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

November 22, 1994|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Sun Staff Writer

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.

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