Unwelcome Stares at Quiet Clan

After Child Beating, Secret Life Ends for Irish Travelers

Washington Post/October 20, 2002
By Lynne Duke

Edgefield County, S.C. -- In a puzzling little community of trailer homes, Cadillacs, mini-mansions and kissing cousins, Rose Kathy Sherlock opens the front door of her double-wide. She's breaking a long-standing taboo just by talking to a stranger. Irish Travelers such as Sherlock are supposed to keep to themselves. Secrecy has ensured their survival for many years.

But that all changed last month with the rogue act of an Irish Traveler woman caught on videotape beating her child. Suddenly, the Travelers felt their culture was on trial.

A cocker spaniel named Spot scampers around the paneled sitting room inside Sherlock's trailer. Glossy porcelain statues of Jesus, of the Madonna, stand watch from side tables as Sherlock, 46, is saying her culture isn't nearly as peculiar or lawless as some folks say.

"We're like any other community, and in any other neighborhood there's good and bad," Sherlock says, her arched eyebrows raised high as if she's speaking a gospel truth. She's talking to a reporter only because a trusted friend has come along. No way will she pose for a picture. In the fast, clipped Deep South brogue that distinguishes her speech, she continues: "We're a close-knit society. We don't like to speak out. . . . We stay to ourselves."

Descendants of nomadic Irish traders and tinsmiths known as the Tinkers who immigrated to the United States 150 years ago, the Irish Travelers have protected their archaic culture by keeping the outside world at bay. The older folks among them still speak a Gaelic-derived language called Cant that is unique to the Travelers' culture. Outsiders don't understand the Travelers' language or their ways, Sherlock says. They don't understand the traditions that have kept the culture intact. Her life tells some of the story.

She left school in the eighth grade, as is the fate of most Traveler girls. When she was 15, her parents arranged for her to marry a boy from their village not far from the Savannah River. At 17 she wed. Her husband took to the road doing home improvement jobs and other work, as Traveler men have done for generations. And her three children, now grown, were reared in the Traveler tradition.

In a village of roughly 3,000 people, there are but a dozen surnames: Carroll, Costello, Gorman, O'Hara, Sherlock and others. So many of the men have the same names that they go by nicknames: "Black Pete," "White Man," "Peekaboo," "Mikey Boy." Murphy Villagers are generally related, experts say. Cousins marry cousins, whether first or second, and always in arrangements that include a substantial dowry.

Yes, Sherlock knows: Outsiders think this is strange. Defensively, she mentions Indian immigrants and others. Plaintively, she says: "In different societies in America, their marriages be's arranged."

But the baggage of the Irish Travelers is heavier than just that.

The Unwelcome Traveler

The folks of Murphy Village rue the day they heard of Madelyne Gorman Toogood. She is the 25-year-old Traveler who became infamous last month when she slammed her daughter, 4-year-old Martha, into the back seat of their SUV in a shopping center near South Bend, Ind., and proceeded to hit her over and over. A surveillance camera caught it all, and the footage was broadcast nationwide for days and days last month, even after Toogood turned herself in to police.

But for the Travelers, the tragic and sensational saga didn't end there.

Toogood did the unthinkable, in the eyes of her fellow Travelers. To their shock, she held a news conference and announced her ethnic origins. The repercussions reached all the way down to Murphy Village, the largest of the Irish Traveler settlements. Toogood isn't from here, but it did not matter. It is here that police and journalists turned to seek clues into her life. Folks at Murphy Village don't like being associated with what Toogood did. Physical child abuse, say law enforcement sources, rarely if ever is discovered among the Travelers.

People here bristle at the possibility that the outside world will think that Toogood is one of them. She may be a Traveler, but the Murphy Villagers do not claim her. She's from Texas, from a different group.

"We had never met her," says Sherlock. "She'd never been down here. We didn't know her family."

