York County is part of what is known as "Pennsylvania Dutch Country." In contrast to common belief, the term "Pennsylvania Dutch" is not synonymous with "Amish." Pennsylvania Dutch is an ethnic term, referring to a large group of immigrants from the Palantine region of the German Rhine Valley, who are comprised of many different religious denominations: Amish, Mennonite, Anabaptist, and so on. Many of these immigrants came to the New World in the late 1600-early 1700s, fleeing religious persecution, and set up communities in what are now Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and Indiana. In contemporary usage, the term Pennsylvania Dutch is often used to describe those descendants of these groups who still wear traditional dress and/or live their lives apart from their 21st century, technology-bound neighbors. In reality, the term encompasses a much larger, more diverse group of people of German descent. (Amish and Mennonite folks, although occasionally related to each other, are distinct groups. The easiest way to distinguish them is the fact that the Amish wear traditional clothing and do not use any modern conveniences, like electricity or automobiles; Mennonites, while often dressing in traditional clothing, drive cars and use telephones and otherwise embrace technology. There's more to it than that, of course, but that's the simplest way to tell them apart.)
One of the more ubiquitous cultural images of Pennsylvania Dutch country is the hex sign - those garishly-colored circular plaques found on the sides of barns and over door lintels. There is some dispute as to their origins and meaning -- some believe them to be simply good-luck symbols, like a horseshoe over a doorway or a four-leaf clover, hung up "chust for nice," as the saying goes; others believe them to be protection against something more sinister: amulets and talismans against hexes and the evil eye. The debate extends to the name "hex sign" as well. Does it simply refer to their original hexagonal or six-sided shape, or is it a derivative of the German or Dutch words "hexe" or "heks," meaning "witch"? No one knows for sure.
Some modern-day hex signs, available for sale at your nearest PA farmer's market. A note: the Amish do not paint or display hex signs.
However, while the meaning of hex signs remains unclear, in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, the tradition of hexing, or folk magic, is a strong one. Nowadays, it's gone underground, but from the mid-19th century through the 1970s, hexenmeisters or pow-wowers were influential and important members of the rural communities of the area. The belief in this folk-magic was so strong that, in 1928, fear of being hexed led one local pow-wower to murder another in cold blood, leaving the murdered man's ghost to haunt the hollow down the road for the past eighty years.
Pow-wowers or hexenmeisters were vital members of their communities. Locals referred to them for help with all manner of problems and ailments, from hens that wouldn't lay and cows that wouldn't give milk, to warts and dropsy and consumption. The hexers used a blend of shamanism, traditional German folk medicine, calabalistic magic, Christian prayer, and common sense to treat their clients. They dispensed "Himmelsbriefs" or "Heaven letters" with instructions for positive outcomes; those with less-sunny dispositions and darker mein could also provide you with a "Teufelsbrief" or "devil's letter," which would lay a curse on whomever might be bothering you. Most pow-wowers, however, only used their powers for good.
The "bible" of these men and woman was a book called PowWows, or Long Lost Friend: a Collection of Mysterious and Invaluable Arts and Remedies for Man as Well as Animals with Many Proofs. Called Long Lost Friend or just The Book for short, it was published by John George Homans, a Pennsylvania Dutch hexenmeister, in 1820. Got an ugly wart? "Roast chicken feet and rub them on the warts; then bury them under the eaves." Cows keep getting out of the pasture? "Pull out three bunches of hair, one from between the horns, one from the middle of the back, and one near the tail, and make your cattle eat it in their feed." Useful stuff, particularly if you live in the middle of the country with no doctors, no veterinarians, and no modern science. Most hexers could not or would not practice without referring to Long Lost Friend.
