Strange Tales of Pennsylvania Folk Magic & Murder
Strange things were afoot in Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century. A brutal murder in 1928 began a “hex scare” in the region, turning the authorities and the general public against what had always been seen as a common custom – the folk magic practice of “powwowing.” Prior to the bloody crime, the belief in and practice of folk magic was seen as nothing more than a quaint holdover from less sophisticated times. After the murder, though, it became a threat. Practitioners were no longer seen as backward or ignorant; now they were dangerous. The folk medicine that had been used for centuries was now a false treatment that kept people from getting the real medical care they needed. There was little room for superstition and hex doctors in the modern world. To city folk, it seemed impossible to believe that anyone still believed in magic in the modern world of the 1920s, but among the back roads, farms, and hollows of rural Pennsylvania, magic was alive and well.
Pennsylvania hex magic dated back to the earliest days of the colony, linked largely to the Pennsylvania German (or Dutch, as they are often called) immigrants and their descendants. The German settlers held strongly to elements of their culture, and blended customs of the Old and the New World to form a distinct identity. Even their language became a unique dialect. Though there were a great many different religious denominations among the German settlers, there was a common tradition of folk magic that was practiced by all, with the exception of the “Plain Dutch,” such as the Amish, who rejected the practice. For large numbers of these Germans, the belief in folk magic was entwined with their Christian beliefs.
At one end of the folk magic scale was “powwowing,” which had nothing to do with the Native American ceremonial practice of the same name. Powwowers performed magical-religious folk healing and drew their healing power from God. Generally, Powwowers provided cures and relief from illnesses, protection from evil, and the removal of hexes and curses. They also located lost objects, animals and people, foretold the future, and provided good luck charms. To carry out their practices, they used charms, amulets, incantations, prayers, and rituals. It was generally believed that anyone could powwow, but members of certain families were especially adept at it. These families passed the traditions down from generation to generation.
At the other end of the scale was “hexerei” or witchcraft. Practitioners of black magic drew their power from the Devil or other ungodly sources. The witch harassed neighbors and committed criminal acts with supernatural powers. Sometimes witches were called hex doctors. The term “hex doctor” can be confusing because it can imply many things. At times, the term was applied to powwowers who were also knowledgeable in the ways of hexerei and were skilled at battling witches and removing curses. These hex doctors fell into a sort of gray area between a witch and a powwower. Sometimes they cast hexes for a price or out of revenge. It was not uncommon for someone to seek out one hex doctor to remove the curse of another. For many Pennsylvania Dutch, and certainly for outsiders, powwowers and witches could not easily be placed into categories. There were many who labeled the use of any folk magic as witchcraft that was strictly forbidden by their religious beliefs.
Powwowers and hex doctors often worked against one another, with the common person caught in the middle. It was in this setting that folk magic flourished for more than two centuries.
Witches targeted their victims in many ways. Since hexerei was based around a farming society, many of the witch’s attacks were directed at animals and crops. They were often blamed when cows did not produce milk, when seemingly healthy animals mysteriously died, or when crops failed. When witches went after humans, they used a variety of torments. They were commonly suspected of causing illnesses, especially conditions that lingered and caused a person to waste away over time. A witch could also use spells to launch invisible attacks, causing seizures or fits, the sensation of being pricked or stabbed, or the feeling of being choked or strangled. Witches could also cause a run of bad luck for any individual that they attacked. The witch could even appear in the form of an animal, like a black cat, so that they could move about undetected and harass their victims. Needless to say, just about any type of misfortune could be blamed on a witch.
In addition to spoken words, the written word was also used for magic. Written amulets and charms were common, and many Pennsylvania Germans carried them on their person. Amulets usually included a written version of a protective charm and perhaps verses from the Bible. The paper they were written on was usually folded into triangles. If not carried personally, such amulets might be hung in a house or barn.
