• Dennis McCaslin

Our Arklahoma Heritage: Yanko Urich -The "Gypsy King" who died in Fort Smith in 1923

The term "gypsy" concocts 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.

Kind of.

On February 1,1923, Yanko Urich, the gypsy "king," died in Fort Smith as a result of heart failure during an operation for appendicitis. It is thought he had traveled to Fort Smith for a meeting with William and Marie Cole, who housed the international "gypsy" post office in their eclectic pharmacy on Garrison Avenue.

More on that in a second.

So what exactly do we mean when we say "gypsy?" The name dates all the way back to the 1600s when Greeks mistakenly believed that they had arrived from Egypt, so they gave them a name that's a shorted form of "Egyptian."

But in reality the people we call gypsies originated in the Indian subcontinent and then spread into the Middle East and Africa to Europe, and later the Americas, and so are not really Egyptian at all.

Nonetheless, the name stuck. A more commonly accepted term today is Roma, but that doesn't just refer to one ethnic group -- it refers to any number of groups that are all culturally distinct but trace their ancestry back to the group that migrated from the Indian subcontinent.

Back to the Cole's and the gypsy post office. The legend goes that when the couple were 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 drowning. Supposedly, Mr. Cole rescued the "Gypsy Princess" as it so happened that the people around the river were 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.

That evolved into the Cole's eventually turning a corner of their downtown pharmacy into a post office where letters from all over the world would arrive by various means and held until they were picked up either by or for the recipients.

There were already gypsies of his own tribe in the area living near Forest Park Cemetery in 1923 and Urich is thought to have many numerous trips into the region.

Descendants of the "Gypsy King" and members of his tribe eventually settled in an around the small community of Fort Coffee near Spiro where some of them are purported to live to this day.

Actor Robert Urich of televison's S.W.A.T and Vega$ fame is said to be a direct descendant.

When Yanko Urich died during one of his trips of an 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 gesture and contemporaries 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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