The Irish Travelers who settled in the United States in the 19th century migrated to different parts of the country and established their own clan groups, often with little intermingling across regions. The Sherlocks, O'Haras and others settled here in the 1960s, on land around a Catholic church whose pastor, the Rev. Joseph Murphy, became the patron and namesake of the growing community just outside the town of North Augusta.

But Toogood hails from an Irish Traveler community in White Settlement, near Fort Worth. Experts say it is smaller than Murphy Village. Those Texas Travelers are known as the Greenhorns.

Another Irish Traveler group is settled outside Memphis and is known as the Mississippi Travelers, after the river. There also are scattered and smaller settlements of Irish Travelers -- say, six or eight families -- in northeastern states such as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, especially in trailer parks.

There are several thousand Travelers in the United States, including some of English and Scottish descent. Their precise numbers are unknown.

Wherever they are, these Travelers share a distinctly suspicious view of the world, one shaped by their people's history of persecution in Ireland, where they were seen as an itinerant underclass. The Irish Travelers came to the United States in the 1840s to flee the potato famine in Ireland. Here in the United States, they often are taunted as "gypsies" because of their nomadic lifestyle. The Travelers view themselves at odds with outsiders. They even have a word for non-Travelers. "Country people," they call them. Traditionally, the Travelers haven't even trusted the country people's schools.

"This is a community that, like the Amish, treasures its remoteness," said Larry Otway, a New York-based activist for the Travelers and other small marginalized ethnic groups. Otway calls them "very much an expression of American culture."

'Going on a Trip'

Each spring, in caravans of trucks and trailers that have replaced the ornate covered wagons of yore, the men pull out of Murphy Village. They fan out across the country to ply their trade, as do men from the clans in Texas and Tennessee. They are skilled driveway pavers, barn painters and roofers, often with regular seasonal customers.

Sometimes their wives go along, depending on the ages of the kids and whether they're still in school. Sherlock calls it "going on a trip." She has gone out some seasons with her husband, Peter. While her husband worked this past summer, she went to Indiana and Illinois to shop with other Traveler women.

But police in several states know some of these Travelers as something other than honest, hardworking folk. Some of them have a reputation, backed by arrests and convictions, for being relentless con artists. Like grifters, they move around the country running home improvement swindles. And the women sometimes run shoplifting scams, police say.

Joe Livingston, an investigator with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division who is an expert on Traveler scams, estimates that perhaps 10 to 15 percent of the Murphy Village Travelers are thieves, or "yonks," as the Travelers label the wayward among them.

However small the proportion, their impact is felt widely along the seasonal circuits they travel. Livingston calls it "nontraditional organized crime." And tracking the phenomenon is a nightmare, he says, because of the web of same-names and nicknames among the Travelers.

Like others who have tangled with the Travelers, Livingston is both intrigued and mystified by their lifestyle.

He can quote case after case of Traveler scams. The first he encountered was in 1984, up in Rhea County, Tenn. Some workmen completed a small construction job for an elderly man, who went inside the house to get money to pay them. They saw where he kept the cash, Livingston said, and returned later and stole it.

Some of the scams are inventive. Several Travelers were arrested a few years ago over a scam in which a Traveler wore a white lab coat and a stethoscope and went door to door in rural South Carolina, telling old folks he was there to examine them for an increase in their Social Security benefits. During the "exam," other Travelers searched the house for cash.

"They basically would go door to door seeking home improvement work, saying, 'Hey, I was working down the street and noticed your chimney needs some work and I'd be willing to do it for this wonderful price,' " says Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau in Charlotte and former president of the BBB of Northeastern Indiana. Unsuspecting homeowners, charmed by the Travelers' seeming earnestness, would agree and let them up on the roof. "Then they'd come down and say, 'Hey, this is going to take more than I thought. I need some more supplies. We're going to need a deposit.' And then they're gone.

