Editor’s Note: The Metro Spirit uses this historic spelling from Ireland, “Traveller,” to refer to the residents of North Augusta’s Murphy Village, while Crystan Dowds of Duke University, quoted in this story, uses the more common “Traveler.” When quoting from Dowds’ thesis, we use her spelling.
When the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office requested the public’s assistance this past week in locating two missing juveniles from Murphy Village in North Augusta, it got a lot of attention.
Authorities believe the Irish Travellers living in Murphy Village could possibly be hiding the juvenile girls due to recent actions by the South Carolina Department of Social Services.
Just last month, the South Carolina Department of Social Services removed six young girls, ages ranging from 6 to 13, from their parents’ custody. One of the girls has been returned to her parents, but the other five remain in state custody.
The children were allegedly removed during the middle of the school day from Our Lady of Peace Catholic School by DSS.
While DSS says it cannot publicly comment on the case involving the children, many local residents believe that the agency is looking into allegations that these young girls were already being groomed for the Irish Travellers’ custom of arranged marriages.
Some have gone further to suggest that the state is looking into allegations of sexual abuse.
The Irish Travellers themselves insist such allegations are completely false and they have posted dozens of yard signs along Highway 25 demanding that their children be returned.
The red and white yard signs read “Free Our Kids,” and “Legal Kidnapping.” Other signs read “D.S.S. Stole Our Daughters” and “D.S.S. Out of Control.”
Murphy Village’s accusations against DSS, along with the recent indictment of about 20 Irish Travellers in North Augusta regarding a federal fraud case, has once again turned the spotlight on Murphy Village.
While some residents may point to a 2012 episode of TLC’s “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” that was filmed in North Augusta as an example of life in Murphy Village, like most reality shows on television, it was a bit misleading.
The show involved Tamara and Bill McKown, a couple who was married in 2011 in North Augusta. But Tamara McKown was a non-Traveller from Tennessee, so it really wasn’t your typical Irish Traveller wedding.
However, there have been several individuals over the years who have studied the secluded Murphy Village community in in an attempt to learn more about its secretive culture.
One such person is Crystan LaTorah Dowds of Duke University’s Department of Cultural Anthropology, who also happens to be a native Augustan.
In 2013, Dowds wrote a fascinating thesis while studying at Duke called, “Denouncing White Privilege and Re-examining Marginality: Productions and Consequences of Difference between Travelers and non-Travelers in North Augusta, S.C.”
In the thesis, Dowds wrote that she took a medical leave of absence from Duke several years ago and spent time with relatives who lived off Highway 25 in North Augusta.
Her relatives are not Irish Travellers, but she had an opportunity to closely observe the relationship between those living in Murphy Village and North Augusta residents that she described as “non-Travellers.”
Dowds’ thesis is particularly interesting because it is written from a local person’s point of view after spending a significant amount of time in North Augusta near Murphy Village.
She was also able to convince two Irish Travellers to participate in candid interviews about Murphy Village.
Dowds began her thesis explaining that she took a job in 2011 near Highway 25 and was surprised about how quickly the topic of Irish Traveller came up in conversation among her fellow employees.
“So, Crystan, where you from?” she wrote that her co-workers asked.
“Augusta, but I moved over here not too long ago.”
“Where you stay at now?”
“Right here off of (Highway) 25.”
“Oh, over there by the gypsy camp?”
Dowds admitted that she wasn’t overly familiar with Irish Travellers prior to moving to North Augusta.
“I wasn’t really sure what my co-worker meant by ‘gypsy camp,’ and at that point, I didn’t know that the neighborhood to which they were referring was literally adjacent to my own,” she wrote. “I had heard of the ‘gypsies’ before, but since I grew up 40 minutes away in southern parts of Augusta, Georgia, I couldn’t say much about them or pick one out from a crowd. I had one clear memory from childhood, of noticing a family at the county fair. In this particular family, the women’s hair was sprayed and stacked to the sky, make-up was bright and thick, sparkly jewelry was abundant, and brands like Tommy Hilfiger were etched across red long-sleeved shirts.”
Dowds explained that such a look wasn’t unheard of in the South.
“Nothing about that description is particularly unusual for the women of Georgia-lina (another way to refer to the area), but if you glanced down to the stroller each woman was pushing, you saw a 2-year-old girl dressed in an identical fashion—hair-sprayed curly up-do, colorful eye shadow and lipstick, jewelry and all,” she wrote. “I recall thinking it was strange. I recall someone around me declaring confidently, ‘Must be one of them gypsies, got them little girls all done up like that. Shame.’”
