Gypsy Brothers: Tom & Leo Mitchell
In the spring of 1935 an unusual automobile accident caused Richmond to be the scene of a strange and curious funeral. Large crowds visited the funeral home and the Richmond Cemetery to get a glimpse of the goings-on.
In April of that year a caravan of 41 nomadic, gypsy-like people traveling in six automobiles stopped about four and a half miles north of Richmond on the Lexington Road. The young leader of the group, Tom Mitchell, age 25, along with his brother, Leo, and his father Dick Mitchell went across the road to the Deatherage Service Station trying to obtain a place to camp for the night. They returned and stood talking to other members of the group in the parked cars. At that moment, a large truck loaded with 11,000 pounds of flour, driven by a Clay County man struck the rear car and then sideswiped three of the other cars. The wheels of the truck apparently passed over the bodies of both Tom and Leo Mitchell. A seven year old child was also injured by flying glass.
Nearly all the group followed the ambulance to the hospital, and when their leader was pronounced dead these bronze-skinned people took out candles, which they lighted and placed about the room. They began to march around chanting in a strange language. For more than an hour they crowded the hallways and the room where the body lay, singing songs and uttering incantations. It was with considerable difficulty that they were persuaded by the hospital staff to leave the building. The brother, Leo, died two days later. The little boy recovered.
After establishing a camp at the edge of town on the Four Mile Road, these people, barefooted and dressed in peculiar clothes, chose a new leader and continued their mourning activities. The new chief, who seemed to be well educated, was interviewed by Gibson Prather of the Richmond Register. He explained that the group was part of a large tribe of wanderers, about 500 in number, originally from Utah. Almost all were named Mitchell or Charmack, the Indian translation of the name. They were Roman Catholic, he said, thus discounting the many speculations of the local people about what sort of weird religious ceremony might take place at the burial.
On the day of the funeral, the number of nomads was greatly increased by other members of the tribe who had read the newspaper account of the tragedy. They gathered in the Richmond Cemetery at the double grave, which was close to the fence next to the railroad tracks. About two thousand local persons gathered around, but because of the great crowd most saw and heard little of what went on.
At the request of the new tribal leader, Father Oscar Poole of St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church blessed the grave. The two coffins were then opened and the father of the two dead men placed himself between them with an arm over each one. It was said that after chanting in their language, he beat his fists upon his head in grief. The two bodies were fully clothed, with hats and shoes. A comb, a mirror, soap and cigarettes also were placed in each coffin. As the members of the tribe filed by the open coffin, they dropped silver coins of small denominations into the pockets of the dead men. Greatly exaggerated tales of the money in the coffins apparently were the cause of an unsuccessful attempt years later by robbers to dig up the grave.
After the coffins were closed and lowered into the double grave, the members of the tribe gathered around and each sprinkled a handful of dirt. A bottle of wine was then slowly poured over the dirt. The grave was filled and the mourners quietly went back to their camp at the edge of town. The crowd of spectators, many of whom were disappointed, left the cemetery. Several of the strangers remained to await the next session of the grand jury, which investigated the accident, but most of them left as quietly and as mysteriously as they had arrived in Richmond.
“Strange Funeral Here in 1935” by Robert N. Grise
Madison’s Heritage - The Richmond Register, July 29, 1970