"I've been with the Better Business Bureau 20 years, and it's happened every year, like clockwork, like the swallows of Capistrano," he said. "When I was in Fort Wayne, they would usually come in RVs and stay at a campground, trailer-park-type area. The men would go around in pickup trucks to the neighborhoods, and the women would go to stores and steal merchandise. They go steal it, and then take it back for cash refunds." Investigator Livingston says, "There's always been speculation that women do things, but we haven't uncovered a big-time network yet."

Officials in St. Joseph County, Ind., say Madelyne Toogood and her husband, Johnny, appear to fit the pattern of "yonk" Travelers. Johnny Toogood has a long record of arrests under several names in several states, said Randy De Cleene, spokesman for the county prosecutor's office. He is wanted in Montana on a felony warrant for a home improvement scam. And Madelyne Toogood had a previous arrest for shoplifting at a Kohl's department store in Texas, he said.

Steven Rocket Rosen, of Houston, is the Toogoods' lawyer. He is among a small network of attorneys to whom the Travelers turn for help. Known most widely for representing a member of David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult, Rosen said he has represented about 50 or 60 Irish Travelers over the past 14 years.

Asked about the prevalence of theft among them, Rosen said: "I don't know the statistics, but I know the reputation. Part of it's true. But on the whole? I would say no. On the whole there's a lot of good, hardworking people who belong to this Irish culture of traveling from community to community and doing good work."

Back in South Carolina, even the police chief of North Augusta has kind words for the Travelers' work ethic. A Traveler crew painted Chief Lee Wetherington's roof and paved his driveway. Sure, he says, there are scam artists. But the scoundrels among the Travelers are about the same proportion as in society at large.

"They did good work," Wetherington said of the Travelers he hired. "I would trust Mikey Boy Sherlock with anything I owned."

End of the Rainbow

Along Highway 25, the evolution of the Irish Travelers is obvious. Where trailer homes once stood, today there are sprawling ranch houses and two- or three-story houses as large as any suburban McMansion. You can still see the old trailers parked out back, or deeper into the woods, with aluminum foil over the windows for insulation. But the wealth of some Travelers is what catches the eye. These nomadic people who once scraped out a meager living now are driving Benzes and Lincolns and Caddies, all brand-new, and parking them in front of homes with beautiful brick masonry and ironwork.

At a nearby supermarket, which the local non-Travelers call the "Winn-Gypsy," the Travelers are known as big spenders, and non-Travelers are accustomed to seeing Traveler children out and about in expensive Tommy Hilfiger clothes. For special occasions, Traveler mothers garb their young daughters in shiny, sequined dresses and complete the picture of a child beauty queen with bouffant hairstyles and makeup. Traveler women are known, Wetherington said, for "that glamour-shot look: poufed hair, lot of makeup."

Inside one of the newly built houses, pink sets the tone: pink leather sofa, pink curtains and swags and valances. The cape around the shoulders of the baby Jesus statue is pink too. And a six-foot-high floral arrangement of pink and blue artificial flowers, trimmed in gold, stands in the two-story foyer, beneath a huge chandelier.

The women of this house, a mother and daughter, did not want their names used. They know the "country people" drive by and wonder where the money comes from.

But it's simple, the older woman said: Members of the extended family each contribute to the dowry that ensures a proper marriage. And people work long and hard to make life better for the next generation.

"It was something we prepared for for a very long time," the older woman said softly of her home.

These women are ready, though, for change. Neither of the women went past the sixth grade. Both were married off as preteens. (How did you meet your husband, the younger one is asked. "Well, he's my cousin," she says. "I've known him all my life.")

They want the next generation to have more opportunities in life, more choices. They boast of a Traveler who has gone off to law school. And of a Traveler who has become a doctor. But those are the exceptions.

The younger women recalled a childhood of stigma. Not being invited to birthday parties, being singled out for being different; being excluded during recess at school. She watches it changing in her own children's lives and happily announces, "Some of my daughter's best friends are country people."

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