So, when you think of Pennsylvania your mind probably goes to Liberty Bells, Steel, or Chocolate. You might think of rolling hills, mountains, bustling cities and a whole bunch of history. However, today we are going to be talking about MURTHER in the sylvania of Penn. Yes, not exactly in my wheelhouse but hey, switchin’ it up here! Today we are going to be talking about the Hex Hollow Murder, also known as the Rehmeyer Murder. Despite my jokes and light-hearted tone earlier this story is a complex tale and one that deserves to be told with respect, and reverence. On Nov. 27 1928 three individuals, John Blymire, age 33, Wilbert Hess, age 18, and John Curry, age 14, came to the cabin of Nelson Rehmeyer, under the assumption the Nelson had cursed them, and, after a brief but violent altercation, murdered Rehmeyer in his home. This is the story of the Hex Hollow murder.
The Keystone state in the 1920’s had a lot going on. The Great Depression hadn’t started, and things were moving right along economically. Even though there large cities, Philly and Pittsburgh being obvious examples, there were also a lot of rural communities during that time. One such place was the area of York County. As with other parts of Pennsylvania at this time there were lots of small farms that dotted the countryside. One such area was a place called Rehmeyer’s Hollow. The first Rehmeyers came from a small town named Uchte (Oo-kh-teh) Germany, and Heinrich and Wilhelmina Rehmeyer were the first to move to the US in 1841. 3 years later Henry had his brothers, Christoph and Karl Rehmeyer come over as well. They all pitched in together to get 96 acres of land in North Hopewell Township, and this area became known as Rehmeyer’s Hollow. Later Henry C. Rehmeyer and his wife Rachel McCann had a son, Nelson Rehmeyer, on October 1st of 1868. He had a potato farm in an isolated part of the Hollow, and while people thought him a bit strange on account of his reclusiveness, leading some people to call him a hermit, he was in all actuality an amiable person. He just liked his space and keeping to himself. His home, which still stands today, was very sparsely furnished with a stove, sink, desk and couch downstairs and a bedroom upstairs. He married his wife, Alice, in 1896 and they had 2 daughters, Beatrice and Edna.
Nelson was known as a kind man, always willing to help. Whether that was physical or spiritual. You see, Nelson was a practitioner of powwow, which should not be confused with the Native American powwow. Pennsylvania Dutch powwow is a form of Christian Mysticism featuring faith healing, and prayer charms. Nelson was a large man, and strong from years of farm work. He stood six feet tall easily, but he was a gentle giant. One interesting fact was he was a Socialist and he had Socialist literature in his house. This further made him an outcast of a sort as some in the local community didn’t like his political views. Nelson was a well known powwow doctor. He would have people coming to the house all hours of the day and night, with some sources saying he had people lining up outside his door. This put a strain on his marriage and Alice separated from him, moving a mile away into a house she inherited from her family. That is where she and their daughters stayed.
Some further info on powowing, as it has a large bearing on the story. Powwow is also known as German Folk healing, and a lot of their practices can be called “Active Prayer”. In German it is called braucherei. It focused on using prayer as a means to heal, both physically and spiritually, as well as protection, and detection of curses. It is explained that you are becoming a conduit for God’s power to flow through you and into whatever it is you are trying to accomplish. You could go to a powwow doctor to get warts cured, get a prayer charm to protect your crops, and even go to reduce fevers and serious illness as well. They had a text or book called “The Long Lost Friend” which had a lot of cures, and how to do these prayer charms. It was the most popular piece of literature used by powwow doctors at the time. It was published by a German immigrant by the name of John George Hohman. There was nothing in the text about hexing or cursing people, and it was widely available to anyone who wanted to have it. It wasn’t some strange esoteric text that only a few people had, and in fact was used by many Pennsylvania Dutch farmers even if they weren’t fully powwow doctors. Now, there are the opposite of powwow doctors, known as Hexerei, or witches or hexers. These are people who call upon evil forces to work against people, put curses on them, their families, land, and livestock. These people were obviously secretive about what they did, but people had a way of finding them when they needed or wanted something bad to happen to someone. Which leads us into our next part, the perpetrators of the murder and their stories leading up to the murder.
