Fines and Portents: Pennsylvania’s Criminalization of Fortune-Telling and Magical Rituals (Part 2 of 3)

Pennsylvania’s Past: The Pow-wow

Leaving aside the issues of healing and prophecy, what brought all of the above magical activities to the minds of our state’s Legislature in 1861, and led it to leave the archaic language unchanged in 1939 and 1972? I suspect it may be the widespread practice of German folk magic, the Braucherei, a word often translated as “The Necessary.”

As everyone knows, many Germanspeakers came to Penn’s Woods from the inception of the colony, lured by Penn’s generous land grants and, in the case of separatist groups, religious tolerance.
Germantown, the first recorded German settlement in the English colonies, was founded in 1683. Between 1727 and 1775, approximately 65,000 German speakers (there was no nation of “Germany” before 1871) arrived in Philadelphia and settled the region and Germanophone immigrants who had disembarked elsewhere headed for established German-speaking outposts in our commonwealth. (German Society of Pa., German Settlement in Pennsylvania: An Overview). And they brought along their folk-magic spells and remedies.

But hang on there! I know you’re picturing black buggies and black bonnets. No, our most famous and visible “Pennsylvania Dutch,” the separatist sects, Amis and Mennonites, the “plain” Germans,
abhorred any kind of magical practice or spielwerk. As anyone who has visited their territory knows, the “Old Orders” of these sects do not even build churches; it would be overweening presumption for men to think they could construct an abode for the Almighty. And those colorful “hex signs” you see on barns and in gift shops in Lancaster County? They’re just folk art. It was among the “fancy” Germans, wealthy, worldly farmers, that the Braucherei spielwerk continued to flourish. If these “church Germans” wanted to protect their barns from fire, they’d post a Himmelsbrief, “letter from heaven,” believed to be a miraculously-appearing sermon, which newspapers in York used to publish broadside as a public service for that very purpose, or perhaps the Sator Square or the abracadabra: There are fragments of alchemical lore interwoven with the folk magic.

The Braucherei as an oral tradition had been passed down through generations, well established before the 19th century. But in 1819, at Reading, Berks County, John George Hohman (or possibly Hoffman; it’s difficult to tell in Fraktur, the Gothic “broken script” used to write and print German until the 1940s) compiled various spells, incantations and rituals, and published a manual for brauchers: Der Lange Verborgene Freund, soon published in English as Pow-wows, or, The Long-Lost
Friend. A Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies for Man as Well as Animals. (You can get it on your Kindle for 99 cents.)

Possibly anticipating some kind of religious or enlightenment prejudice against magical ritual, Hohman affirms in his preface: “I, Hohman, too, have some knowledge of the Scriptures, and I know when to pray and call upon the Lord for assistance. … I place myself upon the broad platform of
the liberty of the press and of conscience, in regard to this useful book, and it shall ever be my most heartfelt desire that all men might have an opportunity of using it to their good, in the name of Jesus.”

Are you wondering why Braucherei came to be called in English “Pow-wow”? Everybody does! And nobody knows.

The Braucherei could be seen as a reaction to “black magic” witchcraft with which all Europe was obsessed from the 15th through 18th centuries. In the areas of Europe from whence Pennsylvania’s settlers came, 40-60,000 German-speaking people had been put to death as witches in creative and unpleasant ways in that period. The carnage was exacerbated after the Reformation as Catholics and Protestants enthusiastically demonized and denounced each other. Our German-speaking immigrants, of devout Lutheran or other Christian sects, would not have wanted to practice black magic, devil worship or other malign practices like casting curses, but they had good reason to believe in their reality and efficacy and to want protection from such arts. Pow-wow is “white magic,” aimed at counteracting evil influences, restoring health, possessions or prosperity of which a
person has been deprived wrongfully or by an evil chance.

A perusal of the “Index to Arts and Remedies” in The Long-Lost Friend shows that Pow-wow practice included spells and rituals to effectuate many purposes that are mentioned in 18 Pa.C.S.A. 1704: How to obtain things desired, how to recover stolen goods, to prevent malicious persons from doing injury, to compel a thief to return stolen goods, to retain the right in a court of justice, to remove enmity between two persons, how to relieve persons or animals after being bewitched, to retain the right in court and council, to win every game one engages in, to release spell-bound persons.

