Levi and Matilda Stanley
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Levi Stanley (1818? — 3 December 1908) and Matilda Joles Stanley (1821? — 15 January 1878) were accorded the honorific titles of King and Queen of the Gypsies. Levi explained that the title was merely an indication of his people's love and trust and not more.
Levi was the son of Richard (Owen) Stanley (1794–21 February 1860) and Harriet Worden (1793–30 August 1857), who preceded as King and Queen. Matilda was the daughter of Ephraim Joles. Levi had a brother named Benjamin who had decided to settle down in New England. Benjamin was disowned by their father and a curse was put on him and the next three generations to follow. When Levi became infirm in old age, their son Levi Jr. "Sugar" Stanley (1835–5 March 1916) succeeded as King.
Born in Reading, Berkshire, England, Levi and Matilda and their families came to the United States in 1856—"when Buchanan was king," as they put it—along with others of their people and soon settled near Troy, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, they selected Dayton, Ohio as their headquarters for the summer months, and it became the center for the Gypsies of the country. Each year as they departed Dayton for warmer climes, their caravans would go in procession down Main Street.
In the federal censuses from 1860 to 1900, ages were enumerated that indicated various birth years, so the accuracy is in doubt; those given above are from their graves. In 1900, Levi gave his birth as November 1808. In his obituary, his age was given as 96 (implying 1812).
Enumerated originally as "wanderers,” in later years they gave their occupations as horse traders. After Matilda’s death, Levi stated that "our children are all learning fast, and soon our people will not go a-roaming any more." The children of Levi’s extended family revealed the extent of their wandering by their birthplaces in the censuses: New York, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, Ohio, Michigan and others.
Contrary to common perception, they were reverent church people, and the reigning King and his son and heir, known as Sugar Stanley, were members in good standing of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
Matilda was said to have a wonderful faculty of telling fortunes, when she pleased, and remarkable powers as a mesmerist, both qualities being explained by the assertion that they were handed down to her as the eldest daughter in the Stanley family, and were secrets possessed by her alone. She was described in the press as a "plain, hardy-looking woman, with a touch of Meg Merrilies in her appearance, and a manner indicative of a strong and pronounced character." Meg Merrilies was a gypsy queen in the Sir Walter Scott novel, Guy Mannering, made famous on the American stage by Charlotte Saunders Cushman.
It was the tradition of their people on the occasion of a funeral of the Stanley family, to travel to Dayton to bear tribute from across the United States, as well as England and Canada. On Palm Sunday 1877, one of Levi and Matilda's daughters and her husband were buried in the family plot after a nine-mile long procession of colourful wagons and carriages through the rain. Newspaper stories of the time noted the "rather bright colors of apparel and the expressive features of these people standing in the rain without umbrellas." When the minister stood at the head of the wide grave, the only umbrella upraised was over his head.
The Gypsy Queen, Matilda Stanley, died in Vicksburg, Mississippi in January 1878 after an illness of two years, and her body was embalmed so that it was said to "retain the natural aspect of life." It was placed in the Woodland receiving vault in Dayton, and every day members of late Queen's family came with fresh flowers to strew over her. Eight months later her funeral was held, giving time for word to spread and her people to travel to Dayton, and she was interred in the Stanley family plot. Twenty-thousand paid their last tribute to the dead Queen, including a dozen chiefs and their tribes from different sections of the United States, Canada and England.
Popular expectation that the funeral would consist of some extraordinary rites was not warranted. Rev. Dr. Daniel Berger, of the United Brethren Church of Dayton officiated, the quartet choir of the First United Brethren Church sang hymns, and the transfer of the casket from the vault to the family mausoleum was a brief ceremony.
Her funeral attracted press coverage by the major newspapers of the country and was front page news. Four years later, two more children were interred, and the Dayton Democrat reported that the "attendance was quite large, tent-dwellers having come from all parts of the country – from New York to Mississippi – to be present at the funeral." The story was picked up by the New York Times as well.
Yet, by the time King Levi Stanley died in Marshall, Texas thirty years later, the national press did not even mention his passing. In the article on the arrival of his remains in Dayton by train, it was noted that the aggregate wealth of his family was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, made equally from horse trading and fortune telling. By then, the family owned substantial tracts of real estate, mainly in the north Dayton area. In the tradition of the family, the burial was made the following spring, and was attended by only thirty members of the family from around the country.
More than fifty members of the extended Stanley clan—including members of the Harrison, Jeffry, Young, Broadway and Joles families—are interred in the family plot at Woodland Cemetery, Dayton, Ohio. Thus, Woodland has three Kings and two Queens of the Gypsies buried there. The vault of Levi and Matilda is a box made of stone slabs, 2 feet deep and 10 by 4 feet in dimension. Over the grave is a 20-foot column surmounted by an angel in white marble.
- "Death of a Gypsy King." Daily Gazette & Comet (Baton Rouge, LA), 15 March 1860, page 3, column 1.
- "Burial of a Gypsy Queen. Interest Attaching to the Approaching Interment of Queen Matilda at Dayton." New York Times, 7 August 1878, page 3. (From the Dayton Democrat, 3 August 1878.)
- "Burial of a Gypsy Queen. Twenty Thousand Persons Present—The Services—Character And History of the Gypsies." New York Times, 16 September 1878, page 1.
- "Notable Gypsy Burial." New York Times, 22 April 1882, page 4.
- History of Dayton and Montgomery County, Ohio. Chicago: W. H. Beers & Co. 1882.
- "Body of Gypsy King Placed in Vault." Dayton Daily News, 7 December 1908.
- "Laid Away Just Like an Ordinary Mortal." Dayton Daily News, 13 April 1909.