Category: local legends

The Hellfire Clubs, Part Two

The Hellfire Clubs, Part Two

The best known of the 18th-century Hellfire Clubs, one founded by Francis Dashwood, is largely remembered today because of the theatrical settings in which they were said to gather, namely a ruined abbey and a network of caves. The latter is represented in the 1961 period drama, The Hellfire Club, from which we hear a brief snippet (although other details and characters of the film are strictly products of the screenwriter’s imagination.)

Francis Dashwood was born into privilege, son of a Baronet, whose title and estate in Wycombe (in Buckinghamshire county, about an hour northeast of London) he inherited at the age of 15.  His various social connections  saw him appointed to various positions, including Chancellor of the Exchequer and Postmaster General, but his  reputation in such roles was generally one of incompetence. This, however, was balanced by his peculiar genius for organizing social clubs.

We discuss two groups he founded before his “Hellfire” days, The Society of Dilettanti, and The Divan Club, both groups dedicated to exploring the culture of lands far from England: the first dedicated to the exploration of the classical heritage of Greece and Rome, and the latter devoted to the lands of the Ottoman Turks.

Divan Club Dashwood
Dashwood in his Divan Club costuming. By Adrien Carpentiers.

Social groups such as these were referred to as “dining clubs,” though “drinking clubs” would likely be more accurate.  The Society of Dilettanti seems to have exhibited a particular devotion to “Venus” and “Bacchus” (polite jargon of the era for erotica and more drinking.)  The Dilettanti’s delight in forbidden themes expressed itself in certain “devilish” elements of club ritual prefiguring Dashwood’s “Hellfire” years.  In  some anecdotes about Dashwood’s travels abroad, told by Horace Walpole, we hear of some likewise impish and irreligious behavior.

In 1752, Dashwood turned his attention to his most famous creation. Actually, he never called it “The Hellfire Club”; instead it was referred to (among other names) as The Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe — a mocking reference to the Catholic saint of Assisi.  Dashwood had several portraits painted portraying him as a questionable monk, including this one by William Hogarth:

William Hogarth’s portrait of Dashwood as St. Francis.

(The image in the episode collage likewise represents Dashwood as St. Francis, this one from his Dilettanti years.)

After an abortive start holding meetings on his estate, Dashwood moved the group to the George and Vulture Inn in London, then in 1751, after leasing an old abbey 10 miles south of his estate in Medmenham, he relocated gatherings there, at which point, the group became known as  the Monks of Medmenham.

To supervise restoration of the abbey, Dashwood hired Nicholas Revett, a pivotal figure in the revival of classical Greek architecture in England, a movement, Dashwood embraced with uniquely idiosyncratic abandon.

We hear of a number of eccentrically pagan additions Revett added to Dashwood’s estate, and Mrs. Karswell reads a contemporary report on the dedication of a Temple of Bacchus on the grounds, complete with costumed fawns and satyrs. We also hear about the curious interest he took in Wycombe’s Church of St. Lawrence, hiring Revett to complete a restoration modeled on a pagan temple in Syria.  He also had an enormous golden ball added to the church steeple, one reputedly large enough to accommodate Dashwood and several Hellfire cronies, who would gather there to drink.

The Golden Ball added by Dashwood to St Lawrence Church.

As for rumors of sexual escapades attached to the club, we explore some clues provided a 1779 volume surveying London’s brothels entitled Nocturnal Revels.  While some of this may just be salacious rumor, the libertine law of Dashwood’s “order” was literally set in stone, carved over the entrance: Fais ce que tu voudras, (“Do what you will”.)

The phrase is borrowed from 16th century French satirist François Rabelais, himself a former monk who satirized the Church and society at large, in his series of connected novels Gargantua and Pantagruel.  In the former, Rabelais imagined a libertine monastery with the phrase inscribed over its entrance, an idea borrowed by Aleister Crowley in his imagining of an Abbey of Thelema (his religious system built around the concept of the will or thelema in Greek.)

