It was the dark of night on Thanksgiving Day 1928, when three farmers stole into the house of another man located in York County's Rehmeyer's Hollow. They tortured and murdered Nelson Rehmeyer spurred by the belief that he was a witch doctor steeped in the old Dutch mysticism known as Pow-Wows.
In 1820, John George Hohman, a German author penned a book titled The Long Lost Friend, which was composed of a "collection of mysterious arts and remedies for man as well as animals." There were spells, recipes and talismans to be used as cures including domestic troubles. It served as the blueprint for folk magic practiced by the Pennsylvania Dutch known as pow-wowing.
1928, turned out to be a bad year for several people living in the same corner of Pennsylvania.
Nelson Rehmeyer, 59, lived alone on his 40-acre farm with a dilapidated house and stable on it. His wife Alice separated from him eight years before, and moved in with her daughters at the family's old homestead about a mile away. He was considered reclusive, and was known to practice pow-wow.
For John Blymyer (Blymire), 1928, was the last in a string of bad luck years. His wife left him, two of this three children died and steady employment eluded him. His figure was regularly seen walking the streets of York and the country lanes beyond it. He blamed witches for bringing down this blight upon him.
In 1923, he’d been an "inmate of the county almshouse and was later taken to the state hospital for the insane at Harrisburg". He escaped during a baseball game on the hospital grounds. He was hunted for a year, but a new ruling from the hospital stated that escaped patients were legally free after a lapse of one year.
Blymyer, 32, desperate to escape the black cloud he'd existed under, asked John Curry, 14 and Wilbert Hess, 18, to act as his accomplices. Hess' reason for joining in was his family's streak of "bad luck".
Blymyer hired himself out as a pow-wow doctor to Hess' father when he was planning to confront Rehmeyer. He told Hess that to break the curse, Rehmeyer's copy of the Long Lost Friend was to be burned, and a lock of his hair should be buried eight feet deep behind the chicken coop.
John Curry met the older man at a cigar factory where they once worked. Curry was left an orphan at the age of 5 when his father died, and he ran away from home to escape the beatings inflicted by his drunken stepfather.
A day later, on Thanksgiving Day, Rehmeyer's neighbor heard of his mules braying. He came to the stables and found the animal had not been fed. Once he came to the house he found the body.
The neighbor named Glatfelter, during the trial described what he found:
Lying on the floor, face down, with the head resting on a block of kindling wood, was the body of Rehmeyer. There was a heavy piece of rope around the neck. The arms were pinioned behind the back, and held there with a strong piece of rope from a brand new halter, only purchased last week, tied around the arms, close to the shoulders. The legs were crossed, and the feet tied together with lighter rope. The legs were bent so that they were forced toward the back of the man's body.
Rehmeyer had three holes in his head, and parts of a broken chair littered the floor. Blood and ashes surrounded the body. Most of his clothing had been burned off, and the body was charred with third degree burns. A coal oil lamp was found with only a bit of kerosene left in it and the wick was pulled out. This is what they used to set him on fire, and they hoped the rest of the home would incinerate in order to cover their crime.
Mrs. Rehmeyer told police that Blymyer came to her home the day before asking about her husband, and she told him that he was at his farm. She recognized him as a "bad sort". He'd been known to stay with her husband on occasion.
Curry was the first to be arrested. He immediately confessed and implicated Blymyer
When questioned by the district attorney, the three men said that Rehmeyer had been killed because he had "cast a spell over young Hess and his father, Milton G. Hess".
According to them Blymyer had been employed by Mr. Hess to put a "spell" over relatives of family who'd forbidden them the use of a road near their farm. The cost of the spellwork was $50 and so far Mr. Hess had given him $10. Then it became known that the Hess relatives had hired Rehmeyer to issue a counter-spell against the Hess family.
It turned out both Blymyer and Rehmeyer were practitioners of pow-wow, a form of folk magic that flourished among the Pennsylvania Dutch starting in the 17th century.
The district attorney questioned John Blymyer closely about the murder the previous December of Gertrude Rudy, 16. She was found mutilated lying on the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks on the outskirts of York County. Several men were questioned, but the crime remained unsolved. Blymyer worked in the same neighborhood as Gertrude and admitted he knew who she was. He'd worked at the same factory as the girl, and even attended her funeral.
The state police sent an officer and another "mystery man" to investigate further if Blymyer was connected to the Rudy murder. The only witness they'd found was William Goodling, son of a man who Blymyer was living with at the time of the girl's death. The young man told them he saw Gertrude Rudy in Blymyer's room, however Blymyer denied this. The police found the majority of answers to be evasive, but there was not enough evidence to implicate him in the murder.
On December 2, Rehmeyer was buried at Sadler's Church Cemetery. His estranged wife and two children attended the funeral. Detectives were also there, and they learned the deceased had kept $800 in a jar. The money was nowhere to be found.
Despite the claims of the accused that the motive had been witchcraft or "voodooism", there was suspicion that robbery was the true reason for the crime. They said they'd been forced to kill Rehmeyer when he resisted his hair being cut. Once he'd been incapacitated his hair had been too bloody, and the only way to break the hex was to kill him.
Testimony given during the trial exposed the role witchcraft and fear of curses played in the murder of Nelson Rehmeyer. Eventually despite pleas of insanity or the fear of being hexed, all three were convicted and sentenced to serve life sentences. The story gained international attention.
During the investigation, Dr. Zech, York county coroner informed the state and federal authorities that a score of infants died in the last five years because they were denied regular medical treatment and turned over instead to the care of pow-wow doctors.
Helen Agnes Eiker, 21, who was serving a prison sentence for the second degree murder conviction for the killing of her husband Percy Elker told the D.A. that a powwow doctor treated her before she shot her husband to death.
October 23, 1953, John Blymyer was paroled after five attempts at freedom. He'd served 23 years of his sentence. Curry was released after serving 10 years, and granted a complete pardon in 1943. Hess was released in 1939.
John Curry later went on to earn a spot as a cartographer on Eisenhower's staff during WW II for his artistic skills. His paintings are still found in many homes in York county.
The old Rehmeyer's house is presently owned by his great grandson, who runs it as a museum. Rehmeyer Hollow was since renamed to Spring Valley County Park.
Here's an example of a cure for hysteria and colds from the bible of powwowers, the early 19th-century book "Lost Lost Friend":
This must be attended to every evening, that is, whenever you pull off your shoes and stockings, run your finger in between all the toes and smell it. This will certainly effect a cure.
Stranger Than Fiction Stories by Marlene Pardo Pellicer