Common section

Written charms

Witch doctors drove a thriving trade in producing written apotropaic charms for concealment around farmyards and homes. John Keckler, a Waynesboro hex doctor, laid ‘seals’ around his clients and their property. These consisted of small muslin bags containing, as he told a court in 1918, the first verse of the thirty-fifth psalm—‘... any cause, O Lord with them that strive with me’. ‘If you write a Psalm and put it in the bam’, he explained, ‘it is good for all the stock in the building’.83 In 1892 a newspaper reported that Swedish and German farmers near Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, warded off witches by writing these characters ‘xJxNxRxYx’ on small strips of paper with red ink, which they then placed above every gate and door on their premises.84 This was a variant or misspelling of the formula INRI or JNRJ, an acronym of‘Jesus of Nazareth, King [Rex] of the Jews’, found widely in Christian iconography, and used in protective magic.

The three main sources of inspiration for the signs and texts in these written charms were the Bible and the print and manuscript copies of two magic books of German origin.85 One was the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, which claimed to reveal the secret wisdom God transmitted to Moses but that had been deliberately withheld by Jewish and Christian authorities when formalizing the Torah and Old Testament. Various manuscripts with this title circulated in eighteenth-century Germany and several were printed by a Stuttgart antiquarian in the 1840s. One of these was reprinted in German by a Pennsylvania publisher in the 1860s and an English translation followed a decade or so later. New legends formed regarding the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. In Pennsylvania in the 1890s it was reported that the original was buried somewhere in the Blue Mountains.86 The published edition included a series of psalms and seals containing spurious Hebraic characters. So Psalm 10 was for those ‘plagued with an unclean, restless, and evil spirit’, while Psalm 48 was recommended for those who ‘have many enemies without cause, who hate you out of pure envy’.

John George Hohman’s Der lang verborgene Freund was the other key source of protective charms in America. First published in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1820, further editions were produced over the next few decades, and English versions began to appear entitled The Long Lost Friend or Long Hidden Friend. It dealt more explicitly with the problem of witchcraft, and contained several helpful charms. The ancient word square






was recommended for bewitched cattle, and was administered by writing it on paper and putting it in their feed. This might explain the actions of a hex doctor who treated Sarah Kochert’s infant daughter in 1883 by giving her a strip of paper to put around the child’s breast, and bits of paper in molasses which she was to feed the child.87 A long blessing through the power of God was given ‘to relieve persons or animals after being bewitched’. The formula JRNRJ (Jesus King of Nazareth King of the Jews) was provided to protect houses against sickness, while the following formula written on a piece of white paper was ‘against evil spirits and all manner of witchcraft’:

The Long Lost Friend was also the source of the charm below, which was found in an antique sofa purchased by a second-hand dealer in Berks County. One copy was slipped under the top layer of the upholstery of each of the arms. It was written backwards in German, the inversion being integral to its magic:

Trottenkopf, I, [name of possessor], forbid thee my house and my courtyard; I forbid thee my bedstead so that thou wilt not ‘trot’ over me, [name], into another house; and climb over all mountains and fenceposts and over all waters. Then the good day will come back into my house. In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.88

The charm was ‘to prevent Witches from bewitching Cattle, to be written and placed in the stable; and against Bad Men and Evil Spirits, which nightly torment old and young people, to be written and placed on the bedstead’. Back in Germany the original purpose of the charm was specifically for preventing the nightmare. Trotten Kopf derives from the southern German dialect word Drudenkopf’ to describe a ‘pressing’ elf or spirit. Another German book of charms published in nineteenth-century America, Albertus Magnus’s Egyptian Secrets, from which derived some of the formulae in the Long Lost Friend, included a similar but longer version of the charm, though this time adjuring the Bettzaierle, a south-western German term for a nightmare.89 The English version of Long Lost Friend was clearly done without knowledge of the original purpose of the charm, with ‘Trotter Kopf’ being translated meaninglessly as ‘Trotter Head, I forbid thee my house and premises The Berks County furniture dealer who found the above example, said he frequently came across similar charms in couches, beds, and sofas, and it is highly likely that the one above was written by one of the most successful hex doctors in the region, Dr Hageman of Reading. As will be related in a later chapter, Hageman’s trade was exposed during a libel trial in 1903, during which one of his charms was produced in evidence. It was a version of the Trottenkopf verse written backwards, and in court a translator used a mirror to invert the writing so he could read it to the court.

During the early twentieth century both the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses and the Long Lost Friend were published in cheap, pulp paperback formats in their tens of thousands. Their influence spread far beyond the Pennsylvania Dutch, with the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses becoming a key source in hoodoo and conjure. Editions of the latter, along with other compilations of magic and mysticism sold by enterprising American mail-order occult companies, most notably the Delaurence Company of Chicago, would have a major influence on the magical and religious cultures of the Caribbean and parts of West Africa.90

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