The words “pow wow” and “witch doctor” conjure many things to mind but white-bearded, bible-toting Old Order Menonites of the Pennsylvania Dutch would not typically be among them. Nevertheless, if you beat the bushes in West-Central PA you will not only find that a strong tradition of folk magic persists among the Deitsch but that they often use those two words in conjunction with it. They may not want to talk to you about it, unless you are a paying client, but few are they in those parts who don’t have a practitioner of Braucherei or Speilwerk hiding among the branches of their family trees.
In earlier times no hiding was necessary. Christianity often went hand in hand with more pagan practices, and seeking supernatural remedies for ailments and bad luck was both commonplace and accepted. In fact, as in the English Cunning Craft, the Bible was considered indispensable to these so-called hexenmeisters and the number one source of magical incantations and recipes. Other sources included the Egyptian Secrets of Albert Magnus and the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. The most popular modern spell book within this culture, however, is something called Pow-Wows; or The Long-Hidden Friend (and later, The Long Lost Friend), True and Christian Instructions for Everyone. Comprising Wonderful and Well Tested Remedies and Arts, for Men as well as for Livestock. First published in English around 1820, it is likely the cause for this regional co-option of the Native American word and its association with the folk-healers of the Pennsylvania Dutch. Compiled by German-American printer and fellow healer John George Hohman, it remains a staple of the craft even into the present day.
Most Speilwerk is white magic stuff: simple folk remedies, amulets, and talismans against illness. And most of its practitioners are no more dangerous than palm readers or Tarot dealers. Unfortunately they have yet to shake the Satanic taint of a single act of sadistic violence perpetuated by three among them one minute after midnight on November 28, 1928.
The setting for this evil deed was an old house in a place called Rehmeyer’s Hollow in York County, PA, better known today as Hex Hollow. The house still stands, and you can go visit if you like, but be warned that locals insist it is haunted and once the Hex Hollow documentary comes out later this year you’ll probably have some flesh and blood company as well.
A prominent pow-wow doctor named Nelson D. Rehmeyer was living there at the time. Under the malicious influence of another healer named Nellie Noll (“The River Witch of Marietta”), a third braucher named John H. Blymire had come to believe Rehmeyer was the source of a hex plaguing his life with illness and bad luck. Furthermore, the only way to lift the hex was to find Rehmeyer’s copy of The Long Lost Friend and burn it. Blymire and two young accomplices then broke into Rehmeyer’s house and accosted the man, demanding he turn over his spell book. Rehmeyer either didn’t have the book or failed to reveal its whereabouts, so the three men bludgeoned him, mutilated his body and then burned it. Their trial became a national sensation and forever associated a relatively harmless superstition with murder and black magic.