“BLONDE ANGEL,” screamed the headlines. She had been spotted on October 16, 2013, as police were raiding a Roma camp in central Greece: a light-haired, green-eyed girl who looked rather different from the dark-skinned man and woman who were raising her. The authorities decided that she had been abducted, perhaps as part of some international child-trafficking ring. It was two weeks before Halloween, and the police were handing the press an innocent victim and a lurking monster. The girl became world-famous overnight.
1904: The body of a four-year-old boy is discovered in a deserted house near Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, less than a mile from a Gypsy camp. The local cops arrest five of the men staying there. “The prisoners stoutly maintain their innocence, but the police believe they have some knowledge of the crime,” the San Jose Evening News reports. “Thousands of Hungarians and Polish residents of the city are worked up to a frenzy and serious trouble may result.”
The uproar intensifies when a young man named George Wahl claims to have seen the Gypsies taking the child. The witness has trouble keeping his story straight, though, and in the end it is Wahl who gets charged with murder.
DNA tests confirmed that the girl, named Maria, had not been born to the couple that was caring for her. But problematically for the abduction theory, the tests also indicated she was not on Interpol’s missing persons list. As the police launched a global search for Maria’s “real” parents, the accused kidnappers insisted that they had informally adopted the child from a woman who could not afford to raise her.
When the girl’s original parents were finally found, they turned out to be a Roma couple in Bulgaria. (Apparently, Gypsies can produce blonde children. Someone should tell the police.) Maria’s biological mother echoed the Greek Gypsies’ story: This had been an adoption, not an abduction. “I didn’t have any food to give to the kid,” she told reporters. Police are now investigating whether she sold the child, a charge that both she and the adoptive parents deny.
Meanwhile, another group of Greek police had arrested three Roma women on the isle of Lesbos, claiming they had kidnapped a baby boy. Again, the women insisted that they had adopted the child; again, the cops suspected them of trafficking. And in Ireland, authorities sheepishly returned two children they had seized from two different Gypsy families. As with Maria, these children were blonde but had parents who were dark. This time, there weren’t even any adoptions at work: DNA tests proved the kids were related to the people raising them.
1915: Four-year-old Jimmy Glass disappears as he follows his mother to the post office in Greeley, Pennsylvania. After a day of searching, someone suggests that Gypsies might have taken him. “The only ‘evidence’ for the suggestion,” Michael Newtown later writes in The Encyclopedia of Kidnappings, “was the presence of a transient carnival at nearby Lackawaxen on the day young James went missing, with a family of Gypsy fortune-tellers featured in the show.”
By the time the police track down the carnival, weeks later, the alleged Gypsies have quit and left. In the ensuing years, the authorities will go as far as Puerto Rico in pursuit of the purported kidnappers. Years later, Newton reports, the remains of a boy resembling Glass are found less than two miles from the site of the disappearance, “prompting authorities to speculate that he was never snatched at all, but simply wandered off.”
Rumors of Roma kidnappers have circulated for centuries. In the 15th century, the German Reichstag accused the country’s Gypsies not just of child-stealing but of sorcery, espionage, and spreading the plague. A Scottish tale claims that the economist Adam Smith was abducted by Gypsies (or possibly Tinkers) at age three; he was then either missed by his uncle or spotted by a stranger, at which point either the uncle or some scouts retrieved him. (The stories are also inconsistent about where the snatching supposedly took place—another sign that we’re dealing with legend rather than firm fact.) Generations of British parents have warned their kids about Gypsy bogeymen lurking in the shadows, waiting to snatch incautious children. The idea even crept into lullabies:
Hush nae, hush nae, dinna fret ye
The black Tinkler winna get ye.
One 19th-century writer acknowledged that such lore resembled “the stories of ghosts and hobgoblins, often so inconsiderably told to children.” But the Gypsy tales, he rushed to add, were true.
Today that folklore fuses with other anxious stories as rumors come in and out of fashion: Stories about Gypsy kidnappers crossbreed with stories about organ-trafficking conspiracies, sex-trafficking conspiracies, and other dark forces. The old tale mutates and adapts. The consequences can be ugly, particularly when people have real-world reasons to feel aggrieved. (Do we need to go over all the reasons Europeans might be looking for scapegoats right now? Particularly in Greece?)
1990: Rumors sweep through Italy that mysterious figures have been stealing children to supply an underground market in human organs. Figures in black ambulances are said to be grabbing girls and boys in broad daylight; kidnappers in fake uniforms are said to be hunting for prey near schools; Gypsy women are said to be pulling children under their billowing skirts while their mothers are distracted, then escaping before anyone realizes what has happened.
In Bologna, Véronique Campion-Vincent writes in her book Organ Theft Legends, the fears come to a head, with bloody “punitive expeditions” on Roma camps.
Has a Gypsy ever kidnapped a child? Undoubtedly: There are criminals in every ethnic group. Are any Roma people involved in human trafficking? Sure—though human trafficking is itself a concept clouded by prejudice and urban legends, as the authorities lump genuine coercion together with voluntary but illicit behavior. There is a tendency as well to perceive such activities as more organized, and centralized, than they actually are.