While Dashwood’s primarily playful attitude clearly distinguished him from Crowley and other serious occultists, there were rumors of secret rituals practiced by an inner circle of the monks, as we hear in another description provided by Horace Walpole.

The inner circle of Dashwood’s group, known as “the Superiors,” was restricted to 12 members plus Dashwood, the number being either an irreverent reference to Jesus and his twelve disciples or the number in a witches’ coven.  The general membership  included a alarming number of elite figures, a half dozen or so Members of Parliament, prominent writers, poets, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Frederick Prince of Wales, the eldest (estranged) son of George II.  We also hear of Benjamin Franklin’s involvement with Dashwood.

Two particular members are discussed in a bit more detail: John Wilkes and John Montagu, whose personal feud spelled the end of the club and involved a particularly outrageous stunt said to have been perpetrated by Wilkes.

Wilkes was a radical politician whose published remarks on a speech by George III resulted in charges of libel and him briefly fleeing the country as an outlaw — an incident which endangered the Monks by his association.  His nemesis was John Montagu, better known as the Earl of Sandwich (and here we provide the origin story of that particular culinary innovation.)

At some point around 1750, Wilkes published obscene parody of Alexander Pope’s poem, “An Essay on Man,”  called “An Essay on Woman,” one which targeted Montagu’s well known mistress Fanny Murray as its subject.  In revenge, Sandwich chose to read before Parliament particularly obscene passages from Wilkes’ satire, resulting in further charges against his rival.  Wilkes reciprocated by publishing further exposes of the group, generating further controversy ultimately leading Dashwood to close the abbey headquarters in March of 1776.

While there were serious political differences between Sandwich and Wilkes, the real cause of their hostility, so goes the story, lies in an absurd stunt referred to as “The Affair of the Baboon,” a detailed account of which Mrs. Karswell provides from an 18th century source.

Though there are no historical records documenting this, a strong tradition holds that after ending meetings at the abbey, Dashwood moved gatherings into a network of manmade caves on his estate (tunnels excavated for chalk).

This tradition is documented as early as 1796, when a diarist (Mrs. Philip Powys)  describes a visit to the caves, noting a hook for a chandelier, likely to have been the “Rosicrucian” chandelier, Dashwood elsewhere described. She also mentions an underground pool supposedly known by the Medmenham monks, as “The River Styx,” a large central chamber that became “The Banqueting Hall” and other small rooms nicknamed “Monks’ Cells.” A gothic facade fronts the caves.

Hellfire Caves Entrance

Throughout the 19th century, local legends of occult doings in the caves grew evermore fantastic, as we hear in a few quotes read by Mrs. Karswell. By 1951, a descendent of Francis Dashwood, Sir Francis John Vernon Hereward Dashwood, who had inherited the family’s West Wycombe properties, struck upon the idea of transforming the caves into a tourist attraction, advertising the tunnels as “The Hellfire Caves.”  Though ultimately successful, we hear some contemporary newspaper accounts voicing concerns by local residents and clerics about evil forces awakened from within the caves through these activities.

Our episode ends with a ghost story told of Francis Dashwood’s best friend and fellow Monk, Paul Whitehead, something involving removing Whitehead’s heart.

 

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Hex Murders and Madness in Old Pennsylvania

Hex Murders and Madness in Old Pennsylvania

Cases of madness and even murder were associated with Hexerei, a form of witchcraft brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants.  Following up on our previous examination of the tradition of Braucherei or Pow-Wow as practiced in 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania, our current episode eplores some more disturbing cases of witchcraft beliefs surviving into the 1920s and ’30s.

Our show begins with a montage of voices extracted from the documentary Signs, Cures, and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore. It was produced as a companion to an excellent book of the same name by Gerald Milnes.

By the 1890s, any public notice taken of Braucherei tended to be negative. Journalists were quick with comparisons to the Salem witchcraft mania and tended to focus on cases in which witchcraft belief led to madness.  We hear an example of this from an 1891 Pittsburgh Dispatch article describing two women driven to paranoia in the hills of Earl and Douglass townships. From the Public Weekly Opinion of Chambersburg, PA, we hear bits of an 1894 story describing the extreme (and destructive) measures taken by a George Kellar to rid his property of witches.

