Original publish date: March 20, 2014
When you hear the term “Gypsy”, what comes to mind? A vagabond road wanderer? A classic motorcycle? Maybe a Sonny and Cher song? Well, let me share with you a real gypsy story from a century ago that happened just up the National Road in Terre Haute. On May 16, 1914 three bodies were interred in “Terry Hot’s” Highland Lawn cemetery. According to newspaper accounts of the day, at the burial site “strange balls of incense” were placed around the graves. As the caskets were slowly lowered into the ground, veiled women wailed, tore at their clothing and pounded their chests. Their grief cut through the thick sickly sweet smoke hovering over the graves like a switchblade. When the graves were closed wine bottles were opened and their contents pored atop each grave in the shape of a cross.
Socca Demetro, her father Bob Riska and son-in-law Joe Riska were gone. The trio had been part of a group of about thirty Gypsies who had traveled north from their winter quarters in Kentucky to set up camp on the outskirts of West Terre Haute, arriving on May 1st, 1914 . They parked their wagons and pitched their tents along Paris Avenue, an area that 100 years later still carries a seedy reputation populated by strip clubs, bars, liquor stores and cheap motels. West Terre Haute was a known “friendly” stopover for Gypsy caravans and railroad hobos. The self described “King of the Hobos”, known only as “A-No1”, lauded the area in his 1911 book “Hobo Camp Fire Tales” as a place with two great “hobo jungles” and very tolerant citizens.
No small feat when you consider that back then, Gypsies were a much despised group most associated with “curses, kidnapping, thievery and general chicanery”. Stories were told of how the “filthy gypsies” would kidnap children and steal everything in sight. The gypsies encamped here sustained themselves by fortune telling, horse-trading, and selling their handmade goods to the townsfolk. It was considered high risk entertainment to brave a walk through these camps to witness the exotic women and ethnic traditions not usually found in the American heartland. Shopkeepers were eager to sell their visitors staple goods but were forever keeping a keen eye out for shoplifting connected to the Gypsy people.
The May Day visit began like any other visit to town by the Gypsies. But Sunday May 3rd would prove to be an especially raucous day in camp. No-one knows what the Gypsies were celebrating, but celebrating they were. During the day (and through most of the night) 8 kegs of beer, wine and ale were consumed in camp. Neighbors reported the “camp was a scene of brawling and hilarity.” Eventually, most of the Gypsies passed out cold in their bunks. But in the predawn hours of Monday, one man still stalked the camp: John Demetro.
John (Pronounced Tsine in the Gypsy culture), was a large, surly man with a commanding presence. He was a 55 year-old Brazilian who listed his profession as coppersmith, and most considered him to be a leader of the band. By 5:30 AM, a drunken Demetro was convinced that his wife Socca had been unfaithful to him and he felt his in-laws were covering it up. Around 6:00 the camp was startled awake by the sound of gunshots. Panic spread through the camp after 3 dead bodies were found in the Demetro tent. Big John was not among them. Terrified clan members ran to a nearby saloon and adjacent farmhouse to report the crime. West Terre Haute police were notified and quickly responded.
Camp residents warned officers to be careful as Demetro was still stalking around the camp, most likely armed with his 16-shot Remington rifle, and was sure not to go down without a fight. Officers found him sitting in front of his tent, gun laid across his lap, staring blankly at the ground. Policemen cautiously approached, guns drawn, ready for a gunfight. But instead of resisting, Old John placidly handed over his gun and calmly surrendered. When they drew back the tent flap, they learned that Demetro had first bludgeoned, then shot, his wife to death. He then turned the gun on her father Bob Riska and shot Joe Riska in the face. Socca and Bob were DOA but Joe, despite missing half of his head, was still clinging to life. They took John to jail and Joe to the hospital were he died of his awful shotgun wound the next day.
