Cover image for Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch: A Traditional Medical Practice in the Modern World By David W. Kriebel

Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch

A Traditional Medical Practice in the Modern World

David W. Kriebel

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$35.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03213-9

$24.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07575-4

312 pages
6" × 9"
6 b&w illustrations
2007
Co-published with the Pennsylvania German Society

Pennsylvania German History and Culture

Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch

A Traditional Medical Practice in the Modern World

David W. Kriebel

“Making the subject even more fascinating is Kriebel’s contention that some modern powwow activists have reinvigorated the ancient practice as a ‘new age’ phenomenon. Altogether, a fascinating exploration of a novel subject.”

 

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Known in Pennsylvania Dutch as Brauche or Braucherei, the folk-healing practice of powwowing was thought to draw upon the power of God to heal all manner of physical and spiritual ills. Yet some people believed—and still believe today—that this power to heal came not from God, but from the devil. Controversy over powwowing came to a climax in 1929 with the York Hex Murder Trial, in which one powwower killed another who, he believed, had placed a hex on him.

Based on seven years of fieldwork and extensive interviews, David Kriebel’s study reveals the vibrant world, history, and culture of powwowing in southeastern and central Pennsylvania. He describes, compares, and contrasts powwowing practices of the past and the present; discusses in detail the belief in powwowing as healing; and assesses the future of Braucherei. Biographical sketches of seven living powwowers shed additional light on this little-understood topic.

A groundbreaking inquiry into Pennsylvania German culture and history, Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch opens a window onto an archaic, semi-mystical tradition still very much in practice today.

“Making the subject even more fascinating is Kriebel’s contention that some modern powwow activists have reinvigorated the ancient practice as a ‘new age’ phenomenon. Altogether, a fascinating exploration of a novel subject.”
“A well-written and wonderfully enjoyable book. Part of the volume’s appeal stems from Kriebel’s integration of case studies and appendices that allow powwowers and their clients to speak for themselves.”
“An engaging introduction to the practice, and . . . a serious source for the study of a field to which there has been paid far too little attention.”

David W. Kriebel is an anthropologist and writer specializing in religion and medicine. He has published articles on powwowing in The Journal of the Center for Pennsylvania German Studies, The Pennsylvania German Review, and Esoterica.

Contents

Preface

1. On the Trail of a Lost Art

2. A Powwow Primer

3. Powwow Ritual: Structure and Performance

4. Powwowing, Medicine, and the Act of Healing

5. Powwowing in Pennsylvania

6. Some Contemporary Powwowers

7. A Pennsylvania Dutch Model of Powwowing

8. The Persistence of Powwowing

Appendixes

1. Theoretical Background

2. Glossary of Illnesses

3. An Excerpt from Albertus Magnus: Egyptian Secrets

4. Life Dates of Twentieth-Century Powwowers in This Study

5. Characteristics of Twentieth-Century Powwowers in This Study

6. Data on Twentieth-Century Ritual Practice

7. Additional Powwow Cases

Bibliography

Index

1

On the Trail of a Lost Art

“There’s a shortage of holiness in Lebanon County,” the elderly Eastern Mennonite man said. “You should put your faith in the Lord—not in witchcraft.” He was warning me against inquiring too deeply into the affairs of Mrs. May, a woman who had practiced powwowing—traditional Pennsylvania Dutch spiritual healing—for more than twenty years in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, but had been arrested for charging money for fortune-telling. He explained that when other Mennonites had gone in to clean her house, they felt something wrong about it.

“She played around with everything—all the dark powers,” he told me. We[Mennonites] believe there are many powers. And the second highest is very powerful.”

“You mean the devil?”

He nodded. “You would do well to pay attention to the One Power.”

I left Good’s Store, where I had met him, shaken and concerned about how I should continue my research into powwowing, a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch healing practice often referred to as “white magic.” However, the line between “white” and “black” magic can be difficult to discern. That same day another Eastern Mennonite, a young farmer named Chris Wine, had also warned me about powwowing, claiming not only that the devil was involved but also that patronizing a powwower or performing powwowing could lead to a dependence on magic to such an extent that it became impossible to live without fear. His words made a lot of sense to me and made me concerned about how I was to present my findings. I began to wonder if my other sources, the ones who spoke of powwowing as a gift from God—the One Power—were not themselves deluded and possibly under diabolical influence. This was clearly not an appropriate stance for a scientist to take.

