AUTHOR: Max J. Skidmore TITLE: The Folk Culture of The Travelers : Clans of Con Artists SOURCE: Journal of American Culture 20 no Fall '97

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AUTHOR: Max J. Skidmore TITLE: The Folk Culture of The Travelers : Clans of Con Artists SOURCE: Journal of American Culture 20 no Fall '97 The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this
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AUTHOR: Max J. Skidmore TITLE: The Folk Culture of The Travelers : Clans of Con Artists SOURCE: Journal of American Culture 20 no Fall '97 The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited. Over four decades ago, on July 16, 1956, to be exact, Newsweek Magazine passed on to its readers a warning from the Pittsburgh Better Business Bureau to Beware the 'Terrible Williamsons.' The article described the Williamsons as a close-knit clan of swindlers who have preyed on the nation for more than 30 years ( Family 26). Typical swindles involved a quavering old woman with a head shawl and a thick Irish brogue who offered genuine Irish lace...a precious family heirloom, made by 'me mother' in county Killarney for sale to a Pittsburgh housewife at an absurdly low price. Shortly thereafter, the crone as Newsweek delicately described her, was at another door. This time, she spoke with a soft Scottish burr. She was offering an imported wool rug for a fraction of its real worth. Out of the city a farmer agreed to let a Williamson paint his barn, again at an unheard-of bargain price. Not until days or weeks later did the housewives and the farmer discover that the rare lace was machine-made cotton; the Scottish rug, a cheap rayon imitation, and the paint, a thin substitute that washed off with the first heavy rain ( Family 26). The Newsweek article included a photograph of a grinning suspect--identified as a 'Terrible Williamson' --being frisked by the police, an act that was all too rare. There is no doubt that Newsweek was correct in saying that the clan had defied rewards, warning notices, and the panting efforts of local and state police and the FBI to bring them to justice. Much of the article, however, relied on speculation rather than fact. The Terrible Williamsons, it said, were thought to be descendants of Irish Gypsies. They were nomadic, and favored expensive automobiles and luxurious motels. Cincinnati was a command post, and many Williamsons were buried at a cemetery there. The overall boss to whom they owed allegiance was a mysterious Uncle Isaac Williamson, and in the few instances when they were arrested, they paid fines or jumped bail, roaring out of town in their high-powered cars. As with many confidence schemes, the reluctance of many victims to testify aided the swindlers. Few people wished to admit that they attempted to buy tainted goods, or that they were willing to take advantage of a poor Irish mother ( Family 26). The article in Newsweek generally was correct in its brief description of the behavior of the Williamsons. It minimized their number, however, saying that there were about 200. It also described New England as their primary target, although it conceded that they have ranged westward to California. As will become apparent, they appear to be vastly more numerous. Moreover, they may be found in any part of the country, as a rule on a seasonal basis. They tend to head for warmer regions in the winter, and proceed north in the summer. Although there are some similarities with Gypsy culture--both are nomadic, both tend to marry within the group, and both tend to close ranks against outsiders--there also are some striking differences. Gypsies are descendants of tribal peoples in India, among whom the Banjaras have maintained their distinctive Gypsy culture. The Williamsons, are descendants of Irish, Scottish, and English nomadic tinkers, Travelers, who are as staunchly Protestant as the Gypsies are Catholic. The confusion is understandable. Both groups are secretive, and attempt to reveal as little as possible about themselves to outsiders. Officer Randy Wiler of the Leawood, Kansas, Police Department indicated that many law-enforcement officers are not adequately informed regarding the nature of the groups. Some, especially those in metropolitan areas who are not part of fraud units, may be unaware of the existence of the Travelers. Others may confuse them with Gypsies. Leawood, Kansas, is an affluent suburban community within the metropolitan area of Kansas City, Missouri--an unlikely venue for Travelers. Even Leawood has not been immune, but Officer Wiler had much more frequent experience with Travelers when he was the Chief of Police in a small Kansas community in a predominantly rural area of the state.