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The Pennsylvania problem

Alaskans were not the only objects of opprobrium regarding witch belief during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. ‘We are given to refer to the superstitious colored people of the South’, wrote Baltimore Baptist Pastor Joshua E. Wills in 1911, ‘but the genuine Pennsylvania Dutchman has more superstition to the square inch than any other man on the American continent’. ‘I believe’, he continued, ‘no better field in the wide world offers opportunity for missionary endeavors than among country districts of Eastern Pennsylvania’.56 The sentiment was not new. The nation-wide reputation of Pennsylvania, its German population in particular, for being a state of staunch witchcraft believers had developed since the 1880s when a drip-feed of stories about hex doctors and witches began to circulate across the United States.

In 1889 a newspaper reporter covering a case of witch abuse in a German community in Tioga, Hancock County, Illinois, commented: ‘especially remarkable is it that the witch believers should be Germans, the people of all others who have the least superstition, at least that is the reputation they enjoy’.57 If that reputation ever existed it was already being trashed by events in Pennsylvania. In 1883 a series of witchcraft disputes in Reading, Pottstown, Scranton, Philadelphia, and Pittsburg led to headlines such as ‘The Witch Epidemic’.58 While cases from elsewhere in the US were usually treated as isolated cases, every Pennsylvania case was an accumulation. Headlines began to appear with titles such as, Weird Stories: People in Pennsylvania Said to Believe in Witches’.59 Some of this was inspired by inter-state niggling—as we have seen elsewhere. But the Pennsylvania press was the source of many of the stories. In January 1891 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran with an exclusive headed, Witches in Berks County: Reading “Doctors” Minister to the Delusive’. It began: ‘A veritable nest or hot-bed of supposed witches and witchcraft exists among the hills of Earl and Douglass townships’.60 From this and other subsequent reports there was clearly a degree to which the Pennsylvania press engaged in a tacit policy of geographical isolation of the problem—for them it was never the whole state, but certain populations in certain places. Berks County, and its seat Reading, and Lancaster County, were the culprits. In 1902, for instance the Philadelphia Inquirer commented, ‘Reading would be a rare field for the student in psychology just now. The only reason that she is not burning witches is because the law won’t let her’.61

The press of the period nearly always referred to the ‘superstitious’ people of the two counties as Pennsylvania Dutch or Germans, but Lancaster and Berks County were the seats of the Amish, Mennonites, and other ‘plain people’ communities. The first Amish in America settled in Berks County back in the eighteenth century before other communities took root elsewhere in America and Canada. They were not particularly noticeable to the outside world until the 1930s because until the rise of mass car ownership, mechanization of small-scale farming, and changes in popular fashion, the look and lifestyle of the ‘plain people’ were not that different from the wider farming population around them.

In 1892 another Pennsylvania report headed ‘Queer Witch Stories’ circulated around the press: ‘What funny stories come out of Berks county, Pa, about witches and witch doctors, and those who enjoy them most are the educated Berks county people, who laugh at the superstitious fears of foolish and ignorant neighbours’.62 But such stories were increasingly being read with concern and contemplation rather than merriment. Pennsylvania witch belief was becoming seen as a social, moral, and health problem—an embarrassment to the state. There was no sign of it going away either, and the problem could not be pinned on recent credulous immigrants from Europe. Yet there was no religious mission to purge the witch believers: the Alaskans were pagans and the Pennsylvanians staunch Christians after all! It was up to the medical establishment to lead the crusade.

In December 1899 a Reading general practitioner, John M. Bertolet, read a paper to the Berks County Medical Society bearing the title Witch Doctors and their Deceptions’. He had on many occasions had to treat people who had first consulted a hex doctor. The following year the world of the hex doctor was sensationally exposed by the tough, crusading journalist Alice Rix. She paid a visit to the Elm Street consulting room of the prosperous Reading hex doctor Joseph H. Hageman posing as a client seeking help for a sick relative. The sixty-seven- year-old Hageman was the offspring of German immigrants and had built up a large clientele over the years. He was listed as a ‘physician’ in the census and in the Reading Directory, but his business was pure pow-wow. Rix’s pen portrait was none too flattering, ‘He is a gross, grizzled, dirty old man, huge of head and face and jowl and hanging chin, with a monstrous body... big, fat, greasy hands, like suet puddings boiled in bags... bright, blue, questioning, kindly eyes—two spots of innocent blue upon a field of filth, like forget-me-nots dropped on a dirt heap’. Hageman took affront at the article she wrote about him for the Philadelphia newspaper the North American—not at his unflattering physical description, but at Rix’s questioning of the good doctor’s medical credentials. His reputation for the ‘legitimate and scientific practice of medicine’ had been traduced.