However, just because you have The Book and a few warty and willing acquaintances does not mean you are a true pow-wower. There are certain things you have to be able to do, the most important of which is "stopping blood," or controlling bleeding. Otherwise, all the chants and charms in the world won't matter. One of these would-be hexenmeisters was a man called John Blymire. Born in 1895 in York County, he seems to have been one of those people for whom life is a continual struggle with disappointment. He was slight and sickly and ineffectual, but he believed he had the gift of healing, despite his inability to stop blood. Few others agreed with him. He did manage to develop a small clientel, who claimed to have seen him cure a mad dog, but he never made enough to get by from pow-wowing, supplementing his meager earnings by working in a cigar factory in York. Somehow, he was able to find a wife, but by and large his life was stifled by poverty and unhappiness, including the deaths of his two infant children. Periodically, he came down with something the locals called "opnema," some kind of wasting condition that was probably a form of malnutrition, but was often believed to be caused by hexes.
By 1928, Blymire certainly believed he was hexed. He believed it so thoroughly that he "went off his head," in contemporary terms, and was briefly committed to the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. (He escaped by walking out the unlocked, unguarded front door.) His wife divorced him. He was disturbed, lonely, and ill when he met John Curry, a 14-year-old boy with a horrifically abusive background, at the cigar factory where they both worked. Curry, not surprisingly, also believed someone was hexing him. The two probably fed each other's distress and fear.
Blymire, miserable and desperate, consulted Nellie Noll, a pow-wower known as the Witch of Marietta or the River Witch. Like many "psychics" and palm readers today, Nellie knew a pigeon when she saw one, and she strung Blymire along, telling him over the course of several months and many "consultations" he was ill-equipped to pay for, that he was indeed hexed; that his friend John was hexed; that the Hesses, a farming family who befriended the two misfits, were also hexed; and finally, that the hexenmeister responsible was "the Witch of Rehmeyer Hollow," an older man named Nelson Rehmeyer. Blymire actually knew Rehmeyer: his parents consulted him for a cure when Blymire was a sickly five-year-old, and Blymire had briefly worked for him as a teenager, digging potatoes. Nellie told Blymire that the only way to remove the hexes was to do one of two things: either get Rehmeyer's copy of Long Lost Friend away from him and burn it, or acquire a lock of his hair and bury it six-to-eight feet underground.
Unlike Blymire, Rehmeyer was a successful and respected hexenmeister, with a large following of loyal believers. Also unlike Blymire, he was apparently a big, imposing man, with large hands and forceful manner. He lived in the middle of the woods, in a place called (for obvious reasons) Rehmeyer's Hollow, close by the rushing waters of Codorus Creek. (Even now, eighty years later, it's still a spooky place.) Despite Rehmeyer's intimidating stature, both figurative and literal, and the difficulty of the task before him, Blymire was desperate enough to confront the older witch.
On a dark November evening, one of the Hess sons drove Blymire and Curry to Rehmeyer's house. Rehmeyer wasn't home (he was visiting his girlfriend), so they waited around in the gloaming until he showed up. He let them in, and after some chitchat, Rehmeyer invited them to spend the night on the floor if they didn't feel like walking home in the dark. All night, Blymire attempted through ESP to will Rehmeyer to hand over Long Lost Friend; it didn't work. In the morning, Rehmeyer cooked them breakfast before sending them on their way, no doubt wondering why they had shown up in the first place. The duo left bookless and lockless, but Blymire's panic and hysteria were now at tsunami-force. He and Curry would be back, and they would stop at nothing to get the bad spells revoked.
On the night of the full moon, Wednesday, November 28th, this time accompanied by another Hess son, Wilbert, and carrying several lengths of strong rope, Blymire and Curry again knocked on Rehmeyer's door. As soon as Rehmeyer let them in, they demanded his copy of The Book. Rehmeyer refused, and the three attacked him. Blymire choked him with a piece of rope, and as they struggled, Curry smashed him in the head with a block of wood. As Rehmeyer lay dying on the floor, the trio ransacked the house for the book. They didn't find it, but they did find 97 cents, which they took. Before they left, they dropped matches all over the house, thinking to set it on fire and eradicate the evidence. The house did not fully catch fire, however; it just smouldered for a while, then the flames were extinguished by the chilly November damp. Early the next morning, a passing neighbor, hearing Rehmeyer's mule braying with hunger in the barn, found the hexenmeister's body and called the police.