(fn1) Following the Newsweek article in the same year, another popular journal, the Saturday Evening Post--then an influential weekly with a very large circulation--published a much more comprehensive exposé of the Travelers, The Terrible Williamsons (Kobler 26-27ff). Investigative reporter John Kobler did not refer to the brief Newsweek piece, but corrected some of its errors in his first paragraph. Among the craftiest professional swindlers at large in America today, he wrote, is a teeming heavily interbred tribe of nomads known to law-enforcement agencies as the 'Terrible Williamsons.' Of Scottish origin, established for more than half a century and sporadically enriched by fresh migrations of relatives, they ply a countrywide, door-to-door trade of bogus goods and services, netting profits as high as 2000 percent. They tended to drive expensive cars, he said, most of them with nickel-plated trailer hitches (Kobler 26). Because of intermarriages, many of the group look and speak alike, he wrote. His article included numerous police photographs of various members of the clan, including the same shot that accompanied the Newsweek article. Its caption in Kobler's piece is: Police frisk one of the Terrible Williamsons, who was taken into custody after the bloody intrafamily brawl at Miami Beach during Christmas week of 1952 (Kobler 56). Marriage among first cousins was frequent, and marriage to an outsider was almost unheard of (Kobler 27). Although the name Williamson predominated, other Celtic names also were common. Kobler reported that the vice-president of the National Better Business Bureau, Van Miller, at one time had attempted to construct a genealogy from police records. That resulted in clarifying the relationships of thirty-eight Williamsons, eighteen Stewarts, eleven McMillans, six McDonalds, four Greggs and seven Johnstons at which point the bloodlines became so entangled that he abandoned the project. The confusion is further compounded by duplications of first names within the same family, he said (Kobler 27). Although there is dispute about the length of time groups of Travelers have been in the United States--and some authorities date their arrival considerably earlier--kobler wrote that they have been here since the first Cleveland Administration, which would have been Since at least that time they have engaged in numerous swindles, including the peddling of cheap merchandise portrayed as Oriental rugs, antique Irish lace, British woolens, and the like. They have been known to display genuine articles, and then switch them for shoddy goods. He cited one tailor in Oklahoma City who had rejected requests from some two hundred potential customers to have suits tailored from the fine woolens that they had purchased at high prices, because the material that they presented was so inferior that it would not have been worth the cost of tailoring. Kobler traced the gang's suppliers, and reported that the Cincinnati firm of Sweeney and Johnson had provided them with laces and linens. Two Irish traveling salesmen founded the firm in Kobler said that the firm maintained close relations with the clan. Members of the gang when arrested sometimes would give Sweeney and Johnson's address as their own, but the firm denied any connection. Cheap rugs that the gang would misrepresent as priceless Oriental carpeting, Kobler reported, often came from Joseph Gluck and Co., and Max Schwartz and Co., both Manhattan firms. He reported that on April 2, 1953, the FTC issued a cease-and-desist order against Gluck for mislabeling domestic rayon 'Heath-England,' 'Bradford-England,' and the like. Against Schwartz, on March 28, 1955, it issued a cease-and-desist order for similar practices and for marketing 'mill ends, seconds and unmerchantables,' without so tagging them (Kobler 58). Shortly after Kobler's article appeared, I had personal experience as a very young public school superintendent (age 22) with exactly such a swindle. A well-dressed man appeared in my office with bolts of cloth. His story was that he was an executive with a textile mill that produced the finest of suiting materials, and in lieu of a bonus at the end of each year, he received a quantity of the cloth that he could sell on his own. Despite the implausible nature of his story, he was skillful in presenting himself as sincere. I surreptitiously passed my secretary a note asking her to record a description of his car with its license number, which she did. In response to my sales resistance, he reduced his asking price--ultimately to a mere one-tenth of the original figure. When he concluded finally that there was no possibility of a sale, he gave up. I already had asked him which direction he would be going, and because he told me west, I assumed he would be going east, since there were only those two possibilities. As he left, I said, by the way, I didn't catch your name. Although I knew he was a fraud, I had not expected his reply, which was Williamson. He did travel east, and I telephoned the sheriff who was some twenty-five miles distant to stop and hold him. I offered to swear out a complaint, since it was a misdemeanor to enter public school property without permission for purposes of solicitation. The sheriff did stop him for questioning, but released him. I had also notified the State Highway Patrol, which immediately