U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rural Witchcraft and Intellectualism

This semester I’m writing a paper on transnational conceptions of witchcraft. As many of you know, this is far afield from what I “do.” But I’ve gotten more and more interested in academic studies of witchcraft (and the absence of books on 20th century witchcraft and magic in the United States, as if everything stopped post Salem.). The majority of studies on the topic focus on the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe. These are perfect for my project on transnationalism, but not so great for my study of the United States. The vast majority of books written on the topic in the United States focus on Salem, or are clearly living in it’s shadow.

There is one recent synthesis on witchcraft and magic post Salem,America Bewitched: The Story of Witchcraft after Salem by Owen Davis and the new Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Magic does a lot of great work. These books have paved the way for more “serious” scholarly studies of witchcraft and folk magic. But there is still much room for expansion in this literature.

My own interest in the subject stems from from an event that happened in my rural home county in the 1920s. In 1929 a York County, Pennsylvania man Nelson Rehmeyer was murdered by three men because they believed he had cursed them, using Pow-Wow, a form of Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Magic. The men originally aimed to destroy his copy of Pow Wows, or Long Lost Friend, as instructed by the Witch of Marietta (a powerful witch in the area). Rehmeyer was in fact a practicer of Pow-Wow. He was also an active socialist and autodidact.  To complicate the story, Rehmeyer’s murderers all practiced Pow-Wow as well.

The case became national news, headlines commenting on the backwardness of Pow Wow and the amazement that people were still practicing and believing in witchcraft in the mid 20th century. Jokes and criticism about rural people abounded. But this murder, in many ways, precluded serious study of Nelson Rehmeyer as an activist, intellectual, and practitioner of folklore. Much of his use of Pow-Wow was devoted to healing people. He read voraciously and became involved in socialist politics in a very conservative area. 

This case has piqued my interest for numerous reasons. I’m from York County, and I’ve driven by the Rehwemeyer’s Hollow house more times than I can count. But the case gets at a lot of issues in intellectual history that I’m interested in: conceptions of modernity, folk cultures, and informal intellectual practices. Nelson Rehmeyer, and other practices of Pow-Wow, were healers with medical knowledge. They also studied folklore, history, science, and in the case of Rehmeyer, radical politics. But when the case hit the news, the focus was on the backwards rural people still murdering witches rather than their complex systems of knowledge production.

There are a few books on the case: Hex by Arthur Lewis, published in 1972 which is currently out of print.  Their is a relatively recent documentary on it Hex Hollow: Witchcraft and Murder in Pennsylvania as well as a fictional series based on the events.  Pow Wows, or Long Lost Friend, the book of Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Magic, is still in print and pretty cheap. But there is little academic work on the subject.

Studies of 20th century rural witchcraft, folk magic, and intellectual practices are few and far between. But it would behoove academics to consider the intellectualism of these people, often dismissed as remnants from the distant past.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ronald Hutton’s history of “Modern Pagan Witchcraft,”The Triumph of the Moon (Oxford, 1999), has a chapter on the United States (“Uncle Sam and the Goddess”).

    Although his history is mainly British (for obvious reasons), it’s a nice addition to twentieth-century conceptions of witchcraft, including pop culture references.

  2. I’m not sure what you mean by “transnationalism,” but perhaps there are some titles here that may be of interest:
    • Ashforth, Adam. Witchcraft, Violence, and Democracy in South Africa. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
    • Bannerman-Richter, Gabriel. The Practice of Witchcraft in Ghana. Winona, MN: Apollo Books, 1982.
    • Bongmba, Elias Kifon. African Witchcraft and Otherness: A Philosophical and Theological Critique of Intersubjective Relations. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001.
    • Douglas, Mary, ed. Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations. London: Tavistock, 1970.
    • Evans-Pritchard, E.E. Witchcraft Oracles and Magic among the Azande. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1937.
    • Geschiere, Peter. The Modernity of Witchcraft. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1997.
    • Hallen, B. and J.O. Sodipo. Knowledge, Belief, and Witchcraft: Analytic Experiments in African Philosophy. London: Ethnographica, 1986.
    • Marwick, Max, ed. Witchcraft and Sorcery: Selected Readings. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books, 2nd ed., 1990.
    • Middleton, John. Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press, 1967.
    • Middleton, John and E.H. Winter. Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963.
    • Moore, Henrietta L. and Todd Sanders, eds. Magical Interpretations, Material Realities: Modernity, Witchcraft and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa. New York: Routledge, 2001.
    • Mutwa, Credo Vusa’mazulu. My People: The Writings of a Zulu Witchdoctor. London: Anthony Blond, 1969.
    • Niehaus, Isak. Witchcraft, Power and Politics: Exploring the Occult in the South African Lowveld. London: Pluto Press, 2001.
    • Peters, Edward. The Magician, the Witch, and the Law. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.
    • ter Haar, Gerrie, ed. Imagining Evil: Witchcraft Beliefs and Accusations in Contemporary Africa. Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 2007.

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