Distrust Dogs Toogood's 'Traveler' Culture

Sept. 27, 2002 -- Madelyne Gorman Toogood's videotaped assault on her 4-year-old daughter had another victim: the family's reclusive, often-maligned Irish Traveler culture.

Toogood is a member of a reclusive, nomadic subculture that has survived for more than 150 years with little notice in America, with the exception of law enforcement officials who describe the Irish Travelers as a culture of con men and scam artists.

But others familiar with the Irish Travelers insist they are misunderstood and unfairly maligned, and worry over the impact of the now-infamous videotape of Toogood flailing away at the child in the back of her SUV.

A Centuries-Old, Isolated Culture

Since their ancestors arrived in America along with waves of other Irish immigrants during the Potato Famine of the 1840s, the Travelers have maintained their distinct culture, language and customs with little notice from the outside world.

Estimates of the number of Irish Travelers in America range from 10,000 to 100,000.

The largest groups are based in Texas and South Carolina, but there are also clusters in Mississippi, Georgia and elsewhere. Toogood is believed to be a member of the Greenhorn Carrolls, the Traveler clan based in Fort Worth, Texas.

The Travelers are a nomadic, insular group of laborers who travel most of the year, following the warm weather, experts say. Irish Travelers typically work as roofers, builders, painters and handymen. Most are very religious Roman Catholics.

They are sometimes compared to or confused with Gypsies, but the Travelers are ethnically and culturally distinct from other nomadic groups in Europe.

Because of their small numbers and reluctance to admit outsiders, marriage of first cousins is common, says Jody Rowland, the chief deputy of the Aiken County, S.C., sheriff's department. In the Traveler village outside Aiken, there are only a handful of last names among 3,000 people, he says.

The Travelers speak what is sometimes called a "secret language" — called Cant, Shelta, or Gammon — that is a mixture of Gaelic, English and other languages.

There are also Scottish Travelers, English Travelers, and Welsh Travelers in America — all similar but distinct nomadic subcultures.

Some commentators have said Travelers favor exuberant clothing and makeup that reminds some of a young Elizabeth Taylor and others of a middle-aged Elvis.

Traveler homes are often painted distinctive pastel colors and have fanciful statues in their yards, says Rowland.

A Bad Reputation Among Police

Among law enforcement officials, stories of Traveler scams and fraud are commonplace.

Rowland said he has known members of the group all his life, and investigated dozens for scams, cons and a range of illegal activity.

"They represent themselves as legitimate tradespeople and/or business people. But the problem is that they engage in consumer fraud," says Chicago Police Detective Edward Mack, a scam expert who has investigated members of the group. He says Travelers pass through the city's outskirts every few years, staying in motels for a few weeks or months before moving on.

Rowland said the Aiken County sheriff's office has arrested and convicted nine Travelers in the last year for a variety of fraud schemes.

Typical scams include selling shoddy equipment, using poor quality materials in repair work, and overcharging elderly customers, police say.

The presence of 8,000-square-foot houses among the trailers and mobile homes adds to suspicion that some Travelers support themselves through illegal activity.

Supporters Say Travelers Are Misunderstood

But some say the Travelers' insularity and distinctive culture have made them easy targets for negative stereotypes.

"I think that any group that isolates themselves would raise suspicions," says Lawrence McCaffrey, a retired history professor at Loyola University of Chicago who has studied the culture.

Maribeth Andereck, principal of Immaculate Heart, a Catholic school in Hattisburg, Miss., has taught Traveler children, and agrees that the entire culture has been tarred by the actions of a few members.

"Whenever a Traveler is caught with something all of a sudden the whole culture is being put down," she says.

"They're not that different," she said. "I think the majority of them are honest."

She rejects reports that Traveler girls marry as young as 9 or 10, and says many of their unusual customs — such as having several simultaneous marriage ceremonies — are misunderstood by outsiders.

Even before they arrived in the United States, the Irish Travelers were been disliked and distrusted by outsiders, whom they call "country folk."

The thousands of Travelers still roaming the countryside in Ireland are often unwelcome in pubs and followed by police.

‘Good Parents, Like Everyone Else’

Experts with differing views of the Travelers said they were surprised by the videotape of Toogood hitting her daughter, Martha.

Toogood pleaded not guilty to felony battery of a child this week. Her attorney said he hoped to reach a plea agreement with prosecutors.

Richard Waters, a retired programmer who grew up among Travelers, said he was horrified by the videotape, and said it was not typical of the culture he had experienced as a child.

"Such little discipline as I received was non-injurious but firm and effective," he said in a posting on his Web site, Travellersrest.org.

Rowland agreed that such cases appeared to be rare in the Traveler community near Aiken County, S.C.

"I know of no beating, no child abuse ever in the 22 years I've been dealing with them," he said.