All of her experiences as a teen involving the Irish Travellers were extremely casual, she said.
“My uncle (by marriage) and his family were from Jackson, South Carolina, and other towns nearby (Beech Island, New Ellington) and always seemed to have more authority on Traveler issues than my aunt or me, who both grew up in Augusta,” she wrote. “Foggy recollections of their comments throughout the years comprise the remainder of my initial memories of the Traveler population in North Augusta. Primarily, I remember the comments being firmly and confidently asserted by the adults around me. ‘Them Travelers are some thieves.’ The sureness of this fact was not to be doubted. The accompanying anecdotes were never greatly detailed, just broad, passing strokes in an unfavorable portrait.”
But when she started living in North Augusta, she began to pay much closer attention to Murphy Village and its residents.
“The Travelers experience important aspects of marginality in the American South, but their exact position is unique,” she wrote. “Particularly contextualized by the history of race relations in the American South, their physical presentation as ‘white people,’ and their relative affluence places Travelers differently along the spectrum of marginality.”
She began interviewing several North Augusta residents from September 2012 to January 2013 about their interactions between Travellers and non-Travellers. All of the participants had lived in North Augusta for at least 10 to 15 years.
Dowds said she also had “two Traveler informants” that she identified as “Julie” and “Susan,” participate in her research.
“Time spent with Julie and Susan was powerful and informative,” she wrote.
She began her thesis with a section entitled, “How to spot a Traveler.”
“My next-door neighbor Carol is a local banker who has 15-year-long positive relationships with many members of the Traveler community,” she wrote. “Carol grew up 15 minutes away in Beech Island, S.C. She did not begin to have regular interaction with Travelers until she began working at a bank.”
Through that working relationship, Dowds wrote that Carol developed friendships with some of the Irish Travellers.
“Once they’re comfortable around you and know you’re going to respect them and not treat them like an outcast… one person tells another person and the relationship grows,” Carol told Dowds. “And that’s how I’ve become friends with a lot of them. I treat them like anybody else and they like that.”
“The Look” of a Traveller
Due to her long-standing relationships with members of the Traveller group, Dowds wrote that Carol and her daughter seemed to best describe the look of the Irish Travellers in Murphy Village.
“They just have that look on their face. Something about their eyes, and their nose, and their mouth, they just all look the same,” said Carol’s daughter, Carrie. “If you put 10 of them up like this [places hands out by her face], and you only showed from their forehead to their chin, they all resemble a lot. That’s ‘cause they marry their cousins and stuff.”
Of course, Dowds pauses to explain that local assumption.
“Here, Carrie connects one of the assumptions about Travelers (marriage among first-cousins) to an important visual signifier (‘the look’),” Dowds wrote. “She implies that because of a pattern of shared genetic material between parents in a small population of 1,500, a certain resemblance has become noticeable to non-Travelers and used as a means to identify Travelers.”
Two other North Augustans and “non-Travellers” who were interviewed were identified as “Heather” and “Joe.” They described to Dowds “the look” of an Irish Traveller in the following passage:
Heather: “They have very distinct features.”
Joe: “You can pick a gypsy out the crowd from anybody else…They wear all that make- up at such a young age, do their hair to where it hits the ceiling…”
Heather: “…all poofy, with them skanky outfits they swear cost all that money…”
Joe: “…but you see ‘em [the outfits] in Wal-Mart…”
Heather: “They glamorize it up, put sequins and sparkles on it themselves.”
“Heather had become close with two girls during elementary school, and Joe developed his friendships in later teenage years,” Dowds wrote. “So, an interesting layered perspective comes out from their joint interview, as the couple share experiences with two different genders at two different developmental stages and across different decades (not to mention the enjoyable rhythm of their exchanges, talking to each other, back to me, then back to each other again). Both individuals are native to North Augusta, growing up on opposite ends of Highway 25—the same highway shared by Murphy Village, the shopping center where Heather and I worked and where I conducted observations, and my neighborhood.”
During an interview, Joe also talked about “Cant,” the language sometimes spoken by elders in Murphy Village.
Joe: “They got their own language, too…”
Heather: “Yeah, my ex used to be able to speak their language…”
Joe: “They talk Cant…They have their own dictionary and everything.”
Heather: “I thought it was ridiculous, but they understand each other. I guess that’s what it’s meant, for only them to understand.”
Joe: “Munya means good. I used to know a few words.”
Irish Travellers themselves use the same visual cues as non-Travellers to identify other Travellers who are not in their immediate social circle, Dowds wrote.
