Why you should care
Because evil can live in the minds of men.
It was desperation that drove John Blymire to the farmhouse of Mrs. Knopt on those autumn nights. For years, Blymire was convinced he had been hexed, and that the curse was to blame for all the misery in his life — his nervous disposition, his night sweats, his bad luck.… And so the haggard 32-year-old sought out Knopt, the witch of Marietta — aka Nellie Noll, the river witch — whose occult powers were well-known throughout York and Lancaster counties in southeastern Pennsylvania. Perhaps she could lift the hex at long last. Over the course of six sessions — $5 each — the old woman gradually revealed the identify of the man who had cursed Blymire: Nelson D. Rehmeyer.
And so one of the strangest murders in the history of the Keystone State was set in motion.
To lift the curse, Blymire had to bury his tormentor’s copy of a sacred spell book and a lock of his hair.
By 1928 most Americans had long since relegated superstitious tales of witches and hexes to 17th-century Salem and Puritan New England. Not so among the rural hills and hollows of Pennsylvania, where the Amish kept alive the unique folk-healing traditions of brauch or brauchen — “powwow” in English. The tradition mixes pagan rituals with Christian theology, and features herbal remedies, ceremonies and charms designed to heal or protect a person seeking help. (Brauchen also means “need.”) “Those unfamiliar with powwow think it’s an evil practice when in fact it’s a Christian practice used for good, not evil,” explains Shane Free, director of the 2015 documentary Hex Hollow: Witchcraft and Murder in Pennsylvania.
In those days, most powwowers held healing or hexing sessions in their farmhouses, although a few “doctors” had discreet offices in the small cities of Lancaster and York. A powwower might instruct someone suffering from an overactive bladder to burn a hog’s bladder and then eat the ashes, or he might tell a “patient” with a wound to repeat the phrase “blood, thou must stop, until the Virgin Mary bring forth another son,” according to David W. Kriebel’s Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch (Penn State University Press, 2007).
As for Blymire, he initially refused to believe the elderly witch. Rehmeyer was a family friend, a renowned powwower who had been called on to remove Blymire’s hexes on at least three occasions during his miserable childhood. To convince her supplicant, who was also a powwower, Knopt asked the distraught man to place a dollar bill on the palm of his hand, according to Kriebel’s account. When she pulled the bill away, the head and torso of Rehmeyer appeared to Blymire.
Diagnosis confirmed, Knopt presented her prescription: To lift the curse, Blymire must bury his tormentor’s copy of a sacred powwow spell book, The Long Lost Friend, by John George Hohman, and a lock of Rehmeyer’s hair. Blymire knew that the 6-foot-2 Rehmeyer, still powerfully built at age 60, would not give up his spell book without a fight, so he enlisted John Curry, 14, and Wilbert Hess, 18, convincing the boys that Rehmeyer had hexed them as well.
Three months later, on the evening of Nov. 27, 1928, Blymire and his two accomplices drove to Rehmeyer’s weathered, two-story clapboard farmhouse in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. It was Thanksgiving Eve, and the pale light of a full moon illuminated the chilly autumn landscape in Rehmeyer’s Hollow. Armed with sticks and 25 feet of rope, Blymire and the boys demanded that the old witch surrender his spell book. When Rehmeyer refused, they bound him to a chair in the kitchen and beat him. At trial, Blymire accused Curry of delivering the fatal blow at 12:01 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
Panicked, the three cursed murderers doused Rehmeyer’s corpse with lamp oil and set it on fire, hoping the blaze would burn down the house and destroy the evidence of their crime. But the fire did not spread, and two days later, a neighbor discovered Rehmeyer’s charred remains. Superstitious locals saw occult forces at work, noting the fact that the fire did not consume the old wooden house and the kitchen clock had stopped at 12:01.
It did not take long for the authorities to track down Blymire, Curry and Hess, who all confessed. In spite of the grave charges he faced, Blymire claimed that he finally was at peace — Rehmeyer’s death had lifted the hex.
What became known as the York Witch Trials began on Jan. 9, 1929, with Judge Ray Sherwood presiding. Sherwood ruled that all mention of hexes and witchcraft be edited out of the trio’s confessions before committing them to record. In court documents, the motive for the crime is robbery. Five days later, Blymire and Curry were found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Hess was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced 10 to 20 years. Blymire and Curry were both paroled in 1939 and returned to York County, as did Blymire, who was paroled in 1953. None of the men ever committed another crime.
Rehmeyer’s great-grandson now owns the farmhouse, known to locals as Hex Hollow, and welcomes visitors who inspect the charred floorboards, protected by Plexiglas, and stare at the clock, still frozen at 12:01. Though the trials occurred nearly a century ago, Free maintains that among the people of York County, the jury is still out. “The relatives of Rehmeyer find his murder tragic and insist he was simply a farmer who intended to help people,” Free says. “He kept to himself, which led some people to believe he had something to hide. [But] some relatives of the murderers, the old-timers, believe that Rehmeyer was up to no good and that he could have been responsible for some of the men’s bad luck.”