Richard L. T. Orth
To the outside world of Auslanders (outsiders) of the “PA Dutch Country,” and even to some within the Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture through its descended community, the practice of Powwowing is often confused with Hexerei. As in most of Western civilization, there has long existed and still exist among the Germanic Dutch people a belief in white and black magic. The art of White magic in the Dutch Country is referred to as Braucherei or popularly, as Powwowing. Hexerei, of course, is the art of black magic. Powers used to heal in the art of Braucherei are derived from God (the Holy Trinity), but the powers employed in Hexerei are derived from the Devil, in the simplest of explanation. Therefore, one who engages in this sort of magic has bartered or “sold his soul to the Devil,” and destined for Hell, so practitioners beware!
For three centuries, the Pennsylvania Dutch have not hesitated to use Braucherei in the healing of their sick and afflicted, and regionally, our culture has canonized early 19th Century faith healer, Mountain Mary (of the Oley Hills), as a Saint for her powers of healing. But we will get more into her remarkable story later and of a contemporary to her, John George Hohman, who published numerous early 19th Century books on the matter. Their form of faith healing has many counterparts in our civilization, however, the subset of Hexerei, witchcraft, or black magic was always considered of utmost evil here in the region; and only desperate people, and those with devious intentions, have resorted to its equally powerful and secret powers.
Hex Doctors and Witchcraft of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country
One of the first questions ever posed to me about my aunt, who at the time was in her 80s, while I was established relations with their neighbors was if I ever saw her wood-stove plates pop? After replying, “No,” to the inquiring neighbor, told me if you had visited too long, she would make the iron plates pop high in the air. Although never witnessing the plates pop “high in the air,” great aunt Naomi’s stove was a very peculiar type, as I recall. The stove, easily the latter half of the 1800s, had its fire box on the opposite side from all other stoves of its kind. Secondly, behind the cast-iron flue, which supported a shelf in the rear of the stove were a series of “X”s with ambiguous symbols similar to hieroglyphics in Magnus’ book, quite unusual. My great aunt and uncle were quite mysterious, even to me, as I’m sure to the neighbors, as well and generally a place infrequently visited.
Aunt Naomi was not at all like my other relation and was suspicious and crafty, and I thought her unpleasantness may have come from her debilitating arthritis and old injuries when she either fell, or was pushed around, early in life. Despite her chronic issues, she could walk with the aid of a stick or cane, and would huckster her garden crops on foot among the hill folk. One of her former customers told me as I gathered field research that “old Naomi” cast a spell on her newborn infant forced to seek out the local hex doctor to help break it. The nature of the spell was that the child would not eat, and death would certainly result. “Doc” M., the local hex doctor, told the woman that Naomi was the hex and if she wished to break the spell, she was to make a path of salt around the perimeter of the house. Later, the mother having performed this simple task, days prior, waited eagerly Saturday morning when it was time for Naomi to call with her produce. In the distance, the mother saw Naomi as she approached the house on foot. However, as soon as she reached the spot where the circle of salt crossed the path, without any ado, Naomi turned around and never returned again.
The following day the child regained its appetite, probably the most unusual or devious episode was that related to me by old Earl H. who lived across from “Old Naomi.” In happenstance, Earl would open up too that he experienced the same problem many years ago and that his child also would not eat. Upon consulting the same hex doctor, he too learned that Naomi had “ferhext” his child, and the wise doctor told Earl upon returning home he was to take the next diaper which the baby messed, wrap it up, and hide it under a crock (redware pot or container) in the attic. After doing such, the “Doc” cautioned him, the witch will come to see you and wish to borrow something—”do not lend her anything.” That night, after Earl attended to the instructions, my great Aunt Naomi came to call. As she approached Earl at his house she said, “I have a terrible taste in my mouth, will you lend me some bread?” To which Earl stoutly replied, “No.” The next day his infant was well.
Since my great uncle and aunt never had any kids, I often wondered if she resented the fact of others being able to have children, and if my uncle had married her under some strange spell. Even when my aunt was single, she was known to be peculiar, but then again, my uncle wasn’t of the norm, either. Sometimes considered just as peculiar as my aunt, they literally survived from one day to the next, and his life revolving around fishing and drinking, sometimes bartering “shine” (moonshine) as a last resort.
After the death of my great aunt, first, and uncle soon to follow, I was summoned by family, as no other member volunteered to check on him and very reluctantly offered me assistance, “only if needed!” More likely just cautious of what Naomi might have left behind of the non-physical type, I suppose, I began clearing out their modest backcountry abode the best I could to help. Overly curious, sometimes cautious, and other times perhaps too eager, my eyes were open for a glimpse of their copy of the 6th and 7th Books of Moses, but instead of the book, I found two small envelopes hidden in the attic marked: “1912 used”. Upon investigation, I found enclosed in each envelop a dried turtle dove tongue. I placed them aside.