Hageman mobilized support, with some of his clients writing to the press in his defence. He also brought a libel suit against the newspaper’s proprietor and onetime US Postmaster General, John Wanamaker. This was a very unwise move considering Wanamaker was a rich and powerful man. The trial took place in Philadelphia’s Common Pleas Court in March 1903 before Judge McCarthy. One of those present to watch the spectacle was Baltimore Pastor Joshua E. Wills, a friend of McCarthy’s. Over six days a succession of Hageman’s clients, nearly a hundred of them, took the stand to praise his healing powers. His modus operandi was revealed in great detail. Some of his potions underwent chemical analysis, revealing that one of his tonics for bad blood was no more than cherry-flavoured grain alcohol. There was his lucrative trade in Himmelsbriefs, and his potent charm against witches—a small canvas cloth bag inscribed with I.N.R.I. containing slips of paper with words in German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Hageman sat nervously, fidgeting in his seat as the hours and days passed. He knew he had made a big mistake. When it came to his own turn to give evidence, he was mauled by the defence lawyer, ex-Judge James Gay Gordon. Hageman, who held no medical licence or evidence of formal training, was made to reveal that he knew nothing of the circulation of blood, was unfamiliar with the word ‘pathology’, could not define ‘hygiene’, and was ignorant of the chemical name for common salt. His claim to medical competence was shredded and the case was dismissed.63

In 1904 the journal American Medicine reported that the Pennsylvania State Medical Board intended to institute a campaign to wipe out hex doctors and hexerei. ‘The duty has been too long postponed’, grumbled the editor, but he hoped that if pursued thoroughly lives would be saved.64 The increased attention was due in part to the Hageman trial, and in part to the frequent reports from the state’s coroners regarding the link between hex doctors and high infant mortality. As he made out the death certificate for eight-month-old Elmer Eckenroth in September 1900, Reading doctor S. Banks Taylor heard how the infant had been unsuccessfully treated by hex doctors.65 The cause of death was marasmus, or severe malnutrition, a common manifestation of dietary poverty at the time—a lack of protein in particular. A few years later the Reading coroner dealt with the infant of Frederick Carl who had also succumbed to marasmus. A pow-wow doctor had brought a copy of the Seventh Book of Moses to Carl’s home and written out a passage in red ink on a piece of paper. This he slipped into a muslin bag and hung it at the head of the cradle.66 When the Pottsville coroner launched an investigation into the death of the child of Michael Cubich, of St Clair, he heard how it had been taken to a hex doctor at Shenandoah. A regular physician was not called in until it died.67

By the end of the summer of 1909 Reading coroner Robert E. Strasser had had enough. In one day alone he had investigated six infant deaths all of which involved treatment by hex doctors. He made a public statement saying that the hex doctors were to blame for a large percentage of the infant deaths during the summer months. ‘It is time that the authorities investigate the illegal practice that has existed so long in Reading and Berks county, and which is the fundamental reason for the many deaths of our young’. The Allentown coroner expressed similar determination the following summer after yet another such case.68

The chorus of complaint was joined by a branch of the Visiting Nurse Association. These Associations had been founded around the country from the 1880s onwards, inspired by the system of charitable district nursing founded by Florence Nightingale in Britain. With regard to Pennsylvania, by 1902 there were Associations in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Scranton. A Reading branch was formed in 1918. Charitable donations paid for nurses to go into the homes of the poor to improve sanitary conditions, instruct mothers on childcare, and wash and dress the sick. They were at the frontline of popular healthcare wherever an Association was active.69 It is not surprising, therefore, that they joined the battle. In 1912 a supervisor of the Visiting Nurse Association, Anna Barlow, put out a statement from Reading denouncing the activities of the local hex doctors. Barlow said that her nurses had saved the lives of numerous children that had been maltreated by hex doctors. She explained the challenge, ‘they are an exclusive set of men and women numbering about 20 in this city. Their workings are secret. Ask one of the victims and they will say, “we don’t know where their home is. We don’t know their names. If we would tell their names the charm would be broken”’.70