Were these rituals being performed “for gain or lucre”? It seems that, in what used to be the ancient convention of all professions, including medicine and law, brauchers did not expressly charge for their services, but much as with ministers who officiate at weddings or funerals today, a “gift” was expected. A person with a successful Pow-wow practice could comfortably supplement his or her income.

When my father began his medical practice in Monroe County in the 1950s, people would call and inquire whether he did the Pow-wow as casually as today they might ask whether they could get a flu shot at the office. But by the time I developed a scholarly interest in the craft about a decade
ago, I wasn’t able to locate anyone who was still doing it, though there were plenty of older people who had heard tell of even older relatives who were brauchers. Except for elements of it plucked out of context and cobbled into New Age syncretisms, the craft seems to have died out in Pennsylvania. (If you want to know more about Powwow, the Pennsylvania German Cultural Heritage Center at Kutztown University is the place to consult.)

The demise of Pow-wow is not entirely attributable to the passage of time; it has to do with the sequelae of a 20th century witchcraft trial in our commonwealth.

A Portentous Proceeding

In 1929 in York County, one aspiring Pow-wow practitioner, John Blymire, with two accomplices, Messrs. Curry and Hess, also dabblers in the craft, killed another practitioner, Nelson Rehmeyer. Rehmeyer was a very successful Pow-wow practitioner and farmer. Blymire wasn’t having much
success with his Pow-wow practice. In addition, he was unable to eat or sleep. He became convinced he had been hexed. He consulted quite a few other Pow-wow practitioners, but to no avail.

Finally he sought out a woman named Emma Knoll (or possibly Knopf, Knopt of Knoff; Fraktur again.) She revealed Rehmeyer to Blymire by a trick with a silver coin (or possibly a dollar bill: This is a good time to tell you that this is an ofttold tale and, if you research it, you will find variations in the names and details.) She counseled him to steal Rehmeyer’s spellbook, his copy of The Long Lost
Friend, in order to destroy his power or, failing that, to obtain a lock of Rehmeyer’s hair and bury it six-feet deep.

I suspect Mrs. Knoll was not a braucher, but an old-fashioned black-magic Hecate
witch. This kind of malign, sympathetic magic is not Pow-wow, which is a “white”
magic aimed at healing and restoration, firmly rooted in Christianity. And, as a
dread grimoire, an arcane spellbook within which a sorcerer’s power was traditionally
believed to be corporeally embodied, The Long Lost Friend is something of an anticlimax. In addition to healing remedies and those mentioned above, it contains recipes for making beer, paper, ink and detailed explanations for how to perform card tricks. It is, as its title presages, a friendly, folksy, practical little tome. Most significantly, a Pow-wow practitioner’s true grimoire is not Hohman’s manual: it is the Holy Bible itself. The most powerful incantation available to a braucher is Ezekiel 16:6: “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee
when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.” (KJV).

Blymire and the two young men, all of whom had known Rehmeyer all their lives went to Rehmeyer’s house, and sat down to dinner with him, all the while looking surreptitiously around for Rehmeyer’s copy of The Long Lost Friend. They didn’t see it. (I doubt he had one; he would have known the rituals and incantations by heart since his initiation into Pow-wow at puberty.) So, they went for the lock of hair, but Rehmeyer, a hale and hearty 60-year-old farmer, didn’t consent to be barbered. In the scuffle, one of the three hit him over the head with a blunt object and killed
him. To cover up their crime, Blymire, et al., set fire to Rehmeyer’s farmhouse, but the heat wasn’t anywhere near sufficient to incinerate a corpse. It only burned out the dining room floor, and Rehmeyer’s body fell through to the basement.

Everyone in York knew that Blymire was jealous of Rehmeyer’s very successful Powwow practice and knew that Blymire had developed an idée fixe that Rehmeyer had “hexed” him. So when Rehmeyer’s charred body was discovered, Blymire and his two accomplices were quickly arrested and charged with murder. The trial became known as “The York Witch Trial” and attracted nationwide attention. And as the parade of parties and witnesses proceeded, it emerged that nearly
everybody in York was either a Pow-wow practitioner or a client: Knoll, Rehmeyer, Blymire, Curry, Hess, the practitioners who had trained each of them in their craft, people who had consulted Rehmeyer or Blymire. … it was ubiquitous! Blymire and his accomplices were convicted. Only Curry appealed his conviction, which the Pa. Supreme Court sustained. Com. v. Curry, 298 Pa. 363, 148 A. 508 (1930).

