The Hex Murder of 1928
Article ID: 15508
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Posted: December 15th. 2013
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Americans seem to love a scandal. The more sensational the details, the more attention the thing gets. In November of 1928, there was a murder that brought the nation’s attention on a seemingly witchcraft related event. Focusing the public on magikal practices in the German speaking rural communities of southern Pennsylvania, it was sensationalized and drew ridicule to the locals as backward, superstitious practitioners of “witchcraft”.
Still frequently referred to as America’s ‘last witch murder’, the killing of Nelson D. Rehymeyer in his remote farm home tucked away in a hardscrabble hollow of York county has engendered decades of interest. At least two different books and a movie Apprentice to Murder (1988) , but only loosely based on the actual story, attempt to retell what happened.
So, what really did happen? Or should I say, which version do you want to hear?
Living only a few miles from where the events took place eighty-five years ago, it is hard not to know a few basics. The location is called Rehymeyers Hollow. It’s an area of heavily wooded valleys cut into the otherwise rolling hills of fertile Pennsylvania Dutch farm country. The people who lived here then, and mainly still do today, are descendents of hardworking German peasantry who settled in the 18th century fleeing centuries of religious conflict in their homeland. Most of these settlers were Protestant Christians. While many of this group became prosperous farmers, the deep hollows of this part of York county isolated these people who stuck to things they knew: their culture and their folk customs.
You see, besides going to church on Sunday, many poor locals practiced a form of ritual magik called Pow Wow. In spite of its name, it has nothing to do with Native American culture though. Pow Wow is a form of faith based magik using a framework of sympathetic charms and rituals that are mostly based on passages of Old Testament scripture with doses of medieval German incantations. All this is written out in a book called the “Faithful Friend”.
So let’s start with a few basic truths about who these Pow Wow users. Were these practitioners recalling Pagan practices? Were they secret hereditary Witches? Not by any definition you or I would call it. Before the modern era and access to good medicine, Pow Wow was (and is) akin to faith healing and simple spell crafting to insure good health and good luck. I know that some in the esoteric community, like Silverwolf, have written works intended to blend them into New Age practices, but in the 1920’s that was in the distant future. Mostly, the folks who followed Pow Wow used it in a way that was pretty benign. However there was a darker side to Pow Wow then as well. Any magic system has its good and bad side depending on the intent of the wielder. Its effectiveness is often rooted in the belief system behind it, and this can result in tragic events when wielded with wicked intent.
Our story here begins when a man named John H. Blymire thought that his string of bad fortune was tied to a hex. He came from a family of Pow Wow doctors himself, but he wasn’t what you’d call a practitioner with the gift. Drifting from job to job, losing a child to illness, and his wife due to abusive behavior, he felt someone else was to blame.
Blymire consulted with various Pow Wow doctors in the region about how to break the ‘hex’. A Pow Wow doctor named Nellie Noll (The Witch of Marietta) allegedly told him that Nelson Rehymeyer was the source of the hex. To break the hex he needed to get Nelson’s copy of “Faithful Friend” and a lock of his hair. In order to do this, Blymire recruited two others to help him in his endeavor since he was a slight man and Nelson was a very large and strong farmer in spite of being 60 years old. They stated (after the event) that the original goal was simply to break the hex and Rehymeyer’s power. However, instead of doing that, Blymire and his cohorts ended up robbing Nelson, beating him to death in his kitchen and attempting to cover it all up by setting the house on fire.
As murderers and robbers, the trio who killed Nelson Rehymeyer didn’t get far. The house didn’t burn down. A neighbor came by when he thought something was amiss and found the murder scene. The sheriff was called, but didn’t have to work too hard as people began to talk. Arrested within days, the trial became a national sensation. While the Pow Wow elements leading up to the murder were tacitly not discussed in the courtroom, it was common knowledge to all that this was the reason that Blymire had gone to Nelson’s homestead. Neither the prosecution, nor the accused officially brought up the magikal elements of the murder during the trial. Nevertheless, PowWow was widely ridiculed in the news media of the day, which exposed and brought humiliation upon the local German community who were depicted as practicing “witchcraft”. As it turned out, all three men were duly convicted and spent long times in prison for murder and robbery. Afterwards, the local people tried to put the crime behind them as a sad but resolved crime. However, the story has lingered…
So, WHY do people think that this case is about witchcraft at all? The most recent and well-researched account of the whole mess was written by J. Ross McGinnis, a respected retired attorney from the same firm that provided lawyers who defended and tried the trio who murdered Rehymeyer. The book is dry, but very detailed. McGinnis personally knew all the attorneys and judge who worked the trial, and used actual court transcripts as the basis of his account. However, when I read it I was surprised by the lack of information about the magikal elements leading to the murder, and why so little on Pow Wow was included. Stories with obvious omissions tend to make me curious and want to investigate further. So, last year when Mr. McGinnis spoke to a local historical society about the background of the murder, I decided to attend.