Ritualized objects were also used. These objects were actually mundane items, but they often acquired a special purpose. Sometimes the objects would be used as a surrogate for the afflicted or for the disease itself. Much of German folk magic depends on the principles of contagion and transference. Basically, the idea is that the evil or the disease is contagious, and can be transferred away from the afflicted person and into an object. The object could then be disposed of in a prescribed manner to keep the contagion from spreading. Traditionally, this kind of magic is known as sympathetic magic – and it often worked, as long as the person afflicted truly believed that it would.
Since the powwowers and hex doctors depended on charms, formulas, and incantations that were passed down through their families, they often collected them into “recipe” books, which contained the collective knowledge of a family line of powwowers. By the middle 1800s, these homemade volumes were joined by published volumes that came into common usage. Folk healers had always invoked and used the Bible in their magic, but they increasingly supplemented their knowledge with sources published by other powwowers.
The most famous and widely read of these books was compiled by a powwower named John George Hohman in 1819. Hohman was a German immigrant who settled on a farm in Berks County, Pennsylvania. As a side business, he published broadsides and books about the occult and medicine aimed at the local German population. In time, he published the most widely read grimoire (book of magic) in America. The compilation of spells, charms, prayers, remedies and folk medicine was called Der lang verborgene Freund, or The Long Lost Friend. It was the first book of powwow magic to achieve wide circulation. It has been in print in either German or English continuously since 1820.
Aside from being a collection of charms and recipes, the book itself became a talisman. In what was an example of a resoundingly successful early marketing ploy, buyers of the book were told they would be protected from harm merely by carrying it. In the front of each edition was an inscription that read: “Whoever carries this book with him, is safe from all enemies, visible and invisible; and whoever has this book with him cannot die without the holy corpse of Jesus Christ, nor drown in any water, nor burn up in any fire, not can any unjust sentence be passed upon him. So help me. +++”
The bulk of the book consisted of remedies and charms to cure common illnesses, fevers, burns, toothaches and other ailments. It also contained recipes for beer and molasses and even had a charm for catching fish. Many of the charms in the book were meant to provide protection from physical harm from weapons, fire, witches, and thieves. It also provided instructions on how to keep animals in a certain location, heal livestock and cattle, and even cure rabid animals. The Long Lost Friend soon became the primary reference for anyone attempting to understand the practice of powwow, and it gained a place of honor on almost every powwower’s and hex doctor’s shelf.
As an opposite number to the helpful charms of The Long Lost Friend was the far more dangerous book of witchcraft, The Sixth & Seventh Book of Moses. Drawn from the tradition of European grimoires and ceremonial magic, The Sixth & Seventh Book of Moses were purported to have been written by Moses himself, and allegedly contain secret knowledge that could not be included in the Bible. Described as two separate books, they are almost always published together in one volume, first appearing in Pennsylvania in 1849. The book soon gained an evil reputation among the German population and those who were familiar with its lore. It was associated with hexing because the text provided instructions on how to conjure and control spirits and demons. It also contained spells and incantations that were beneficial to the user, as well as spells that would duplicate some of the biblical plagues of Egypt, turn a staff into a serpent, and other miraculous happenings. Much of the volume is made up of reproduced symbols that were allegedly copied from old woodcuts. Some copies were printed, at least partially, with red ink. A few hand-copied editions were alleged to exist that had been written in blood.
Though hex doctors frequently acquired the book to enhance their reputations, merely owning the volume was believed to be dangerous, and if a hex doctor actually read it – that could be fatal. Reading the book was believed to attract the attention of the Devil or at the very least, cause the reader to become so obsessed with the book that they could do nothing but read it. The only way to break the obsession – should such a thing occur – was to read the entire book in reverse, starting at the end and working back to the beginning.
To modern readers, all of the stories and claims of spells, hexes, magic books, and incantations may sound rather silly, but rest assured, they were all common traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It might sound hard for us to believe today, but people at that time and place readily accepted such ideas. And that turned out to be the most crucial point of the “Rehmeyer” Hex Murder -- those involved truly believed in magic. They believed that it worked and could ruin their lives.
And they would do anything to try and stop that from happening.
