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  • Writer's pictureDennis McCaslin

Fort Smith cemetery is the final resting place for early 20th century "King of the Gypsies"

Yanko Urich and family circa 1926

The term "gypsy" elicits different reactions in different generations of people, but very few people know that Fort Smith was the center of the gypsy universe early in the 20th century.

Fprt Smoth cemetBack to the Cole's and the gypsy post office. The legend goes that when the couple was newlyweds and on their way to Fort Smith they came upon a large group of people near a river, or stream, who were shouting frantically. Stopping to investigate, they discovered that a young girl had fallen into the water and was near drowning. Supposedly, Mr. Cole rescued the "Gypsy Princess" as it so happened that the people around the river were a band of wandering gypsies. From that moment forward the gypsies were friends of the Coles, to the point that their home at the corner of Rogers and May Avenue -- which would have been considered on the eastern border of Fort Smith -- became a haven for the wandering tribes.

Actor Robert Urich of S.W.A.T and Vega$ television fame is said to be a direct descendant. When Urich died during one of his trips of the appendicitis attack in late January of 1923 hundreds of gypsies--both locals and those that traveled to Fort Smith for the event-- went to his funeral Mass which was said at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church. According to information from the Fort Smith Historical Journal, Roger (Boots) Lynch drove the motor-driven hearse, with sides made of carved wood, from the Church on Garrison to the Forest Park Cemetery on Midland Boulevard. There was a walking procession from the Church to the cemetery that was led by a band under the direction of Frank Hammer with funeral dirges played by the ensemble for the entire route. The body of Yanko Urich lay in state in a large tent where the Gypsies were camped until the funeral and a large coiled candle was kept burning near the bier.

When the funeral party arrived at the cemetery the gypsies started a large bonfire to keep warm and Lynch had to drive the hearse farther away to keep it from catching fire. The Gypsy ritual had for centuries included the throwing of gold coins into the grave or being put into the casket. It was said that some coins were thrown into Urich's grave, but by that time it had become a token ceremonial gesture, and witnesses that attended the event said the coins were made of copper. Over the years, there have been more "Gypsy" funerals held at the cemetery and the granite gravestone of the "Gypsy King" has become a place of pilgrimage for many of the remnants of the Urich tribe that still live in America.

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