Tag: black magic

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.

Gallows Lore

Gallows Lore

We examine the lore of the gallows, focusing on the British Isles, encountering hangmen as figures straddling history and myth, strange histories and folk-tales, as well as superstitions and magical practice associated with the hanged man’s rope and body.

We begin, of course, with a bit of gallows humor, provided in the sea shantey, “Hanging Johnny,” from a 2004 Smithsonian Folkways recording.

Then it’s on to meet Jack Ketch, the 17th-century hangman who so fascinated the British public that he was memorialized in various turns of phrase, i.e, “to dance Jack Ketch’s jig” (the death spasms at the end of the rope).  Emblematic of all who follow his trade, he was even adopted into the traditional Punch and Judy show.

Punch with Jack Ketch, early 1900s.

Much of his reputation is based on grim incidents reflecting poorly on his skill — not with the noose but with the sword with which he was less practiced. We hear of two particularly grisly incidents in this arena: the executions of William, Lord Russell, and the Duke of Monmouth.

The Irish song “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” opens a further discussion of the language of execution by hanging. “Stretched,” here is borrowed from the underworld dialect known as “criminal cant,” and of course means “hanged.” “Stretched at Tyburn” is another usage referring to the gallows of Tyburn, where the London’s hangings took place from the 12th century up to 1782.  We hear a bit more about Tyburn’s strange configuration of scaffolding, (“The Tyburn Tree”) and of the “Execution Dock” on the Thames, reserved exclusively for pirates and smugglers.

Taking a quick side-trip to the technological side of things, we learn that throughout the Tyburn era, death by hanging occurred not through the long drop and broken neck, but a short drop and a dreadfully slow process of strangulation. This less decisive process occasionally resulsted in certain convicts being revived, such as the case of “Half Hanged Smith” in 1705.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us Smith’s unhappy remarks on being thus revived.

The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia.

Prisoners to be executed at Tyburn were housed in Newgate Prison on conveyed by cart to the gallows in riotous public processions. Carnivalesque details of these proceedings and the reason for moving executions to Newgate in 1782 are explored.  (And we stop at some pubs en route!)

One last topic before we move from history to folklore — the career of William Calcraft, another notorious London hangman serving from 1829 to 1874.  We hear some unkind words on his professional conduct from Charles Dickens and about Calcraft’s relationship with Madame Tussaud’s.

Our look at the folklore of the gallows begins with the magical properties assigned to segments of the hangman’s rope, something sought out for everything from luck at gambling to the cure of various physical afflictions.

The touch of the hanged man’s hand (dead but still warm) was an even more widely sought cure for warts, cysts, and occasionally other ailments like epilepsy or paralyzed limbs or digits.

In 1888, the English writer Thomas Hardy placed this superstition, or a version of it, at the center of one of his most popular short stories, “The Withered Arm,” from which we hear some passages.  A good BBC adaptation can be found here, btw.

The hand of a hanged convict needn’t be still warm and still attached to the wrist to offer magical protection. It can be severed and dried as is the case with the infamous hand of glory.   This preserved hand of a hanged convict was widely used by thieves in Britain and Ireland as a charm that would incapacitate the occupants of a home they would burglarize — usually by a deep sleep, but some other mechanisms are also discussed.   We hear some directions for creating and using the hand of glory from the 1706 French grimoire known as the Petit Albert.

Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert
Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert

Belief in the power of such charms seems to have arrived in the British Isles from the continent.  Particularly in German-speaking regions, there are a number of variations on the theme featuring the hands of unborn children, and other iterations discussed.

Two further hand of glory stories are recounted: one telling of a very strangely dressed visitor who might not be trusted from the  1883 volume About Yorkshire, and another from the delightfully comic 1837 collection of folk tales and ghost stories, The Ingolsby Legends by Richard Harris.

As for the actual use of this charm in a non-literary context, we hear a newspaper account from 1831 involving some Irish burglars unsuccessfully employing the talisman, and of an actual specimen recovered from inside a wall in 1935 and now preserved in the museum of the north English town of Whitby.

Whitby hand
Hand of glory in the Whitby Museum

The strange name for this talisman, btw, comes from the French word for mandrake “mandragora,” which was heard by Brits as “main de gloire” (“hand of glory”).

But there are other parallels contributing to this confusion.  As we noted in our “Bottled Spirits” episode in our discussion of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel Galgenmännlein, or “little Gallows man,” the mandrake plant was believe to be seeded by bodily emissions (almost always semen) ejected from the hanged man at death.