That evening I placed a call to one of my professors, folklorist David Hufford, who, working at Hershey Medical Center (a degree-granting teaching hospital), has done a great deal of empirical research on supernatural phenomena and folk medicine, including powwow. David also knew of Mrs. May. He listened to my concerns without ridiculing them and told me I needed to trust my intuition in these matters—not to be afraid, but simply not to force myself to go anywhere where I felt uncomfortable for any reason. I left the conversation feeling more at ease. Perhaps I simply needed to hear a familiar voice that belonged to someone I could trust. In any event, I persevered.

My encounter with the man at Good’s Store was not my first brush with the supernatural during the course of my fieldwork, nor was it to be my last. I had felt it a few months before, when I interviewed a woman in her isolated farmhouse in Adams County. She demanded assurances that I was not working for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania or for the Baltimore School of Massage, which she claimed had threatened to steal her secrets, and was satisfied only after I showed her my Penn I.D. card and signed a statement that read “I will not be responsible for anything said or wrote.” Then she took me to her basement, where we sat in the darkness among her various homemade healing equipment and talked about how she had had several brushes with demons while she was being trained as a powwower. In fact, she told me the reason she did not follow through with the training was her fear of inadvertently becoming involved with black magic. At the end of this long, unsettling interview I stood on her porch and she bade me farewell with the words “We’ll meet again.” She pronounced them like a doom.

More recently, a woman contacted me begging me to help her find a practicing powwower. She had been suffering from what she believed was possession by the spirit of her deceased mother, a Pennsylvania Dutch witch. Her mother, she claimed, had hated her “because [she] was a girl” and because her mother, while alive, had put hexes on her. She had also sacrificed animals to the devil and kept jars of material from her victims under her bed. Now that she was dead, her mother has possessed her, making her sick with illnesses that none of the physicians she had consulted could explain. At age fifty-five she was bedridden, almost completely paralyzed, and had suffered three episodes of “heart failure.” When I asked why she believed all this was due to possession, she told me that she was a born-again Christian but that she could not stand the sight of a cross, spat up blood when ministers prayed over her, and snarled like an animal. She claimed that an exorcism performed by a Roman Catholic priest had been ineffective and that she was now was seeking help from every quarter, including powwowing. I was able to put her in touch with a couple of powwowers, who paid her a house call but informed her that the process would take a long while, time she did not feel she had.

I do not mean to imply that I performed my research in constant fear of demonic forces. In fact, my fieldwork in the Pennsylvania Dutch heartland of southeastern and central Pennsylvania was overwhelmingly a joyous experience. I have learned a lot about myself and made good friends with people who opened their lives and homes to me. But the presence of the supernatural was a palpable thing when I spoke to those who believed in the power of powwowing. The very air seemed heavy with it. This sense is magnified by the secrecy that shrouds powwowing today.

That secrecy dictated the methods I had to use. During my two years in and out of the field, I usually had to assume the role of a detective, developing leads, following them up, interviewing reliable and less-than-reliable sources. A typical trip into the Dutch country would mean booking an inexpensive motel room, one that preferably had a free local newspaper and free local telephone service. I would get a paper, scan it for ads that appeared promising, and then make calls. Rarely do powwowers advertise in the paper, but some practitioners—and clients—practice or make use of other alternative medical treatments, such as reflexology, therapeutic touch, and aromatherapy. I would also look for libraries, historical societies, and the like. Sooner or later, something would turn up—perhaps a lead from one of the listings, perhaps a knowledgeable person who overheard my conversation with a librarian, perhaps an old roadside store whose proprietor happened to know about powwowing. Everywhere I went, I asked about it. That was probably my most fruitful means of acquiring consultants.

About half of all the people I spoke with over the age of forty had heard of powwowing, and many of them had stories to tell—more about that later. But many others exhibited fear and suspicion when I mentioned the practice. For instance, when I called one reflexologist, she first denied ever hearing of powwowing, and then, when I explained the nature of my research, she remarked, “Well, that’s very controversial, isn’t it?” She still refused to see me, though. Another time when I approached an Amish furniture maker in Leola (Lancaster County) he turned his head to the side and looked down as he curtly denied knowing anything about powwowing. A Conservative Mennonite woman in Centerville (west of Lancaster) practically fled from me when I mentioned the practice.

This book is a passport to the secrets of the centuries-old art of Pennsylvania Dutch powwowing. It reveals the face of powwowing today, explores its historical roots, and introduces the real people who still practice this form of religious healing that some call “white magic.” But before setting out on the journey, it is wise to get the lay of the land.

The Land and Its People

While Pennsylvania Dutch populations are found all over Pennsylvania, as well as in many other U.S. states, most notably Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Kansas, and in Ontario, Canada, the Pennsylvania Dutch “heartland” is southeastern and south-central Pennsylvania. This area’s core includes Lancaster, Lebanon, and Berks counties but extends north into Schuylkill County, east into Lehigh, Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery counties, and west into York and Adams counties. Its total area is approximately four thousand square miles and falls within Pennsylvania’s Piedmont Plateau. This was the setting for my investigation of powwowing.

