you're in a hurry, don't miss the Mountain Mary link toward the bottom)
Any culture has a “dark side” and a “bright
side.” Yes, some Pennsylvania Dutch were fearful and
superstitious, but some were also very positive and hopeful. As
the old saying goes, “it takes all kinds!” Let me begin by saying
that I feel fairly certain hex signs on barns were mainly a decorative
form of folk art. The tourist industry popularized the connection
with “hex” or “hexerei.” The Amish
tended to avoid such decorations which were considered "hochmootich" or
proud. If you want to read more about hex signs (press
here) then come back to this page.
With that said, it still remains true that belief in
hexerei, or black magic and
witchcraft, did exist among some Pennsylfawnish
farmer who offended a neighbor and then had a cow quit giving milk
might say the cow was “verhext”
by the neighbor in retaliation. More likely the farmer felt
guilty for offending the neighbor and tried to blame his bad luck on
something that would distract him from feeling guilty.
Superstition that accompanied hexerei included beliefs like a
broom across a door, or salt on the windowsills, or a cross drawn on
the floor might keep the witches out. There are many such
beliefs. Some of them were just useful. If you wanted the
kids to crush the eggshells before they threw them on the compost pile,
you could tell them the witches will use them as boats if they aren’t
crushed. Dumb? I think so! Why fill the kids heads
with such stuff? But, I do understand how such beliefs can
develop in any culture.
During the first half of the 20th century, the press
loved to draw attention to any hint of witchcraft, black magic, and hexerei in Pennsylvania Dutch
land. For example, in 1928 some teenagers were accused of murder
in the infamous “York witch trial.” The press reported that
the boys were trying to steal a copy of a book that contained secret
witchcraft formulae and procedures and supposedly the boys also needed
a lock of hair from the victim’s head to remove a curse. York,
Pennsylvania got a lot of unwanted attention as a result. There
are other cases, in Lebanon, Leheigh, Philadelphia, Pottsville, all
supposedly involving witchcraft, black magic, hoodoo, or hexerei, but it’s more likely they
involved the need to sell newspapers.
The book that the kids were trying to steal in the
York witch trial is interesting and still available. It was
titled Der lang verborgene Schatz
und Haus Freund when originally published in Reading,
Pennsylvania by John George Hohman in 1820. A later edition had
the title, “POW-WOWS; OR, LONG LOST FRIEND, A COLLECTION OF MYSTERIOUS
AND INVALUABLE ARTS AND REMEDIES, FOR MAN AS WELL AS ANIMALS WITH MANY
PROOFS .....” The title continues; it’s very, very long.
The book is sometimes described as a sort of magical recipe book,
filled with spells, procedures, and yes, recipes. Many argued
that it should be considered “white” rather than “black” magic.
In any case, it does have a lot to say about healing ailments in both
humans and farm animals.
Which brings us to the subject of healing.
Outsiders often use the term powwowing
to refer to Pennsylvania Dutch faith healing. The Dutch prefer
the term Braucherei (or braucha, brauche, and yes, sometimes powwowing). A braucher or powwower used touch and
incantations to heal sick people and animals. Some also believed
that a powwower could break a
witch’s spell, but really the emphasis was on healing physical
ailments. The incantations were typically verses from the Bible,
and the practice wasn’t very different from modern approaches to faith
healing, e.g. the Church of Christ, Scientist, often called Christian
If you want
to argue about faith healing, click here, then come back.
Berks County, Pennsylvania had several famous powwowers. One lived on the
Blue Mountain, near the Appalachian Trail. Another one, perhaps
the most famous of all, was known as Mountain Mary, or Die Berg Maria, who lived around
the time of the American Revolution. Her real name was Mary Jung,
and she lived in the Oley Hills near Hill Church, next to the beautiful
Oley Valley which I mention elsewhere on this web site. She was
famous as a healer, an herbalist, and a gardener. Many of the
healings she performed involved good nutrition and faith in God.
She was renowned as a Holy Woman, and the first census in the late
1700’s classified her as Abbess, suggesting that she might have had
religious followers, or a church of her own, or at least the census
taker thought she did. Click here to see Mountain Mary Road and Mountain Mary's
During World War I, many Pennsylvania Dutch soldiers
carried a Himmelsbrief, or letter from Heaven. It often contained
selected verses from the Bible, and it was believed it could protect
the soldier from harm. To this day, such notes can be found in
old farmhouses hidden away a long time ago to keep the building
safe. The building is safe, so maybe it worked.