Unfortunately, the three defendants weren’t the only ones on trial: The commonwealth itself stood accused, too! Editorials were published all over the country putting the blame for the killing on Pennsylvania, which had allowed such benighted, superstitious nonsense to proliferate within its
borders. As a result, the public schools in the state were instructed to teach against and disparage the German folk magic and the Pennsylvania German dialect.

The ubiquity of German folk magic practices in Pennsylvania may have been the reason our statute was originally so much more extensive than other states’ and also the reason why, in 1939 and 1972, the 1861 language explicitly criminalizing the now-embarrassing practices was reenacted without substantial change

15 thoughts on “Fines and Portents: Pennsylvania’s Criminalization of Fortune-Telling and Magical Rituals (Part 2 of 3)

        1. The writing I do on our blog is pretty easy for me. Writing seriously about life and death matters bruises my brain. My autobiography is a non-stop exercise in bruising my brain, and you are very gentle and kind to me.

          Liked by 2 people

  1. Thanks, Hyp! for this ongoing glimpse into the Commonwealth’s rich cultural history.

    Several years ago, I watched a documentary about that area’s food and folkways. During filming, an organizer of the event forcefully declaimed: “We’re not Dutch, we’re *German*. It’s ‘Pennsylvania *Deutsch*, not Pennsylvania Dutch. Thank you – and try to remember that.”

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It might depend on how long the misapprehension has gone on; not to mention whether or not the Dutch and the German-speakers of the time originally got along well. 🙂 Still a wonderful post.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I am finding this so interesting! A part of American history I knew very little about, and I find it all fascinating. Thank you, Hypatia 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks so much, both of you!
    As I mentioned in the article, you can get Hohman’s Book, “The Long Lost Friend” on Kindle for 99cents. It’s fascinating: Christian White magic. There were some who muttered about the brauchers communicating with demons—but remember Jesus’ disciples were able to command demons, , too, and they were given power to heal the sick.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. My father (a medical doctor who practiced here on the Pocono Plateau) often observed PowWow talismans worn by his patients. The incantations would be written down and rolled into tiny scrolls which they wore as amulets. In WW I, those charms were often found on the bodies of German-American soldiers—but not on the Kaiser’s soldiers. The craft had died out in the Old World but flourished in the New.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think Jews do something like this as well but the scrolls are placed just outside the main door of their homes.

      I can not be arsed to ask Mr. duck duck goose.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. “My father (a medical doctor who practiced here on the Pocono Plateau) often observed PowWow talismans worn by his patients.”

      This is a fascinating glimpse into the importance of these folkways, Hypatia; how did your father react to these practices?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Nanda, in response to your question about my father (and thank you!) : I think probably he DIDNT react. Believe me, this had to be one of the least noxious habits he encountered in this financially challenged Appalachian community. Ok it was pre-opioid, but there was lotsa alcoholism, domestic abuse, predatory sexual behavior—the usual. But beyond that, he once said,”Sometimes I feel disgusted by the things people do. But then I remember, they’re ALL God’s children!” He said this with a -yes this is the mot juste: beatific smile, like , what am i worried about? I wish you could have met him. The two of you would’ve liked each other.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. “I think Jews do something like this as well but the scrolls are placed just outside the main door of their homes.”

    The placing of a mezuzah – inside and outside – of rooms and houses does hark back to the protection of Israel by the blood of a lamb, during the Exodus (cf. Exodus 12:7) Today’s mezuzahs contain the Shema: “Hear, oh Israel…” and are a reminder of the Oneness of God (Deuteronomy 6:4) and one’s duty to keep his Presence foremost in our minds/hearts/activities, wherever we may be. The sense of protection, per se, is secondary. (At least in the understanding of friends in NY & MD.) Other branches of Jewish thought may hew more closely to this sense of shielding/protection, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

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