The “Hex Murder,” the strange killing of Nelson Rehmeyer, captivated the people of the region and sold newspapers across the country. The story began with a young powwower named John Blymire, who was born in 1895 and learned the art of German folk magic at a young age. His family had been powwowers for at least three generations and probably longer. Although he did poorly in school, Blymire established a good reputation as a healer in York County. Starting at the age of seven, he began providing healing remedies and cures. Despite his early success, though, he began to believe that there was a shadow hanging over him.
One day, as he was leaving the cigar factory where he worked, an apparently rabid dog began running toward some of his fellow workers. Blymire approached the dog and spoke some words of a spell. The dog’s mouth allegedly stopped foaming and the animal became subdued. Blymire patted its head and the animal followed him excitedly for several blocks. The other workers were amazed at the dog’s apparent cure. But soon after, Blymire’s luck began to turn bad. He soon became ill and he started to believe that another practitioner of folk magic had placed a hex on him, possibly out of jealousy. He soon found himself unable to eat, sleep, or work his powwow magic. Blymire used several of his own magical charms to try and remove the hex, but he was unsuccessful. It was difficult to remove a hex if one did not know the identity of the witch who placed it.
Then one night, as he lay in his bed trying to sleep, the answer came to him. Just as the clock struck midnight, an owl outside hooted seven times. It was then that the idea came to Blymire that he had been hexed by the spirit of his great-grandfather Jacob, who had been a powwower and the seventh son of a seventh son. Since he could not fight back against a spirit, he decided that he would move away from his ancestral home and the cemetery where his great-grandfather was buried, hopefully breaking the spell. It seemed to work, and soon Blymire’s luck began to improve – at least for a time.
In addition to his work as a folk healer, Blymire performed a variety of odd jobs. He soon met a young woman named Lily and they married. The couple had two children, but both died in infancy. The youngest only lived for three days. These tragic occurrences led Blymire to once again believe that he had been hexed. Unable to determine the source of the new hex, he turned to other powwowers for help. One of them was a man named Andrew Lenhart, who convinced him that the source of the hex was someone that he knew well.
Blymire became suspicious of everyone around him, even his wife. Lily had reason to fear for her safety because, in 1922, one of Lenhart’s other clients murdered her husband after receiving similar information. The client, Sallie Jane Heagy, shot her husband, Irving, in bed after Lenhart was hired to “drive the witches” from her home. Sallie did not believe the treatment worked and was in terrible physical pain. She finally snapped one day, killed her husband, and later committed suicide in jail.
After consulting lawyers, Lily was able to obtain a judge’s order to have Blymire committed to an insane asylum. The doctors determined that he was obsessed with hexes and magic and needed to go to the asylum for treatment. Soon after, Lily filed for divorce and it was granted. Blymire didn’t remain locked up for long. Forty-eight days after he was committed, he simply walked out the door one day and vanished. No one even bothered to look for him.
Blymire went back to work at the cigar factory in 1928. While he was there, he met two other people who also believed that they were suffering because of someone who had hexed them. One of them, 14-year-old John Curry, was trapped in an abusive household and felt that a malevolent force was causing the trouble at home. Another man who believed he had been hexed was a farmer named Milton Hess. Hess and his wife, Alice, had been successful and prosperous until 1926, when a series of unfortunate events began at their farm. Crops failed, cows stopped producing milk, and they lost a large amount of money. The entire family believed that they had been hexed by someone, but they didn’t know who it could be. The talk of hexes reinforced Blymire’s own belief in spells and he became terrified by the idea that someone was out to get him. He began to consult other powwowers again, attempting to track down the source of the lingering hex.
Blymire turned to a well-known powwower in the region named Nellie Noll, the so-called “River Witch of Marietta.” The elderly woman identified the source of Blymire’s hex as a member of the Rehmeyer family. When Blymire asked which of them had cursed him, she told him to hold out his hand. She placed a dollar bill on his palm and then removed it. When Blymire looked at his hand, an image appeared. It was the face of Nelson Rehmeyer, an old powwower whom Noll referred to as the “Witch of Rehmeyer’s Hollow.” Blymire had known Rehmeyer, a distant relative, since he was a small child. When Blymire had been five years old, he became seriously ill. His father and grandfather, unable to cure him, took the child to Rehmeyer, who healed him.