The principal geographical features are the Red Hills in the east (northwestern Montgomery and eastern Berks counties), the Blue Mountain (actually a long mountain ridge) in the north (extending from Northampton County to northern Lebanon County, and the relatively flat agricultural area of Lancaster and eastern York counties. The land then rises again until it reaches another mountain ridge, South Mountain, in western Adams County. At that point the Appalachian Highlands begin, and the elevation of the land increases until it reaches the Allegheny Mountains, the backbone of the Appalachian chain, stretching northeastward across the state.

The farmland in this area, particularly in Lancaster and Chester counties, is among the richest in the world. The principal crop is corn, which has replaced wheat, the dominant crop during the eighteenth century, when most Pennsylvania Dutch settlement took place. However, wheat is still grown in the area, along with barley, soybeans, and alfalfa. It is a long-standing Pennsylvania Dutch belief that limestone soils are superior to other types of soil because it they have greater depth and hold moisture better.

Livestock raised by the farmers in this area include dairy cattle, beef cattle, poultry (chicken and turkey), pigs, sheep, and goats. The Amish in Lancaster County make abundant use of cow manure as fertilizer (as a summer open-air drive will readily confirm!). Since the period of earliest settlement, Pennsylvania Dutch farmers have been concerned with conserving and, if possible, increasing the fertility of the soil. They regarded the depletion of the soil that occurred with the use of southern farming methods as either sinful or stupid.

There are no data on the proportion of inhabitants of the area who are Pennsylvania Dutch, although I estimate that approximately 50 percent of the inhabitants would claim Pennsylvania Dutch ethnicity if asked. Of the total Pennsylvania Dutch population, only 10 percent are “Plain people,” that is, Old Order and other Amish, Old Order or Conservative Mennonites, and various Brethren denominations, the rest being what is variously known as “church people,” “gay Dutch,” or “fancy Dutch.” This latter group is mainly focused around membership in the traditionally Dutch churches: Lutheran, Reformed (now United Church of Christ [UCC]), Evangelical (now UCC), River Brethren, progressive Mennonite, and Church of the Brethren (now United Methodist). Two of the six Schwenkfelder churches now worship with UCC congregations. While these churches are traditionally Pennsylvania Dutch, all have significant numbers of members who are not Pennsylvania Dutch.

The emphasis on religion is typical of the Pennsylvania Dutch, most of whose ancestors left Europe to avoid religious persecution. For older people, especially, the church is still a main center of social activity, and the church affiliation of any one individual is known to others in the community. The church may play a lesser role in the lives of young individuals, although surveys still show a high degree of participation.

Relations among the two kinds of Pennsylvania Dutch and other ethnic groups living in the area are generally friendly. The non-Dutch population (traditionally Scotch-Irish, but increasingly diverse) often consider the “Dutch” backward, giving rise to the term “dumb Dutch.” Several consultants expressed embarrassment over their “Dutchified” accents. Possession of a Dutch accent did not necessarily mean knowledge of the dialect. In such cases, the accent was acquired despite efforts by parents to keep their children from learning the dialect, out of fear that it would mark them as backward. I have noticed that the Amish and the Mennonites I have spoken with have a markedly weaker accent than my non-Plain consultants, perhaps because they deal with native English speakers more often as part of the tourist trade.

The Plain people, however, are also caricatured quite often. One consultant indicated that the non-Amish population in Lancaster called the Amish “Jakeys,” because Jacob was such a common male name among the Amish. At the Kutztown Folk Festival in Summit Station (Schuylkill County), a comic affecting a Dutch accent used the names “Jakey” and “Rachel” to refer to standard Amish characters. It is interesting that one of my “gay Dutch” consultants indicated that she did not really consider Amish to be “Dutch” at all. The question of Dutch identity usually comes up when a Pennsylvania Dutch person describes another as “real” Dutch, or “he was an upcountry Dutchman.”

The Pennsylvania Dutch are extremely conscious of their culture and its uniqueness. They form heritage clubs (such as the Grundsau Lodsch [Groundhog Lodge] and the Schwenkfelder Exile Society), hold dialect events, such as Versommlinge (gatherings), and organize more academically oriented organizations, such as the Mennonite Historians of Eastern Pennsylvania, the Goschenhoppen Historians, and the Pennsylvania German Society, in order to preserve that culture. I have met several people, usually in their sixties and seventies, whom I call “local historians.” Though not always self-taught, these individuals often serve as keepers of cultural lore. They are typically willing to help outsiders who are interested in learning about Pennsylvania Dutch culture, but they are wary of academic (particularly psychological and sociological) approaches to the subject.

The Road to Rediscovery

I first became interested in powwowing in my high school German class, when I had to do a project on German cultural traditions. Because I had a great love of genealogy and knew my family was of Pennsylvania Dutch (German) origin, I decided to approach the assignment from that angle. I checked out Fredric Klees’s Pennsylvania Dutch (1950) from the library and found a chapter on powwowing and hexing. Soon afterward, my grandfather told me that his parents used to use powwow to heal burns sustained by neighborhood children at their home in suburban Philadelphia. I was instantly intrigued. My father confirmed the story and told me that Granny, as we called my great-grandmother, could also use powwow to cause it to rain. He quickly added, however, that Granny had been a devoutly religious person and believed that the power she had came from God. Years later, when it came time for me to choose a study in the area of contemporary American magical practice, powwowing seemed a natural choice.

I began my research in August 1998 at the Schwenkfelder Library in Pennsburg, Montgomery County, where I found my first articles on powwowing, published in the newspaper The Pennsylvania Dutchman and its more academic successor publication, Pennsylvania Folklife. It was also at the Schwenkfelder Library that I had my first encounter with The Long Lost [or Hidden] Friend, one of the major “charm books,” or collections of spells and recipes used in powwowing. The Long Lost Friend was written by John George (Johann Georg) Hohman and first published in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1819, has gone through a number of reprints. I later learned that the eminent folklorist Don Yoder had traced its roots to two other collections of spells: Albertus Magnus: Egyptian Secrets and The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. Both of these have also been used by powwowers, although few will admit to owning a copy of the latter, which many Pennsylvania Dutch people consider a “hex book,” probably because it contains formulae for conjuring demons.

It was at the Schwenkfelder library that I learned both of the enduring interest in powwowing and of the lingering suspicions about the practice. A young woman who worked at the library and was helping me with my research was interested in what I was doing. She asked about the practice, and I told her what little I knew. Then she looked at me and asked shyly if I had found anything in the Hohman book that could cure cancer. I searched the book and found nothing, leaving her disappointed and myself feeling sorry that I could not help her. The same day, I asked the elderly librarian, who was also a minister, whether he knew anything about powwow as a healing practice. His face assumed a serious expression as he said, “I think matters like that should be left to the church.” That was the first indication I had of the long-standing negative attitude held by official Pennsylvania Dutch religion toward powwowing.

That day marked the start of a year-long search for a living powwower. I visited many libraries, colleges, and historical societies and accumulated many other documentary sources—other charm books, newspaper articles, letters describing powwow procedures, and so forth—that have helped paint a picture of the history of powwowing. I also began to network in the area, develop contacts, and conduct interviews. My last name helped me—there are a number of Kriebels in northwestern Montgomery County, eastern Berks County, and southern Lehigh County—so I seemed less of an outlander in that region.

But everyone I spoke with—scholars, local historians, former powwow patients, and relatives of deceased powwowers—told me the same thing: powwowing is a lost art. One local historian even gave me a timeline for when powwowing disappeared—in the 1950s and 1960s in Lancaster County, in the 1970s in Berks County, and so forth. But I remained convinced that a practice does not die out altogether in the space of thirty years, that there had to be someone, somewhere, still practicing powwow. Folklorist David Hufford agreed, noting that many others had cited the demise of powwowing throughout the twentieth century, only to be proven wrong. I myself found an 1895 newspaper article profiling a powwower who lamented the imminent disappearance of the practice.

Still, I was having difficulty finding a living powwower to interview. Mrs. May, the storefront powwower whom the Mennonite gentleman had warned me against, had been put out of business by the Commonwealth. According to an article in the local paper, an undercover policewoman had visited Mrs. May to have her fortune read and was informed that she was under a curse, which Mrs. May would be happy to remove for a fee. The policewoman immediately arrested her. The closest I could come to Mrs. May was an interview with the reporter who broke the story of her arrest. The reporter was unable to add much to the case report, although she did provide useful information about the powwowing activities of her grandmother, which I added to my case files. I should note that there is some dispute among the Dutch whether Mrs. May qualifies as a powwower—but more on that later.

