell-tale sign the gypsy might have left behind. By this time, the townspeople had given the stranger a name, "the gypsy." The stairway down to the basement proved "fruitful" as the trooper reported. A distinct, dark fingerprint stood out clearly on the yellow overhead riser above the stairwell. She must have grabbed onto it for support because there was no railing. The trooper was pleased because he didn't have to bother dusting the print to get a clear look at it. He surmised that the house must have undergone a thorough search and when no money was found, the gypsy hypnotized Annie, drove her uptown to the lower bank and forced her into withdrawing all that money. The gypsy remained outside in the car waiting because no one in the bank had seen her. 

Nellie and Pris Lodge, the two sisters who were tellers, would certainly have remembered the brightly clad character if she had been there standing beside Annie in front of the cages. But no, Annie was alone. They were both adamant about that. "She did act a little peculiar, though," Pris told the police. Nellie agreed, as she always did. Since their parents died and left them the small white house, the two spinster sisters continued to lead their lives in a small way. The only time they were seen uptown was in the morning when they went to work and in the late afternoon when they left the bank, clutching identical black purses under their arms and on rainy days sharing a large black umbrella. But as Cliff, a neighbor up back, said they were really two strong old birds, the way they told their story matter-of-factly to the police. Ruth said that the only thing that upset them was that they didn't get their names in the paper.

Annie clipped the article and pasted it in the black scrapbook, along with the family photos, which is kept in her glass bookcase. 

My cousins and many of the townspeople respected my participation in this event. From then on, I was always chosen to play the gypsy in school plays, backyard carnivals and on Halloween. Dressed in a riot of bright clothing from the attic and covered in my aunt's costume jewelry, I looked into the crystal ball from Annie's backyard garden and was so authentic that many saw me only as the gypsy and were scared.

This event, however, did not deter Annie's interest in fortune-telling. On Saturday nights at Lake Hopatcong she always drove with us to the amusement park at the far end of the lake, and while we were on the merry-go-round or the roller coaster, she managed to slip away into the fortune teller's tent. Perhaps she was still looking for her gypsy.

The End

Somehow Annie's clipping got lost a long time ago; my mother didn't have it when she wrote her story, but I had to find that clipping. After a few attempts to track it down digitally, I made a trip to the library in my mother's hometown, coincidentally on her birthday, to search through microfilm of the Hunterdon County Democrat. That my mother was in kindergarten when this happened helped narrow the search, and after a couple hours of looking at fuzzy images of small write-ups on police activity I didn't think I'd find it. Then bam! "I found it!" The librarians in the reference room cheered and came running over to look at the old microfilm machine. There it was on the front page, and a whole column: Police Handicapped in Hunt for Gypsy of Local Swindle / Teletype Alarm Spread For Palmist Who Took $1400 From Flemington Lady / Promised to Work Black Art. My need-to-know now satisfied, I'm grateful to librarians Judith, Karen and Cortney for their guidance. There's nothing like the people in a small town.

Hunterdon County Democrat, April 28, 1938
click to open a legible PDF in new window

click to open a legible PDF in new window

Contact: Debbie Carter, VillagerExpat@aol.com, (212) 925-3721

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