Excepts from License To Steal, Traveling Con Artists, Their Games, Their
by Dennis Marlock & John Dowling, Paladin Press, 1994, Boulder,
Augusta, Georgia, U.S. Highway 25 leads across the Savannah River into South
Carolina to the town of North Augusta and beyond that to the unincorporated
community of Murphy Village, a twenty-five square mile community of some 1,500
Irish Travelers. But Murphy Village is not the only community of Irish Travelers
in the South. In a mobile home park near Memphis, Tennessee, and scattered across
Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi are other enclaves; yet Murphy Village is by far
the largest, most affluent, and best known of all the populations of Irish con
artists. Most of the information in this article comes from Murphy Village but
fits well other Irish Travelers.
The communities where Irish
Travelers live serve their citizens as comfortable havens and refuges in the
short, southern winters. In the spring, however, those communities are more like
military staging areas from which forays of pickup trucks and vans depart to raid
the rest of the nation.
communities are temporarily decimated each spring as the men depart for a summer's
scavenging, leaving wives, children, and the elderly behind to keep the home fires
banked and the air conditioners churning until the men return at the end of the
school year. At that time the entire family will take to the road.
In addition to
leaving their families behind, the departing men usually leave their identities at
home, assuming new names that are documented by bogus social security cards,
driver's licenses, credit cards, etc. Should legal mishaps occur on the road,
they certainly don't want their identities traced to their home community. Once
they have crossed the state line, Travelers are likely to pull into the first
"rest area" and change license plates. Travelers from Murphy Village have been
found in possession of current, valid license plates from Georgia, Alabama,
Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas as well as South Carolina.
For the most
part, a listing of Irish Traveler scams would simply be a recapitulation of the
frauds perpetrated by Scottish Travelers. The Irish Travelers work as house and
barn painters, driveway dressers, lightning rod installers, and so on. They can
bring tears to the eyes of their victims when they explain the tragic
circumstances which force them to sell trailers or campers made in Indiana. They
will prune your trees, seal your roof, exterminate your termites, and keep you
engaged while a cohort steals your nest egg and makes off with the Colonial Twist
silverware that has been in the family for five generations. Where the Irish
Travelers are unique among other Travelers or Gypsies, however, is that they are
also merchants of flimsy, dangerous shop machinery produced by the Rebel Tool and
Equipment Company of South Carolina.
"Are you the
turned from where he was straightening and rearranging boxed spark plugs to look
at the questioner leaning nonchalantly against the door jamb of the entrance to
the service station, the afternoon sun silhouetting his large, rawboned body. The
questioner was more a ripe lad than a grown man and his speech suggested faintly
the "auld sod," as did his flaming red hair and the freckled face that spread
around his infectious grin.
"Aye, that I
am," Danny O'Hara said and immediately wondered why he reverted to his
grandfather's Gaelic idiom and intonation every time he spoke with an Irishman.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"I just hope
there is, and maybe somethin' I can do for you.
Hall and I pulled into Ponca City this morning with a load of equipment for a guy
living there, only the man who ordered it died of a heart attack the day before
yesterday. I phoned my boss right away and he tells me they done run an inventory
at the warehouse and don't want this load back. He told me to find somebody who
can use it and unload it cheap. I didn't find anyone in Ponca City who was
interested and was headed toward Joplin when I came through Bartlesville here and
saw your place. I thought maybe you'd like to pick up the equipment at
got?" O'Hara asked.
"Come on out and
see. I've got a load of the best equipment you could want."
The owner of
the service station followed the lanky trucker to where his pickup sat at the edge
of the drive. On the bed of the truck were a number of crated items. The driver
opened the truck door, leaned across the seat and came away with a sheaf of glossy
really know much about this stuff," the driver said as he glanced rapidly through
the fliers. "All I know is it's brand new and quality merchandise. The boss told
me you'd know a lot more than I would. Here," he said and offered the shiny
literature. "You hold these and I'll get the bill of lading. Returning to the
cab the driver pulled out a clip-board with a write-up on it, then walked to the
rear of the truck, lowered the tail gate and climbed onto the bed.
"You look at
the pictures and I'll point them out."
one," the driver said and leaned against a tall crate, "holds a metal-cuttin' band
saw like the one you're looking at in the picture. It looks like two saws in the
picture but it's only one 'cause it turns to cut at different angles and that's
what the picture shows. It's also got one of those little gizmos to squirt oil on
whatever you happen to be cutting."