Did the authorities listen to the chorus of professional criticism? Well, substantive action was finally taken in 1911 with the passing of the Medical Practices Act of Pennsylvania. It reinforced existing legislature, creating a Bureau of Medical Education and Licensure. Henceforth no-one in the state could call themselves a doctor or treat diseases by the use of medicines without obtaining a certificate of licensure from the Bureau.71 If one were polite, one might say that it was an abject failure, an object lesson in how legislature remains an empty gesture if not backed up with the resources and sustained will to implement it.

As the reader will have gathered by now the hex doctors were hardly shy, retiring types skulking in the shadows. The Allentown practitioner Charles Kistler was entered matter-of-factly as ‘pow wow doctor’ in the 1910 census, and in 1911 he told a journalist that he had 1,200 patients in the previous year alone. An upstanding local citizen confirmed that this was no idle boast.72 If anything, the negative publicity did them good. The hex doctors thrived. This was revealed all too frustratingly during a probate hearing regarding the will of Martha Adams of Harrisburg in 1915. She had died at the age of fifty-six leaving the bulk of her $12,000 estate to a hex doctor named Harrison Seiferd, a fifty-nine-year-old married man living in South Cameron Street, Harrisburg, whose principal occupation was a bricklayer in a local furnace works. He had been treating both Martha and her deceased husband regularly for some years, and she had complete faith in his ability to communicate to her deceased husband, provide her with magical protection, and put hexes on others. She was, in short, in thrall to the man. His principal treatment consisted of ‘force bags’ that gave the possessor power over others. These he apparently sold for between $1 and $1,000 depending on the wealth of his clients. One of the bags possessed by Adams was opened and revealed to contain a toenail and a written charm. The will was upheld, justifying Seiferd’s demeanour at the probate hearing where he wore a perpetual grin.73

Then, in the same year, there was the reprehensible behaviour of Waynesboro hex doctor John Keckler, another bricklayer. His sordid practices were exposed in a long-running legal saga between 1918 and 1921. At the age of fifty-nine Keckler, married with several children, was sentenced to serve five to seven years in the penitentiary for raping the daughters of one of his clients. Like several English cunning-folk I have studied, he abused his magical reputation to coerce clients into having sex with him.74 Keckler’s victims were Ada and Grace Kriner, aged twelve and fifteen respectively at the time of the crime. Keckler had been brought to the Kriner farm at Lemasters, Franklin County, in 1915, to lay a number of his seals around the place to protect it against witchcraft. Keckler told Kriner that a malign influence had been cursing his place for thirty years, and reckoned he could cure its latest manifestation, a sick hog. The seals would be insufficient though, and he would need to involve Ada and Grace in his rituals to remove the hex upon the family. The two young girls were brought to a neighbour’s house, the Heckmans, to spend the night. Here, on several occasions between 1915 and May 1917, Keckler had sex with the two girls. He told the Heckmans that as part of his secret magical ritual the girls had ‘to touch the hem of his garment’. On one occasion he drew a circle around one of them and uttered an incantation. Grace testified during the trial in 1918 that Keckler would be awaiting them in bed and after performing some ceremonies, including the placement of seals upon them, he would commit the crime. They were sworn to secrecy with the threat that telling anyone would ‘do no good’. After Keckler’s imprisonment, Kriner launched a $20,000 suit against Keckler and the Heckmans—$10,000 for the debauchment of each of his daughters. The suit rumbled on until April 1921 when Kriner was finally awarded $17,690.50.75

