Susan Forbes Hanson – “Prince” Thomas Williams (1830 – 1895)
Thomas Williams, an extraordinary and colorful resident of East Hartford’s past, was of Gypsy or Roma origin, who emigrated from England.
The Romani were also at the least bilingual in that they fluently spoke the language of their resident county, as well as their Romani dialect. They also typically adopted the common given names and the dominant religion of where they lived.
The Romani lifestyle of seasonal travel in caravans and wagons from town to town or cities, camping on their edges, living off the land, and earning money from such as fortune telling, horse trading, or selling various handmade wares was ever problematic.
They were often in conflict with local residents who distrusted them as thieves, warranted or not, and who resented them as trespassers and who were dismayed by their strange ways, and their garishly colorful attire. The people of East Hartford were no exception.
Thomas Williams, born in 1830, emigrated alone to New England in the early 1850s. He had a brother, William, who also emigrated, also alone, but to Quebec. Both brothers became horse dealers, gaining reputations for both honesty and dealing with good quality animals.
Thomas was often on the road with horses and mules from New England to the great plantations of the south. He soon gained the honorific, perhaps even self-styled, name of “Prince.”
Upon meeting fellow Roma horse dealer and emigrant from England, Samuel Cooper, Thomas quickly arranged to marry Samuel’s daughter, Victoria the partnership became mutually deep, loving and successful.
Together they established the Williams clan with 10 surviving children. Their youngest son, Morris, died from eating wild poison mushrooms and later their oldest son and heir, George Washington called Wash died at 32 from blood poisoning – a terrible lost for any family of a patriarchal society.
While their trade centered in East Hartford, and their 2nd stable in Willimantic, they continued to travel in their caravans to New Haven, New York and on into the south. A major source of income was strong and fast horses suitable for firehouse wagons.
Ever pragmatic, Victoria arranged for Thomas to purchase the old Farmers Hotel in the meadows north of now Connecticut Boulevard as a large home for the continual comings and goings of their large immediate and extended families.
When the Civil War made going south impossible, they instead traveled north to Canada discovering a compact, sturdy horse particularly suitable for the Union cavalries for which they were paid a then very profitable $120 each.
Public display of wealth and success was a custom of Romani culture. Thomas wore impressive suits with colorful vests and a large gold and jeweled horseshoe stickpin in his tie. Victoria was always in traditional gypsy garb with long and layered skirts with gold coins sewn into hidden pockets and shawls, headscarfs, and numerous gold bracelets. For special occasions they had an especially extravagant carriage that people would line up along the roads to see.
Their expensive granite Williams family monument was impressively topped by a bronze horse, which was stolen years ago. As reported at the time of his death in 1895, Thomas had a “gorgeous funeral” in which the black-plumed hearse in a huge procession was drawn to Center Cemetery by a matched team of fine black Percheron draft horses. The carriages of the numerous spectators blocked both sides of the town’s very wide Main Street.
Victoria remained distraught by the death of Thomas and died only 18 months later by accident or suicide – her body found along the tracks of the New England Railroad nearby the Farmers Hotel.
At her equally grand funeral, her hearse was drawn by a matched team of white horses. A local Protestant minister officiated at both funerals.
“Caravan of Dreams,” a fact-based novel, which used primary sources, was self-published in 2015 by Connecticut author Beth Lapin and gives colorful narrative and context to the life and times of Thomas and Victoria Williams, who remain a fascinating chapter of town history.