Having found their copy of Magnus’ Egyptian Secrets only a day or two later, in reading, discovered a love potion which called for the user to kiss his intended with a turtle dove tongue in his mouth. When I questioned my ailing uncle about the dried tongues, he meekly shrugged the incident off with his usual stubbornness the best he could. After pondering this find most of the rest of the day, the following morning I confronted him outright, and asked to see their copy of the 6th and 7th Books of Moses. He laughed and told me upstairs to his bedroom. There, in a small, “special chest” obscured, as I was informed, he kept his most treasured possessions and the dreaded book, as well as the one by Albertus Magnus that provided insight to my inquire. Later that night, he passed.
I was saddened, and admittedly, disappointed for the red cloth-bound books did not appear to be older than about eighty years and were in English. Knowing that my great uncle read English very poorly and that most Pennsylvania Dutch read German, I did not consider that the books were used much at all. With their sudden passing, I further prepared for a potential sale or demolishment, and in doing so, discovered bags of “Deivel’s Dreck” nailed over the cow stable lintels. This substance known as asafetida was used in local folklore to ward off evil spirits. Quite often bags of mercury were used for the same purpose, and not knowing what all this stuff was for at the time and possibly handling mercury, I gathered everything and placed in a box nonchalantly and headed back in the house to wash up.
Most mysterious of all with the day’s finds was a homemade muslin bra concealed in a wooden box in the hayloft. My great aunt, typical for her vintage, always kept money in her bosom. While attempting to add this to clothes already disposed in garbage bags, I tossed her bra toward the bags when it flipped upside down and a glimpse of a paper sewn inside the bra. When I cut it open, inside, was a quite lengthy German verse from the Bible which was probably used to protect her when she traveled on foot, and on the front of the garment after closer inspection were three crosses. I then recalled from family that my aunt was always cautious to protect herself while on a journey on foot, even to the local general store.
The death of my great aunt and uncle was surrounded by mystery, as they fell ill quite suddenly and passed shortly thereafter, and within days of one another. Some family thought she might have got “ferhext,” herself “as payback,” or possibly consumed something toxic, then passing an illness or something else to my great uncle, unintentionally or intentionally, depending on the family member. My observance was my great uncle literally drank himself to death not knowing how to survive on his own. My aunt Naomi’s health did begin to fail quickly and “a distant relative,” unbeknownst to me, offered to take Naomi in to care for her while she was ailing.
It became quickly evident that Naomi was dying, and on the night of her death, she beckoned for anyone to come by her side as she “had something important to say.” Fearing that she wished to pass on her “Powers” to a very youthful me, the nurse’s aide by trade closed her bedroom door and she died in solitude. Being given access to find some papers from my great uncle’s favorite chest, by he and family, I stumbled across a rare old copy of Hohman’s Long Lost Friend that I had not seen the first time around and was sure that was the same book aunt Naomi had with her on her deathbed, because the book she clenched so tightly to her chest was too small to be the Bible. This copy, though, was in German, much older, and according to papers tucked inside, had been used. My family being completely uninterested, I also did not let them know it was original from the early 19th Century.
While attempting to clean their cluttered kitchen, one of my friends, offered to assist me and discovered a star, of the Jewish type, chalked on the underside of my uncle’s favorite kitchen chair. This symbol matched, in kind, to others found in the 6th and 7th Books of Moses. My great uncle had a reputation for being a crack pot and did a great deal of hunting when he was younger. This fact became most interesting when I discovered a brass bullet shell with his hunting equipment. In the shell, was a rolled piece of paper which contained a talisman charm to fire a bullet that would hit any target it was aimed to strike. In defense of my apparent eccentric uncle’s ways, this folk practice he was not alone in sharing, in this eastern end of Berks County. Old Earl also told me a story of years ago when he was a much younger man that some of the area boys decided to cast a bullet to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time.
This ancient hex formula, followed by the boys, called for the casting of a bullet at the intersection where a corpse had been driven in both directions. The place which was chosen was a local intersection at the appointed time of midnight on a full moon. The bullet was to be a silver one cast from a silver dollar. At the intersection, the boys were to make a large ring out of green Holler-hecka (elder twigs) that was to be set afire, and inside the ring, the silver bullet was to be shot through a human skull. All preparation attended to, onlookers on the porch of the village store, watched while two of the boys set out to kill the Kaiser of Germany—this being the period of World War I. One of the boys became scared and ran out of the circle, but the other fired the silver bullet, and a clap of thunder was heard from the direction of town as though a landslide had occurred. I suspected Earl was one of those boys.