For a few years the hex doctor problem slipped into the background, only to explode into the national consciousness in November 1928 when the burned and bound body of a York County farmer and small-time pow-wow doctor named Nelson D. Rehmeyer was found. It transpired that he had been murdered by John Blymyer and two young accomplices. Blymyer believed Rehmeyer had hexed him, and so he and his two companions went to his farmhouse to seize and bum the copy of the Long Lost Friend that he was thought to possess, and also to cut a lock of his hair and bum it to break the hex. There is no evidence to suggest the three men had murder on their minds, but a scuffle ensued in which Rehmeyer was knocked dead. They tried to bum down the house to destroy the evidence.76 The subsequent trial of the three men was a national and international sensation. Years later, one of Rehmeyer’s closest neighbours recalled the media fuss and how it intruded on his own life. ‘For weeks on end I could hardly get any work done day or night without some male or female reporter interruptin’ me askin’ to interview me .... It got so I could hardly eat my meals without the front doorbell ringin’.. .And in York, man! You shouda been there. Cars with the license tags from twenty different states; more strangers on the streets than durin’ the Fair. Every hotel room taken and every restaurant jammed to the doors’.77

The case also stoked the creative imagination. The well-connected writer John Lineaweaver wrote a short story in 1931 called ‘Hexa buch’ concerning a Pennsylvania hex doctor named Dr Hoffmeyer. The title referred to Hoffrneyer’s books which included the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, Albertus Magnus, and the Long Lost Friend.78 Then, in 1932, the Potomac Playmakers, a theatre troupe based in Hagerstown, Maryland, which is still going today, staged a comedy by the playwright and inventor Elmer Greenfelder, who was inspired by the Blymyer trial. It was called Broomsticks, Amen! and concerned the contemporary beliefs of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The central character was a hex doctor called Emil Hofnagel. Hofnagel hates licensed doctors, and is incensed when his daughter marries a Harrisburg physician. Their child gets sick, and the hex doctor shoots his son-in-law in the shoulder and begins to pow-wow the child himself, but it dies. The three-act play then charts how the wounded doctor sets about combatting the influence of the hex doctors over the community. Despite the serious theme, fun was had with the mangled English of the Pennsylvania Dutch. So when Hofiiagel’s doorbell ceases to work, he puts out a sign requesting, ‘the bell don’t make. Please bump!’ When, in 1933, it was staged at the Pelham Theater, New York, the lead actor was comedian Lew Fields (bom Moses Schoenfeld) who was well known for his ‘Dutch Act’ portraying German immigrants. It even had a very brief ran on Broadway the following year with Jean Adair playing the hex doctor’s wife. Adair went on to play one of the aunts in the Cary Grant feature film Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).79 Its Broadway stint was damned by faint praise. The critic Bums Mantle, who was intrigued enough to do some background reading on the topic and referenced the Blymyer trial in his review, thought it well played but concluded it was, ‘an earnest folk play, as said, but as foreign to the tastes of this theatre center as might be a folk drama of Bavarian peasants’.80

The hex doctors also had their public defenders. One hex doctor who stood up and faced the whirlwind of criticism gave a rather remarkable defence of his profession at the Graduate School of the American University, Washington DC, in 1931. Jacob Zellers, an automobile painter living with his wife Daisy and large brood of children in West College Avenue, York, had been powwowing for twenty-seven years. He was invited to explain his line of work by a student, Edwin R. Danner, who was also from York and would, a couple of decades later, write a dictionary of the Pennsylvania Dutch dialect. Zellers audience consisted of students and staff under the tutelage of Dr Walton Colcord John, Adjunct Professor of Education. If this was not unusual enough, Zellers was quite open about witches and hexing. He had hexed people himself using the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses he told his audience. He had been responsible for the death of five witches acting in magical self-defence. Much of his business was, however, concerned with pow-wowing simple ailments such as warts. He was most conscious of the authorities’ attempts to entrap him, saying that he knew spies came to his surgery masquerading as clients, but as he charged no money, and presented to bill, what could they do? ‘If a patient comes to me who hasn’t been to a doctor first, I make him go, so the authorities can’t hold anything against me. The kind of patients I like best are the ones who have already been to three or four doctors who have failed to help them. Then I take them’.81

