In Webster’s dictionary, witchcraft is defined as the act or instance of employing sorcery, especially with malevolent intent: a magical rite or technique. The religious will say if you believe in God, and believe in what the Bible says, then you must believe in the powers of evil as well. You cannot take one side and then completely discount the other side…basically, evil power is real and witchcraft is the use of it. In reality, though, there is a very fine line between good and evil.
When it came to folk magic or witchcraft in my neck of the woods, Pow-wow was the preferred mystic art. Pow-wow is a unique combination of Christian theology and shamanistic belief. Shamanism is the oldest form of religion and the belief is that there is one Supreme Being…that all is derived from this and is interrelated. In Europe, Shamanic practitioners were persecuted as witches in the name of orthodox religion. It is still practiced in some rural areas of Pennsylvania, though it has been outlawed for several generations. In spite of the name, it is not of Native American derivation. The name comes from the book Pow-wows, or, The Long Lost Friend, written by John George Hohman and first published in German as Der Lange Verborgene Freund in 1820. The subtitle of the booklet hints at the breadth of its contents…a collection of mysterious and invaluable arts and remedies for man as well as animals with many proofs of their virtue and efficacy in healing diseases, etc. It was recognized mainly by Pennsylvania Dutch hex-meisters but after the translation to English in 1846, it had a tremendous influence on the commoner folk magicians of the Appalachians. This little book includes healing spells, binding spells, protective spells, wards and benedictions. Though I’m not a religious person, I am spiritual (and a bit superstitious…I’ll cover that later) and always have my copy of ‘The Long Lost Friend’ near me…it’s my personal talisman.
All religions have an upside and a downside. The downside of the Judeo-Christian tradition is Satanism. The downside of Pow-wow was corruption by practitioners, the hex-meisters, who would cast spells or hexes on anyone for a price. Hex-meisters were deeply feared by most people from all walks of life. These German immigrants came to Pennsylvania during the late 1800s and unlike the regular practitioners of Pow-wow, who were mainly of lower class and came here for religious freedom, these newcomers were of the middle and upper classes. There was, at the time, a revival of occultism in Europe, some of which was Satanic. This first wave of immigrant Germans brought this influence with them and became better known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.
In 1895, John Blymire was born in York County, Pa…into the world of witchcraft, magick and superstition. His father and grandfather were Pow-wows and he inherited their healing abilities, but not the strength of their skills. When Blymire was five, he suffered from opnema, a wasting away of the body that was believed to be caused by hexes, but was usually caused by poor diet and malnutrition. Neither his grandfather nor father could cure him, so they took him to a powerful Pow-wow healer named Nelson Rehmeyer who eventually cured him. (Note: Nelson D. Rehmeyer was a distant relative through marriage on my father’s maternal side. Several generations of the Rehmeyer family and my grandmother’s family attended the same church)
At age seven, Blymire attempted his first cure and was successful. He was of limited intelligence, homely and only modestly successful as a Pow-wow. People avoided him, except when they needed his Pow-wow skills. Because of this, Blymire was very lonely.
When he was thirteen, he quit school and worked in a cigar factory in York, Pa. He kept to himself, but word got out that he could heal. He supplemented his cigar factory earnings by accepting voluntary offerings for his work as a Pow-wow.
One day, there was an incident that should have made his reputation as a powerful Pow-wow. When work was done, Blymire and the other workers were leaving the factory when someone screamed that a “mad” dog was approaching. A collie, foaming at the mouth, was coming toward them. People tried to go inside the factory, but those leaving blocked their way. Blymire stood between them and the rabid dog, uttered an incantation and made the sign of the cross over the dog’s head. The dog’s mouth stopped foaming and it seemed to be cured of rabies. Blymire patted it on the head and the dog, tail wagging, followed him as he walked down the street.
Shortly after this incident, Blymire suffered from the opnema again. He was convinced someone had put a hex on him, possibly a jealous Pow-wow who did not want him to be successful. He quit his job in order to discover who had hexed him. He worked in odd jobs and practiced Pow-wow for financial survival and lived in rooming houses. It was at a rooming house where he met Lily, the woman who would become his wife. His health gradually improved and he found a regular job. His Pow-wow clientele steadily increased and it appeared the hex was removed or no longer worked.
Then disaster struck…Blymire’s first child died within a few weeks after birth. Then a second child passed away three days after birth. In the meantime, his health declined and he lost his job.
Again, Blymire consulted with other witches to find out who had hexed him. One was Andrew C. Lenhart, a powerful witch who was feared by many police and city officials. Lenhart stated that he was hexed by someone close to him and Blymire was convinced it was Lily. She began to fear him and her father hired a lawyer who had Blymire evaluated by a psychiatrist. The diagnosis was borderline psychoneurosis. Blymire was committed to a state mental hospital from which he escaped by walking out of the door. There was no effort to recommit him.