The first of the witchcraft-related homicides we examine comes from a March 1922 edition of the York Daily Record.  It’s the case Sallie Heagy, whose belief in witchcraft and a night-hag like entity known in Pennsylvania as “Trotterhead,” led to her shooting her husband while he slept.

We then move on to the most famous witchcraft murder in Pennsylvania, namely that of a part-time Braucher and potato farmer, Nelson Rehmeyer, who met his end in York County in 1928.  Mrs. Karswell opens this segment reading a description of the discovery of the decedent’s body taken from a Nov. 30 edition of the Hanover Evening Sun.

The murder was committed by a group of men organized by John Blymire, a third generation Braucher or Powwower, who believed himself to have been cursed by Rehmeyer.  We hear a bit of his troubled history (which included being committed to a psychiatric hospital from which he escaped) and of his accomplices, including John Curry, a younger man whom Blymire took on as a sort of magical apprentice and Wilbert Hess, whose troubles with his wife and farm, according to Blymire’s increasingly paranoic beliefs, were also tied to a curse by Rehmeyer.  We also hear of the involvement of the Braucherin Nellie Noll, sometimes called the “River Witch of Marietta,” from whom Blymire sought help in identifying Rehmeyer as the one responsible for the curse laid upon him. The commission of the crime itself is described in our show via the court testimony given by Wilbert Hess.

Rehmeyer's House in 1928
Rehmeyer’s House in 1928

The media circus generated by a witchcraft-related murder in 20th-century Pennsylvania resulted in  the press becoming obsessed with investigating any possible links to Braucherei in any Pennsylvania crime they reported on.  We hear several examples of highly speculative connections made including that of  the twenty-one-year-old woman Verna Delp, whose death by poison was erroneously connected to concoctions given her by a Braucher in 1928.   A similar connection is examined in the 1930 case of Mrs. Harry McDonald, who was found burned to death in her home, as well as the case of Norman Bechtel, whose body was discovered in 1932 in a mutilated state, bearing injuries, the press presumptively identified as “hex marks.”

Only 6 years after the Rehmeyer case, however, another murder with an undeniable connection to withcraft belief occurred in the vicinity of Pottsville (the same region as that of our Hex Cat case in Episode 69).  This was the murder on March 17, 1934 of Susan Mummey by Albert Shinsky.  Mummey was a local Braucherin, known by locals as “Old Susie,” or sometimes “The Witch of Ringtown Valley,” who had a cantankerous reputation with her neighbors.  At the age of 17, Shinksy experienced one such unpleasant encounter, which he came to regard as the origin of a seven-year curse placed upon him by Mummey — one that could only be resolved ultimately by slaying the witch with a magic bullet.  We’ll leave the lurid details of this case for you to experience as you listen, but suffice it to say, the region still seems to have had problems with Hex Cats in 1934.

Philadelphia Inquirer
From The Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 Mar 1934

Our show closes with a look at the Rehmeyer case explored in different media.  A highly fictionalized version of the story was produced in 1987 under the name Apprentice to Murder, this one featuring Donald Sutherland as a notably more bookish John Blymire type.  There’s also a good 2015 documentary, Hex Hollow, which features interviews with Blymire and Rehmeyer’s descendants.  Strangest of all is the manner in which this story seems to have influenced the musical psychedelia of the York County band Lenny Lionstar and The Hillbillies of The Universe.  We close with a snippet of their work.

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Stories of witchcraft and folk-healers in early Pennsylvania are surprisingly plentiful. In this episode, we examine the state’s German-American tradition of Braucherei that spawned these tales. The practice came over with immigrants from Germany’s southwestern Rhineland beginning in the late 1700s and established itself among the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (a misunderstanding of  “Deutsch”) in the state’s southern “Dutch Country” region, eventually moving westward through Appalachia and all the way to Indiana and south into the Ozarks.