The most influential defender was no practitioner, though. Meet Ammon Monroe Aurand Jr (1895—1956). The Aurands had been settled in Beaver Springs, Snyder County, for generations. The town was built by German settlers and was originally called Reigertown. The family belonged to the Christ Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination that originated in the Netherlands.82 Aurand Sr built up a prosperous publishing company that included the nationwide sale of Bibles, and Aurand Jr was groomed to follow in his father’s footsteps from an early age. In 1906 he was described (in a publication by his father) ‘as one of the hustling and enterprising young boys of the town and will someday make his mark in the business world’. He was something of a prodigy for having learned typesetting at the age of five, and by the age of eleven he was the librarian of the town’s free library. Aurand Jr went on to establish his own more modest publishing house in Harrisburg, and made his reputation by producing a series of idiosyncratic and populist publications explaining and defending Pennsylvania Dutch customs, traditions, and beliefs that pandered to outsider curiosity about them. Indeed, the publishing longevity of Aurand’s pamphlets both fuelled and were fuelled by the beginnings of the tourist industry regarding the Lancaster County Amish during the 1930s.83 Not surprisingly, some of his publications, those regarding the Amish in particular, were not well received within the community. Words such as ‘exploitation’, ‘misrepresentation’ and ‘disservice’ were levelled against him over the years. A case in point was his various publications on the custom of bundling in which courting couples were bundled together in bed fully clothed. Aurand suggested controversially that the custom was particularly prevalent in the Amish community of Mifflin County.84

In 1918 the family firm had printed copies of a Himmelsbrief for a client who disseminated them amongst the National Guard and draftees in the central counties of Pennsylvania. But his most influential publication on magic was undoubtedly The Pow Wow Book (1929), skilfully marketed to tap into the national interest in the Blymyer case, it was widely reviewed by the American press and frequently praised as an important insight into a ‘strange’ world. Greenfelder used Aurand’s Pow Wow Book when researching Broomsticks, Amen!, and Aurand sent a copy to Bums Mantle on hearing he was reviewing the play. He became the ‘go-to’ man for a journalistic quote on hexerei. In the preface, Aurand stated he did not believe in the existence of witches but sought to sift the wheat from the chaff in witchcraft—the wheat he identified was pow-wow healing, which if it had no medical benefit certainly did no harm. Aurand said he was ‘a disinterested spectator in a war between classes which will not end with the present generation—nor the next’. What ensued was a mish-mash of information. He provided an account of the Blymyer trial, the Medical Practices Act, a useful history of pow-wow books, a collection of charms culled from other texts, and an interview with a pow-wow doctor. Appended was a copy of Hohman’s Long Lost Friend. It was a publication that appealed to a wide audience, as Aurand well knew.

What genuinely annoyed Aurand was the fingering of Pennsylvanian Germans as being more prone to superstition. In 1933 he gave a newspaper interview in which he pointed out, ‘These practices are part of their religion... These ideas cannot be taken away from these people as long as constitutional privileges exist’. He was less sympathetic to those hex doctors who commercialized their practices, though.85 He made a good point. In the farmland of southern Schuylkill County, for instance, ethnic Germans did, indeed, predominate, but to the north of the county, in the coalfields, 85 five per cent of the population in some towns were recent immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. We have already encountered cases of witchcraft in these communities. The sensational ‘poison widows’ trials in Philadelphia betweeni938 andi939, which concerned a life insurance racket involving numerous murders, exposed the profound belief in magic and the evil eye amongst the city’s Italian community. One of the ringleaders, Paul Petrillo, practised la fattura or spell working, and another, a Russian Jew named Morris Bolber, also known as ‘Louis the Rabbi’, professed to being an adept of the Kabbalah and having learned magic secrets from a Chinese sorceress.86 Aurand was part of the problem, however, as well as the solution. He helped reinforce the association between persistent witch belief and the Pennsylvania Dutch. Another of his witchcraft pamphlets published in 1942 was entitled The Realness of Witchcraft in America, but focused primarily on the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Following the Blymyer case, hex doctors were once again implicated in every evil act and suspicious tragedy. When Mrs Harry MacDonald of Reading burned to death at her home in January 1930 officials sought a hex link. Over a hundred witnesses were summoned by the coroner. One theory was that she had smeared her body with some oily substance provided by a hex doctor, and then set herself alight to purify herself. But no evidence emerged that she had ever visited a hex doctor.87 Still, the District Attorney threatened to clean up the county once again, and the main weapon against the hex doctors, the 1911 Medical Practices Act, was now brought into action. The following year Charles N. Fry, a State Medical Licensure Bureau investigator instigated prosecutions against Charles W. Dice, a York medicine salesman and pow-wow doctor, who was sentenced to leave the county. Then Dr George E. Murry of Mount Nebo, a farm manager, was arrested and charged with holding an illegal Wednesday night surgery in York.88