In 1928, Blymire returned to work at the cigar factory where he met 14-year-old John Curry who had a cruel childhood due to abuse and believed he was hexed. Shortly after this, they met a farmer, Milton J. Hess who believed he was hexed. He and his wife were of Pennsylvania Dutch stock. They obeyed all of the regulations and rules hex-meisters gave them. Milton had been a successful farmer…crops flourished, chickens laid the right amount of eggs and the cows’ milk was plentiful. His wife, Alice had a stand at the farmer’s market, where she sold vegetables, flowers and fruit.
Hess explained that in 1926, for no apparent reason, things took a downward spiral. Crops began to fail, chickens were stolen and those that weren’t did not lay eggs, cows would not eat and no longer produced milk. Milton’s health was also severely affected. Wilbert, his 17-year-old son was also affected, psychologically, by hearing his father complain about the failures and lack of money and his mother changing from an energetic cheerful woman into a sad and silent one who withdrew from communicating with family. The family was convinced they were hexed. Hess got a job as a truck driver and Alice still had her stand, now, out of financial necessity.
In June, 1928, Hess met Blymire who lived in the Widow Detwiler’s boarding house in an alley. They would talk daily and the conversation, eventually, turned to hexes. About this time, Blymire consulted Nellie Noll, who was known as the ‘Witch of Marietta’, also as the ‘River Witch’ in the attempt to discover who had hexed him. She told him that it was the ‘Witch of Rehmeyer Hollow’…after much coaxing from Blymire, she named Nelson D. Rehmeyer.
Hess invited Blymire, as a ‘Pow-wower’ or ‘Braucher’, to his farm where the witch could see its condition for himself. He asked Blymire who had hexed the family, but he could not remember the name, so he visited Nellie Noll again. Again, she named Nelson D. Rehmeyer and added that Rehmeyer had also hexed Curry. She told him that all they had to do was to get Rehmeyer’s copy of John George Hohman’s ‘Pow-wows or Long Lost Friend’ and burn it. If they could not do that, they must get a lock of his hair and bury it 6 to 8 feet underground.
Once Blymire, Curry and the Hesses knew who had hexed them and what had to be done, there was a conference. Attending this meeting were Blymire, Curry and Milton, older brother Clayton and Wilbert Hess. Soon, plans were made for Blymire, Curry and Wilbert Hess to visit Rehmeyer and get a lock of hair or the book, do as they were directed and the hex would be removed. Clayton, the only family member who had a car, would drive them to the hollow. As events happened, Wilbert said he did not feel well and did not want to go. Blymire said it was OK if he did not. He and Curry would get the book or the lock of hair and would do what they had to.
The following information was taken from trial transcripts and records:
When they got to Rehmeyer’s house, they discovered he was not home. They walked to the witch’s ex-wife’s house and saw a light through the window, so they knocked on the door. The duo was told that Rehmeyer was probably at his lady friend’s house. They walked back to the witch’s house and noticed a light on the second floor.
Blymire knocked on the door. Rehmeyer opened the door…he was much larger than Blymire remembered and was mean looking. Blymire asked if they could come in and Rehmeyer led them to the parlor where they sat and started to talk.
Blymire asked Rehmeyer if he had seen the book. The response was yes. The next question was if he had one. Again, the answer was affirmative. Blymire was satisfied with the answers. The conversation, then, turned to more mundane topics. Finally, Rehmeyer asked them why they had stopped by. Blymire told him that he had cured him of the opnema when he was a child and he had worked by picking potatoes for him.
Blymire, while they talked, try to mentally will Rehmeyer to hand over the book, but this was not effective. After a while, Rehmeyer said he was going to bed and they could sleep downstairs if they wanted to.
Curry quickly fell asleep while Blymire stayed awake trying to will the old witch to give them the book. Finally, he woke Curry and told him that he could not control Rehmeyer’s mind. Should they try to use force and make him give them the book or a lock of hair? Blymire decided against this because the old witch was a big man and could easily overpower them. He decided they needed help.
That morning, Rehmeyer got up early and made the duo breakfast before they left. At some point, they bought a 25 foot length of strong rope and cut it into lengths of about 14 inches.
On Wednesday, November 27th, 1928, the night of the full moon and eve before Thanksgiving, Clayton drove the trio to Rehmeyer’s Hollow. The three walked to Rehmeyer’s house.