set up roadblocks in various directions all the way to the state line. Patrol officials were furious at the local sheriff, because they had been alerted to the presence of The Williamson Gang, and were seeking them on numerous charges--this time in vain. He eluded capture. A second type of swindle that members of the clan commonly practice includes various home-repair rackets. They offer to paint or oil wooden roofs, resurface driveways, trim trees, and the like. Frequently, if they do any work at all, it not only is worthless but dangerous. They may, for example, spray roofs with toxic and flammable waste products. The paint that they spray on houses is likely to wash off in the first rain, leaving puddles of inflammable residue around the house. A related scheme is the installation of lightning rods, worthless--often silver-painted rope, wood, or even cardboard--devices for which they charge hundreds of dollars or more. They portray themselves as electrical engineers, often displaying diplomas to impress the uninformed. The Kansas City Star recently warned residents that with spring on the way, so are the Travelers. After having spent the winter in Texas or Florida, they pack up, the Star said, moving into a 12-state scam tour of the Midwest... 'They're here every year,' said Sgt. Doug Weishar of the Kansas City Police Department's fraud unit. 'They use all the generic home repair scams.' The Travelers represent themselves as exterminators, but spray nothing more than water in your basement, or as driveway contractors, but either do a shabby job laying asphalt or spray black paint instead of asphalt sealer. They'll offer to spray a 'sealant' on roofs or sell you lightning rods. The previous year Kansas City police learned quickly...that the Travelers were using 1995 Dodge Rams [vans] and got the word out fast, with the result that there were few victims in Kansas City that year (Hayes F1 & F24). For a number of reasons, it is rather difficult to obtain solid information regarding the Travelers and their activities. They are, of course, secretive. Law-enforcement agencies themselves, although often eager to engage in public education and information, sometimes are themselves reluctant to share information with the public. The least likely to be forthright are intelligence agencies. An official of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, for example, conceded in March of 1997 that the agency had considerable information on the Travelers, especially on a group out of South Carolina, but that it was in the nature of intelligence, and therefore would be confidential. He said that he could not release any information, or agree to be quoted, without the express approval of the KBI's Director and referred me instead to the Office of the state's Attorney General. Personnel in that office made every effort to be helpful, but despite having a wealth of material on fraud in general, had few records that related specifically to the Travelers as a group. They did, however, communicate with the California Attorney General's Office on my behalf, and assisted me in my own search that enabled me ultimately to obtain important information from the Los Angeles office of California's Consumer Protection Division. Kansas Attorney General Carla J. Stovall verified to the Star that the elderly are special targets. The elderly are trustworthy themselves, she said, and they project that trustworthiness onto the people they deal with (Hayes F24). A wolf pack chooses the weakest member of a herd for attack. Travelers behave in similar fashion. There is no doubt that, because of the tendency of the elderly and the disabled to be more vulnerable than other groups, the Travelers seek out their prey among them whenever possible. It is understandable that there are few records relating to legal action against Travelers. Although prosecutions generate information that becomes part of the public record, convictions of Travelers create individual records that rarely would be identified by association with a group. An additional complication is that victims often are unaware that they have been swindled, and others are reluctant to testify because they feel foolish. Sergeant Craig Hill of the Leawood, Kansas, Police Department has remarked sadly that even the most transparent swindle is likely to find willing victims. Often they are are confused; but victims may also be so blinded by greed that they fail to recognize the situation.