After John was taken to jail, the Gypsy “tribe” set about the task of the burying their dead. The bodies were taken to Hickman’s funeral home and the tribe moved east of Terre Haute away from the death scene. The tribe asked for the most expensive caskets and purchased them with cash. Soon, the upscale stores in town were visited by groups of exotically attired Gypsies who purchased the best clothing available for their dead. Socca was dressed in an expensive “silk dress of brilliant colors and oriental design.” Her head was wrapped a crimson red silk scarf, her feet covered by red silk stockings and red leather slippers. Her father, Bob, wore a fine dark suit and crisp felt hat. Son-in-law Joe was dressed in a light suit, expensive Panama hat and low cut tan shoes. Both men wore silk underwear. Pipes and exotic tobacco were placed in each coffin. The bodies were covered with white silk sheets.
When a reporter attempted to ask an aged woman a few questions, she broke down, wailing between statements in broken English and murmuring Demetro’s name in a thick accent while she mimicked the signs of a hanging. In the meantime, John was arraigned in city court on May 8th, ironically the day after Congress declared Mother’s Day a National holiday and the day before President Woodrow Wilson signed it into law. After entering a plea of not guilty, he was charged with murder four days later and a September trial scheduled. It was the beginning of a two-year process.
After two continuances, the trial commenced in September of 1915. Although nearly a year and a half later, members of the tribe flooded the town for the event, most staying in a boarding house on North 4th Street. The night before the trial, police responded to the boarding house on a report noted as a “babblement” by the dispatcher. A scuffle had started in one of the rooms when a supporter of the accused bellowed that he was going to pay $300 to get Demetro out of jail. Police had to push through a crowd of curious locals to get into the house. Once inside, police drew their revolvers when they were confronted by an angry crowd of Gypsies fighting among themselves. To diffuse the situation, they hustled seven men outside to a waiting paddy wagon and off to jail. After the situation calmed down, aided by nearly every police officer in Terre Haute, all but one of the men were released.
Later, around midnight, a member of the clan walked into the station to file a complaint against boarding house owner Charles Grubb. He accused the innkeeper of stealing $ 40 from under the pillow of Demetro John’s mother. Grubb was arrested. The next day at the trial the Gypsies were searched before being allowed entry into the courtroom. The accused sat in a chair surrounded by his son and 3 nervous deputies. After much legal wrangling, the case was postponed yet again. Prosecutor “Little” Dick Wereneke argued against it, citing costs of once again bringing back witnesses to testify, but failed. Defense lawyers argued that their client could not possibly get a fair trial in this town and asked for a change of venue, and succeeded.
The trial was moved to nearby Rockville in covered bridge country. In January, 1915 the court convened but this time, the John Demetro who appeared in court was a broken man. He had lost 60 pounds and he was pale as a ghost. Seems that jail had taken a toll on the man who had previously lived a life unbound by walls or borders. Jailers reported he had collapsed while making the short trip from the jail to the courthouse. They told the judge that John “worries about his problems and seldom eats.” In addition, Demetro was broke. He entered jail in 1914 with $ 5,000 in his possession but the costs of his defense had made him a pauper.
Once again, the trial was postponed. In April, 1916, a plea bargain was made. Two of the murder charges were dropped and the defendant plead guilty to the second degree murder of his wife. On April 20th he was taken to the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City to serve out a life sentence. The long ordeal was over. By now, he was 58-years-old and prison records list his mental condition as insane. He spent most of his time in the prison hospital. Astonishingly, the government of Indiana wanted this sickly Gypsy prisoner off its hands. On December 12th, 1916, within 18 months of Old John’s imprisonment and against the wishes of his own Board of Pardons, Governor James P. Goodrich paroled Demetro (longtime rumors persist that a bribe was passed). The parole stated that John “had no previous criminal record, was in poor health, bordering on insanity, and suffering from ‘locomotor attaxis’ which prevented him from walking.” He was to be transported back to Brazil by his son to die. He was released on December 13th.
John Demetro’s wife and other victims lay in a Terre Haute Cemetery far from the lands of their birth. In Terre Haute’s Highland Cemetery Gypsies make almost annual pilgrimages to visit the graves each summer. Of course, there are numerous reports that the gravesites are haunted by “Gypsy Ghosts”, but most consider these stories as mere folklore designed to scare girlfriends and make kids nervously giggle. But, like every historical ghost story, there is truth behind the legend.