In the following moments to the great dismay of the sole boy in the circle, a darkened image began walking toward the circle with its hand outstretched as though for a handshake. The boy quickly escaped the circle, and the image disappeared. I was assured, the boys never again engaged in any similar activity as such!
Throughout the Dutch Country, the people who have the specialized knowledge of Hexerei are generally the wise grandmothers. In a case that occurred in the Kutztown area several years ago, a husband with a child lost his wife, made an arrangement with a woman and her child but no husband. Living together, the circumstances seemed ideal, until one day the woman and her child left. The man then asked the daughter’s grandmother to take care of her while he worked. The wise grandmother asked the daughter if she wanted the woman and her child to come back. The girl lamented, “Yes.” So, the grandmother instructed the girl to set plates on the dinner table for the missing parties. Then, as the grandmother and girl sat down to eat lunch, the daughter was told to converse with the missing people just as though they were there.
The following day, the woman and child returned to the delight of the grand-daughter. But later, the woman again left the man, and again the grandmother was called. This time the grandmother said to the girl we will get them back for good! The daughter again eagerly set the table for the missing parties, but this time the grandmother turned to the walk-in fireplace and called up the chimney three times the name of the woman. The next morning, the father received word that the woman had suffered a slight heart attack and wished to come back to the man for good. To the average person, such accounts of witchcraft appear to be absurd and coincidental, however, collecting these accounts for the past twenty-five years, I find that they are not isolated ideas and happenings, but are part of a pattern.
For instance, in many cases of Hexerei or witchcraft when the victim breaks the spell, the witch invariably calls upon the family to borrow something. In other instances, the witch may not borrow something but wish to give the victim a gift instead. In either case, if one accepted the gift or lent something to her, she would have a greater hold on person. A universal belief in the PA Dutch Country is that witches cast spells on people by obtaining items which belong to these victims. Therefore, in the Dutch Country, there had long been the belief that one does not give anything away free. The practice was to charge a nominal price for the article, perhaps as little as a penny, thereby the item was sold and you are no longer the owner. Another feature of spell breaking is that you always avenge the witch. Another, is if your butter would not churn because it is bewitched or ferhext, you plunge a red-hot poker into it. Soon after doing this, you will find that the suspected hex has been badly burned. It was not uncommon at all that in avenging the hex or witch, she is killed by breaking the spell.
The most common method to test for a witch was to observe the restlessness of the animals. “If a witch is around, the horses cannot stay tied.” Cattle became very uneasy in the stable where evil spirits were present. A test for a witch under this circumstance is to place a broom in your oven and when a suspected witch comes to call (arrive), the broom becomes hot, and the witch will be very restless and wish to leave. One of my Dad’s aunts was given a black belt to wear by a Powwow doctor and when she was in the presence of the hex, the belt would tighten. Also, at one time in the Dutch Country (pre-1950s), it was a common practice for young children, especially those attending one-room school houses to wear bags of “Deivel’s Dreck” around their necks to protect them from all manner of evil sickness. This practice was no different from that of using this substance in the cow stable to protect the cattle.
“Braucherei,” A Counter
The Hex Doctor of the Dutch Country
Located in various parts of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country were Powwow and Hex Doctors whom the local folk sought and relied upon for help in dealing with white and black magic. In general, the Powwow Doctors specialized in curing physical sickness and injuries through the use of secret incantations and ceremonies. This form of Pennsylvania Dutch faith healing is only possible if the patient believes in God. On some occasions, those who were bewitched, enlisted the help of these wizards to break the spells. However, the Powwower would never cast a “black” spell, but the not too popular, Hex Doctor, on the other hand, not only practiced breaking black spells but also in casting them, as well. His area of specialization was Hexerei, itself, and there–were very few deeds he could not perform. People that sought revenge could for a modest fee have a Hex Doctor cast a spell on another person.
The power of the Hex Doctor was derived from the Devil via the several Hex-Books available to him. Since the nature of the Hex Doctor’s occupation was so notorious, often he would have to travel about the countryside to recruit clients. Many a case is recorded of a cow or other farm animal stubbornly refusing to be herded into the barn, until the “noble” Hex Doctor (who just happened to be in the neighborhood) would be asked to induce it. Of course, out of gratitude, the “Doc” was rewarded for his successful effort in restoring the cow to a good disposition.