Julie, a Traveller who agreed to speak to Dowds, described the similarities.
“‘Big hair,’ Julie, a Traveler woman in her early 40s (and one of Ms. Carol’s friends), says assuredly of Traveler girls, when I ask how she is able to tell another person is a Traveler even if she doesn’t know them,” Dowds wrote. “‘And our boys dress nice. No grunge looks, we believe in dressing up. They will have tucked in shirts and belts, short hair, no tattoos, no ear-piercings. Clean cut. You want to look presentable and decent in case you run into another Traveler. It’s what we were taught. It reflects how well you take care of yourself and your children.’”
Julie told Dowds that she can spot another Traveller in a crowd.
‘In Tennessee or New York City, I can tell,” Julie stated. “They’ll have a general appearance about them. I can’t describe it. You pretty much know it when you see it. You just do, I can’t be specific. It’s like how all the Japanese people look alike to us, but not to them. If you put 10 of them in a row, they all got black hair, yellow or olive skin, and slanted eyes. We can’t tell, but they can. It’s like that.”
In addition to talking about “Japanese people” and that country’s “look,” Julie also used the offensive description of “colored people,” in her interview.
“Nobody ever says anything about colored people, when they have their beehives and nails and earrings and jewels,” Julie told Dowds. “Nobody ever gives them a second look. What’s the difference between that and the stereotype about us?”
Dowds acknowledged in her thesis that the description of “colored people” made her uncomfortable.
“The implication here seems to be that women of color similarly dressed to Traveler women are not subjected to the same negative connotations,” Dowds wrote. “Julie’s use of ‘colored’ was a complex moment for this ethnographer. I find the term outdated and somewhat offensive (interesting in the context of my later asking her about ‘gypsy’ as an offensive term to describe her group). It isn’t clear whether Julie meant to use ‘colored’ in any knowingly pejorative fashion. It is noteworthy that in Ireland, ‘colored’ is considered a more polite term than ‘black’ to describe members of the African diaspora, whereas the reverse is true in the United States.”
Dowds also asked Julie about the Irish Travellers connection to Ireland.
“I asked Julie if they maintained any connection to Traveler groups in Ireland but she shared that they did not; nonetheless, the meaning of ‘colored’ in her community is unclear,” Dowds wrote. “The context of the comment and her tone did not indicate such harshness; it was more a statement of fact.”
Travellers Seen as “Thieves” and “Gypsies”
During her interview with Julie, Dowds was introduced to another member of the Traveller community, Susan. Both women were born and raised in North Augusta’s Murphy Village, so Dowds was interested in how the Irish Travellers viewed the town.
“How do you view the North Augusta community and your position in it?” Dowds asked. “You mean about living here and being the Travelers?” asked Julie.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” Susan said. “I’m embarrassed.”
Dowds was surprised by Susan’s response.
“When we have our little girls all dressed up for a party, and we go out in public, to a restaurant or something, I’m embarrassed,” Susan told Dowds.
“They think we’re abusing our kids, but it’s just like ‘Toddlers and Tiaras,’ except we’re not on TV,” Julie stated.
“And we don’t make the shoes,” Susan stated. “Some company makes those high heels for little girls to wear.”
It was an unusually candid conversation with Irish Travellers.
“Susan and Julie were describing another visual method by which Travelers are identified in North Augusta, one I encountered in my childhood at the county fair: elementary school-age young girls wearing make-up, volumes of curls on their head, sparkly dresses, and high heel shoes,” Dowds wrote. “Many non-Travelers do react to this visual with some disgust, as did the adult next to me at the fair (‘Must be one of them gypsies, got them little girls all done up like that. Shame’). Julie and Susan are aware of this disgust; it appears to be the source of Susan’s embarrassment.”
Dowds also discussed many locals’ belief that Travellers are “thieves.” She specifically asked non-Travellers identified as “Joe” and “Heather.”
Joe: “You don’t want them [gypsies/Travelers] to see what you got in your yard, you don’t want ‘em to be able to see what you got in your house, they might come in and try to break into it and stuff like that.”
Throughout her thesis, Dowds explored whether such negative opinions are generated through fact or fiction. She also questioned whether it had anything to do with Irish Travellers being an “ethnic group.”
“Wondering how the Travelers might frame their own identity in these terms of race and ethnicity, I asked Julie, one of the two Traveler women I interviewed,” Dowds wrote. “She was comfortably decked out that day in sweatpants and shirt, rummaging around stacks of papers as I lobbed the question, ‘Do you consider Travelers an ethnic group?’”
“Some people might like to say that, me personally, I don’t think we are,” Julie responded.
