abducted by gypsies?

I was reading about Adam Smith and noted that he was supposed to have abducted by Gypsies at the age of 4. This idea is a common cultural meme, though I suspect in most cases was a story designed to scare children about strangers and to confirm prejudice about gypsies. But assuming that it indeed happened (e.g in Smith’s case) what was the point? Ransom, were the children sold elsewhere (to who?), or were they raised as gypsies because they weren’t having enough of their own? Or is the whole idea without any factual basis?

Thanks to Google and Wikipedia, I found the quote in question in about ten seconds (I love you, internet!).

Rae 1895, p. 5.

Well, this doesn’t really prove much to me, imho. Oooh, farther down, Google came up with this:


Sounds totally apocryphal to me.

You know, I’ve lived in Eastern Europe in a community with a sizable Roma population and I’ve heard just about every bad thing you could possibly say about them (ie, when my cat went missing for a couple of weeks, my 12-year-old neighbor told me that the gypsies had eaten him), but I don’t think I ever heard that they stole children. I wonder where this meme came from.

Not to support the idea that Roma do or did abduct children, but I think it should be noted that your experiences in modern day Europe doesn’t necessarily have much to do with what happened a few hundred years ago. As little as 60 years ago, some protestant white people gathered up Roma and killed them indiscriminately. Going by my experience of modern day protestant white people, that wouldn’t have been my guess.

This is an excerpt from a 1937 biography of Adam Smith, and as far as I can judge from what is available on Google Books, it seems to take the abduction story for granted: It describes a pathway near Strathenry, where Smith’s mother had been born, and says: “It is an open question whether the gypsie who carried off Adam Smith escaped by this path, as the tradition in the district asserts…”

As you say, it’s a common racist meme in Europe to link gypsies (which, incidentally, is a not too PC term for a number of unrelated ethnicities) to child trade, but child trafficking did exist in Europe, although probably not to as great an extent as these scary stories imply. What were the motives? I suspect the children were mostly sold as some sort of slaves. In the pre-industrialized era, there were many labor-intensive businesses who were constantly in need of workers, and in any of them, being short in height was of advantage, such as in mines where shafts were often dug as low as possible.
A literary example of this can be found in Suskind’s novel Perfume, where the protagonist is sold to a tanner, but of course Perfume is a fictitious story. The historical background, however, is described quite accurately.

It’s still a persistent meme…

Tx Kyla and the rest for the links,

I must admit I was sceptical of the Adam Smith story, but didnt have access to the original biography.

Also googling gypsy stealing children reveals that the opposite is probably more true - many gypsy children have been institutionalised or adopted out against their parents wishes in some ghastly social engineering experiments in europe.

There’s more than enough stories of children abductions, nowadays. I’m thinking it’s possible that there was an abduction but the woman in question was no Gypsy.

Just as a follow up to that, the girl suspected of being Denise Pipitone was found to be the daughter of the Romani woman she was with - link

Funnily enough, I’ve always heard it the other way around.
“Ma bought you off the gypsies when you were a baby” sort of stuff.

Yes, but that really did happen. Even today, Eastern and Central Europeans blame EVERYTHING that goes wrong on the gypsies, logical or not. I am not kidding. (A couple years ago, the mayor of Sofia issued a press release saying that whenever something bad happens, people should not immediately blame the Roma, which was pretty radical.) I’m just surprised I never heard that one.

Here, in Romania, we have a pretty sizable Roma minority, and they do get blamed for everything. Parents still scare their children (“if you don’t behave, the gypsies will come and kidnap you!”). It is said that they kidnap children and maim them (they break their legs, arms, burn them, etc.) and use them for begging (to impress people).
I do see lots of gypsies begging with children, but I think that they are their own children.

The meme was used in the book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Franny tells her mother she wants to be a member of the Gypsy Black Hand who play music in the streets for money. Her mother tells her no, they kidnap children. Why they do it is never explained.

Babies are stolen even today often enough by women who cannot have their own or for whatever other reasons. A couple centuries ago I would expect it to happen just the same plus, at that time having children was your old age pension. Wandering nomads could more easily abduct a child unnoticed than a stable person could. ("Hey, my 3 year old Bobbie just disappeared and you just gave birth to a 3 year old who looks exactly like him! What are the odds?!)

So it is possible that such things happened centuries ago even a bit more frequently than they do now.

At the same time one should not6 rush to conclusions about the Gypsies. As the Spanish saying goes “I only killed a single dog and now everyone is calling me a dog killer”. Just because the Gypsies might have kidnapped a baby Smith does not imply they made a habit of it.

While it may have happened, it’s unlikely that it was a common thing.

In fact, Gypsy children are the ones that have been systematically abducted:


In the book, We Are The Romani People, Hancock mentions (in reference to the stealing children myth) the traditional shame of giving birth outside a marriage and claims there are recorded incidences of non-Gypsy women leaving their babies for Romanies to care for. Also mentioned is the romantic idea of running away with the Gypsies.

Later in the same book he mentions the taboo against talking about all matters sexual, up to and including pregnancy. IIRC (can’t locate the book at the mo), he states that amongst the more strict Romani groups, it’s not unknown for a Romani woman to go through a pregnancy without mentioning it (to the menfolk and outsiders at least) and to then go somewhere private to give birth, before returning to the group with the baby she had ‘found’. If accurate (and I have no reason to doubt that could happen, given that even relaxed Romani groups have ideas about sex and morality that make the Pope look like Hugh Hefner), I could imagine that having something to do with the myth.

I think a large part could be to do with the wide variety of colourings within Romani groups - ranging from blond, blue eyes and pale sking through to very, very dark. Although the Romani people originate in India, that was 1000 years ago and there’s been a lot of mixing since. Similar to African-Americans in the US, it’s very possible for a dark skinned Romani woman to give birth to a child with lighter skin. An outsider looking at them together could think the child didn’t belong.

Kal I’m so glad you’re back!


I’ve long found this one of the more interesting myths involving Romani people. If Gypsies ain’t stealing the kids, then you have the age old tradition of non-Gypsy parents frightening their children by threatening to sell them to the Gypsies.*

Anyway, I’m fairly confident in stating that if anyone decided to research it, they’d find fewer verified reports of children having been stolen by Gypsies than there are, I dunno, confirmed cases of kids being raised by wild animals.

You do still get the odd news report where it’s suspected that a child has been abducted by Gypsies, sometimes mentioning a sighting of a fair haired child amongst a group of 'em. I think that helps keep the myth alive, really. Consider the Times story upthread: They reported that the wee lass may have been found and that a Gypsy woman charged with abduction. They’ve not bothered mentioning that, actually, it wasn’t the little gal after all. As far as a Times reader would be concerned, the kid was found having been stolen by Gypsies (and even if they printed a follow-up, it would just have been a few column inches, not a nice big headline). There you go, myth confirmed.

To be fair though, the papers seem to have started blaming child abduction on Belgian paedophile gangs. Sign of the times, I suppose.
*Shit, given that and all the stories one reads about kids that get found abandoned in cardboard boxes, I suppose the myth from a Romani perspective should be that Gorjers hate their children so much that they either sell 'em or throw 'em away.

Hi! I was in Bucharest this spring, during the NATO summit. I learned an valuable lesson there:

Don’t go to cities hosting NATO summits.

Anybody have any actual statistics on this? I was under the impression that the overwhelming majority of child kidnapping cases involved separated parents and custody battles.

Sorry, it’s like that all the time…