Lena Miller: Gypsy Queen

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Grave of Lena Miller, Oakwood Cemetery

I arrived in the town of Sharon late in the day, knowing it would soon be dark, but hoping I had enough time to find one grave among the thousands buried in Oakwood Cemetery. Entering through the gates of the cemetery I was immediately overwhelmed by the true size of the cemetery. With almost fifty acres of rolling landscape, I realized if I had not received directions to the grave I sought, it would be nearly impossible to find it.

I turned left at the first intersection and a short distance later the granite marker I sought came into view. The narrow roadways allowed little in the way of parking and only after making a second pass of the grave site did I find a place where I could park that would allow any other vehicle to pass safely.

I respectfully made my way among the stones towards the tombstone. To most this stone was just another among the thousands that dot the landscape. The otherwise plain stone stands out due to the decorations that adorn it; hanging from the cross atop the stone were countless beaded necklaces and around the base of the simple marker were coins and other trinkets left by those who have made the trip to visit this particular grave. The handful of words that marked the stone did little to identify the importance of the person buried here: “ Lena Miller, Died May 10, 1921.”

I stood in silence and in full respect of the special lady buried here. To most the name Lena Miller means nothing, but she holds a special place in the minds of many, for buried in one of the plots beneath the marker is a Gypsy queen.

I was standing before royalty.

Born Powonia Mitchell on September 15, 1889, in Chicago, Lena was the daughter of Louis and Mary Granch Mitchell, who were the king and queen of the Russian Gypsies in North America. Lena was one of eleven children having seven sisters and three brothers.

Lena grew up traveling with various carnivals and circuses where she learned the art of fortune telling. What an experience that must have been to those who visited her in the tent where she applied her trade — they had their fortune told by gypsy royalty.

The life of a gypsy family was a harsh one. They moved from place to place and often were allowed to linger near a town for a limited amount of time before authorities would send them on their way. They would bounce from traveling show to traveling show trying to make a living. Not only did they have to worry about upstanding community citizens, they also had to worry about other gypsy tribes. In 1915, Lena’s own sister Louise was kidnapped by a rival group and was “held prisoner” for two years before being rescued and returned to her family.

Lena would marry Frank Miller and together they had six children. As partners they worked a number of carnivals, having left the Wolfe’s Superior Shows to join the Wallace Brothers Circus on May 1, 1921. The carnival arrived in Sharon and set up in a field at the corner of Clark Street and Sharpsville Avenue, just across the avenue from where she would be interred days later.

Lena had been suffering from pneumonia for almost two weeks and from the time they arrived in Sharon, she had been under the constant care of Dr. Harry Milliken, but there was little he could do for her. On May 10, Lena died at the age of thirty-two in the tent where she lived and worked. A few moments before her death, she called her eldest son to her, embraced him, and gave him a kiss before reclining on her couch and passing from this life.

What happened next, the town of Sharon would never witness again. Members of the Mitchell Gypsies would descend upon the community. The number varies, but between one and four hundred members of the clan descended upon the town.  Ceremonies were held by her eighty-four year old father while her body lay in state for three days as more and more members of the clan arrived in town. Note: most sources place the gypsies arriving in town for the funeral at a higher number, possibly in the thousands. Most sources I’ve come across place it around four hundred members.

Lena was adorned with silk garments and fine jewelry as she lay in an oak coffin ordained by silver and a satin lining. In her hands were placed a wax cross and around her were tributes paid out of respect.

The morning of May 13 her body was moved from where it had been held in state to Oakwood Cemetery. More than five thousand residents lined the streets to watch the procession that started with the large brass band from the carnival, followed by the Reverend Tralean Dameon from the Greek Orthodox Church in Farrell (just south of Sharon) and his assistants. Next was the hearse that carried her body with the pallbearers (who were her cousins) walking alongside the hearse carrying flowers to adorn the grave. Next in the line were her parents, then her immediate family and other members of the clan who wore the bright traditional clothing of their clan. Falling in line behind the procession were the curious onlookers.

The procession was so long that it took more than thirty minutes for it to pass any given point along the route. Local police sought the help of the carnival workers to help with crowd control as the procession passed through town. It is believed that this was the largest and longest funeral procession to ever pass through Sharon; more than two hundred automobiles were packed into the cemetery and that does not include any horse drawn wagons which had also joined in.

Once they arrived in the cemetery, a forty-five minute sermon was delivered by Reverend Dameon. After he concluded, Frank stepped forward to kiss his wife farewell, followed by the other members of the immediate family. The traditional preparations were done and her face covered with a satin sheet before the casket was finally closed.

A heavy silence, broken only by sobbing, filled the air as the coffin was lowered into the ground. Mourners then approached and dropped coins into the grave as a means of paying for any sins she may have committed while alive.

The large crowd remained until a heavy flagstone was lowered atop the casket and coins. While the crowd slowly disbursed, the family remained until the gates of the cemetery were closed for the night. A gypsy guard was permitted to remain at the grave site for ninety days.

Sadly the events of those few days would be forgotten by most. Carnivals came and went and sometimes the grave would be visited by those who knew her, but when the carnivals stopped coming to town, Lena was nearly forgotten. Locals would tell of the day the gypsies came to town and their memorial for their dead queen, but to the world outside of Sharon she was mostly forgotten.

I set my tribute of a silver dollar at the base of the stone, pushing it down into the dirt so it wasn’t easily spotted before leaving her resting place as the last rays of day disappeared beyond the distant hills.

If you choose to visit Lena’s grave, please do so with respect.

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