Unable to understand why Rehmeyer wished him harm, Blymire went to see Noll again. She confirmed that it was Rehmeyer who had hexed him, and added that he was also responsible for the curses on John Curry and Milton and Alice Hess. Blymire told the other two men what he had learned, and also revealed a solution for ending all of the hexes. Noll had stated that the men needed to take Rehmeyer’s copy of The Long Lost Friend and a lock of his hair and bury them six feet underground.
Blymire and Curry decided to go together to Rehmeyer’s Hollow and obtain the needed items. On November 26, they were driven by Hess’ oldest son, Clayton, to the Hollow. They stopped at the home of Rehmeyer’s former wife, Alice, who said that Nelson could be found at his own home, which was about a mile down the road (see photo at top of the story). The men went to Rehmeyer’s door, and Blymire asked to speak with him for a few minutes. He later said that the older man was much larger and “meaner-looking” than Blymire remembered. They went into the parlor, and Blymire asked him questions about The Long Lost Friend and other elements of powwowing – never mentioning, of course, the true reason why he and Curry had come. After talking for a while, the men realized that it was late, and Rehmeyer offered to let them sleep downstairs. They agreed and while Rehmeyer slept, they looked for his copy of the spell book, but were unable to find it. They debated on whether or not to try and obtain a lock of his hair, but finally decided that Rehmeyer was too big for them to hold down while they cut his hair. The pair left in the morning after agreeing that they needed more help.
Nelson Rehmeyer, the man that Blymire believed had “hexed” him.
Blymire told Milton Hess that he needed a member of his family to help them subdue Rehmeyer. Hess and his wife offered their 18-year-old son, Wilbert, as an assistant. The next evening, November 27, the three of them arrived at Rehmeyer’s house. He let them in and they went into the front room. Rehmeyer never got the chance to wonder why they had come back for another visit. When his back was turned, the men tackled him to the floor and attempted to tie his legs with a rope they had brought with them. The exact details of what happened next varied slightly depending on which man told the story, but during the struggle, Rehmeyer was beaten and strangled to death. It’s possible that Blymire intended to kill Rehmeyer once he reached the house that evening, but if he did, he did not reveal his plans to the other two men.
When they realized that Rehmeyer was dead, they took all of the money in the house, hoping to make it look like a robbery. They left behind the book and the lock of the old man’s hair. He was dead – the hex had been lifted, they thought.
But if that was true, Blymire’s luck certainly didn’t improve.
The three men doused the body with kerosene and lit it on fire, hoping the flames would spread throughout the house and burn it down. When they left, Rehmeyer’s body was engulfed in flames, but somehow, the fire mysteriously went out. Some believe that perhaps the hex doctor was not yet dead when he was set on fire and that he might have moved enough to extinguish the flames, but had been burned too badly to survive. Regardless of what happened, evidence of the crime was left behind.
Two days later, a neighbor discovered Rehmeyer’s body. The shocking crime stunned the community, but the terror and excitement that followed was nothing compared to the story that soon emerged. Alice Rehmeyer informed the police of Blymire and Curry’s visit, and they were soon picked up as suspects. As details of the events emerged, newspapers across the country covered the story of the “York Witchcraft Murder” with great interest. Every bizarre detail of Blymire’s hex-obsessed life was described for the public. When the men went to trial, there were daily reports of the proceedings. Hess received 10 years in prison, but Blymire and Curry ended up receiving life sentences for the murder. Both were eventually paroled and lived uneventful lives. Curry, the youngest, served in the military during World War II and became a talented artist.
The “Hex Murder” in York County received wide coverage, and while the local authorities did not launch any official assault on folk magic in the area, the press and authorities in other parts of the state eventually would. The sensationalistic newspaper coverage of the case brought intense scrutiny to folk practices, and they were labeled a form of witchcraft. The press maligned all practitioners of powwowing, even if they only practiced the most benign healing services. Lurid descriptions of magic and strange beliefs filled the newspapers and shocked Americans who were unaware that such things were still taking place in the twentieth century.
