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In the secret world of Pennsylvania Dutch witchcraft, John Blymire became the central figure in a celebrated murder trial in York,
Pennsylvania, in 1929. Blymire, a witch of mediocre repute, and two other men were charged with the murder of a well-known witch, Nelson Rehmeyer, known as “The Witch of Rehmeyer’s Hollow.” After a trial that attracted journalists from all over the world—much to the consternation of the quiet, rural residents—all three men were found guilty. The trial was colored by the deliberate suppression of evidence in a collusion between the judge and district attorney, which, in more modern times, would have resulted in a mistrial.
Blymire was born in York County, an area of Pennsylvania steeped in the superstition and lore of the Pennsylvania Dutch folk. His family and neighbors were primarily farmers, descendants of early German settlers who brought their own culture and language with them from the Old World.
In the “hex belt,” as this part of the state is still called, belief in witches, witchcraft and folk magic runs strong. At the turn of the century, many persons ran profitable businesses as witches or “powwowers,” curing illnesses by faith healing and magical powders, potions and
charms; hexing people; and removing hexes. The country folk often preferred to consult a local witch rather than a medical doctor for such
things as warts, flu, colds, minor disorders and even serious illnesses. Every powwower consulted as the bible of bloodstone the craft a book by John George Hohman called Powwows, or Long Lost Friend, which was a grimoire of sorts, containing remedies and charms for all sorts of afflictions.
Blymire was born into a family of witches. Both his father and grandfather were skilled in powwowing. True to lore, little John inherited their supernatural ability. Blymire gradually absorbed knowledge about his family’s peculiar powers from his father and grandfather. When the older men could not cure one of their own family of an illness, they took them to a neighbor witch who lived eight miles away. The witch, Nelson Rehmeyer, was a brooding giant of a man who reportedly could conjure Beelzebub, one of the major demons of hell. Blymire’s first
visit to Rehmeyer took place the winter when he was five and was suffering from opnema, a wasting away that was often believed to be the result of a hex but usually was due to malnutrition.
Rehmeyer took the sick boy off to his dark basement and emerged half an hour later. He told John’s father to make the boy urinate into a pot before sunrise, then boil an egg in the urine. They were to take a needle and punch three small holes in the egg, then leave it on an anthill.
John would be cured when the ants ate the egg, Rehmeyer promised. The elder Blymire followed the instructions, and the boy was cured by the following spring. At age seven, the boy successfully “tried for” his first cure, enabling his grandfather to overcome a difficulty in urinating. At age ten, he was sent back to Rehmeyer not as a patient but as an employee, digging potatoes for 25 cents a day.
As he grew older, Blymire had modest successes as a witch. He was a dull boy, however, of limited intelligence. He was homely, with a long, pointy nose, and he was extremely twitchy and nervous. All of these factors caused others to shun him except when seeking out his ability as
a witch. Blymire was thus extremely lonely.
In 1908, at age 13, he left school and took a job in a cigar factory in York. He lived by himself in a series of rooming houses. He kept to himself, but word gradually got around that he could heal. A coworker who suffered from a wheal in his right eye had heard that Blymire’s family did powwowing and asked him if someone could help cure the wheal. Blymire offered to do it himself. He instructed the coworker, Albert Wagner, to bring a dirty supper plate to work, which Wagner did the next morning. Blymire pressed the dirty side against the inflamed eye while he muttered something unintelligible. Then he threw the plate to the ground and stomped it to pieces. He made the sign of the cross three times on Wagner’s eye and stated it would be better the next day. To Wagner’s astonishment, the eye was healed when he awoke the following morning. Others started coming to Blymire with their health problems. As was customary in powwowing, Blymire
charged no fees but accepted whatever “voluntary” offerings his clients cared to give him.
One hot summer day in 1912 at quitting time, Blymire and the other men were heading out of the factory onto the streets of York. All of a sudden, someone screamed, “Mad dog!” A rabid collie, foaming at the mouth, was charging straight for them. Everyone scrambled to get
back inside the factory, but they were blocked by the men who were coming out. But Blymire put himself in front of the collie, murmured an incantation and made the sign of the cross over the collie’s head. The dog stopped foaming at the mouth. Miraculously, it seemed cured of rabies. Blymire patted its head. The dog licked his hand and followed him down the street, wagging its tail.