We hear a bit more of the strange folklore of the mandrake, and then have a look at how this theme was explored in the 1911 novel Alraune (another German word for “mandrake”),  a sort of early science-fiction story by Hanns Heinz Ewers describing the results of an experiment in which a prostitute is impregnated with the semen of a hanged man. The novel has been adopted several times in German cinema, including a 1952 version featuring Erich von Stroheim, which we hear in the background.

We close with a cheery hanging ballad: “MacPherson’s Lament,” supposedly composed by Scottish outlaw Jamie MacPherson on the eve of his execution in 1700.

Alraune
Poster for Alraune, 1930

 

 

 

 

#21 A Deal with the Devil

#21 A Deal with the Devil

The legend of Faust is the archetypal deal with the Devil. This episode looks at the figure as represented in folklore, local legends, plays, puppet shows, literature, films, and opera.

A precedent for the tale seems to be the story of St. Theophilus, a cleric in 6th-century Adana (in modern Turkey) who, as legends have it, summoned the Devil to help elevate him to the status of bishop (and, yes, there is some repentence involved in this one, seeing as how he went down in Church history as a saint).  He is the subject of a 13th-century French play, The Miracle of Theophilus, which happens to be the source of a chant to summon Lucifer written in an unknown language — one, which made its way into Wiccan traditions via Gerald Gardner, and which even ended up in the lyrics of the 1969 album Witchcraft Destroys Minds & Reaps Souls by the band Coven.  The segment starts with a snippet from this cult album.

There does seem to have been an actual magician, astrologer, or alchemist by the name of Faust wandering southern Germany in the late 15th and early 16th century, though very little is known of his life other than passing references in a few letters and some town records noting that individuals by this who were banned for fraudulent or roguish activities.  We look at a few of these historic references.

Legends regarding the figure are more plentiful.  We hear of a number of supposedly dangerous grimoires attributed to Faust said to be kept at sites in Germany and also discuss a number of legendary feats of magic (including conjuring an entire castle along with a sumptuous, if unsatisfying, banquet for castle guests).  We also have a look at a number of towns offering “evidence” that they were the site where the Devil came to claim the doctor, including one town that rents a room in an ancient inn where the grim event was said to have transpired.

Frontispiece "The remarkable life of Dr. Faustus, a German astrologer and enchanter" (1838)
Frontispiece “The remarkable life of Dr. Faustus, a German astrologer and enchanter” (1838)

The meat of our show is a look at the earliest written narrative on Faust, a chapbook published anonymously in Frankfurt in 1587, The History of Doctor Johann Faustus.  We hear a dramatic, even cinematic, passage describing Faust’s summoning of the Devil in Germany’s Spessart forest (an area rich in folklore and home to the Brother’s Grimm). Also related are Faust’s whirlwind tour of of Hell, a number of comic supernatural pranks he plays, and, of course, the dramatic hour of reckoning and its grisly aftermath.

Richard Burton in his 1967 film, Doctor Faustus
Richard Burton in his 1967 film, Doctor Faustus

We next hear some snippets from one of the legend’s most prominent film treatments, the 1967 Richard Burton-Elizabeth Taylor vehicle Doctor Faustus. Though the subject of numerous negative reviews, the film may appeal to horror fans thanks to its visual styling similar to a Hammer film of the period.  The wonderful 1926 German silent, Faust, by F.W. Murnau (director of Nosferatu) is also mentioned.

Marlowe's Faustus
Marlowe’s Faustus

The script for Richard Burton’s film was the classic of Elizabethan stage,The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.  Though the story presented by Marlowe is rather similar to the chapbook version previously discussed, we hear of a few comic additions made then jump forward a bit in theater history to William Mountfort’s pointedly comic 1697 work, The Life and Death of Dr Faustus, Made into a Farce, with Harlequin and Scaramouche.  Wilkinson shares some monologues from the play spoken by two of the Seven Deadly Sins.  We also have a look at the legend’s treatment in Faust puppet shows popular in Germany and Bohemia, a tradition that proved influential on the 1994 Czech film, Faust, Jan Švankmajer’s must-watch stop-motion/live-action treatment of the story.  We hear bits of the audio from the Švankmajer film as well as a couple more Faust films, the Peter Cooke-Dudley Moore comedy Bedazzled (1967) and the nicely dreadful 2000 horror-superhero film, Faust: Love of the Damned.

From Jan Švankmajer's Faust (1994)
From Jan Švankmajer’s Faust (1994)

The show closes with a look at Faust at the opera, namely Hector Berlioz’ 1846 work,The Damnation of Faust (with a nod to Charles Gounod’s operatic take on the tale).  In particular we look at a famously disastrous staging of the Berlioz work by the Paris National Opera in 2015.