Turning to another crate, he
continued. "The next picture's of a lifting machine. The black parts
all slide in and out to make adjustments and it has wheels on it so you can push
it where you need it. I don't know how much it lifts but I know it lifts a
lot because they used one to load my truck at the warehouse. And the next picture
is also an adjustable lifting machine only this one you anchor to the bed of a
pickup. It turns more than an owl's head does, a full three hundred and
sixty degrees. This one here. I'm not sure what it does but it tells right
there on the next sheet. It's the one with the clock, a heavy-duty press,
they call it."
seated himself on the tailgate and pointed over his shoulder at a crate in the
corner of the truck. "Over yonder is the thing that holds car motors while you
work on them. It handles all the motors made in America and most of the foreign
relaxed on the tailgate and waited while the words of his tutor ran through his
mind: At this point you keep your damned mouth shut. The first person to speak
is gonna lose, so don't queer the deal by yammering."
"I don't know," Danny
O'Hara said. "I might be able to use some of these...."
"Mister, at the price you'll
be paying you can sell a couple of things to someone else and probably make money
on the deal. The warranty goes with the equipment. You sell it and
it's still covered
"What are you
asking for all this?" the service station owner asked and waved at the truck load
"Here, look at
the bill of lading. The band saw goes for $4,980.00, the lifting machine on
wheels runs $3,690.00, and the....Well the whole kit and caboodle lists, with
sales tax, for $14,858.50." The driver's finger underlined the figure at the
bottom of the sheet.
station owner shook his head negatively.
the boss said to unload this stuff cheap. All he wants is to cover the cost of
materials and fabrication. And all I want is to get back home. The boss called
me in from my honeymoon to make this run and Katie and me, we got some unfinished
business I'm anxious to return to. These things got to be worth something to
you. Give me an offer."
pulled on his chin reflectively. "I don't know...."
"Here, look," the youth
interrupted and held out the bill of lading. "The band saw sell for $4,980.
With the sales tax that's $5,229. You write me a check for $5,230 and it's
all yours, everything on the truck."
The service station owner
looked troubled. "I think I need to consider this a while."
"Mister, I'm so antsy to get
home I can't wait. The law says you got three days to decide to cancel the
deal without any squawk and the manufacturer's name and telephone number are right
there." The driver pointed to the top of the invoice. "The Rebel Tool
and Equipment Company, that's us."
"All right," O'Hara
said. "You bring in your forms and the warranties. We'll unload, open,
and check the tools and then I'll write you a check."
Less than an
hour later, Joey Sherlock, alias Johnny Hall--and better known in Murphy's Village
as "Boxcar" Sherlock--was on his way to Joplin, Missouri, to pick up another
load. This time, he thought, I'll unload it up in Kansas. Boxcar
Sherlock had just made three thousand and thirty dollars profit, money he'd wire
to his wife when he got to Joplin.
The merchandise sold by the
Rebel Tool and Equipment Company proudly wears the label "Made in the U.S.A."
It lies. Most of the components are imported from Taiwan and Korea and
merely assembled in this country, a process which, technically and legally,
justifies the misleading claim.
In contrast to the glossy,
well-designed advertising sheets shown prospective customers, the machinery itself
is flimsy, ill-constructed, and incapable of performing as promised. All the
hydraulic systems on the saws, hoists, and presses are imported from Taiwan and,
should these systems fail, which they often do, the equipment is not only useless
but also dangerous.
Perhaps the best indicator of
the shoddiness of the equipment is a comparison of the cost of the item to the
distributor and the list price on advertisements, invoices, and bills of lading.
A $3,690 hydraulic hoist is sold to the distributor for $150, a
horizontal-vertical band saw which lists for $4,980 costs him $400, and he pays
$150 for a thirty ton press retailing at $3,180. A Traveler can sell $15,000
worth of equipment for $5,000 and still make a $3,000 profit.
Travelers seldom ask anywhere
near the list price. They do, of course, get as much as possible on any
transaction. To rationalize selling equipment well below list price, they use a
variety of plausible excuses. As in the case described above, they often say
that the man to whom the consignment was shipped died while his merchandise was in
transit. More frequently, the items are reported to be left over from a
machinery producers' convention where the paint was scratched and the driver was
told to sell them "at cost" rather than ship them back to the factory where they
would have to be repainted. The Traveler may also state that the equipment
is from a resale outlet that the company is closing down and doesn't want to ship
the machinery back to the warehouse and then have to ship it out again to another
retailer. Occasionally the machinery is actually given away.