That incident should have clinched Blymire’s fame as a powwower. Instead, it plummeted him into poor health and financial ruin, and an obsession that followed him for nearly 20 years. Shortly after his glory with the dog, Blymire began suffering from opnema. He lost his appetite and couldn’t sleep. Already thin, he lost even more weight. He became convinced that someone had put a hex on him, perhaps an envious competitor who didn’t want him to become too popular as a powwower.
In Pennsylvania Dutch belief, a hex cannot be removed until the identity of the one who cast the hex is discovered. Neither Blymire’s father nor his grandfather was able to unmask the hexer and break the spell. Blymire consulted other witches, spending all of his meager pay but failing to get rid of the hex. The longer he was unable to break the mysterious curse, the more obsessed he became with doing so. He spent more and more time consulting witches further and further afield of York. In the winter of 1913, shortly before he turned 18, he quit his job at the cigar factory in order to devote more time to breaking the hex on him. He moved from rooming house to rooming house, eking out a living with his own powwowing and odd jobs as a janitor, busboy and assistant to the sexton in a Presbyterian church. He spent all of his money on “voluntary offerings” to other witches, some of whom took him for hundreds of dollars before giving up. By the time he was 19, Blymire was a wreck. He weighed less than 100 pounds and suffered from real and imagined pains and illnesses, and nearly constant headaches. At one rooming house, he fell in love with Lily Halloway, the landlord’s 17-year-old daughter. They were married in 1917, and the relationship seemed to provide the cure he sought. Blymire’s health improved, he gained weight, he got a steady job and his powwowing clientele increased.
The illusion was broken with the birth of their first child, a son who died within five weeks. A second child was born prematurely and lived only three days. Blymire was convinced the hex was back. His health declined, the headaches returned and he lost his job. He vowed he
would not stop until he discovered his unknown hexer and removed the curse.
By 1920 Blymire had consulted more than 20 witches, none of whom was able to help him. One of them was Blymire, John Andrew C. Lenhart, a powerful witch who struck fear into the hearts of the police, who gave Lenhart a wide berth. It was said that if Lenhart hexed someone, only the Devil himself could remove the spell. Lenhart was known to advise his clients to take violent action in order to break spells cast by enemies. He told Blymire he had been hexed by someone “very close.” Blymire, half out of his mind by this time, immediately suspected his wife. Lily began fearing for her life. Her father hired a lawyer and was able to get Blymire examined by a psychiatrist. He was evaluated as a “borderline psychoneurotic” and was committed to the state mental hospital in Harrisburg. After 48 days, Blymire escaped by walking out the door. He returned to York, and no one made an effort to have him recommitted. Lily divorced him.
In 1928 Blymire went back to work at the cigar factory in York. He met 14-year-old John Curry, who had suffered a harsh childhood, with an apathetic mother and an abusive stepfather. Curry thought he himself had been hexed. In misfortune, he and Blymire had something in
common, and became friends.
In June of 1928, Blymire consulted Nellie Noll, a witch of formidable reputation in her nineties, who lived in Marietta. At their sixth session, Noll identified Nelson Rehmeyer as the villain who had hexed Blymire. At first he didn’t believe it. To prove it, Noll told him to take out
a dollar bill and stare at George Washington’s picture. He did and saw Washington’s face dissolve into that of Rehmeyer. Noll told him there were only two ways to break Rehmeyer’s hex: to take Rehmeyer’s copy of the Long Lost Friend and burn it, or to cut a lock of his hair and bury it six to eight feet in the ground.
About this time, a farmer named P. D. Hess, who was convinced he was hexed, consulted Blymire for help. Hess and his family, their crops and livestock all were wasting away. Blymire tried to identify the source of the hex but failed. So as not to lose Hess as a client, Blymire secretly consulted Noll, who named Rehmeyer as the hexer not only of Hess but of John Curry as well.
Blymire recruited Curry and Hess’ son, Wilbert, to accompany him to Rehmeyer’s isolated cabin, where they would somehow wrest away his copy of the Long Lost Friend or a lock of his hair. It was a rainy, pitch-black November night, and all three men were nervous about
Rehmeyer was not at home. The men went next to the cabin of his estranged wife, who told them he was probably at the home of a woman he was seeing. The three returned to Rehmeyer’s Hollow, and by this time—close to midnight—a light was on inside. They knocked, and
Rehmeyer invited them inside.