Law enforcement officials, doctors, and educators began working together to put an end to what they considered superstitious and dangerous practices. Many of them began attributing supernatural motivations to any strange new cases that they encountered. During the Rehmeyer murder trial, York County Coroner L.V. Zach claimed that the deaths of five children in the previous two years had been caused by powwowers. He said that the children’s parents took them to folk healers when they were sick, instead of real doctors and, as a result, they died. He did admit there had been no formal investigations of these cases, but that they were a matter of common knowledge. The New York Times featured the coroner’s (questionable) claims in an article under a dramatic headline that read, “Death of 5 Babies Laid to Witch Cult.” The newspaper quoted unnamed officials of the York County Medical Society, who said that the coroner’s count of deaths attributed to witchcraft was much too low.
Soon, any death that was even vaguely connected to a powwower – or rumored to have a connection – was labeled a “hex murder.” In March 1929, the body of Verna Delp, 21, was discovered in the woods at Catasuqua, near Allentown. On her body were three pieces of paper with magical charms written on them, supposedly to protect from murder and theft. A coroner’s report identified three poisons in her body, and it appeared that she had taken them voluntarily. The young woman’s adoptive father, August Derhammer, revealed to the police that he had recently learned that Verna was taking treatments from a powwower and that she had been planning to visit him on the day that she died. The powwower was identified as a man named Charles T. Belles, and he was arrested thanks to the fact that the police were sure they had another hex murder on their hands. At first, Belles denied treating Verna, but later admitted that he was treating her for eczema. He claimed to only be a faith healer, not a hex doctor. The authorities didn’t believe him, and even though they could find no evidence to link him to the crime, continued to hold him in jail. As the investigation continued, it was discovered that Verna was pregnant and she had not seen her boyfriend, a truck driver named Masters, for several months. She had not yet told her family of the situation and was possibly looking for a way to end the pregnancy. Even after this new information came to light, the police still believed that Belles was partially responsible for her death. The obsession with hexes and powwow distracted the police from other possibilities in the case, including a botched abortion attempt, suicide or murder by someone other than Belles. By April, they still had no evidence that Belles was involved with the murder, but he was charged anyway. He finally received a hearing in mid-April after lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus. He was released on $10,000 bail, and charges were eventually dropped. The murder of Verna Delp was never solved.
The press jumped on another case of “murder by powwow” in January 1930. Mrs. Harry McDonald, 34, a housewife from Reading, died after receiving severe burns in her home. She had apparently been given some sort of ointment from a hex doctor with instructions to rub it on her skin. At some point in the night, her body went up in flames when she got too close to her stove. She was seriously injured, and when her husband, who worked the night shift, found her in the morning, she was on the verge of death and could not be saved. The woman’s brother told reporters that he believed the lotion she was using was flammable and caught fire, killing his sister. He had no evidence of this, but the press latched onto this theory and kept the story alive with “occult” connections for weeks.
Another “hex panic” murder occurred on January 20, 1932, when the body of a Philadelphia man named Norman Bechtel, 31, was discovered in Germantown under a tree on a temporarily vacant estate. The accountant and Mennonite Church worker had nine stab wounds in and around his heart. Some of the wounds appeared to form the shape of a circle, and were delivered with such force that they not only penetrated his suit and overcoat, but his eyeglass case in his pocket, as well. A crescent-shaped cut was made on each side of his forehead and a vertical slash ran from his hairline to his nose. Two additional cuts ran off the vertical slash in the direction of the crescent cuts. All of Bechtel’s valuables had been taken and his car was later discovered six miles away. From the bloodstains in the automobile, it was clear that Bechtel had known his attacker well enough to let him or her into his car. The case gave all the appearances of a robbery gone bad – but then there were those pesky facial cuts, which detectives surmised might have special occult significance. When it was learned that Bechtel had grown up on a farm near Boyertown, where powwow was common, the police immediately started searching for evidence of another hex murder. Captain Harry Heanly, the chief investigator, had the victim’s apartment searched for any possible connection with folk magic, but all they found were Mennonite books and pamphlets. After following a few more leads, the police still had no answers, so the press began calling the “mystery” a “hex murder.”
