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S pread across south central and south eastern Pennsylvania is a region colloquially known as Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
Tourists arrive by car, bus, train and plane to see and enjoy the area's classic attractions: Amish families in horse-drawn buggies; vast, verdant farms; old-fashioned smorgasbord restaurants; and, of course, the colorful floral and geometric designs of the hex symbols attached to brightly painted barns.
What very few of these tourists realize is that, as recently as 90 years ago, hexing and witch doctoring were very serious subjects in this region of the Keystone State. In fact, in several cases, these primitive superstitions led to bloody murder.
The term "Pennsylvania Dutch" is actually a misnomer. There is no such natural heritage. The insular communities in this part of the state are primarily of German origin, though their unique dialect also reflects the Swiss and Austrian heritage of early settlers.
The Pennsylvania Dutch word “hex” comes from the German word “hexe” which means witch or sorceress. In this region of Pennsylvania, to hex someone is to cast an evil spell upon him or her.
Contrary to what many visitors believe, the “hex signs” that appear on barns throughout this area of the state were not brought by the original German immigrants. In fact, the noted Pennsylvania folklorist Henry J. Kauffman reported that hex signs were only introduced in the early 19th century.
Nor are these barn stars the creation of the Amish. These plain men and women would never endorse such displays of frivolous excess.
That's not to say that all people of the region view hex signs as harmless souvenirs as two specific tragedies prove.
Nelson Rehmeyer, born about 1869, was raised by his grandparents in Hopewell Township, York County. The Rehmeyer name was, and still is, a respected surname in the county, and many of young Nelson's neighbors were also relatives.
Like his grandfather before him, Nelson became a farmer. In 1907, his was one of three potato farms in the county reported to produce more than 1,000 bushels for market.
Rehmeyer also took an active part in local government. In 1923 he ran for York County commissioner on the Socialist ticket.
For the most part, though, Nelson and his wife Alice kept to themselves. They helped neighbors and friends in need, but didn't go out of their way to inject themselves in other peoples' business. Unless, that is, you believed the outlandish claims of the Hess family.
Milton Hess was having a run of bad luck. Several of his livestock died and his crops weren't producing as they should. But Hess didn't view this as an off year. Instead, he blamed Nelson Rehmeyer, insisting that Rehmeyer had put a curse on his family.
The Hess family were strong believers in “pow-wowing” - the Pennsylvania Dutch term for “witch doctoring.” They passed their superstitious ideology on to their son Wilbert who likewise believed Nelson Reymeyer was the cause for his family's hardships.
According to the doctrines of pow-wowing, the only way to lift the curse of an evil witch doctor (which they thought Rehmeyer to be) was to hire the services of a good witch doctor. So the family enlisted the aid of 30-something-year-old John Blymyer.
After listening to their story, Blymer explained what needed to be done. He had to obtain a lock of Rehmyer's hair, which was to be buried in the ground, and a book in Rehmyer's possession called The Long Lost Friend which supposedly contained powerful spells and remedies.
To the Hesses this plan sounded perfectly reasonable. In fact, they sent their son Wilbert along to carry it out. And so, on Thanksgiving Day 1928, Blymyer, 18-year-old Wilbert Hess and a third young man, 14-year-old John Curry, headed off to the secluded home of Nelson Rehmeyer.
Unfortunately for the trio, their plan went south as soon as they entered Rehmeyer's home. The 59-year-old was far more of a challenge than any of the three had expected. He had no intention of letting them take a lock of his hair let alone his hard-earned possessions.
A physical fight broke out between Blymyer and Rehmeyer - one the older man would likely have won if Curry hadn't used a nearby piece of firewood to club Rehmeyer into submission. After pocketing the money in Rehmeyer's wallet, the three poured kerosene on his body and lit it on fire. We'll never know if Rehmeyer was alive at the time.
What is known is that, while Rehmeyer's body partially burned, his home did not. He was found by a neighbor the next day.
It took little time for investigators to identify the killers. Their trials and convictions were equally expeditious. Both Blymyer and Curry were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Hess was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to ten to twenty years. Hess was paroled in 1939 after serving 11 years of his sentence. Curry, whose confession helped the district attorney win all three convictions, was released shortly after Hess.
Blymyer submitted his first petition for pardon in 1936. In it he said he was not mentally responsible at the time of the Rehmeyer murder. He further contended that the story about Rehmeyer's black magic abilities were fed to him by people he relied on for advice.
York D.A. Amos Herrman was having none of Blymyer's new claims of ignorance and innocence. Herrman told the board of pardons that Blymyer was, in actuality, one of a handful of well-known York County hex doctors who killed Rehmeyer in the course of his service to his client, Milton Hess.
Blymyer was denied this and all subsequent pardons through 1953, when he was finally released from the Eastern State Penitentiary. He died in his sleep on May 10, 1972.
The people of Pennsylvania Dutch country weren't happy that the small number of closed and superstitious sects among them had become the stuff of national headlines.
They were even more dismayed six years later when these unfortunate stereotypes were reinforced by another “hex murder” in nearby Schuylkill County.
At about 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 17, 1934, a taxi-driver by the name of Albert Shinsky crept through the woods near the Ringtown Valley home of Mrs. Susan Mummey. Somehow, he made it onto the home's porch without being noticed. Peering though her living room window, Shinsky could see Mummey and her daughter bandaging the foot of one of their boarders.
Quietly and slowly, Shinsky drew a gun from his pocket. He took aim and fired. The bullet struck the 63-year-old widow in the side, killing her almost instantly.
He moved to a second window and fired again, although this time he aimed at no one.
Susan Mummey's daughter and renter were so terrified that they hid for hours. At sunrise, they finally found the courage to rush to the telephone and call the police.
Shinsky voluntarily confessed to the crime, even re-enacting it for county detective Louis Buono. He said he'd done so because Susan Mummey had hexed him eight years previously. The spirit she'd summoned from the sky made him ill, tired, and depressed, Shinsky said. More terrifying than her sky spirit was the huge, green-eyed cat Mummey sent to torture him in his bedroom. The only thing that drove the cat away, Shinsky matter-of-factly explained, was chanting phrases a Hazleton pow-wow doctor concocted to counteract Susan Mummey's hex.
It was clear to those who interviewed Shinsky that he suffered some form of mental illness. A Schuylkill County judge agreed and sent Shinsky to the Fairview Hospital for the Insane without ever setting a trial date. In 1976, based on a Supreme Court ruling that said a suspect can't be held indefinitely without trial, Shinsky requested his day in court. Because all of the key witnesses had since passed away, the county district attorney recommended dropping the charges. After 41 years of being institutionalized, Shinsky was evaluated for release.
The Shinsky case was covered throughout Pennsylvania and in such widely read papers as the Washington Post and New York Times. While headlines concentrated on the bizarre nature of his claims of being cursed and Pennsylvania's legacy of pow-wowing, this publicity may actually have helped Shinsky. Without these diversions, he would have certainly faced a murder charge - as many in the community believed he should have.
Today, most Pennsylvanians view "hex symbols" as harmless, overpriced mementos used to decorate porches, barns and outbuildings. They cast casual, 21st century scorn on the old beliefs in magic, healing and hexes.
But somewhere in Pennsylvania Dutch Country there are still likely families that - perhaps in conspiratorial tones and hushed voices - still speak of pow-wowing and witch doctors. They may even live right next door… to you. 💀
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