First, as he was the ringleader in this, is John Blymire. He was born to Emanuel and Margaret Blymire in 1895 in York, PA. John was born with “a cloud over his head” so to speak. His IQ had been tested at one point and he scored at “low normal” which is to say he was a step above what would have been termed an “imbecile or idiot” back in those days. He was plagued with bad health, and bad luck for most of his life. He grew up sickly, his wife, Lily, had left him, two of his three children had died, he had great difficulty in staying regularly employed, and he wandered aimlessly about the streets of York and the surrounding countryside. Blymire, like his father and grandfather before him, also practiced powwow, and at some point in his life he became obsessed with the idea that he had a curse upon him. He was diagnosed with being neurotic and having “witch delusions”. Remember that this was the 1920’s and no one talked about mental illness unless you were being institutionalized, which John was. He had short stays at the State Mental Hospital in Harrisburg, PA. At one point Blymire just strolled off the campus of the hospital and walked all the way back to York, 25 miles away. 1928 found Blymire trying to reinvent himself. He was working at a cigar factory and this is where he met his two accomplices. During his time at the cigar factory he made a trip to the small town of Marietta in Lancaster County, which was across the Susquehanna river, and met with a woman named Emma Knopp also known as Nelli Nop, the witch of Marietta. Blymire thought he could get her to reveal who it was that was cursing him. She told him to put a dollar bill in his hand. As the dollar bill was taken away, Blymire saw the face of Nelson Rehmeyer. At first, Blymire refused to believe it. Rehmeyer had always been kind to him. When he was five years old and suffering from something locals called opnema, which was probably some form of malnutrition, Rehmeyer had cured the boy. When Blymire turned ten, he returned to Rehmyer as an employee digging potatoes for 25 cents a day. Supposedly Nelli Nop told Blymire that to undo the curse put on him he had to get a lock of Nelson’s hair, and Nelson’s copy of the Long Lost Friend. He was to bury the lock of hair 8 feet underground, and burn the book. He went on to convince both Curry and Hess to help him get these items as they both were also under a curse from Rehmeyer.
John Curry led a very troubled life. He came from a once stable family. He had a good mother and had a very good relationship with his father. His father would take him fishing and was a loving devoted father to Curry. However this changed when Curry’s father passed away when he was 5, and his mother began to travel around trying for find places to work. They eventually ended up in York. She eventually married a man named MacLaine. MacLaine was a foul tempered drunk. He never worked much, and would beat Curry’s mother as well as Curry himself. It was this homelife that drove Curry into the streets where he got a job at the same cigar factory that Blymire was working. They quickly became very good friends, and Curry even stated that Blymire had saved his life, as Blymire had powwowed for some affliction Curry was under and he credited Blymire for having taken care of this health problem for him. As such he was very beholden to Blymire and would do what Blymire asked without really questioning it. Keep in mind he was only 14 years old. People who knew Curry at this point said he was an unassuming, mild mannered, and quiet, someone who was easily impressionable and easily led into something he didn’t really know what was happening.
Wilbert Hess was a farm boy from Leaders Heights, a township to the south of York. He met Blymire because his father crossed paths with Blymire and Curry. The Hess family farm was having a lot of trouble that summer, they had lost some livestock, it was fairly dry and some of the crops were failing. Everyone in the family had been getting sick with various illnesses and it was just a wave of bad luck. Wilbert Hess’s aunt, Ida Hess, and his father, Milton Hess, were having a land dispute at the time. Ida wanted a right of way to get to her farm, and apparently this was on the property boundary between Ida and Milton’s farms. Milton did not want to allow her to have the land, and a family fight soon broke out. There was a suspicion at the time in Milton’s family that Ida had put a hex on the family, which she denied and many people in the community sided with her. Now, Wilberts mother, Alice Hess, was very superstitious and was convinced that someone had put a hex on her and her family. When Blymire came into the mix he just reinforced what she suspected was going on. That Nelson Rehmeyer had put a hex on them, and that they needed to get a lock of hair to break that hex.