In Dutch occult folk medicine, there is the belief that if a person should come into contact with an object used in either black-or-white-magic curing, that person might catch the disease. For instance, there was the case of a Hex Doctor in Berks County who was accused of drawing off a sickness or spell from one person and transferring it to another person close by. In this way the doctor insured himself of abundant patients with ailments to be cured. The number of Hex Doctors in the Dutch Country most likely never included the number of Powwow Doctors in any area. In some instances, the Hex Doctor was not always clearly free from guilt in certain cases of witchcraft, and was considered no better than the actual witch. Certainly, these doctors had as much power as a Witch, since they also had the occult books of knowledge in their field. Some of these Hex Doctors became so influential in their communities that the proper use of their power and talent was never doubted. As the better Wizards, these doctors had a great reputation and their fame spread over many miles.
Unlike the Powwow Doctors, the bewitched people that came to the Hex Doctors did not have to believe in God, nor in the power of the Devil. The very fact that they were bewitched, and being tormented, was realism enough for them to believe in the existence in a God and Devil, though. Once cured of their bewitchment, the patient did not owe his soul to the Devil, but was expected to reward the Hex Doctor with some sort of compensation. If the amount was not to the liking of the Doctor, there was always the fear that he might use his power in black magic to make the person aware of that fact. The success of both the Hex Doctor and Powwow Doctor is attributed to the religious nature of the Dutch folk who believed in the personal existence of God, through Jesus Christ, and the Devil. For centuries in Germany, and for a few hundred years now in Pennsylvania, this belief in these two supernatural beings has been made very real and vivid in our culture in a number of ways.
PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH POWWOW CARVINGS TO THWART THE OCCULT
Among the rarest objects collected in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country of the southeastern region of the state, none are as provocative or crude as the nearly 12″ tall, wooden, carved effigy of a person. Used by natives in a secretive Powwow cure to save a mortal from harm or death in the early 1900s, while living an agrarian lifestyle through the 18th and 19th Centuries removed from urban medicine and veterinary assistance for their animals. Our Pennsylvania Dutch sometimes relied on ancient, bizarre “Braucherei” or Powwow methods to survive in this rough America’s hinterland. These early rural farm families continued primitive sympathetic folk medicine, which had been brought over from Germany by their immigrant ancestors and practiced up to the late 20th Century.
In the secluded area of Pennsylvania’s Appalachian Mountains at Fredericksville, Berks County, where some say the moon rarely shines through the dense woods, I came to meet a hard-working District Township farmer who knew I was recording local hex stories. A few days later, he confided in me his true account of the “hex” (evildoer) that lived down the road from his parents. His mother had told him when he was an infant, he was very sick and no one knew what to do, less he die! His astute Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother warned the parents that his illness was not natural, but an evil spell. She explained that the farmer must go to the nearby Moravian town of Emmaus, Lehigh County to consult a wise “Braucher.” The father reluctantly drove there to see this Good Samaritan, whom he had never met before.
Upon arriving, the father was astonished to find that the gifted Braucher (faith healer) knew his name before he actually spoke it, and the Braucher had foreseen the vexing problem worrying the farmer before he was able to tell him. The wise Powwow doctor, in consoling him, went on to explain how to save his child by avenging the mysterious hex, and in order to break the spell, the father was to go home and carve a wooden figure of the hex and pierce this dummy with a pin or nail, but not the heart, or this person would die. Confident in the wisdom of the Braucher, the humble farmer did as instructed and buried the wooden figure to rot under the eaves of his house as he was told. To the astonishment of the family, a woman down the road suffered a broken leg that week, the same exact leg the farmer had pierced on the wooden dummy. This was no surprise to the grandmother, since the woman was a somewhat peculiar person. She never set foot on their property again and the child (my informant) became well and grew stronger. This true account now told without any fear of reprisal, since the hex had died a few years earlier, “knock on wood.”
Rhineland immigrants who settled in the countryside, above the port of Philadelphia, often brought with them native German books and manuscripts to help them cure disease or pestilence; whether it be caused by nature or bewitchment. In Colonial times when Deists were few, and the masses believed in a personal God and the existence of the lost books of Moses from the Bible, ancient mysticism was believed very possible. Without listing the large number of “Braucherei” healings attributed to local powwower and publisher, John Georg Hohman, these true testimonies by surviving victims of the past everywhere in this part of Pennsylvania have impressed the public that this Germanic form of healing worked. The 20th Century term, Powwowing, used by non-Germans for the proper healing term “das Brauchen,” is a slang designation for John George Hohman’s Christian Art of calling on the Lord to “Bless Away Illness or Affliction.”
