Hex (published 1969) tells a tale from
the old, weird America, circa 1928, in which three young men attack and kill a
self-professed “witch” in the backwaters of York County, Pennsylvania. The eldest of the men, John Blymire, a
third-generation witch or “necromancer” had been under the belief for years
that he had been hexed by another practitioner in the Pennsylvania Dutch
country. After years of consulting other
witches in attempts to break the spell or at least identify the person who had
hexed him, the trail led to an isolated farmhouse where Nelson Rehmeyer, an
eccentric personality in a county that was apparently rife with them. Blymire pays two nocturnal visits to Rehmeyer,
with the aim of either cutting a lock of his hair or stealing his hex-book, a
strange compendium entitled The Long Lost
Friend, published first in 1819 by John George Homan (and still in print),
containing spells, hexes, occult warnings and spiritual advice. Possession of a personal item, particularly a
highly personal item such as hair, clothing, etc., of the person one wishes to
hex is a common feature of sympathetic magic such as practiced in York County.
The second visit does not go well. The conspirators (one of which was a 14 year old boy) clumsily fight with Rehmeyer, savagely beating him to death and attempting to burn the body to conceal the evidence. Once the body is discovered by a neighbor (led to the property by a hungry, braying mule), Blymire is picked up and charged in short order, as it had been known in the region for years that he had been hexed and was engaged in a never-ending pursuit of the person who had enchanted him. Once arrested, Blymire, relieved to have had the spell broken quite happily told the story in minute detail, implicating his (equally loquacious) conspirators in the process.
The trial is a bit of a farce, while gaining worldwide attention because of the witchcraft angle, the local authorities, fearful that York will garner attention as a illiterate backwater full of superstitious yokels, work hard to keep the discussion of hexes and necromancy out of the trial, skewing the motive for the killing as simple robbery. In the end, the conspirators are given harsh punishments (Blymire gets a life sentence), which are commuted years later.
While the first portion of Hex is interesting in describing the belief system of the rural Pennsylvania Dutch country and the events leading up to the murder, the narrative starts to drag once it hits the courtroom. After the story of the murder and its aftermath is finished, Lewis spends an additional 50-plus pages on interviews with several witches and faith-healers circa 1969 in order to illustrate that the superstitions were still prevalent 40 years later. In large part, the activities of these practitioners revolved mainly around bodily aches and pains, with an apparent emphasis on wart removal. Rivalries between the witches, however, still remained. I had occasion to spend some time in York back in the 1990’s, but I was unaware of the story of the area’s most famous trial, so I can’t tell you how active the witching community was at that time.