Crime & Courts

Who are North Augusta’s Irish Travelers?

Defense attorney Jack Swerling discusses fraud charges against Irish Travelers

Attorney Jack Swerling discusses Irish Travelers defense after Tuesday's hearing at the Federal Court House in Columbia, SC.
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Attorney Jack Swerling discusses Irish Travelers defense after Tuesday's hearing at the Federal Court House in Columbia, SC.

The reputation of Murphy Village’s residents reaches far beyond the Palmetto State.

The North Augusta community, just past Interstate 20 in Aiken County, is home to one of the largest communities of Irish Travelers in the nation. According to the 2010 Census, about 1,400 Travelers live in Murphy Village. National counts of Travelers range between 10,000 and 40,000.

Nationwide, the community’s residents have been associated with scams involving shoddy repair work. Most recently, Union County Sheriff David Taylor published an article in the local newspaper warning residents to be alert for Irish Travelers leaving their business cards around town.

On Tuesday, a federal grand jury returned an indictment of 45 counts against 22 people, most of them Travelers living in Murphy Village. The indictment alleges the group committed different kinds of fraud and money laundering schemes, among other charges.

Similar allegations have been raised against Travelers in the past. But for the most part, they are praised within their community in Aiken County. According to published reports, it’s common practice for travelers to not target residents in their own neighborhood.

Locals say most Travelers are honest, hard-working people whose reputations have been tainted by the actions of a few. Because they live together and keep to themselves, suspicion of them is rampant. They own lavish homes and mansions in Murphy Village that show few signs of life. The windows of most homes are covered from top to bottom with blinders or are tinted.

They also speak a secret and protective dialect called “Cant” that meshes English and Gaelic when they feel uncomfortable around outsiders. Travelers believe their reclusiveness has allowed them to keep their traditional lifestyle, according to news reports.

Irish have moved to America since before the country’s founding. But they emigrated to the United States in large numbers in the 1840s, after potato crop failures left them with a period of mass starvation. Most stayed in large Northeastern cities. But a small group, the Travelers, broke off and moved to South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Most of the men work on the road traveling to different states during favorable weather to work in construction-related jobs, such as repairing roofs, resurfacing driveways and painting barns.

Travelers often take their families with them, pulling children from school around the eighth grade. Remaining in school can endanger their lifestyle if teens start to date outside of the community, according to reports. A handful of students have chosen to remain in school but are often ostracized from their families.

The best glimpse outsiders had into South Carolina’s Murphy Village was in 2012, when an episode of TLC’s “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” chronicled a North Augusta couple’s wedding preparations.

The episode centered on Tamara and Bill McKown, a couple who married in December 2011. What was special about the episode was that Tamara McKown was a non-Traveler from Tennessee, according to the Augusta Chronicle.

Before that, Irish Travelers gained the nation’s attention when one of their own, Madelyne Toogood, was caught on camera beating her 4-year-old daughter at an Indiana shopping center. Toogood was identified as being part of a Texas-based branch of the clan.

They also received unwanted attention after they were featured in an award-winning investigation by NBC’s “Dateline” in the mid-1990s that focused on how children as young as 10 were being forced to wed.

Following the news investigation, then-S.C. Attorney General Charlie Condon created a task force that swept through Murphy Village, arresting Travelers on charges similar to those filed Tuesday.

Condon also called on the Legislature to pass a law setting a minimum age for marriage. In 1997, the minimum age was set at 14 for girls and in 2000 it was updated to 16.

Cynthia Roldán: 803-771-8311, @CynthiaRoldan