In September 1933 Robert W. Semenow, law enforcement director of the State Bureau of Medical Licensure, issued a public statement saying, ‘this is the beginning of a fight to the finish. We mean to get rid of every last one of these powwow people before we are finished’.89 But for all the tough talk, six months later Semenow admitted to a journalist that they were struggling—and not with the weight of information. Lancaster County was the hotbed of the whole racket he complained, and the greatest barrier to success was the patients and not the hex doctors. We would be only too glad to prosecute these so-called hex doctors’, he said, ‘but we are handicapped because of the fear of patients’. Only two prosecutions were launched between December and April, with one conviction.90 The ‘baby slasher’ case from Salladasburg, Lycoming County, is a good example of the problem Semenow faced. The five-year-old son of John Fritz was diagnosed as a ‘mental deficient’, and it was recommended that he be taken to the state hospital after he cut his eight-month-old baby brother James Leroy with a butcher’s knife. John Fritz resented the involvement of the authorities, claiming his family had been ‘hissed up on by neighbors’. The family believed their five-year-old son, who had attacked their baby boy on other occasions, was possessed by an evil spirit and so they had brought in a female pow-wow doctor to drive it out. She went through some ritual and declared that he had been ‘cured by faith’. John Fritz rejected criticism of the pow-wow and refused to divulge any information about her, much to the frustration of the authorities.91 A similar response was met during the trial of Warren Faust, of Fleetwood, Berks County, for shooting dead his father Alvin, in March 1940. Alvin had repeatedly visited hex doctors, and a written charm was found on his corpse. Warren, a twenty-five-year-old showbill artist, crippled in early childhood, said his father raved variously that he was God or that Moses had given him special powers. When questioned in jail as to the name of the hex doctor his father consulted, Warren refused to say.92

From the 1940s onwards, hex fatigue set in amongst the Pennsylvania authorities and press. The result, perhaps, of a sullen admittance that pow-wowing and witchcraft beliefs could not be suppressed by laws and interventions. Or perhaps a consequence of a deluded belief that year on year the miraculous power of state education was doing the job without further intervention. There is no doubt that the strength of witchcraft belief diminished, as will be discussed in the final chapter, but hexing was only one part of the pow-wow tradition, which was, as Aurand said, ingrained in the religious and cultural life of many Pennsylvania Dutch. In 1961 the minister Jacob J. Hershberger stirred things up when he wrote in the Amish newspaper The Budget that pow-wowing and braucherei were the work of the Devil. One respondent, who accepted brauch but did not believe in witchcraft, suggested it was false to link the two. She further questioned, ‘are you absolutely sure that powwowing and “brauch” are one and the same?’93

During the 1960s Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture began to attract serious rather than sensational explorations, particularly in the work of the scholar Don Yoder, co-founder of the Pennsylvania Folklife Society. Health care professionals turned from campaigning against to understanding pow-wow. Mennonite and Amish traditional medicine, and ethnic German pow-wow healing more generally, began to be embraced as an honourable tradition—an aspect of legitimate complementary medicine. This was part of a broader shift in western medicine at the time that sought engagement with folk medicine, holistic, and faith-based healing methods from around the globe, such as meditation, acupuncture, and homeopathy.94 There was a realization that modem medicine and folk medicine could coexist; an either/or situation was not necessary. This is a view now accepted widely in popular culture and partially by the medical establishment. So the Amish, for instance, have no problem with certain aspects of institutional medicine, going to hospital and consulting physicians, but they retain a strong reliance on aspects of pow-wow, such as herbalism and faith healing, for certain ailments.95

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