They demanded that he give them the book. He threw his wallet at them. Then, the three attacked Rehmeyer. Blymire wrapped a length of rope around Rehmeyer’s neck. The trio fought savagely with the old man…Curry got a block of wood and hit Rehmeyer in the head. The old man was kicked in the head and the stomach and his face was battered. Blymire said he groaned, took a few breaths, then died.
They ransacked the house and found a small amount of money. The trio decided they had to get rid of the evidence that would tie them into the murder. Curry thought setting fire to the house would achieve this. They lit matches and dropped them in the house to set the fire. The house was smoldering when they left.
The house did not burn as they thought it would. A neighbor, Oscar Glatfelter, was passing by Rehmeyer’s house on November 30th and heard his mule braying. When the man checked on the animal, he saw it had not been fed. Glatfelter knocked on the door and there was no answer, but the door was unlocked. After the neighbor entered the house, he saw Rehmeyer’s corpse lying on the floor.
The Rehmeyer House during the murder investigation
It did not take the police long to arrest Blymire, Curry and Wilbert for the murder of Rehmeyer. All three confessed and Blymire said he was at peace now that he had killed the witch. The newswire services informed the public that a practicing witch had been killed in York County, Pa.
The trials began on January 9th, 1929. Judge Sherwood presided. District Attorney Amos W. Herrmann represented the commonwealth. Public defenders Walter W. VanBaman represented Curry and Herbert B. Cohen, Blymire. The Hess family could afford to hire Harvey A. Gross, the best criminal defense attorney in the area.
Judge Sherwood decreed that all mention of hexes and witchcraft in the confessions be edited out before they were admitted to records. The attempts of the defense attorneys to make hexes and witchcraft a matter of record via testimony were quashed.
Herrmann made his opening statements, avoiding all mention of witchcraft and hexes and forgot to mention the motive for the murder that the judge wanted. He was sharply reminded of this. The decreed motive was robbery and, then, was stated.
When Cohen tried to bring out testimony about witchcraft, the judge thwarted his efforts.
The trials were the some of the speediest in Pennsylvania history. By obstruction of justice, the judge got what he wanted, guilty verdicts, Blymire and Curry, murder in the first degree and Hess, murder in the second degree.
The sentences were handed down on January 14th. Blymire and Curry were given life in prison and Wilbert was given 10 to 20 years. In 1934, Hess and Curry were paroled and lived quiet lives in the York area. Curry became an artist and died in 1962. Blymire was finally paroled in 1953, returned to York and worked as a janitor.
This case has always intrigued me…especially after I read Arthur Lewis’ account of the incident in his book ‘Hex’. I also remember the tales of paranormal activity in Rehmeyer Hollow and the reports of strange apparitions, said to be Nelson Rehmeyer’s spirit, roaming the property nightly.
During my senior year in high school, I decided to make a short trip to Rehmeyer Hollow to see what all the fuss was. I had found a copy of ‘The Long Lost Friend’ and decided to carry it with me. Like I said earlier, I’m a bit superstitious and thought the book may protect me in some way.
I made the journey alone in mid October 1975…it was late afternoon when I arrived at a locked gate that was suspended over the access road that had a ‘No Trespassing’ sign attached to it. At that time, the sparse open areas were overgrown with briers and high weeds. The woods were very thick and dark and as I started walking on the road I could make out the roof of the small house jutting over the trees. As I approached, I noticed what looked like an older man in dark pants and a jacket standing on the road near the bend that led to the house….I estimated he was about 150 feet in front of me. It looked like he was searching for something because he was looking face down in a peculiar manner.
I stopped walking and stood for a few seconds watching this person go back and forth across the road, never raising their head. So I decided it was time to find out if this was a caretaker or if it was OK for me proceed any further even though I knew was trespassing.
I shouted “hello…sir”. No response. So I was about to shout again thinking this person was hard of hearing or possibly ignoring me. Just as I began to open my mouth to shout, this person quickly looked up and….
Now, I realize that I was a fair distance away but this ‘person’ that, I swear to this day, had no facial features. No eyes, no mouth, no nose…just a head. I spun around and hauled my butt back to the car. The ghost hunt was over. I wheeled my Mustang out of that hollow onto the main road in record time. Honestly, I don’t remember the drive home. I was absolutely stunned by the experience.
A few days later, my girlfriend and I were in my room and she found ‘The Long Lost Friend’ on my desk. I was lying on the bed with headphones on when I looked over and saw that she was looking in the book. As I watched her, I noticed that there was writing on the book cover. I had purchased the book as new, had never written in it or had it anywhere other than when I was at Rehmeyer Hollow. As I looked closer, there was an “NR” written in pencil.
The next day, I lit the grill in the backyard and promptly burned the book and buried the ashes. I wasn’t leaving anything to ‘chance’. A few weeks later, I purchase a new copy of ‘The Long Lost Friend’ and it’s been with me since.