However, Dowds wrote that she did believe the categories of “Traveler” or “gypsy” in North Augusta do function as racial classification.
“Here’s why: Racial classification is one of the basic methods used to order concrete assumptions about an individual’s expected inhabitance in the world,” Dowds wrote. “Such ordering is not a singular determination limited to inconsequential opinions about another’s identity.”
Those assumptions have an impact on residents living in Murphy Village, she wrote.
“In North Augusta, the compass points to ‘gypsy’ instead of ‘regular white person’ using the visual and aural clues outlined earlier (‘big hair’, Irish gilt in speech),” Dowds wrote. “Once the determination is made, the relationship to the individual is navigated much the same way as race relations… As we have seen, the beliefs about North Augusta Travelers include lack of education, in-breeding, criminality, dishonest business practices and materialism.”
Such assumptions are based on a racial classification, Dowds wrote.
Only when North Augustans get to know the Irish Travellers personally does that opinion sometimes change, she stated.
“For example, Carol, my kind neighbor who shares close friendships with members of the Traveler community, points out differences between Travelers and herself with affectionate glee,” Dowds wrote. “In recounting recent baby-naming traditions in the Traveler community (‘It’s a big thing to reveal the name, they have a party and everything and they want it to be different and unique. And for a while there
they were namin ‘em kinda like after cars, or places. One of ‘em, name is Lexus, Royalty, Vegas’), Ms. Carol went into a discussion of the trips some Travelers take to Atlanta for fertility treatments, which then brought her to a realization of the first-cousin intramarriage in the community.”
Dowds specifically asked Carol what she thought about the Travellers’ first-cousin marriages.
“That gets a lil’ hard to swallow, when I find that out sometimes,” Carol admitted. “I’m like, ‘Why did I have to know that part?’ You know?…It’s kinda weird…I figured out, omigosh, sister’s children [are married] to each other, first cousins. And I’m like, ‘Oh, I just rather not know that part, that part’s weird to me.’ I guess ‘cause we didn’t grow up like that, so that part’s hard to me, to understand with them. That’s their lifestyle though, that’s their thing. [pause] That part’s hard, to know that you’re married to your [pause] first cousin? I wouldn’t want to be married to my first cousin! [laughs] You know, that part… ugh.”
As for the Travellers that Dowds interviewed, they had a different perspective on the lifestyles in Murphy Village.
“I just want us to be taken on an individual basis,” Julie, the Irish Traveller, told Dowds. “Don’t lump us all together. Try to understand, everybody is different, not everybody is the same.”
During her time spent interviewing the Irish Travellers, Dowds said that sentiment was repeated several times.
One topic that Julie frequently brought up was the Irish Travellers’ close bond to their children.
“We keep very close watch over our children,” Julie told Dowds. “If my child wants to go to his aunt’s house next door, I watch from the window to make sure he gets inside okay. If another Traveler [parent] isn’t going on a field trip, I do not let my child go. I’m sure the country people do a fine job with their kids, but I’m more comfortable if a member of my community is there.”
Dowds also explored the topic of education in Murphy Village.
“This level of protection over the children is also connected to the Traveler tradition of ending formal schooling (with non-Travelers) at 6th grade,” she wrote. “It seems like that point of adolescence is a crucial turning point for everyone. Travelers safeguard their children from adopting non-Traveler practices (i.e. adhering to a different code of conduct) by minimizing interaction with country people. No longer sharing eight-hour school days in ‘mixed company,’ the adolescents are perceived as more likely to uphold Traveler tradition with the decreased outside influence. Typically, the girls begin learning how to run the home, and the boys learn the trades of their fathers.”
But, on occasion, some Irish Travellers take a different approach, Dowds wrote.
Carol and her daughter, Carrie, “ping-ponged such a conversation about Travelers and formal education,” Dowds wrote.
Carol: “I heard that one of ‘em out there’s an attorney”
Carrie: “Wasn’t there a boy a couple years ago that went on a baseball scholarship to some school? Good for him.”
Carol: [brightly] “It’s okay to break the cycle!”
Outsiders’ View of Irish Travellers
While Dowds discovered that many non-Travellers were fascinated with the culture in Murphy Village, she pointed out that it also contributes to a great deal of “storytelling” about the Irish Travellers.