It didn't take long to trace the murder back to Blymire and his accomplices. Blymire had been pretty vocal about being hexed and about whom he thought had hexed him. Their trial, yet another "trial of the century," grabbed the interest of journalists from all over the country, and the press section of the courtroom in York County Courthouse was filled with reporters from The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, and many other out-of-town newspapers. The trial even caught the attention of Will Rogers, who mentioned the case several times in his weekly radio broadcasts. Despite the surrounding hullaballoo, the defense attorneys' attempts to get a change of venue, and the judge's blatant obstruction of justice (another story, but this post is already way too long), the trial went forward and the men were convicted in January 1929. Blymire and Curry were found guilty of first degree murder and received life sentences; Hess was convicted of second degree murder and was sentenced to 10 to 20 years. (The best and most thorough discussion of the case is Hex by Arthur H. Lewis [Pocket Books, 1970]. It's long out of print, but copies are readily available online.) Curry and Hess were released on parole in 1934. Curry, after a successful and impressive stint in the Army during World War II (he was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery) and a subsequent career as an artist, died in York County in 1962; there's no word on what became of Wilbert Hess. Blymire was released in 1953 and also stayed in York County, working as a janitor until his retirement in 1965. I have not been able to track down the exact date of his death - I believe it to be in the early 1970s.
And what of Nelson Rehmeyer? If you ask the folks around here, they'll tell you, oh, he's still around. Rehmeyer's Hollow is now part of Spring Valley County Park, a bosky wood a mile or two down the road from my house, frequented in daylight hours by fly-fisherman who enjoy the bounty of the trout-fat Codorus Creek and by hunters stalking white-tail deer. Rehmeyer's house still stands (it's being restored by a group of people who hope to open it as a tourist attraction, but their website hasn't been updated in a while and the project seems to have stalled), close by the side of the road. It is said and believed by the locals that the woods around his house are haunted. Car batteries are said to mysteriously lose power near the house, and shadowy figures (Nelson, maybe?) dart in and out of the woods, scaring the bejesus out of several generations of teenagers looking for a Halloween thrill. Today, when I stopped by to take a few pictures of the house, I admit to being a little creeped out. The place looks haunted and I certainly wouldn't go into the park at night, not just because the potholes are murderous and without streetlights it's darker than dark.
Now, no one has ever claimed that Nelson Rehmeyer's ghost has harmed anyone. Remember, Nellie Noll just said he'd hexed Blymire and the others to keep Blymire coming back and handing over more of his money for consultations; there is no evidence that Rehmeyer ever had any nefarious intentions toward any of them. In fact, Blymire's testimony in the trial seemed to indicate that Rehmeyer didn't even remember him, and he certainly didn't know John Curry or the Hess family. Rehmeyer had a large, loyal clientel who truly believed he had helped them with their ailments and problems. He certainly had helped out Blymire in the past, pow-wowing him as a child and giving him a job when he was older. He wasn't a bad man. So maybe he's haunting the hollow and his old house because he's just flummoxed, wondering what the hell happened to him and why. (I don't intend to ask him, though.)
And maybe, all houses are haunted anyway, if we only know where to look for the ghosts....
"Haunted Houses" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.
We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.
There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.
The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.
We have no title-deeds to house or lands;
Owners and occupants of earlier dates
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.
The spirit-world around this world of sense
Floats like an atmosphere, and everywhere
Wafts through these earthly mists and vapours dense
A vital breath of more ethereal air.
Our little lives are kept in equipoise
By opposite attractions and desires;
The struggle of the instinct that enjoys,
And the more noble instinct that aspires.
These perturbations, this perpetual jar
Of earthly wants and aspirations high,
Come from the influence of an unseen star,
An undiscovered planet in our sky.
And as the moon from some dark gate of cloud
Throws o'er the sea a floating bridge of light,
Across whose trembling planks our fancies crowd
Into the realm of mystery and night, --
So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O'er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts about the dark abyss.