Gypsies, Orphans, and Ghosts
by Susan Cushman
In the 1950s, I spent a couple of weeks every summer with my grandmother in Meridian, Mississippi. She worked as a secretary in the tallest building in town, which changed hands (and names) several times. At one point it was known as Dixie Towers, a sweet, benign name for the sixteen-story art deco masterpiece originally known as the Threefoot Building. One summer when I was “playing secretary” in my grandmother’s office, I wrote a poem, which included these lines:
I spent many hours,
Many happy hours,
Up in Dixie Towers.
From 1890 until 1930, Meridian was the largest city in the state. Today it boasts the most historic buildings in any downtown area in Mississippi. The towering Threefoot Building anchors the business district, and would make a perfect location for a Ghostbusters movie. I always wondered why the tallest building in town was called “Threefoot.” Turns out the building’s German-Jewish immigrant developer, who was named Dreyfuss—which means “threefoot” in German—Anglicized his name to Threefoot. It’s currently empty—at least empty of official tenants—but I learned about its most famous occupant on my visit to speak to the Friends of the Meridian-Lauderdale County Public Library. The original Carnegie Library now houses the Museum of Art, and the Friends meet in a conference room there.
Meridian was my mother’s home town, so the Friends group had invited me to speak to them about my memoir, Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimer’s, since it was about one of their native daughters. The group of book lovers—mostly folks in their fifties through seventies—listened intently as I read excerpts from my memoir, and entered into a lively discussion about Alzheimer’s and caregiving afterwards.
When the meeting was over, Rachel Peterson, the president of the Friends group, had hoped to take me to see Merrehope—the beautiful antebellum mansion that was spared during the Civil War. But it was closed that day.
“Maybe you can come back during the Christmas holidays,” she offered. “The house is decorated with trees from around the world and it’s gorgeous.”
“Sounds lovely. But I’ve been hearing about the downtown ghost tours for years, so I’m excited that we’re doing that instead.”
“Well, there’s actually a ghost at Merehope, too,” Rachel said. “Some people claim there are two there. And the house itself is amazing.”
The art museum was only a few blocks away from several historic locations on 23rd Avenue. Rachel and I and joined up with a group of tourists who were being treated to a “ghost tour” by a local expert. Dr. Jones guided us up 23rd Avenue and around nearby blocks, telling stories of various hauntings in the ancient buildings. One of them—the Pigford Building—is haunted by the apparition of a woman in an old-fashioned white dress.
“The spirit seems to have something against men,” Dr. Jones began, “and has been known to throw objects around and slam doors when male employees enter the place. Sometimes she leaves costume jewelry around the building as gifts.”
I remembered hanging out with Carol Pigford at Northwood Country Club back in the ’50s and ’60s when my father brought us over from Jackson so he could play in the club’s annual invitational golf tournament every summer. Carol and I would swim in the pool at the club, and sometimes I would go to her house and meet some of her friends. Now I was curious about why her family’s historic building was haunted by a ghost.
When we got to the Threefoot Building, I was all ears.
“The building is being renovated right now, as you can see,” Dr. Jones began.
‘There are currently no tenants there, but workmen have heard a child’s voice numerous times while working on the building. And at the end of the day, when they are back down here on the sidewalk, they’ve seen a little girl up in one of the windows.”
“So, what’s the story?” I asked.
“Well, back in 1915—just over a hundred years ago—a little girl was playing in the tower at the top of the building.”
Everyone in our group leaned back to look up at the building’s tower as Dr. Jones spoke.
“She probably rode the elevator to the top and found an open window. Curiosity got the better of her, and she climbed out the window and fell sixteen stories to the ground.”
“How did she get up there without a parent or someone knowing where she was?” I seemed to be the only person asking questions.
“Her body was never claimed, and people thought she was part of a tribe of gypsies who had come to town for the burial of Kelly Mitchell, Queen of the Gypsies. Over 20,000 people viewed the queen’s body before the funeral—and 5,000 people attended her burial at Rose Hill Cemetery. So many people were at the funeral service at St. Paul Episcopal Church that many were turned away at the door. Some people think this little girl was possibly in that group, got lost from her family, and wandered around town until she found this building and went inside.”
“That’s awful, “ I said to Rachel, as the group continued walking down the sidewalk to our next location.
Rachel nodded slightly, but didn’t answer. Her expression was serious. When the tour was over we ended up at Weidman’s, the oldest restaurant in Mississippi. Rachel was treating me to lunch. It seemed that everywhere we went I was surrounded by some pieces of my own family’s history. The restaurant was owned by Shorty McWilliams and his wife Gloria (Weidmann) in the 1960s. Oddly enough, my mother was engaged to Shorty back in the 1940s, but when he was deployed in the war, she married my father instead! I was sharing this bit of “small world trivia” with Rachel when I noticed that she didn’t seem to be listening.
“Hey—is everything all right? You seem to be worlds away.”
“Oh, sorry.” She sipped her iced tea and spread some peanut butter on her crackers—a traditional table condiment at Weidman’s since the depression era. “I always get stirred up when I hear that story about the girl at the Threefoot Building.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“It’s a long story. Let’s order lunch first.”
I ordered Redfish Hannah and Rachel asked for Gloria’s Special Salad. The vegetable plates also looked good, but I had heard about the redfish and couldn’t resist. It didn’t disappoint! As we were enjoying lunch, I started the conversation back up.
“So, can you tell me what was so disturbing for you about the story of the young gypsy girl?”
Rachel nodded as she swallowed a bite of salad. Finally she was ready to talk.
“It’s not something I talk about often,” she began.
“Oh, then don’t worry about it. I didn’t mean to pry. If it’s too personal, let’s just talk about something else.” Of course I was hoping she would tell me!
“No, it’s okay. I just haven’t thought about it recently. Well, that’s not true, I think about it frequently, but I don’t often talk about it.”
Our eyes met and I reached across the table to touch her hand, offering encouragement to continue.
“You see, my mother was one of the children who came to town for the Gypsy Queen’s funeral back in 1915. She was actually part of Queen Kelly’s tribe. They were camped over in Coatopa, Alabama, when Queen Kelly died giving birth to her fifteenth child.”
I quit chewing my redfish mid-bite, hardly able to believe what Rachel was telling me.
“When the tribe came to Meridian for the funeral, their appearance on the streets of this conservative southern town wasn’t always welcome. Some people think that the little girl who fell from the top of the Threefoot Building might have been kidnapped and taken up there against her will.”
“Oh my goodness, Rachel. That’s awful. Surely there was an investigation.”
“Not really. Gypsies were considered second-class citizens, and the loss of one of 20,000 visitors from all over the country, invading the quiet lives of the citizens of Meridian in 1915, wasn’t something to be taken seriously, evidently. So, no one really knows who the girl was or what happened to her.”
“Didn’t you ask your mother about her?”
“Yes, I did. The girl was definitely one of her people, and they maintain a fierce loyalty to their tribe.”
“What about you? I would have never known you were once a gypsy.”
Rachel smiled. “We actually prefer the term ‘Romani.’ Most of us consider ‘gypsy’ to be derogatory.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Of course not.”
As Rachel spoke, I noticed how exotic her looks were. Her nearly jet-black hair, pulled back in a low bun, was set off by large loopy earrings. Her dress was a simple black shift, but she wore a large, colorful necklace and several rings on both hands. Her skin was dark—but could have been a typical southern suntan. She was beautiful, even for her age, which I guessed was close to seventy.
“So, how is it your mother ended up settling in Meridian instead of moving on with her people after the funeral?”
“That’s the hard part of the story. Mother got separated from her family after the service at the Episcopal church. She followed her best friend away from the crowds and into the streets of downtown. They were about six or eight years old. Somehow they got separated, and she never found her friend again. When she got back to the church, everyone had left for the cemetery. She sat on the steps of the church and waited for hours. Eventually the priest came back, but all the Romani had left town directly from the cemetery.”
My mind was spinning as I listened to Rachel’s story. I was already imagining her connection to the little girl whose ghost haunts the Threefoot Building. My redfish had gotten cold by then, so I put down my fork and continued to listen.
“There was no way for the priest to contact my mother’s family. This was a hundred years ago, and the Romani people moved around a lot. Of course there were no cell phones. So my mother was placed in the Masonic Children’s Home, where she lived until she was eighteen. That was around 1930, just after the depression hit and the economy tanked. But Meridian was still opening new businesses, and Mother got a job at the Temple Theater, working in the box office. That’s where she met my father, when he came to buy tickets to a show. They got married and raised their family here. I know it sounds like a happy ending, and I have much to be thankful for, but I know that Mother suffered greatly from being separated from her own family and culture and growing up in an orphanage.”
I had pushed my plate aside and motioned for the waiter to remove my uneaten lunch.
“Would you ladies like to see a dessert menu?” he asked.
We both shook our heads.
“Just bring the check, please,” Rachel said.
“Thanks so much for lunch. And for sharing your story. I don’t know what to say. I have three adopted children, so I understand a bit of what it means when people you love have suffered the loss of their birth parents. What was your mother’s life like after she got married?”
The waiter brought the bill to Rachel, and after she handed him a credit card, she said, “Would you like to take a drive around town with me and talk some more? We could go to Rose Hill Cemetery, and I could show you where I grew up.”
“Are you sure you have time? I’m taking up your entire day.”
We drove out to the cemetery first. After seeing the graves of the Gypsy Queen and King—which were covered with bottles of wine and lots of jewelry—we found my grandparents’ graves. Tears filled my eyes as I knelt beside each one of them. I felt my heart swell with love for my sweet grandmother, the one who sewed all of my clothes for the first thirteen or so years of my life. The one who took me with her to work in the Threefoot Building when I visited. And I spoke to my grandfather as I looked at his grave, telling him (again) that I had forgiven him for molesting me when I was a little girl.
Driving through old neighborhoods where Rachel showed me her family’s first home, I was amazed at how close it was to my own mother’s early childhood home. And my great-grandmother’s house, which was right across the street from my mother. The small grocery store which used to be on the corner—Culpepper’s—had long since been torn down. A backhoe was still on the property, surrounded by leftover concrete foundation blocks and piles of red clay, which is common in the Meridian area.
Rachel and I stood quietly at each of these settings of our families’ roots in Meridian, Mississippi, and then we embraced. It was hard to believe we had only met earlier that same day. Rachel broke the silence first.
“It’s so good to connect with someone who has a bit of a shared history. And maybe your next book will include some of my story, who knows?”
We both laughed, and I thought about the T-shirt I had seen online that said, “Careful or you’ll end up in my novel!”
Susan Cushman is the author of the novel Cherry Bomb and memoir Tangles and Plaques: A Mother and Daughter Face Alzheimers. She is editor of Southern Writers on Writing and A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be. Her essays have been published in four anthologies and numerous journals and magazines. A native of Jackson, Mississippi, she lives in Memphis. See her at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge on Saturday, November 10.