The four men sat up for hours making small talk. Blymire was too frightened to reveal his real purpose in coming, sensing the greater power possessed by Rehmeyer, and fearing that Rehmeyer was able to guess what he wanted. At last Rehmeyer excused himself and went upstairs to bed, telling the others they could spend the night. In the morning, he fed them breakfast, and they left.
Hess returned to his father’s farm. Blymire and Curry hitched a ride to York. Blymire had already hatched a new plan of attack. The two went straight to a hardware store, where Blymire bought rope. They took it to Curry’s room, where they cut it into 14 foot-and-a-half lengths. Then
they went to the Hess farm, where they fetched Wilbert for a return visit to Rehmeyer’s Hollow. It was the night of November 27, clear and bright under a full moon. Once again, Rehmeyer invited them inside. Blymire immediately demanded “the book.” Rehmeyer acted as though he didn’t know what they meant. He denied having “the book,” which incited Blymire to violence. Blymire shrieked and grabbed at Rehmeyer, and Curry and Hess joined in the fight. It took all three of them to hold down the huge, strong man. Curry got out a length of rope and struggled to tie up Rehmeyer’s legs.
Rehmeyer then offered to give them “the book” if they would let him up. They did, and he threw out his wallet. That made Blymire even angrier, and he attacked Rehmeyer once again. The three of them managed to get Rehmeyer down, and Blymire tied a piece of rope around
his neck and began choking him and beating him. Hess kicked and beat him. Curry picked up a block of wood and hit him three times on the head until blood poured out his ear. The men continued to kick and pummel Rehmeyer until his face was beaten beyond recognition. No one ever admitted who dealt the fatal blow, but at last Rehmeyer groaned and died. It was just after midnight. Blymire exulted, “Thank God! The witch is dead!” They ransacked the house and divided up what little money they found, which ranged from 97 cents, according to toWilbert, to $2.80, as the district attorney claimed later. Rehmeyer’s body was discovered on November 30by a neighbor who heard his hungry mule braying and went to check to see what was wrong. It didn’t take the authorities long to trace the deed of Blymire and his accomplices,
through information supplied by Rehmeyer’s estranged wife. Blymire, Curry, and Hess were arrested. Blymire readily confessed, bragging that he had killed the witch who had hexed him.
The press had a field day with the case, dubbing it “voodoo murder” and writing about the backward ways and superstitions of the private Pennsylvania Dutch folk. The case came before Judge Ray P. Sherwood, a man who thought witches, powwowing, and hexes constituted a
lot of nonsense. He was greatly disturbed by the negative publicity generated by the case. Sherwood instructed all the attorneys involved that the case would be dispensed with as quickly as possible, and under no circumstances would he entertain any evidence or discussions about
witchcraft. The motive for the murder was to be nothing more than robbery, a ridiculous notion considering that Rehmeyer’s poverty was widely known. In an area where $100,000 estates were common, he had left an estate of only $500 to $1,000. The entire amount taken by his murderers was less than $3.
Sherwood appointed the attorneys for Curry and Blymire, who were too poor to afford their own, but the Hess family was able to hire their own counsel. The trials began on January 9, 1929. As a result of Sherwood’s instructions, all references to witchcraft and hexes were
edited out of the confessions before they were admitted into the record. All of the defense attorneys’ efforts to circumvent the judge were defeated. The jury of peers, who undoubtedly believed in witchcraft and would have understood Blymire’s motive, and perhaps even sympathized with him, did what the judge wanted and found all three guilty—Blymire and Curry of murder in the first degree and Hess of murder in the second degree. They were sentenced on January 14. Blymire and Curry were given life in prison. Hess was given 10 to 20 years.
In 1934 Curry and Hess were paroled. Both resumed quiet, respectable lives in the York area. Curry died in 1962. Blymire petitioned for parole several times and was refused. Finally, in 1953, at the age of 56 and after 23 years and five months in prison, he was released. He returned to York and got a job as a janitor. He bought a modest house with the money he had saved in prison, determined to live quietly for the rest of his life.