Baltimore's "Gypsy Queen" followed her heart, not society's expectations
Jesse Key Habersham
1885 – 1910
When Jessie Key Habersham left her wealthy Baltimore family to join a gypsy caravan, it scandalized the city’s high society. However, it seems to have been simply a love story with a sad ending.
Jessie was the oldest daughter of Alexander and Alice Cornelia Tilson Habersham. Alexander was a direct descendent of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the words to the Star-Spangled Banner. Habersham’s success in the canned goods industry made him a millionaire.
Jessie was surrounded by debutante balls, boarding schools and the city’s finest mansions. During her time at a Sarasota Springs, New York boarding school, she happened upon a caravan of people known in those times as gypsies. They captivated her with stories of their nomadic lifestyle, though Jessie’s school teachers eventually put a stop to her regular visits.
Jessie’s restlessness continued after returning home. She went to Europe with friends without telling her family. When she later disappeared for two years, her family worried but didn’t panic, knowing her wanderlust.
Then Alexander received a letter from his daughter, informing him that she had found a new life with King Jorgas Michele traveling with his caravan, organizing fairs and telling fortunes. At some point, she married King Jorgas and became “gypsy queen.”
Many suspected that the fair-haired socialite had come under a “gypsy spell.” Jessie dispelled that notion when she wrote: "I found there is more love and truth beneath the canvas of a Romany tent than in any mansion. There is no shame nor hypocrisy here. I love my husband and he loves me. No other life appeals to me like this. We go where and when we please. If our tents were taken from us we could live under God's generous sky and we would be happy.”
She went on: “If to wish to see your father and other relatives is to be homesick, then maybe I am sometimes; but I never want to go to them and live their life. If they come to me and live under my husband's tent I would be glad to have them. I know that to American eyes my husband does not appear handsome, but I prefer him to the fairest of American gentlemen. It is his soul that appeals."
Jessie Key Habersham Michele died in a Cincinnati hospital shortly after giving birth to a daughter named Lincka in 1910. Newspaper accounts show that Alexander brought both the body of his daughter as well as his new granddaughter back to Baltimore. One account stated that King Jorge’s whereabouts were unknown at the time. However, there is no conclusive evidence that he abandoned his family.
Jessie was laid out at Jenkins funeral home on McCullough Street. A funeral took place at St. Ignatius Church on Calvert Street.
Records appear to show that Jessie was buried next to her mother (who had pre-deceased her at age 40) in Section Y, Plot 263 in Loudon Park Cemetery. There is no stone.
Incredibly, one year later, Linkca was also dead, possibly of a childhood disease. She is also buried in the same Loudon Park plot. Alexander later remarried and is buried in Annapolis among his second wife’s family.
Some newspaper accounts of the day made a sensation of Jessie’s life. Several reported that she had been kidnapped, that the resulting stress caused her mother to meet a premature death and that her father had spent a fortune to track her whereabouts. However, Jessie’s written reflections on her life and her testimony of love for her husband point simply to a unique and tragic love story.
Bibliography and more reading:
The Spokesman Review, December 10, 1933, Page 33
Gypsy Queen Dies in Childbirth, Oswego Daily Times, November 14, 1910
The Gypsy Queen of Baltimore, The Maryland Historical Society, April 18, 2013