In March, 1989, a Traveler
approached the official in charge of the motor pool of the Milwaukee Police
Department. He had a hoist and a motor stand left over from a convention
exhibit, he said, and his boss had directed him to donate both to a worthy,
not-for-profit organization. All he wanted in return was a letter of
appreciation. Had he gotten the letter it would have been added to the file
of "satisfied customers" and shown to prospective marks.
The Rebel Tool and Equipment
Company is a manufacturing company and wholesale firm selling to retail companies
and agents who sell to consumers. It is the retailers who have the
responsibility to collect and pay all state sales taxes. Thus the
manufacturer is absolved of legal accountability should the Travelers fail to pay
sales taxes to the state. Although Travelers habitually collect sales taxes,
they rarely pay them.
In talking with potential
customers the Travelers present themselves as agents of a variety of firms:
National Rigging Company, B & B Tool Company, Shamrock Equipment, Continental
Tool, etc. Both the retail firm's name and the manufacturer's name are at
the top of all invoices but the only telephone number and address shown, a post
office box, are the Rebel Tool and Equipment Company. At the bottom of the
invoice, however, the buyer is instructed to make checks payable to the retailer.
Should the customer attempt to exercise his legal "cooling off" period, he will
talk only to the manufacturer and be unable to contact the people from whom the
machinery was purchased. When Jason Latham sought to abrogate his contract
by certified mail, he received the following letter in reply from the Rebel Tool
and Equipment Company:
Dear Mr. Latham:
In response to
your letter dated April 28, 1989. You indicate that the sale was made by the
Rebel Tool and Equipment Co.,Inc.Rebel Tool and Equipment is the manufacturer only
of the equipment and does not deal in retail sales, selling only at wholesale to
independent distributors who then resale to the ultimate customers. Rebel Tool and
Equipment has no control over disbursement of equipment by these independent
distributors. I hope this information will help you better understand our position
in regards to your purchase of equipment.
After several letters and phone calls to South Carolina as well as the
state Attorney General's Office, the only understanding the customer has is that
he has been taken.
The Rebel Tool and Equipment
Company does guarantee its products for 90 days on some items and 180 days for
defective material and workmanship on other items. All guaranteed servicing,
however, must be done at the company's factory in South Carolina and the customer
is responsible for freight charges both to and from the factory. Since most
of the items are heavy, crating and shipment charges normally
exceed the original cost of the equipment. When most items break down--and most
items do break down--they are usually sold as scrap metal.
a substantial income from all their various endeavors and much of that income is
invested in Murphy Village housing. While many of the approximately 400 families
of Travelers live in large, luxurious, permanently situated house trailers or
"double-wides,” more than a quarter of them live in what can only be called
Traveler Jim Caroll, talking to an interviewer on ABC's 20/20 in December, 1989, said, "Yeah,
but those houses have got two or three families per house." "Sure," added
lieutenant Joe Livingston of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. "When
the house has more than 4,000 square feet, costs half a million dollars, and
contains six or seven bedrooms and five or six baths, it ought to have a couple of
families in it. But if it does, you can lay odds it's a temporary situation."
Every year new mansions are
erected in Murphy Village and the manifest opulence of the community grows. It
fosters a resentment among nearby non-Travelers or "country folk," as the
Travelers call them. The Travelers are aloof and reclusive, having little to
do with the encysting community. They interact with outsiders rarely, reject
overtures of friendliness or neighborliness, and refrain from participating in the
social activities of the area. In doing so, the Travelers have made
themselves easy to dislike. Building houses well above the means of others
about them simply fuels the antagonism.
Like the Scottish Travelers in
Cincinnati, the Irish Travelers in Murphy Village are chary of exploiting people
who live near them. Many of their neighbors have heard rumors about Traveler
scams elsewhere, but none can attest to such predations from personal experience.
Traveler, Pete Caroll, sought to defuse the growing antagonism between Travelers
and "country folk." (The Travelers' "country folk" is analogous to the Gypsies
gaje and means simply "non-Travelers." Whether a person lives in the city or
not is irrelevant; he or she is still country folk.) Meeting with parishioners at
Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church in nearby North Augusta, Pete Caroll tried to
lay to rest the "misconceptions" surrounding his relatives by explaining their
lifestyle. In his presentation the Traveler didn't so much lie as misdirect,
relying on his audience's natural tendency to read into what he said their own
values and attitudes, to unconsciously reinterpret statements as acceptable norms
with which they could sympathize.
the Irish Travelers, Caroll said, one must understand their history, a history
"handed down verbally from our ancestors." There are better sources than
self-serving legends on the history of the Irish Travelers: police records,
immigration records, social histories,etc.