Mysterious Powwow episodes were common in this part of rural Pennsylvania up to the early 1900s, however, in the Emmaus area, is where this old, original wooden dummy artifact was discovered. Crudely carved not as a doll, this wooden figure was intended for avenging a hex or evildoer through paranormal “Voodoo,” but showed up at auction to an astounding price, as most of the type were buried or placed away to rot, as instructed. This dummy had a hole drilled into its posterior still plugged with dried material. In some occult formulas, in order to avenge the hex, the victim’s lock of hair must be plugged in a hole to break the evil spell. Perhaps an ancient use of modern DNA, this identified the hex, by reversing the spell back to that individual! This effigy figure was carved out of native American wood and appeared to have an old bloodstain on its chest, but survived because it was not buried in the ground to rot.
Old Frank Miller from Crow Hill, Washington Township, whose family were members of the Roman Catholic Church at Bally was recorded as being ferhext as an infant in the early 1900s. His father was told by a “Braucher” to drill a hole in the threshold beam of their doorway, where people enter the home, and plug it with a lock of hair from the infant (in secret) under the threshold board without telling anyone. Thereafter the culprit, revealed by the ominous Braucher, would become deathly sick and the spell would be broken. Pleased to see the infant get well and grow again, the family almost forgot their occult cure, except one day the family wondered why that “certain neighbor” no longer came around. But that was the age-old trick of the Powwower to reverse the curse! Old Frank went on to live a long life in his parents’ home, but no one ever dared remove the plug of hair from the threshold beam.
Most of the surviving Powwow Doctors in the 20th Century were located in the backwoods of Pennsylvania, where modern medicine was slow to reach Rhineland natives. One such brazen Powwow practitioner had set up just east of Kutztown, a stone’s throw away from busy route 222, who had interactions with my family. On clear summer nights in the 1900s, farmers residing in Maxatawny Township, Berks County could hear him bellowing German Powwow prayers, echoing over the fields and meadows. One of our most eccentric faith healers, “Doc Moyer,” as his believers called him, used two carved wooden figures of a snake devouring the image of a person in his rituals, purchased by an antique collector.
Each carving had a secret chamber in the rear where hair, either from the victim or hex, could be placed while the ritual was performed to cure or break the evil spell. A definite follower of John George Hohman’s German sympathetic arts, “Doc Moyer,” was well known among the local rural folk, east of Kutztown. Another Braucher living in the wilderness of Rockland Township, Berks County, “Doc Sterner,” did follow the ancient Powwow practice of “drawing off the evil spell” cast on a person by using a lock of the victim’s hair. He did this by plugging the lock into a pre-drilled hole in one of his property’s growing trees to contain the evil, so no one else would become a victim. There was also a clump of three trees in his backyard where he carved three crosses in the bark, symbolic of the Holy Trinity.
Allie Day, a neighbor to Doc Sterner at Fredericksville, Berks County in the 1960s, often remarked how Doc Sterner in curing his victims did not destroy the disease, but carelessly discarded his diseased objects. Day’s point was some local person might contract the evil disease and need to pay Doc for his services to break the spell again! It was customary not to pay the Braucher in cash, but to give him some market goods to eat, or barter for his service. Despite Doc Sterner’s antics and some locals doubting if he even performed the white magic part at all, several informants agreed Doc Sterner was so revered by people that they came from miles around to seek his blessing; and that he always wore a silver dollar necklace that could repulse the evil which had consumed some of the victims who sought his help. Although impressed by old Doc Sterner’s success in curing his many patients, Allie Day and other mountain folk, would not cross his property where people had lined up in the woods on a Saturday night to wait their turn for exorcism.
So concerned were the locals of contacting an occult disease and becoming ferhext. Amazingly, most often the wise Braucher did not know who the people in your home territory were, but could mysteriously name a certain person who more than likely was the hex in your situation. Usually a surprise, this eagerly sought information gained the confidence of the victim, and they would try whatever solution the Braucher would recommend out of desperation. Religious, and a person who knows his Bible, the Braucher’s demeanor as a man of the cloth disturbed the Church hierarchy forcing local clergy to oppose these laymen faith healers. Ultimately, the practice of Powwowing went underground for most of the 20th Century, as modern medicine advanced.
Richard L. T. Orth grew up in Berks County in the center of the historic Pennsylvania Dutch Country and had been involved with the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown for more than 22 years, and columnist for the Berks-Mont newspapers since 2009. He holds both a bachelor and master’s degrees from Kutztown University in education, however, his life’s work and passion remains in the folklore studies of the rich Pennsylvania Dutch culture: its folk art, architecture, and folkways. His current works include curating museum collections, field research, and academic writing.