All of this talk about hexing and Rehmeyer reached its conclusion in the fall of 1928. Blymire, Curry, and the Hess family decided they must act, and so on November 26th, Blymire and Curry, with Clayton, a son of Milton and Alice, drove them to a place called Hametown and from there the two walked to Rehmeyers Hollow. They stopped at the home of Mrs. Rehmeyer and they asked where they could find Nelson. She said that unless he was away on business he would be at his place about a mile or so further into the hollow. So down they went to Nelson’s house. They knocked on the door, and Nelson opened up the door, and seeing it was friends he invited them in for some drink and to talk. He and Blymire stayed up quite late talking about farming, powwow and things happening in the community. After they had finished it was quite late and so Nelson invited the pair of them to stay the night, which they accepted. The next morning after breakfast Blymire and Curry went back to Leaders Heights and told the Hess family that they needed more than the 2 of them to take Rehmeyer down as he was a very large imposing man. Blymire convinced Milton and Alice to send their son, Wilbert Hess, with them to get the job done.
It was the night of Nov. 27th, Blymire, Curry, and Hess were driven down to Rehmeyers Hollow by Clayton Hess and they walked up to Nelson’s house and rapped on the door to wake him up. Nelson came to his bedroom window on the second floor, opened it and the shutters, a lantern in hand and asked who was there. Blymire stated that it was them again and that they needed to come inside as they believed they had left something when they had stayed the previous night. So Rehmeyer let them in and after a moment Blymire looks at Rehmeyer and stated he wanted his book. Nelson, not sure what the man meant, asked what book and Blymire said to not play dumb and give them the book. After this point there are different versions of what went on, but the most cohesive is this. As they are in the kitchen Rehmeyer goes to put some wood in the stove. As he does this Blymire shouts to grab Rehmeyer and the 3 men jump him. A violent fight ensues with Blymire hitting Rehmeyer with a chair in his back, breaking the chair, they get him on the ground and Rehmeyer is still fighting and struggling. Curry grabs a piece of wood from near the stove and hits him on the back of the head, and Rehmeyer goes limp. It was such a powerful blow that at the autopsy later they found it had broken through his skull and the fragments lacerated his brain and it caused a massive hemorrhage in his brain. After this Blymire and Curry tied his hands and feet. They had purchased 25 feet of rope that they cut into 5 foot lengths to tie him up. They also used a piece to tie around his neck in an effort to strangle him. After a while they finally determined that Rehmeyer was dead. At this realization it is reported that Blymire said “If he’s dead the hex is done. We’re good, the witch is dead”. Now there’s some conjecture that he might not have been dead but unconscious. The boys then found where Rehmeyer kept his money, which was under the 3rd step on the stairs to the second floor. Never figured out how they knew about it however. Then Blymire had the idea that in order to cover their tracks that they needed to burn down the house, they threw oil on top of Rehmeyer and all over the area in the kitchen and set the match. As they left the house, with the light from the flames flickering through the windows they thought they saw Rehmeyer moving about in the flames and some people think he regained consciousness and was trying desperately to get out of the house. Now, the house did not burn, not fully. Something made the fire smother out. Some people attributed it to a Godly act, others thought it was witchcraft.
It was now the 29th, Thanksgiving day, a neighbor named David Vanover was taking a walk after Thanksgiving dinner and heard the animals in Rehmeyers barn were making a lot of noise. They hadn’t been fed or had anything to drink and were trying to get someone to feed and water them. So David, being a good neighbor, fed the animals. A mail man came by and said Mr. Rehmeyer had not gotten his mail in a couple of days and so Vanover got another neighbor, Oscar Galdfelter, and they went down to the house to see if everything was alright. They knocked on the door but didn’t get an answer so they went in, and beheld a gruesome sight. Nelson Rehmeyers burnt body, the kitchen was black with all the soot, and Vanover immediately jumped back on his horse and rode to Mrs. Rehmeyers farm and told her that something bad had happened to Nelson, her husband, and she needed to go to the house right away. The police found that the kitchen floor had almost burned away, and Nelson’s body was laying over a floor joist, and he had been caught by a hanging potato bin, for curing potatoes, that he had hung in his basement. The authorities said if he hadn’t been caught by that bin then the whole house probably would have gone up in flames.
Nelson Rehmeyer was laid to rest on the 5th of December 1928 at Sadler’s Church in Stewartstown. The crowd was so large that they had to open the windows in the church because the crowd was so large, and people wanted to hear the funeral proceedings. After the funeral Alice Rehmeyer told the police that Blymire and Curry had stopped by her house looking for Rehmeyer the night of the 26th and so they rounded the 2 men up and questioned them, and they outright admitted that they had committed the crime. They said that they had done it because Rehmeyer had hexed them and to end the hex they had to kill him. They were not apologetic about it, especially in the case of John Blymire as he felt he had no other recourse in his mind. All three confessed and were put in jail at the York County Prison. Now they had to stand trial for the murder of Nelson Rehmeyer.
The trials of the three men started on January 7th, 1929 and John Blymire was the first to the courtroom. His court case lasted from the 7th until the 9th. Judge Sherwood was presiding over the whole case, and Herbert Cohen was appointed pro bono to be Blymire’s lawyer. Judge Sherwood was very firm at the beginning of the trial that there was no talk and no evidence relative to Hexing and witchcraft. They were trying to prosecute the case as a robbery gone wrong, but unfortunately in the testimony of Clayton Hess, Wilbert Hess’s brother, the word witch was used. It went into the public record, and Cohen seized on that and about the whole business on witchcraft and powwowing. When Mr. Herman, the prosecutor, objected, Judge Sherwood said that he had opened the door. Now we have to allow it in. Now Cohen, whose defense was insanity, could say that Blymire was insane because of his belief in witchcraft and powwow. He argued that Blymires life was one full of misery and shadow, in the body of a man but with the mind of a ghost-haunted child and he had no idea that what he did was wrong. So he argued to acquit Blymire on the grounds of insanity and send him to an institution where he could get relief for his imaginings. Blymire was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
John Curry was next to sit in court. His court session lasted from January 10 to the 11th. Walter van Baman (bay-man) was appointed as pro bono. He said he gave very little credibility to the notion of witchcraft and powowwing and his argument to the jury and his approach for the case of Curry was that he was a victim of social neglect, and parental abuse. When he addressed the jury at one point he turned around and pointed to Curry’s mother and he said “there is the person responsible for this boy being where he is today.” and with that the mother who had already had to stuff her mouth with her apron to suppress her sobs collapsed on the courtroom floor. The Curry trial set a record for its brevity and he was convicted of first degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison.
Wilbert Hess’s trial was next. His court session lasted from January 11th to the 12th. Harvey Gross was retained by Milton Hess to represent his son, Wilbert, in court. A small aside, having a lawyer on retainer (also called an attorney on retainer) means having an established lawyer-client relationship with a lawyer. Essentially, in exchange for upfront fees, you are “holding” your lawyer. Then, in the event that you require legal assistance or representation, you will be able to call on that lawyer for their legal help. Now Gross was not sure how on earth he was going to win against the momentum that the other 2 cases and their verdicts had caused. It was not until he cross examined Mrs. Hess and asked her when she had heard that Rehmeyer had been killed she said the next morning when her son Wilbert, after coming back from his brother Clayton’s house, and told her “Mother, I didn’t want to go down there last night and I didnt want to do what they got me to do. But the man is dead, I hope you shall get better” and then Gross realized he had a narrative. The Hess boy was the sacrificial lamb. He went down to the hollow to break the curse and save his family. At one point during the trial he pointed to Mrs. Hess and said “ That poor woman no more wanted to send her boy down to the hollow that night than old Abraham wanted to lead his son up to that altar on a high mountain. Only in this case God did not provide a substitute for the sacrifice.” This, to the jury, was a very powerful metaphor to draw and it worked. Hess was convicted of second degree murder, and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Now for the ending of our story. Curry was paroled after 10 years, and Hess served his full time of 10 years. Blymire served for 23 years and was paroled. They went on to live somewhat quiet lives. However, their stories did not end after they left prison.
Curry, the boy now man at age 24 went on to join the military and be on Gen. Eisenhower’s staff and helped to draft the plans for the invasions of Normandy. He went on to be a painter, as he had learned to paint while in jail, and some homes in York county have pictures painted by him to this day. By all accounts he was a good man, an honest man, he went on to own a turkey farm, angus steers and other such enterprises. He died from a heart attack as he was shoveling off a load of corn at his farm in 1963. People say he was a hard working, kind, farm-minded man who worked hard.
Wilbert Hess served his full term in prison, and he lived as quiet a life as he could. He worked and raised a family. He died in 1979 at the age of 79.
Now we circle back to Blymire. He served 23 years of his life sentence before being paroled in 1953. He came back home and after visiting with his brother, and talking for 45 minutes, his brother said “That man would do the same thing today.” There was no change. No remorse. However, this is where John Blymire’s story takes an interesting turn. A year before the Rehmeyer murder, a young girl, Gertrude Rudy, who was 16 was found dead in the railroad tracks, shot with a shotgun at close range. There is speculation that Blymire is the one who committed the crime though no lawman ever caught up with him. It is said that she would go to his place, as he wasn’t with his wife at the time, and apparently he had gotten her pregnant and wanted her to disappear. One of his family members reported that Blymires shotgun mysteriously disappeared right before her body was found. They speculate he put her body and the gun on the tracks and expected a train to run away with them both and no one would know what happened. However, a signalman or a switchman saw a lump in the middle of the railway tracks that night and called for the train to stop after he went over and discovered her body. During the trial Judge Sherwood put him to it during the trial and asked him about her and Blymire cried and said he didn’t do it. To which the Judge replied that if he knew Blymire had done it he would send Blymire to the electric chair. However, Blymire was never convicted or put on trial for anything to do with Gertrude Rudy’s murder and it has never been solved. He died of Pneumonia in 1972, alone, and no one in his family wanted anything to do with him. They called for pallbearers for his funeral and every one of his family members refused, his family never went to his funeral, and they had to pull people off the street to be pallbearers. Seems like the universe got him in the end.
The murder and the subsequent trial brought a lot of national focus to the community and it opened the door so to speak on the Pennsylvania Dutch culture and they were viewed as these strange rural people with archaic and superstitious beliefs. It highlighted the fact that people still believed in “witchcraft” in the 20th century and as such there was an erasure of this part of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The stigma of the murder of Nelson Rehmeyer has also stayed with the area, even having the name “Hex House” attached to his place of residence. The descendants of Rehmeyer want to end the bad stigma that has haunted the place for years. They want to let people know that Nelson was a good, kind, big hearted man. Who used his belief in God to help everyone around him, and that he was not evil at all. It makes no sense as to why Nelson would go around hexing people in his community, especially this random assortment of people, some of whom he had helped previously. These people had never done him wrong, and I’m not even sure Curry had ever actually met the man before he saw him on Nov. 26th. I never found that piece of information out. It is said that the place is haunted, and strange things happen there, but I don’t believe it. Yes, bad things happened in that house, but also a lot of good things as well. Nelson did so much good in his life that I find it hard to believe his place would be a place of darkness. The family shares my sentiments and as far as I am aware have made the house semi open to the public. Regardless, you can drive by the house, though it is not marked. I hope that this was a good story even though it’s a sad one. -R