In the early
1800s the ancestors of the Irish Travelers lived in Ireland and were known there
as the "tinkers," a term still applied to their distant cousins remaining on the
Emerald Isle. Traveling over a land of large, green pastures, skirting around "loughs"
and past bogs, the Tinkers were itinerant peddlers and artisans, specializing in
the work that gave them the name "tinkers", i.e., tinsmithing. They made drinking
cups, funnels, pots of sundry kinds, and even fiddles of that metal. Competent
artisans when they wanted to be, the Tinkers seldom cared about their workmanship
and their products were often shoddy, hence the phrase "not worth a tinker's
The white potato, originally
domesticated by South American Indians and now popularly known as the "Irish
Potato," was introduced to Europe in the 1600s and soon became a staple among many
peasants. The white potato flourished in Ireland as well as much of northern
Europe and provided the nutritional base for a rapidly expanding population.
In 1846, however, a blight struck the potato gardens throughout Ireland, a blight
that was to devastate crops for five consecutive years. Between 1846 and
1851 nearly a million people died of starvation and the diseases that plague
malnourished populations. More than a million other people emigrated,
predominately to the United States. Among those emigrants were the ancestors
of the Irish Travelers.
Working out of Boston, New
York City, and, later, Pittsburgh, the Travelers found much of the year far too
cold for a migrant, camping people. At the end of the Civil War many made
their way south, tinkering, trading in horses and mules, swindling, and stealing.
In the middle decades of this
century the Travelers were based in and worked out of a "tent city" just south of
the area where Murphy Village now stands. In the 1960s they followed a
Catholic priest, Father Joseph J. Murphy, north a few miles, bought the land which
is now named after that priest, established a community of their own and built a
The Travelers are universally
Catholic by faith and profess to be devout in their beliefs. Religious
statuary is common throughout the community and virtually every home has its
Catholic icons. Yet the church in this pious community of 1,500 souls seats
only 150 people.
told his audience that the Travelers have a long tradition, a rigid set of morals,
and a way of life that has been handed down from their ancestors. All that he
said is true and sounds commendable until one questions the nature of the
traditions, the content of the morals, and the implications of that way of life
Like the Gypsies, the
Travelers have a dual set of ethics, one set for dealing with other Travelers and
a second for relating to country folk. While a Traveler may not ethically
exploit others of his own kind, any relatively safe exploitation of country folk
is legitimate and, in fact, highly laudable. As far as the Traveler is
concerned, country folk were created to be taken.
their pattern of life, Caroll continued, the Travelers feel they must live apart.
Their's is a tradition, we are told, with roots centuries old, a way of living
that provides for them well, a manner of living that consequently deserves
preservation. The Travelers fear the changes associating with others will
inevitably bring. So they shut themselves away in order to preserve the good
It sounds appealing, this
yearning to perpetrate the quaint ways of their ancestors. And those quaint
ways certainly do provide well for them: half-million dollar homes, new Mercedes
and Lincolns, luxurious house trailers or mobile homes for traveling, and so on.
Living apart, for the Travelers, is much more than a nostalgic means to follow the
ways of their grandparents. Associating with others would surely bring
changes to the Traveler's world: confrontations with the police, criminal
charges, prison terms, and the demise of the "good life."
"We don't have one person or
governing body to make rules for the village," the Traveler stated.
"Each man governs his own family. We go by tradition and what has gone down
through the years. By observing custom, I know what is acceptable, my
children know what is acceptable. That is how we live.
"We are all
individuals," Caroll added, "and we have no king or queen--despite the rumors you
may have heard. If we instill in our children the love and understanding we have
for them, maybe a part of our life will still be there."
The Travelers are indeed
"individualists" in the strongest sense of the word. They are nonconformists
who consider themselves far superior to the country folk who accept society's
normal standards for interpersonal conduct and conform to those standards.
The community is saturated with an aura of haughty disdain for the non-Traveler.
As baby, infant, and child, the growing young Traveler readily learns and
subscribes to the community attitude.
"We live by
the law of the land--that determines our rules," Caroll told the congregation he
was addressing. "We have high moral standards. We have a very low divorce rate
and there is not much of an alcohol or drug problem at Murphy Village."
At this point a member of the
audience, Mr. Ed Collins, formerly with the FBI and currently with the County
Solicitor's Office, interrupted to add a supporting comment: "There are less
violent crimes such as armed robberies, rape, and grand larceny at Murphy Village.
