On Jan. 31, 1915, the life of an icon came to an end in Coatopa, Ala. Kelly Mitchell, Queen of the Gypsy Nation, died at age 47 while giving birth to what is said to have been her 14th or 15th child.

With so many children, it's no surprise that she had a large funeral. But, according to a 1915 article in the Meridian Dispatch, her funeral wasn't just large, it was what might warrant use of the term 'gi-normous,' with as many as 20,000 Romani people showing up at the ceremony.

"Gypsies were camped all over hell's half-acre," said Rose Hill Cemetery caretaker and tour guide Walton W. Moore of the event. "They camped everywhere in Meridian; in church lawns, parks, schools, anywhere they could squeeze in."

The funeral ceremony took place at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, which was far too small to fit even a small fraction of the funeral-goers, most of whom gathered around outside the church to participate in the celebrations.

"A college that was here at the time provided the band, and they marched down the street playing a slow funeral march," said Moore, "and the gypsies told them, 'Snap it up, it's party time'."

Though Mitchell died in Coatopa, Meridian was chosen as her burial place because it was the nearest city with enough ice to preserve her body until the time of the funeral.

"They sent her to Webb Funeral Home, back then it was called Watkins Funeral Home, and kept her on ice for six weeks so they could call in all the bands of gypsies," said Moore.

The four bands of gypsies that made their way into the Southeast, Moore said, are called Mitchell, Marks, Bimbo, and Costello. Reports as to which bands had representatives at the funeral are contradictory.

The Gypsies of the world long disagreed over where they originated, but finally their language helped them identify their origin, which is now thought to be northwest India. According to Moore, the Gypsies moved into the Balkans from India and then dispersed into various places, including Portugal.

In the 1700's, the Gypsies were widely persecuted in Europe, with many rulers issuing edicts that all adult Gypsies be unceremoniously beheaded without any sort of trial. During this time, many Gypsies fled to South America, some eventually winding up in the Southeast.

Though popular culture depicts Gypsies as fortune-tellers or nomadic con-men, the Romani people of America have for the most part been absorbed into American culture and are no longer nomadic.

Today, the grave of Kelly Mitchell, whose ancestors migrated to the Southeast over generations, lies at Rose Hill Cemetery, the headstone and wolf-stone (a large, flat stone that covers the grave) broken into many pieces by vandals and would-be grave robbers. Her grave is covered with gifts like packs of cigarettes, cans of soda, and mardi-gras beads.

The trinkets, which take on many forms (Moore says he once found a coconut cake on the grave, half devoured by ants) are, according to Moore, left by people who believe that leaving an offering will entice Mitchell's spirit to visit them in a dream and provide answers to their problems.

Queen Kelly's burial at Rose Hill turned the cemetery into 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.

Mitchell remains an icon to many Meridianites, and her grave is one of Meridian's top historical landmarks. It can be visited 24 hours a day at Rose Hill Cemetery, across from Calvary Christian School on Eighth Street.

Said Moore: "The only time I lock up the gates is on Halloween."

Gypsy Queen: Myth vs. Fact

Myth: The Gypsy Queen was buried in a $15,000 gold coffin

Fact: Queen Kelly Mitchell is thought to have been buried in a "magnificent silver-trimmed metallic casket" according to a newspaper published at the time of her death. Despite a 1942 Meridian Star article claiming otherwise, the coffin was not gold and its cost wouldn't have come anywhere near $15,000, or even $1,500, 1915 dollars. According to Rose Hill Cemetery caretaker Walton Moore, records show that no coffin over $150 was purchased in Meridian the year of Kelly Mitchell's burial. "Besides," he said, "the Gypsies weren't stupid. Even if they had $15,000 worth of gold, they wouldn't have buried it in a grave ... The idea of a $15,000 coffin is ridiculous."

Myth: The Gypsy Queen is buried with a small fortune in gold coins, thrown into her coffin as an homage during her funeral.

Fact: Funeral attendees did reportedly throw coins into Queen Mitchell's casket, in keeping with custom, but the coins would have been pennies, nickels, and maybe the occasional dime. "There might be $50 in there, if that," said Moore, "and that's a lot of digging to do for $50".

Myth: Kelly Mitchell had a passion for Orange Crush soda, which is why orange crush cans can sometimes be found on her grave. At her burial, funeral-goers threw Orange Crush bottles into her grave.

Fact: Orange Crush was invented in 1906, so the idea that Mitchell was a crush fan is feasible. Whether or not funeral-goers threw bottles of the soda into her grave is not known, but the rumor of her affinity for the drink is certainly what prompts the occasional visitor to leave cans of Orange Crush near her tombstone.

Myth: The gypsy queen's casket has been protected with a layer of metal bars and cement.

Fact: A 1942 article in the Meridian Star, the same one which claimed that the Queen's casket was made of gold, reports that multiple grave-robbing attempts prompted the gypsies to bury the Queen's husband, Emil Mitchell, under a layer of concrete. Moore says that Queen Kelly's grave received the same treatment. However, the queen's wolf-stone remains in tatters ...

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