We begin with a chant supposedly chanted in the 1800s by witches gathered at Hexenkopf Rock (“witch’s head” rock), an actual site about 15-minutes outside the old steel town of Bethlehem.  The locale is central to early Braucherei and to the other name by which it goes, namely “Pow-Wow.”

It was on land adjacent to the Hexenkopf that Johann Peter Seiler, who immigrated from Germany in 1738, eventually settled and set up shop as a folk-healer, or “Braucher” (one who practices Braucherei).  As he also offered treatment to the native Algonquin, his work was equated by them to that of their medicine man or his rituals, and he was supposedly dubbed  “The Great Pow-Wow.”  This is one origin story for the odd nomenclature, though others believe the term “pow-wow” was applied by English settlers as a disparaging comparison to native rituals.  The term is still used and carries no such disparaging connotation today.  Nor does it imply a borrowing of Native American traditions into Braucherei, which is firmly rooted in Old World traditions.

While the Braucher has frequently been described by outsiders a “witch” or “witch doctor,” it’s certainly not a label accepted within the tradition, as there are no “good witches,” only bad witches, (Hexes) who practice Hexerei.  Brauchers are often sought to remove curses placed by Hexes, though occasionally practitioners have been known to slip from one side to the other.

We next look at a sampling of the magical tools and techniques employed in Braucherei, the prominence of the color red, preponderance of written charms carried by clients, and the spoken charm, the famous “Blood Verse” used to stop bleeding.

A Braucher would always consider himself to be Christian, and much use is made of religious images and verbiage, especially from Catholic traditions.  Though the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated from Germany’s Protestant regions, Braucherei has served as a sort of underground continuation of medieval Catholic practice in a Post-Reformation world.

1930s Friend
1930s edition of “Long Lost Friend” with illustrations by Charles Quinlan. Courtesy Glencairn Museum.

We then discuss the curiously titled volume The Long Lost Friend, a classic sourcebook for Braucherei, published by German immigrant, printer, and Braucher John George Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1820.  Much of it, we learn, was borrowed (sometimes verbatim) from earlier European books of magic, though applications described therein are very specific to 19th century agricultural life.  We also hear a bit about another magical sourcebook used (more in Hexerei thanks to its inclusion of destructive magic), the Sixth and Seventh Book of Moses (published as a single volume).  We hear a bit about its notorious reputation, both in Braucherei and American Hooodoo.

6th book
The notorious “Sixth and Sevenths Books of Moses.” Don’t look at it too long!

The balance of our show is devoted to tales of witches and healers, gleaned mainly from newspaper archives and read by the inimitable Mrs. Karswell.

We hear of “Old Moll” of Fayette County, her fortune-telling with coffee grounds, of a legendary prophecy (curse?) laid upon some miscreants passing through town, and her appearance in connection with other local legends, as in the 1865 book,The White Rocks by A.F. Hill, a romanticized retelling of the murder of Polly Williams.

A hotbed of Braucherei, Berks County provides our remaining stories — an 1889 story in which a witch torments her victim in the form of a night hag, and the way in which a Braucher defeats her, and an 1892 story involving a baby covered in spots thanks to a visiting witch, who was eventually defeated while in the form of a cat.

Another witch in the form of a cat was the famous “Hex Cat” that haunted the farm of the Thomas family in Tumbling Run Valley in 1911.  This one made national news, with reportage appearing as far away as Hawaii.  It also generated a moderate frenzy of commercial exploitation.  I’ll leave the details of the case for you to enjoy as you listen.

Stay tuned for our next episode further exploring Braucherei, including some shocking criminal cases in which the tradition played a role.

I should also mention that we had some audio cameos in this show.  A number of our subscribers on Patreon joined in as witches in the chant at the Hexenkopf.  Thank you to: Allison Lovecraft, Victoria Howard, Angelica, Bridget Case, Jenny Matisiak, Molly Van Overhill, Alice Price, and Anne Luben!

(Long Lost Friend images courtesy the Glencairn Museum’s excellent 2017 exhibition on Braucherei)