The talk turned into a somewhat disappointing hour-and-a-half scripted presentation. McGinnis began the evening’s talk with the story on how a fear of witches molded King James’ approval of the publication of the Bible version that bears his name. Using the example as a sophistry gimmick to explain how fear and ignorance leads to dark deeds, his talk was a polished recounting of the events in the book he’d written. Instead of revealing anything new about the murder, one thing I learned was that Mr. McGinnis was a devout Calvinist Christian. Over and over, McGinnis reverted to passages of Christian scripture to make his points, and throughout his presentation he kept referring to witchcraft in his presentation. He also showed numerous places where the author of the other book on the murder had gotten his facts mixed up or just plain wrong. No question, Mr. McGinnis knew his subject.
Afterwards, still wanting to draw him out a bit more than his scripted presentation, I asked him why he called insisted on calling it ‘witchcraft’ when the murderers and victim were clearly Christians as even he himself was clear that they were using a magic system of faith healing and sympathetic spellcraft based on the Old Testament. His reply was as enlightening as it was frustrating. McGinnis told me that he knew that these people were Christians, but they’d ‘fallen into darkness’ with their following of Pow Wow practices. Moreover, he called it a bunch of superstitious nonsense and ignorance, and that was HIS definition of witchcraft. To him, the trial was a victory of reason-and-good versus witchcraft-and-evil. As an eighty-four year old man who’d made his life’s career out of winning points through argument and sophistry, his theology lumped it all into the same boat and that was that.
At the time I talked with Mr. McGinnis, his response angered me. In retrospect, it saddens me more as it clearly showed the gulf that still exists between those people who let their prejudices get the better of their reason and the sincere practitioners of alternative faiths. A lesson I took from all this is that, in spite of making an effort to stick to just the truth, his strong views colored the interpretation of the facts and still leaves people with the wrong idea of what happened. I suppose there are two lessons here: one about how rigid views can prejudice even those who should know better, and the other about how people who are too credulous can be manipulated to the point of committing evil acts.
Some months later, I asked a grand nephew of Nelson Rehymeyer about it all. (I waited until he knew me a bit before asking, as this is still a touchy subject with the families who were involved.) A bit tentative at first, the answer I got was that Pow Wow was a form of faith healing and that he’d always felt that Nelson Rehymeyer simply was a man whose practices were misunderstood (and still are) .
So, what do I think happened? Well, the trial evidence focused on a weak, delusional, and paranoid man who used his fears to justify a robbery and murder. That is the official story. Unofficially, there seems to be a back-story that likely revolved around rival faith healers. As stated earlier, John Blymire considered himself a Pow Wow doctor himself, though all the evidence points to he was a very mediocre one and in his heart he knew it. It is possible that influential Nelson Rehymeyer was resented and the shadowy Nellie Noll may have had an agenda of her own when she set Blymire on the path to confront Rehymeyer in his remote farmhouse. After all the years, this part of the story is now lost. All that is for certain is that Blymire stated upon conviction for murder that “he was glad he killed that witch”. Silver Ravenwolf’s book on Pennsylvania Dutch magic states that there were intense rivalries between Pow Wow doctors in their heyday. A sinister side of Pow Wow exists, and has the name Hexenmeister. I’m sure that the modern practitioners of Pow Wow and Hexenmeisters alike will have their own spin on the more esoteric aspects of the case.
Meanwhile, the legend of the “Witch” Murders of Rehymeyer’s Hollow has become part of the lore of the region. Every ghost book on Pennsylvania now mentions it, almost without fail with some added lurid details. The Internet provides reference materials as well, but many web pages are full of misinformation and many repeat the same, not quite correct, story over and over. There is even some fiction based on the event. I’m sure it makes good reading.
In spite of all the bad fact checking out there, I’ve got to admit it is a compelling story. It was the first local legend I heard when I came to the area over twenty-five years ago. The twisting back road and woods that the house resides on does have an aura about it. It is also quite beautiful area in its remote solitude. To be honest, I don’t know if some of those lurid legends about a haunting about the place are true. The house definitely is not a place I’d want to spend time in.
Some of the locals want to turn the place into a museum, but the local zoning board so far has steadfastly refused to allow that. So the house sits empty and lonely on the side of the road in a clearing in the woods much as it was in 1928. The Rehymeyer house IS different. It is not an easy place to find. The local road signs are deliberately vague as to which is the right road. When you do find it, it squats by the road: waiting. I’m not sure what it is waiting for, but there is an oppressiveness there that even the most mundane can feel about a heinous murder turned legend.
Accessed June 21, 2013.
McGinnis, J. Ross.,
Trials of Hex.
Davis/Trinity Pub. 2000
Personal notes: J. Ross McGinnis talk, 24 November. 2012.
Simon and Schuster, NY. 1969
American Folk Magick (previously titled HexCraft: Dutch Country Magick)
Sceurman, Mark and Moray, Mark., Weird Pennsylvania.
Sterling, NY 2005
Motter, Leo., Haunted Places in York County Pennsylvania.,
Butcher, Scott D. and Roseberry, Dinah., Spooky York Pennsylvania.,
Schiffer Publ. 2008
International Movie Database
"Apprentice to Murder" (1988)
Accessed June 21, 2013
Copyright: c. 2013 A. I. Mychalus
Location: New Park, Pennsylvania
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