You should be proud of what you're doing out there."
the exchange, police lieutenant Joe Livingston said: "There is beyond question a
lot of trouble occurring in the village that, if it happened anywhere else, would
be reported to the cops. Members of the Traveler's clan don't "roll over" on one
another. For their own health and safety they'd better not. It's almost like the
Mafia's oath of omerta, the vow not to squeal on other Mafioso. The
village is regularly patrolled by sheriff's deputies and the last thing the
Travelers want is to give coppers a reason to pry into Traveler affairs."
Sheriff Carrol Heath, whose jurisdiction includes approximately half of Murphy
Village, characterized the Travelers as "shrewd and scammy."
Because their parents were
nomads, the children of Travelers seldom were able to receive much in the way of
formal education, a condition publicly lamented but privately quite compatible
with the desires of the parents. Since settling down in Murphy Village
things have changed--but not by much. South Carolina children are required
by law to attend school through the eighth grade, and seldom does a young Traveler
stay any more than the minimum. Attendance during the required years tends
to be desultory and interest in school work is commonly lacking. In class or
on the playground, Traveler youngsters are withdrawn, volunteer little, and
associate only with others from their own community.
about their children's behavior at school and clear lack of any interest is
getting an education, Pete Caroll admitted that Traveler parents encouraged their
children to be "clannish" and then rationalized, "The less contact our children
have with the outside world, the less trouble they'll get into and the better off
our village will be."
Actually, Travelers view
schools as subversive to their way of life. Public schools attempt to
inculcate in children beliefs and values that will make them contributing members
of the society on which Travelers prey. The Travelers do not want their
heirs to internalize and become committed to the values of the dominant society.
may lack a formal education, but in their schooling for fleecing country folk they
commonly pass with honor. John Wood, an investigator in Pinellas County, Florida,
with a long history of involvement in Traveler scams, stated that "Their training
at the hands of fathers and uncles is probably as good as or better than the
training provided to law enforcement officers tasked with investigating their
activities." Another officer on a bunco squad in a midwestern city added: "They
spend all day every day at their profession. We work forty hours a week
investigating a diversity of rip-offs. I'm constantly amazed that we nail as many
of them as we do--and then they usually weasel out of the charge anyway."
earlier, at the end of the school year Travelers return to Murphy's Village, pick
up their families, and take once more to the road. From the age of seven or
eight, Traveler boys join their fathers and uncles in dressing driveways, pruning
trees, painting, etc., receiving part of the spoils when the take is divided.
They listen attentively while relatives make their pitch and later get instructed
in the fine points of making a play for the country folks' money. By the time
he's seventeen or eighteen, the young Traveler has had nine or ten summers of
intensive tutoring. "Our young men have ambitions to be their own boss," Pete Caroll explained, "and traveling and selling is an exciting life." As the
summers pass, the teen-ager plays an increasingly important role in the
scams perpetrated until he is mature enough and knowledgeable enough to become a
full-fledged member of the work team--and to marry.
Pete Caroll, "marriages are contracted by the parents when the children are
mature. The young couple is consulted before the final decisions are reached, and
the arrangements are ordinarily made two or three years before the wedding is to
take place." The parents inevitably choose spouses for their children from among
the Travelers, using such unions to solidify familial friendships and business
arrangements. "There are no captives out there," Pete Caroll continued. "They
are allowed to marry outside the Village if they choose." They never so choose,
of course, for, in addition to the pressure from relatives and peers, they know
that the culture of the Travelers is far too inimicable to that of the dominant
society for marriage with a non-Traveler to be successful. The extent of
intracommunity marriage is emphasized by the fact that among the more than 1,500
Travelers in Murphy Village there are only eleven surnames.
Like the Gypsies and Travelers
of other ancestry, the Irish Travelers are shrewd, affable hucksters living well
by offering cut-rate goods and services that are generally valueless.
Although they may occasionally resort to threats and intimidation, rarely do they
use violence. There is seldom any need for physical force.
said that marks are created at the rate of sixty an hour, an estimate that is
perhaps a little conservative. There is an abundance of people willing and almost
eager to take advantage of the bargains Travelers offer without being physically
coerced. And once swindled, bilked, and cheated, those people usually become
embarrassed and refuse to talk. As one victim told police who were
almost begging him to prosecute, "That son-of-a-bitch made a complete jackass out
of me. I'm sure as hell not going to tell the whole world about it." Such
reticence is a characteristic Travelers know well and depend on. Their way of
life could hardly be possible otherwise.
Additional article about the
TRAVELERS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM