The Great American Witchhunt (Part Three)

Continued from Part Tw0

Interestingly enough, all three men convicted of Nelson Rehmeyer's murder did relatively well in prison.   Certainly none of them served their full sentence and managed to return to their lives, albeit older and somewhat wiser.   After being sent to the notorious Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia,  they all became model prisoners.   In fact, Hess and Curry became "born again" after attending services held at the prison by the Women's Christian Temperance Union.   

Wilbert Hess was the first to be paroled in 1939 after serving ten years in prison.  He returned to his family harm, got married, and began a long career as a factory worker.   Beyond that, he largely vanished into obscurity.   As for John Curry, he had a more interesting career, in and out prison.   His first cellmate was Claude D'Aras,  a former student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.   After D'Aras discovered that Curry had a talent for art, he taught him to sketch and work with paints.   A prison volunteer who was also a gifted artist later took over Curry's art education and taught him to paint landscapes using paints he purchased with the 20 cents a day he earned working in a prison office.  After a transfer to the lower-security Rockview Prison, Curry was eventually paroled in 1939, the same year as Wilbert Hess.  Following his release, he served as a cartographer during World War II and helped produce the maps that would aid in the Invasion of Normandy.   Following the end of the war, he supported himself by painting portraits  before fading into obscurity they way Wilbert Hess did.

As for John Blymer, he reportedly served his prison sentence quietly with no indication of any resentment over his long incarceration.   It must have seemed an interesting tradeoff for him:  prison in exchange for being freed of the hex that had carried for as long as he could remember.   Despite repeated attempts to get his sentence commuted,  he was not released until 1953 when he too returned home.  After remarrying and having more children, he worked in obscurity as a janitor and night watchman.    Though his famous crime ensured that he never completely faded from the public eye, he managed to live quietly enough.  He died in 1972.

But the story of the York Country Hex Murder has taken on a life of its own.   Though the house where Nelson Rehmeyer died is no longer standing, the surrounding area is now known as Rehmeyer's Hollow and local lore has made it a prime source for ghost stories.   It has also become a tourist haunt, something that vexes the farmer living on the land where Rehmeyer's house once stood.  In a 1995 news story, he pointed out the cinder blocks that are the only remaining part of the original house.   He also described the odd antics of many of the curiosity-seekers who come to the area in search of the house and evidence of the "powwow magic" that lays at the heart of the story.  Some hopeful visitors even ask him if he was a witch (whether they are in the market for cures or curses was never clear).

Much of the remaining public interest in Nelson Rehmeyer's murder stems from a 1969  book, Hex,  by Arthur H. Lewis as well as  a 1989 movie, Apprentice to Murder, starring Donald Sutherland.  There are also various tours of Rehmeyer's Hollow available to anyone willing to pay.   The most popular of these is the Hex Hollow Haunted Hayride run by the local volunteer fire company (and providing a good chunk of the 220px-Apprentice-to-murder-movie-poster-1988[1]company's annual operating revenues).  

Not everyone enjoys the attention however.   The Rehmeyer family continues to deny many of the claims made about their murdered ancestor, especially about him being a powwow doctor.   Also, a tenant living on the property describes how his two-year old has often been bothered by late-night chants of "Witch, Witch" shouted out by ghosthunters (most often around Halloween).   For the visitors though, visiting the site of a witch murder is something they seem to find hard to take seriously.

But the witchhunting furor that doomed Nelson Rehmeyer hasn't been completely forgotten.  In 1934, just a few years after Rehmeyer's murder, another homicide involving an accused witch occurred in Ringtown, Pennsylvania, not that far from York County.   63-year-old Susannah Mummey, a reclusive widow with somewhat of a "reputation" for being a seer,  was shot and killed by an unknown gunman while she was sitting in her house with her daughter and a tenant.  As police later determined, the gunman had stood on her front porch and fired repeatedly through the window, narrowly missing the others while putting a bullet right through Mummey's heart.   Their investigation also determined that the dead woman was notorious for supposedly putting the "evil eye" on people who displeased her.  One neighbour even went to far as to say he was glad she was dead since she had "hexed" his mules.    Eventually, the police arrested 17-year-old Al Shinsky, a local youth who blamed Susannah Mummey for the "physical and mental torment" he experienced after she hexed him.  During his interrogation, Shinsky claimed that a "spirit from the sky" descended and told him to kill Mummey to break the spell on him, which he did.   Unlike Nelson Rehmeyer's killers, Al Shinsky was found insane and sent to a local psychiatric hospital.  He would spent the next forty-one years there before being released.

While the belief in witches remains strong in other parts of the world, including frequent witch killings, there haven't been any recent murder cases suggesting active witch hysteria in the United States.   Certainly there are still "powwow doctors" in parts of rural Appalachia and vodun practitioners in the southern U.S., or at least there were until recently.   Old traditions die hard though and, given the widespread belief in demonic possession and faith healing that still grips many areas, who can say whether those days are gone completely?    



Related Stories

  • The Great American Witch Hunt (Part Two)
  • Elderly Couple Burned to Death For Witchcraft
  • The Lanfray Murders


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