Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Fortune-teller, 62, laid to rest in festive funeral Mourners gather to eulogize slain Gypsy matriarch

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In homage to their dead matriarch and to centuries of their secretive culture, scores of Gypsies gathered over the past three days for a festive funeral -- feasting on fish and fruit, dancing to Dixieland jazz and drinking whiskey straight from the bottle.

Yesterday at Western Cemetery, mourners for Deborah Stevens threw coins on a rain-speckled white and silver coffin, a tradition meant to ease her into heaven and into the grave.

Ms. Stevens, whose decapitated body was found last week, was buried in a winter-white sequined gown after two days of mourning over an open casket at Frank Della Noce & Sons Funeral Home in Little Italy.

Representatives from Gypsy families all over the nation flocked to the funeral and joined a procession of 50 cars -- escorted by nine police motorcycles -- through downtown Baltimore to a service at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation.

There, the dean of the cathedral talked about the heinous crime, the melding of Western and Gypsy cultures and the importance of keeping traditions alive in an ethnic group that has been shunned by modern society.

"Your customs are very old," said the Rev. Constantine M. Monios. "If people could only understand the origins of the customs, they would better understand how much you have worked to preserve them."

At the gravesite in Western Cemetery -- where hundreds of other Gypsies are buried -- Ms. Stevens was laid to rest next to her husband, Walter, who had died 15 years ago. Family members and friends alternately drank whiskey and poured the alcohol onto burial plots to allow the dead to partake in the service.

A trombone and accordion player filled a rain-soaked tent with a variety of upbeat music -- from a New Orleans funeral march to a rendition of "Memories," sung in a mixture of Romanian and English -- as two Gypsies wearing traditional dress danced beside the grave.

The 62-year-old woman known as "Sister Myra," who had lived in Baltimore for 40 years, was buried with her favorite mementos -- Bibles and tarot cards, and items that a woman would need in the afterlife: New dresses and cosmetics.

Near the gravestone rested a red floral arrangement in the shape of an open palm, a symbol of her fortune-telling prowess that is central to the Gypsies' orthodox religion.

As the coffin was slowly lowered into the ground near the cemetery's front entrance on Edmondson Avenue, mourners tossed in coins, used, they believe, for payment into heaven.

"It is a tradition in our beliefs that when a person goes on to heaven, it is a new beginning," said Walter Johns, 43, a nephew of Ms. Stevens who visited her often from New York. "You will eat, drink and celebrate. What happens in heaven is reflected in the funeral service."

A more traditional Gypsy funeral, family members explained, would have been a raucous affair, with a large band and drunkenness. "If she had died of a heart attack, we would have been hanging from the rafters," Mr. Johns said.

But Ms. Stevens' decapitation prompted a more subdued affair.

"It is beyond understanding, beyond reasoning, beyond ZTC anything," Mr. Johns said. "Never had I thought that a bullet would be a blessing."

Ms. Stevens was born in Chicago and moved to Baltimore as a young woman in the 1950s, joining hundreds of Stevenses who had immigrated from Romania at the turn of the century and, at that time, made up the most powerful Gypsy clan in the city.

She was the daughter-in-law of King Dick Stevens, a national Gypsy leader who lived in Baltimore from the late 1800s until his death in 1959. While her husband, Walter, worked the carnival circuit and traveled up and down the East Coast, Ms. Stevens opened a palm reading and fortune-telling shop in their single-family home in the 4000 block of Pulaski Highway in East Baltimore.

She had three sons, Patrick, Leo and Archie, and had 14 grandchildren -- most of whom live in the metro area.

The night before she was killed, Mr. Johns said, his aunt called her youngest son, Archie, with a premonition. "She had a bad feeling," he said. "She told him to be careful."

On Wednesday morning, Ms. Stevens' son Patrick stopped by to help her pay utility bills, and found the headless corpse near the front door. Unbelieving, he called brother Leo and said, "Some people are playing a joke on Ma," according to Mr. Johns. "Someone is trying to scare her."

Leo Stevens arrived, found the head on the other side of the room and called police. "They sat there in shock," Mr. Johns said.

Police quickly captured a suspect, Douglas Thomas Clark, 28, and charged him with first-degree murder. Detectives haven't learned of a motive, but Mr. Clark's family said the man thought he had a hex put on him. On Friday, a judge ordered the suspect to undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

Ms. Stevens was revered in the Stevens family as an elder, the keeper of beliefs and customs, who guided the family through squabbles and ruled on etiquette, an important role in a society where dating is forbidden, marriages are arranged and the Romanian language is preferred.

"She was an honorable woman," Mr. Johns said. "When visiting Baltimore, you made it a point to stop in and see her."

Her death has created another void. As the matriarch, Ms. Stevens kept the family stories, and it was her job to pass the oral history to someone in the new generation, a task not yet accomplished. Many stories may never be retold.

"She was a living book," Mr. Johns said. "She upheld the honors and traditions that go with being a Gypsy. That is why she touched everybody. That is why everybody is so heartbroken."

Friends and relatives started gathering at the funeral home on Saturday, paying respects and bringing flowers as Ms. Stevens' body lay in an open casket at one end of a hall decked in roses.

The open coffin is an important part of the service so the deceased can be given the gifts that they believe will be needed in heaven.

On Sunday, family members went to Ms. Stevens' house to collect personal items. They plan to tear down the house and turn up the earth.

Standing outside that day was a small red-haired boy, carefully watching the commotion -- an example of sympathy the family says has poured in from all over Baltimore since Wednesday.

"I said, 'Can I help you?' " Mr. Johns recalled. "The boy said, 'She was my friend.' Then he asked, 'Did they really take off her head?' I said 'Yes.' He asked, 'Is it an open coffin?' I said, 'It is, and she looks beautiful.' He answered, 'I'm glad.' "

By yesterday morning, at least 150 Gypsies had gathered at the funeral home, spilling outside and laughing near High and Trinity streets.

Later, at the cathedral, mourners sat inside and stood outside -- constantly moving about as Father Monios and the assistant pastor, Rev. Louis J. Noplos, recited prayers in Greek and readings in English, including a Gospel from St. John predicting judgment day.

"This is a very sad morning in the life of your beloved community," Father Monios said in his eulogy.

"She has passed from a world of imperfection and is surrounded by the love of God. My concern is now for your peace," Father Monios said, speaking to the victim's family.

"You were struck by an act of violence that has struck horror in the whole community. I want you to be at peace because she is at peace," he concluded.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°