I drove out to Mrs. May’s house on Route 422, where she operated her fortune-telling and powwow business, and saw a big sign depicting the open palm symbol used by seers everywhere to advertise their trade and the words “Pow Wow” written above it. The house, though, was empty and the door was standing wide open. I did not enter. Later, I interviewed one of Mrs. May’s powwow clients, who testified to the efficacy of her power in curing their son of a skin disease. The interview also substantiated an earlier report that Mrs. May was not Pennsylvania Dutch, but a Gypsy. According to David Hufford, Gypsies in the Dutch country had, in the past, sometimes set themselves up as powwowers without really knowing how to do it. However, one of my consultants reports that Mrs. May healed her son using what seemed to be powwowing.

I first encountered a powwower, an Old Order Amish woman whom I will refer to as “Leah Stoltzfus,” in the unlikeliest of places—the Internet. An article about her in a midwestern paper referred to her practice as “Amish Voodoo” but clearly identified her as a powwower. I seized on this information and managed to track her down near a small village in Lancaster County. Outside her home, I conducted a brief initial interview with her, and then a more extensive interview in the waiting room of her home-based practice in January 1999. She agreed to the latter interview on the condition that I bring my mother along. I did not ask why, but I presume it had to do with concerns about her safety and the propriety of such a meeting. Fortunately, my mother is a good sport and she accompanied me, even asking a few questions herself. I was not, however, allowed to tape-record or the videotape the interview.

While I acquired a great deal of information that would prove useful later, and even participated in one of her diagnostic techniques—she claims to be able to detect pain—I left unsure whether her practice, which consisted mainly of silently laying on hands, qualified as powwow or not. It did not fit the conventional model of powwow ritual, nor did she herself describe it as “powwow” (when I asked why not, she said she was afraid folks would think she was “too New Age”). However, her Mennonite cousin who had pointed me to Leah definitely considered Leah’s practice to be powwowing and definitely disapproved of it. Like the other Mennonites I interviewed, Leah’s cousin believed it to be the work of the devil. I have since learned that Leah’s simple healing practice does fit the model of powwowing as practiced by the Amish.

During that first year, I developed a good idea of what powwowing was and of what a conventional powwower might do, based on the reports of former clients and relatives of powwowers. However, I was still unable to track down a powwower who fit that conventional model, and I began to wonder whether the skeptics might be right after all. Maybe no one—except possibly Leah—powwowed anymore. Particularly frustrating was the fact that such well-known powwowers as Ruth Frey, Ida Wagner, and Preston Zerbe all died in the mid-1990s, just a few years before I had begun my research. On a visit to the Landis Valley Museum, where I was later to become Scholar-in-Residence, I learned that a powwower in the Lancaster area had died only two weeks previously.

It was not until fourteen months into my investigation, in October 1999, that I finally met a living powwower who followed traditional powwowing procedures. In fact, I met two of them, a husband-and-wife team living and practicing in southern Schuylkill County. I found them through a series of accidents. I was in Lehigh County, based in the small town of Fogelsville, outside the city of Allentown, and decided to drive to Center Valley and scout out some leads; one of my consultants had told me about her experiences being powwowed there in the 1930s. At an old Lutheran church—a Friedenskirche, or “peace church”—I interviewed a woman who had been powwowed as a child. She recommended that I try a small farming community northwest of Allentown called New Tripoli (pronounced “Trih-PO-ly”). I went there and drove through town all the way to Kempton in the mountains and back again. On the way out I had spotted an old farm with the neatness characteristic of farms run by the Pennsylvania Dutch, and by the time I returned I had summoned enough courage to bother the residents. Through their screen door I interviewed the owners, an elderly couple, both of whom had been powwowed as youngsters. What was particularly interesting, though, was their mention of a man they knew who had bragged in a restaurant about being powwowed, claiming that two powwowers had cured his cellulitis. They turned out to be a husband and wife practicing powwowing in Schuylkill County, and I was able to interview them. I even received powwow treatment from the wife for my arthritis.

After that, it suddenly became easier to meet powwowers. Professor William Donner at Kutztown University introduced me to a powwower who had been interviewed by one of his undergraduates, and I was able to interview him in his home with his grandchildren present. He informed me that he had trained six to ten other powwowers in the area. Shortly after that, I found the locally published book Powwow Power (1988), which detailed the activities of the recently deceased powwower in the Lancaster area of whom I had learned at the Landis Valley Museum. According to the book, he had taught his widow how to powwow before he passed on. I was able to interview her by telephone and then went to see her as a patient. She informed me that she planned to pass the power on to her son, a man in his mid-thirties. Finally, I encountered the book HexCraft: Dutch Country Magick (1997), by popular neo-pagan writer Silver RavenWolf, which described her training as a powwow by Preston Zerbe of Adams County.

In the space of three months, powwowing had changed in my mind from a relic that may or may not still exist to a living practice likely to continue into the foreseeable future. But what exactly is powwowing?