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 (see hex;
powwowing). 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
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 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
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 29
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
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
Wilbert, to $2.80, as the district attorney claimed later.
Rehmeyer’s body was discovered on November 30
by 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 at 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
30 Blymire, John
$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.
In the secret world of Pennsylvania