“These stories are powerful, moralizing, and in high circulation, as demonstrated in Joe’s similar account of Traveler reproductive patterns,” Dowds wrote, referring to Joe, the non-Traveller, who participated in her research
“They [North Augusta Travelers] have to bring in outsiders, just to make sure they don’t get so inbred, to where like the kids are retarded and stuff like that,” Joe told Dowds. “I’ve had offers myself, I’ve had friends offered, to have sex with the females. As long as the boy has blonde hair, blue eyes, they’ll choose ‘em, and that’ll be it. They’ll pay you for it and that’s it… They want a certain…like Hitler, whenever he wanted Germany to be nothing but blonde hair blue eyes, the gypsies are the same way…[It’s] the only reason they go to the outside. Just like mutts are smarter than fullbred dogs, ‘cause full-blooded dogs are inbred and mutts go to the outside, as far as different breed…it’s the same way when it comes to humans, pretty much…If they’d have paid me a little more, I might have done it, I ain’t gone lie.”
Dowds acknowledged that she was surprised by Joe’s description of the Irish Travellers.
“Likening a Traveler activity to the goals of Hitler is almost unmistakably an effort in producing knowledge about them as ‘mal-humanized,’” Dowds wrote. “There are a variety of negative perceptions permeating the North Augusta community about Travelers, but for our purposes we will look closely at notions of inbreeding, criminality (through dishonest business practices in particular), and materialism (attachment to things you can buy) for their specific cogence in constructing a moral barometer of the quality of Travelers as people.”
However, Julie told Dowds that there is a complete misunderstanding of the Irish Travellers by many local residents.
She added that media, through shows such as TLC’s “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding,” has provided outsiders with a total misrepresentation of Murphy Village.
“They weren’t us,” Julie said, referring to the people featured on the show, including a “village disc jockey.” “We’ve never seen them before. She [Tamara] thought she was gone fit in [by participating in the show] but what she didn’t realize is that we do not want that public attention. We know about selective editing, what they want to show about is and what they don’t. She would have been accepted a lot easier without filming that show.”
Most long-time residents of the Augusta area will also remember the much-talked-about investigation by NBC’s “Dateline” in the mid-1990s about Murphy Village and the Irish Travellers.
The news broadcast focused on the fact that children as young as 10 were getting married in Murphy Village.
The public was outraged that such behavior was occurring in Augusta’s own backyard and, not long after the “Dateline” story aired, then-S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon authorized a task force to raid Murphy Village and arrest several Travellers.
In addition, Condon demanded that the South Carolina Legislature pass a law establishing a minimum age for marriage. In 1997, the minimum age was set at 14 for girls and in 2000 it was updated to 16, according to The State newspaper.
Dowds also explored the public’s reaction of the “Dateline NBC” story.
“Unfortunately, I was 8 years old when the show aired, likely frolicking in Aunt Crystal and Uncle Kevin’s swimming pool not 3 miles from the incident,” Dowds wrote. “Luckily, the show did come up during my interview with Ms. Carol and her daughter Carrie.”
Carol was honest about her observations of the news broadcast.
“I don’t think people judge them as much anymore. It was kinda new, and then nobody cared anymore,” she said. “It was probably a bigger deal in 2000 when that 20/20 show was aired (notice how Dateline becomes 20/20 and 1996 becomes 2000; small details but malleable nonetheless).”
However, Dowds points out that many North Augustans still feel comfortable calling the Travellers “gypsies.”
“Many non-Traveler informants were completely aware of the offensive nature of the term but persisted in using it,” she wrote.
The following is a discussion she had with non-Travellers, Heather and Joe:
Heather: “Oh and they get mad if you call ‘em a gypsy. They say, ‘I’m a Traveler.’”
Joe: “[It’s] like disrespectful to ‘em. But that’s all I’ve known ‘em by my whole life, is the gypsies, so…”
Heather: “I call ‘em gypsies.”
When Dowds asked Julie about being described as a “gypsy,” the Irish Traveller agreed it was offensive to the residents of Murphy Village.
“We don’t roam. We own land. We’re not homeless. I have a home,” Julie stated.
But Julie admitted that she has gotten used to the derogatory term.
“We’d rather not be called gypsies, but it’s lost its sting, its meaning,” Julie told Dowds. “It’s not particularly offensive anymore. If a stranger asks me for directions, I’ll say, ‘You know where the gypsy camp is?’ to help ‘em out. Now, if someone is trying to be nasty and they attach it to other bad words, that’s different. But overall, it’s not even in the scope of things anymore.”
“It’s done got old,” Julie added. “Don’t call me that instead of my name, but yes, I am a gypsy.”
To read Crystan LaTorah Dowds’ full thesis on the Irish Travellers of Murphy Village, visit dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10161/6768/Denouncing%20White%20Privilege_Dowds.pdf?sequence=1