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Hunting witches has a very old history in North America.
From the dawn of the 17th century, long before the Salem witch trials, accused witches went on trial in virtually every English colony and various "satanic" practices, including fortune-telling, cursing, and practising folk healing could and did mean the death penalty for many who stood accused. While acquittals did occur, the use of torture to force confessions helped ensure a steady stream of customers for the hangman, most of whom were old women who happened to be unpopular with their neighbours for one reason or another.
Even after the Salem witch trials ended in 1693 and the very public embarrassment that came with it, the occasional accusation of witchcraft still continued though actual executions became much rarer. People became more skeptical about the role that witchcraft supposedly played in their daily lives and the world moved onto more secular concerns. Once the Acte against Conjuration Witchcrafte and dealing with evill and wicked Spirits was repealed in 1735, the separation of church and state supposedly meant that old women could walk the streets without being threatened with hanging.
But belief in witchcraft never completely faded away. Whether it focused on fortune-telling, folk remedies, or laying the odd curse on people their customers didn't like, witchcraft (even if it wasn't specifically known by that name) remained popular well into the 19th century and beyond. During the 1850s, a rather enterprising reporter named Mortimer Thomson wrote a series of articles on the fortunetellers who plied their trade in New York City. Referring to these women as the "witches of New York", Thomson accused them of being "dangerous criminals" who enticed people with a wide range of scams including astrology, spiritualism, and fortune-telling. He also accused them of enticing prominent businessmen as well as luring innocent young girls into prostitution (despite having no evidence of this). Thomson even went so far as to visit these witchy fortune tellers in drag to pose as a female customer (after grudgingly shaving off his magnificent moustache). Despite his best efforts thoug, witch hysteria never returned to New York city and his articles did little more than titillate the curiosity of potential customers.
Still, the fear of witches never completely went away in other parts of the country. In what came to be known as the "Second Salem" case, Mary Baker Eddy accused an ex-student of hers, Daniel Spofford, of using "harmful animal magnetism" to attack her and several of her students. While it was likely a coincidence that the resulting trial was held in Salem, Massachusetts, reporters had a field day with Eddy's apparent attempt at rolling back the clock to the days of the first witch craze. Though the charges were eventually dismissed in 1878, the case is still considered to be the last witchcraft trial of its kind to be held in the United States.
As the 20th century dawned, spirit mediums, fortune tellers, and other assorted magic workers had little difficulty plying their trade. Though skeptics objected, the prevailing view seemed to be that nobody really took witchcraft seriously anymore. Certainly the days when someone could be killed as a suspected witch were long past in the United States.
Or were they?
On November 27, 1928, a neighbour discovered the body of farmer Nelson Rehmeyer in the kitchen of York County, Pennsylvania home. In what was later described by witnesses as a scene of horror, what was left of Rehmeyer's body had been mixed in with the remains of an old blanket and mattress. Investigators determined that the 60-year-old farmer had been tied up and beaten before his body was set on fire, apparently to destroy any potential evidence. The perpetrators had likely hoped that the house would burn to the ground but, ironically enough, closing the house up tight before they left prevented any air from getting to the funeral pyre they had made. Eventually, the victim's own body fluids leaked out and extinguished the flames
Since Rehmeyer had no known enemies, police had little to go on except to question his estranged wife who was living nearby. This is what gave them their big break in the case since, while she didn't known anything about they murder, she did recall that two men had come by and asked her where to find her husband two nights previously. Both men were well known to police though they had no history of violent crime. The first man, John Blymer, was a 30-something self-proclaimed "powwow doctor" (a practitioner of folk medicine common in Pennsylvania Dutch country). He also had a reputation for being somewhat simple-minded and had been recently deserted by his wife after the death of his two children. All of these recent misfortunes, along with the recent loss of his job, he attributed to a "run of bad luck" that he couldn't shake no matter what powwow spells he used. The second man was 14-year-old John Curry, who had also believed himself to be hexed because various misfortunes in his life as well.
When questioned by police, both men quickly confessed and implicated a third man, 18-year-old Wilbert Hess, who was arrested as well. Not only did they have the statements of the three suspects, but Wilbert Hess's brother, Clayton, even told police that Blymer had confessed to him that he had killed Rehmeyer. Despite hints that there was more to the murder that anyone was willing to admit, police and prosecutors were determined to treat Nelson Rehmeyer's death as a robbery gone wrong and the trial was scheduled to begin in early 1929. To nobody's surprise, all three men were held in jail until they could appear in court.
While prosecutors did their best to avoid any sensationalism, that didn't last long. Things took a rather macabre turn when the trial began and Clayton Hess was called to give testimony. According to Clayton, John Blymer's confession consisted of four simple words: "I got the witch." Basically, the three men had killed Nelson Rehmeyer because they suspected him of being a witch who had hexed all three of them. And from that point on, what had started as a routine murder case was suddenly transformed into the York County Hex Murder case. It would soon become one of the most spectacular criminal trials of the 1920s.
While there was never any doubt that Blymer and his two confederates were guilty of murder, their reason for the killing would put York County in the public eye and demonstrate just how deep the old beliefs in witchcraft and "powwow medicine" ran in many of the country's rural regions.
To be continued
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