Civil Liberties

The Legend of the Child-Snatching Gypsies

An old fear rears its head again.


"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.

In 2010, a joint operation of the British and Romanian police cracked down on what Europol calls "one of the largest human trafficking rings in Europe," allegedly run by "Roma crime networks." More than 300 officers took part in the raids; in the aftermath, the media reported that 181 children had been rescued. The London Telegraph opened its account with a comparison to "Fagin's urchins in the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist"—that is, to a fictional gang led by one of the most notorious anti-Semitic caricatures in British literature—and then reported that the children "were beaten and abused, with some even deliberately disfigured to increase their earning potential, as disabled beggars were thought to generate more income." Where did the kids come from? The London-based NGO Anti-Slavery International offered a vague but alarming answer: "Some are thought to have been taken by force or given away by desperate parents in debt bondage, while others were sold by their parents for as little as €200 each."

I won't weigh in here on how much of that story is true. Some of the people arrested were subsequently convicted of crimes, while other prosecutions have fallen apart. (Romania released 26 of the alleged conspirators in 2011, with a spokesperson for the court complaining that the "period in which the trafficking of which the defendants are accused is not clear, nor the allegations of forming an organised criminal gang.") I'll just note that even here, the worst-case scenario for which anyone has accumulated actual evidence, the claims don't look like the legend. Instead of Gypsies invading the white world to spirit blonde children away, we see criminals taking advantage of desperate people in their own community. Instead of something exotic, we see the kind of ugliness that often appears when poverty collides with national borders.

2008: "A crowd of angry Italians set a gypsy camp on fire in the outskirts of Naples following reports of an alleged kidnapping by a Roma girl," RIA Novosti reports. "According to eyewitnesses, a crowd of several dozen people threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the Roma camp, forcing its inhabitants to seek police protection at a larger encampment."

The Guardian notes after the assaults that some of the arsonists "bragged that they were undertaking 'ethnic cleansing.'" The head of the right-wing Northern League chimes in: "People are going to do what the political class cannot." On the left, the Democratic Party puts up posters in the Naples neighborhood where the camp was set ablaze. "No more Roma camps in Ponticelli!" they say.

There is a kind of kidnapping that really is closely tied to Gypsy history: not the sort where the nomads take a child, but the sort where their children are taken from them. From 18th-century Hungary to 20th-century Norway, states attempting to assimilate the Roma have seized their children and sent them to be raised by other families. Some governments have even tried to stop Gypsies from having children in the first place, with forced sterilizations carried out in countries ranging from Nazi Germany to progressive Sweden.

The people raising Maria may have been involved in petty frauds and other crimes, but it doesn't look like they've kidnapped anybody. The Greek authorities, by contrast, have removed a girl from her home, and the chief reason they did it was the color of the child's hair and skin. She will probably be placed with a foster family now, disrupting her life still further.

And large swaths of mainstream opinion are cheering the process on. Even observers uncomfortable with the racial dimensions of the story have sometimes taken it for granted that the girl is better off now. "She was rescued by racism," Tunku Varadarajan wrote in The Daily Beast last week, before Maria's birth mother was found. "But at least she was rescued." I suspect that the child who is supposedly being saved might feel differently.