What is a witch? Ask anyone and you’ll be provided with a description. Pointy black hat, big wart, black cloak, flying on a broomstick-you know a witch. From the Wicked Witch of the West to the Salem Witch Trials, it’s clear that witchcraft has left its mark on American culture.
Pennsylvania has many historic accounts of witches and witchcraft. One reason is indirectly tied to the founder of the state, William Penn. Quakers are known for tolerance of religious beliefs. This relative freedom of religion attracted numerous immigrants who were members of both traditional and obscure religious sects.
These immigrants brought a strong tradition of belief in the supernatural and witches. In later years, other settlers came bringing their own traditions and folklore. Many accounts of witchcraft have survived because of Pennsylvania’s long record of preserving its history and folklore.
But who were the witches? Some consider those who use any magic to be a witch, but witchcraft in Pennsylvania exists as part of the larger system of folk healing and supernatural belief. A person labeled a healer in one instance may be labeled a witch in different circumstances. These blurring of lines make the study of witchcraft difficult.
It was difficult to defend against charges of witchcraft. In Europe, witch trials often ended in execution. That was not the case in Pennsylvania. William Penn himself judged Pennsylvania’s only official witchcraft trial.
Historian Thomas White overviews the role of witchcraft and associated folk beliefs in “Witches of Pennsylvania, Occult History and Lore.” He starts in the colonial period with William Penn’s handling of the state’s first witch trial*.
He also covers the Pennsylvania German traditions of powwow and hex. The belief in folk magic was integrated with their Christian beliefs for most Germans. Occult ideas were more accepted in Germany than England.
There was the practice of Brauche which is more commonly known as powwowing**. Powwowers perform a magical-religious folk healing and claim to draw healing power from God. They provided relief from symptoms, protection from evil, and removal of hexes. They also located lost objects, animals, and people.
There was also the Hexerei, who used dark magic beyond the normal use of a folk healer. This witch would commit acts of supernatural power drawn from dark forces. These hexes would be cast for a price, or out of revenge. For many, the line between witch and powwower was not sharply drawn.
The meaning of the colorful Pennsylvania German barn decorations known as hex signs has long been a source of controversy. Popular opinion holds that these signs are a form of supernatural talisman, though most academics believe that they were purely decorative. It may simply be that some people ascribed supernatural significance to hex signs and some did not.
In the early twentieth century, the practice of witchcraft and powwow came to be viewed as a threat by professionals. Doctors sought to educate citizens and eradicate such practices. Doctors believed such treatments would cause harm.
The rise of American Consumerism after World War II began to blur regional and cultural differences. The witches were tied to the ethnic cultures of their parents, and fewer of the younger generations showed interests in learning the old ways of healing. It seemed out of place in the suburbs.
Still, the practice has not died out and in recent years has made a comeback as interest in the supernatural has grown. For many young people, the witch has entered the realm of urban legend. For some, German magical beliefs are still alive in the modern world…
*It’s said that Penn commented that there was no law against riding a broomstick.
**Not to be confused with the Native American ceremony of the same name.
Which witch is which? Comment and let me know.