(fn2) A useful source for generic information regarding swindles in America, although it does not deal with the Travelers, is Ralph Hancock's comprehensive study, The Compleat Swindler. He dedicated it, appropriately, To the Gullible American (Hancock). The inbred Travelers exhibit common Celtic physical similarities that Kobler and other observers describe (Kobler 58). He also wrote of their elaborate funeral rites--always Presbyterian, but always in an undertaking parlor, never in a church --their nomadic habits, and their expensive vehicles including trucks as well as automobiles. In addition to Cincinnati, he mentioned Williamson cemeteries in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Providence. They maintain pride in their heritage, Kobler noted, saying that they have no apparent sense of wrongdoing. The gullible, they seem to feel, were put on earth to be gulled. He quoted a tribal elder as once having boasted that the clan can trace its blood back to the Picts. Under the Romans we were tinsmiths, the man said, and for the last two centuries we've been in our present line of business (Kobler 57). One source of information about the Travelers is the Better Business Bureau, which has been accumulating relevant material since its beginning. By 1914 the prolific tribe was a fixture of the American underworld. The first B.B.B., which set up quarters in Minneapolis that year, had scarcely installed its telephones before a call came from the anguished owner of a Williamson-sprayed barn (Kobler 57). An example is the St. Louis Bureau, which issued a newsletter, warning in November, 1964, that the Terrible Williamsons were back in the area, feeding on lush suckers. The newsletter said that the clan was a legendary family of American gypsies (sic) numbering several hundred, who travel north in the spring and south in the fall. One group winters generally in Houston, it said, and another in Miami. The close central 'core' is the Williamson name, although now closely associated through marriage, are other names such as McMillan, Stuart, MacDonald, Johnson and others. A family burial ground is maintained in a Cincinnati cemetery with a large headstone under the name 'Williamson.' While in recent years, the blacktop driveway has apparently been the specialty of the tribe in this area, they also make and sell shoddy summer furniture, paint barns with a mixture of aluminum dust and used crankcase oil, and sell useless lightning rods (the conduits are silvered rope containing no metal). The women of the tribe often acting as advance guards for the heavier business of the men, go door-to-door with fake 'Irish Lace,' 'Venetian Glass' and 'Imported Woolens' ( The 'Terrible' 1). The Kansas City Bureau has a file of material about frauds by the Travelers in various locations around the country. In New York, there were scams in Brooklyn, and in upscale Westchester County a Thomas Williamson--masquerading as a city employee--swindled an 80-year-old woman out of nearly $20,000 performing fraudulent home repairs that he told her were mandatory. The Kansas City file contains an article by Paul Coates, Those Scottish Gypsies Are Back, which is unidentified, but is from Los Angeles. Following severe flooding in Oregon in 1965, the Portland Bureau issued a bulletin saying that Out in our part of the country we ordinarily expect the Williamsons to spend their winter in Arizona, or Southern California. This year they may be 'breaking camp' and heading north early. Adverse publicity in the Los Angeles area has made that region somewhat uncomfortable for them, according to a recent report from the Los Angeles BBB. This, coupled with the possibility of 'easy money' among flood victims could very well lure the Williamsons north a month or so ahead of schedule... While in recent years the black-top driveway has been one of the tribe's specialties, they have and can quickly create a vast assortment of other fast-money tricks (Portland 5). The Better Business Bureau is also the repository of information from a mysterious source. For years--beginning as early as various Bureaus received revealing letters. The signatures varied among S. White, Wm. Ross, John Burns, and Charles Williamson, but the penmanship and style indicated that the same author wrote them all. They purportedly came from a Williamson who deplores the crimes of his kin. In any event, he warned Bureaus in advance that the gang would be arriving and working their area. Warn your public Cities and Farmers, was their customary opening. In the 1950s, he gave the total number of families as between seventy-five and one hundred, each ruled by a boss, who guides them to likely fields of plunder. These bosses in turn take orders from the big boss of the clan, Uncle Isaac Williamson, alias Two Thumbs, whose wife goes by the sobriquet of Black Queen Jennie. From each family he exacts periodic assessments, the amounts varying with its current profits (Kobler 55). And it ain't no chicken feed, wrote Charles Williamson, who urged that even the postmark of his letters be kept secret or else they would Kill my poor wife and myself (Kobler 55). In 1996, an Orlando, Florida, writer, J. Anderson, published the most comprehensive study of The Travelers since Kobler's extensive examination in the Saturday Evening Post four decades previously (Anderson 10-15). The description of their various swindles remains remarkably consistent. Both authors describe the Travelers' practice of settling in luxury accommodations for a few months, paying their rent on time, and journeyi
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