Then in April 1937, William Jordan, 36, confessed that he and four others had killed Bechtel, who they had been attempting to blackmail. Most of the details of Jordan’s confession were not publicly released, as Bechtel had been involved in “several love affairs” and had a large life insurance policy. Needless to say, the case had nothing to do with magic.
If these cases had been the only ones tied to powwow, it’s likely that the hex scare would have died out sooner and the public would have lost interest. That was not mean to be, though, for another actual hex murder occurred in 1934, which sealed the fate of folk magic in the state for decades to come.
The last true hex murder in Pennsylvania occurred in Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, on Saturday, March 17, 1934. A shotgun blast ended the life of Mrs. Susan Mummey, 63, as it tore through her living room window while she was standing next to her adopted daughter. Mummey was attending to the injured foot of her boarder, Jacob Rice, who was seated in front of her. The oil lamp that her daughter was holding shattered as the shot tore through the window. Mummey was killed and the other two took cover, not knowing if more shots would follow. They waited all night in fear, thinking that an assassin was lurking outside. Finally, as morning approached, Rice decided to make the two-and-a-half-mile trip to Ringtown to report the crime.
Initially, the police thought the murder was the result of some backwoods feud that turned violent. But soon the case took a bizarre turn when Albert Shinsky, 24, confessed to the killing. He claimed that the killing had been self-defense, and that Mummey had placed a hex on him seven years earlier when he was working in a field across from the Mummey farm. There had been a dispute about the property lines and one day, Mrs. Mummey came over the fence and stared at him for a long time, he said. He claimed that he then felt cold perspiration come over him and his arms went limp. From that point on, he was unable to work – but that was just the beginning of the torture.
Shinsky claimed that whenever he saw a sharp object, it would change into the shape of a black cat with flaming eyes from which he could not look away. The cat also appeared to him sometimes when he was in bed at night. It would creep slowly across the room and jump onto the bed. The appearance of the cat made him so cold, he claimed, that he had to get up and run around the room in order to get warm again. He sought help from several powwowers, but nothing worked. His family thought that he was lying and was just too lazy to work, but Shinsky seemed to genuinely believe that he was hexed. Eventually, when he could take no more of the supernatural harassment, he killed Mummey. He told the police that the minute she died, he felt the curse lift from his shoulders.
Prosecutors wanted to give Shinsky the death penalty for the murder, and the press once again emphasized the danger of the strange beliefs and practice of folk magic. Over objections from the police and the prosecutor’s office, a commission of doctors ruled that Shinsky was insane, and he was sent to Fairview State Hospital. He remained in mental institutions for most of the rest of his life.
The case seemed to confirm in the public eye that the belief in witchcraft was some sort of threat to society. Practitioners of powwow still had a few defenders, though, and they retained plenty of clients, but the tide of public opinion had turned against them.
Thanks to the two murder cases – and the many suspected cases that were inflated by the newspapers – Pennsylvania’s school system declared war on the belief in hexes, especially in the rural areas where it seemed most prevalent. It was hoped that within several years, a new focus of modern medicine and science could erase the superstitions that seemed to plague the countryside. State authorities also launched a campaign against powwowers and hex doctors directly, arresting and prosecuting them for practicing medicine without a license. Combined with the sensational stories in the media, and the assault on folk magic in general, many of the remaining powwowers went underground. Except for the few who retained public storefronts, most of those who continued to practice avoided the public spotlight and downplayed their work to non-believers. They continued to provide services, however, to those who sought them out. As time went on, fewer members of the younger generations showed interest in learning about the old ways of healing and hexes, but the practice refused to die out completely. Many modern healers still exist today, and while they may not be linked to any kind of witchcraft, German folk magic remains alive and well – although believers in the craft today seem far less likely to be driven to murder.