 

 

Episode 2: Walpurgisnacht, Pt 2

Episode 2: Walpurgisnacht, Pt 2

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In our second episode on the grim folklore of Walpurgisnacht — that is May Eve or April 30, St. Walburga’s day — we meet Walburga, the saint whose name was attached to what was likely a pre-existing pagan holiday.

St. Walpurga with a vial of her holy bone-drippings.
St. Walpurga with a vial of her holy bone-drippings.

While the saint’s bones for centuries have been said to be the source of a miraculously curative oil, namesake children dedicated to her have a significantly less holy reputation, with Walburga Oesterreich being a particularly notorious example known for her involvement in a bizarre murder we’ll briefly discuss.

More practices associated with Walpurgisnacht are provided by the highly influential, if a bit outdated, armchair anthropologist Sir James Frazer, of Golden Bough.   The association between this day dedicated to the obscure German saint and witchcraft becomes clear as we examine the many prophylactics against evil spirits afoot on the occasion. Listen close so you know what to do with the black and red spotted hemlock!  Keep that bonfire stoked…

“So far as the light of the bonfire reaches, so far will a blessing rest on the fields.”

Frazer's The Golden Bough, 1936.
Frazer’s The Golden Bough, 1936.

Then we jump into real nexus of that association between witchcraft and Walpurgisnacht, that is, the play Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which not only established the night as a notorious witches’ sabbath, but also did much to localize to Germany’s Blocksberg (or Brocken) mountain.  A Cliff Notes encapsulation of the witches sabbath scene is rather flippantly re-enacted for your audio enjoyment, wherein you will hear this oft quoted passage from Goethe:

Now, to the Brocken, the witches ride;
The stubble is gold, the corn is green;
There is the carnival crew to be seen,
And Master Urian will come to preside.
So over the valleys, our company floats,
With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.

Theatrical poster for Faust. Lithograph by Dickman, Jones & Hettrich
Theatrical poster for Faust. Lithograph by Dickman, Jones & Hettrich
At the witches' sabbath. Eugène DELACROIX -plate 15 from Faust, 1828
At the witches’ sabbath. Eugène DELACROIX -plate 15 from Faust, 1828

We discuss the mythology of witches and mountains a bit more generally, surveying a few other German mountains upon which or within which lost souls and dabblers in witchcraft are said to play or reside.  Then we get into some details on the Blocksberg relationship to witches, and the 1688 book which spread the reputation of the Blocksberg  and inspired Goethe. Herein we are provided with many useful specifics such as the manner of transport the witches use to reach the mountain.  Among the methods catalogued: flying with the assistance magic salves or on brooms, shovels, or pitchforks.  Or on flying animals: goats, calves, wolves, Cats and dogs are listed.  I don’t think it says how the animals can fly.

Along the way, we learn how specific features of the landscape on and around the Brocken have developed their own mythologies and associations.  Such tales have always drawn the curious, and Walpurgisnacht tourism associated with this mountain, and indeed the whole legend-rich Harz mountain region wherein the Brocken lies, has grown over the centuries, as attested to by artifacts like the postcards collected below.

Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.
Postcard commemorating Walpurgisnacht on the Brocken mountain.

While the ominous reputation of the mountain may have lost something in our present day, modern celebrations of Walpurgisnacht are nothing if not enthusiastic… (Below, the “gone viral” video mentioned in the episode.)

Then there’s the Brocken Specter, a weird optical phenomenon that takes its name from the mountain.  It appears in low-hanging clouds or mist as a huge, looming, elongated shadowy encircled by a rainbow halo and is caused by the sun behind human figure projecting a shadow on the clouds when atmospheric conditions.  More than all my babbling in the podcast, videos like the one below may convey some of its eerie effect…

Last but not least we have a look at paranormal researcher and prankster/publicity hound Harry Price and his shenanigans atop the Blocksberg in 1932.  A photo from his highly theatrical reenactment of “The Blocksberg Tryst,” a 15th-century Walpurgisnacht ritual supposedly once conducted on the mountain with miraculous results below…

Harry Price's Brocken experiment
Harry Price’s Brocken experiment

NOTE: My apologies to all listeners for an uncorrected mispronunciation in Episode 2, namely the hard “G” in the name of the talking Mongoose “Gef” investigated by paranormalist Harry Price.  Apparently, the animal informed witnesses that his name was “Jeff,” but was not very good at spelling when called upon to spell it out.  You can find more on Gef from our friends at The Folklore Podcast.

Contemporary press coverage of the "talking" mongoose.
Contemporary press coverage of the “talking” mongoose.