Except for two days a month, the Rohrbaugh Convalescent Home in rural Spring Grove, York County, Pennsylvania, is about as quiet a spot as you’re likely to find anywhere in the Keystone State. But on the first and sixteenth, it becomes a mecca for scores of ailing men, women and children who flock to this tiny village, there to be powwowed back to health by Mrs. Leah Frank.
Mistakenly, I assumed there was some significance in the choice of the two days on which Mrs. Frank practices her profession.
“When I reached ninety, and that was four years ago,” Mrs. Frank explained, “I thought maybe I’d better quit altogether; it’s so hard on a body. But my people wouldn’t let me, tole me they needed me. So, instead of workin’ every day, I tole ’em I’d ‘try for’ two days a month and I picked the first and the sixteenth. Then people will know when to come and not be disappointed in between. That’s all there is to it.”
Through the windows of the second-floor bedroom she seldom leaves, Mrs. Frank can view the soft hills of York County where she has lived all her years. As a matter of fact, the aged powwower spends most of her daylight hours in an old-fashioned Morris chair facing the east. “I’d rather see the sun come up than go down,” she says gently.
Except for a slight diminution in hearing and arthritis, only lately beginning to cripple the long, tapered fingers she needs for “laying on” ill or otherwise troubled patients, Mrs. Frank remains in excellent health. Her cheeks, though wrinkled, have a healthy glow; her teeth are her own, and her sharp blue eyes still regard with abiding interest that small portion of the world she sees.
“Prettiest part of the world, though I wouldn’t know much about the rest of it,” Mr. Frank said in a clear voice with a strong Pennsylvania Dutch inflection. “Born and raised ten miles from here and never been no further away than forty. But you don’t have to travel to learn things and how to take care of ’em that needs you, do you?”
She smiled and went on.
“I’ve been tryin’ for people for a long, long time. I always know’d I had the power but I learned how to use it from a veterinarian who practiced powwowin’ too. That was back in 1904; I’ve been doin’ it ever since.
“Course that’s not all I ever done. I just used to try for people on the side like most of us faith healers do. From the time I was a little girl ’till I was seventy-seven years I worked in a mill and I worked hard, too. Anymore I don’t work so hard. Now I’m so old I only powwow.”
What troubles Mrs. Frank is the current shortage of apprentices willing to undergo the rigors of training in order to become worthy practitioners.
“I don’t mean those that don’t have the power inside ’em ’cause they’ll never learn no matter how much they want to. Some of ’em try but I always say to ’em, ‘If you can’t stop blood, you’ll never be a powwower, so don’t waste your time.'”
“What I’m referrin’ to is those that got the power but don’t want to use it. It ain’t easy; you have to work hard and it makes you mighty tired to try for people.
Mrs. Frank did not elaborate upon the curriculum required before the neophyte can become a full-fledged practitioner. She did say, however, that after “blood stopping,” which, incidentally, she claims can never be taught and must be known congenitally, the next training step is wart removal. After that come the many other branches of the discipline concluding with cures for the opnema, St. Anthony’s fire and finally tumors.
Mrs. Frank also holds to the orthodox belief, one shared by the majority of her colleagues, that an instructor in powwowism or witchcraft may impart his knowledge only to members of the opposite sex.
“A man shouldn’t teach another man or boy and a woman can’t teach another woman or girl,” claims this nonagenarian necromancer. “I’m helpin’ train a young man who lives ’round here and he’s doin’ all right. But I sure wish I could teach my granddaughter. She was born with the power but she don’t know how to use it. She could do wonderful good.”
I asked Mrs. Frank what would happen if she attempted to teach the profession to her granddaughter. She shuddered.
“Oh, my goodness! That would be terrible. I’d suffer for it the rest of my days and maybe lose my own power if I tried.”
Like the Willow Street powwower, to whom she is not related, Mrs. Frank is aware of the present of evil area witches. However, she does not subscribe to Clair Frank’s depressing theory that practitioners of the black art are getting smarter as well as increasingly numerous.
“Not many of ’em ’round as there used to be,” Mrs. Frank said cheerfully. “And they’re getting dumber and dumber all the time. But when I was a girl!”
NOTE: In 1988, the film Apprentice to Murder was released and starred Donald Sutherland, Chad Lowe and Mia Sara. The story was based on the Rehmeyer Hollow Murder…Lon
Lewis, Arthur H., ‘Hex’ (1969) – Trident Press
Yronwode, Catherine, ‘Hoodoo in Theory and Practice’
Georg Hohman, Johann, ‘Pow-Wows or The Long Lost Friend’ (1820)
Rehmeyer Family Archives