The history of Pennsylvania Germans in our Commonwealth is long, and their culture is a rich part of the state’s heritage. Famous for their many folk remedies, the tales of the “powwow” doctor, the Braucher, add yet another chapter to these tales. Talk to the old old timers, if you can find one, about Braucherei as opposed to Hexerei. In the meantime, read and enjoy the tale that follows.
When Ike Yoder first came to Reading, he bought a rundown old farm just outside town and moved onto the property with his plump wife and seven children. The family worked hard from sunrise to sunset tending the farm, doing chores, going to church, and being active in their community. Within a very few years, the farm was paid off, the buildings were good as new, and the Yoder family was making a prosperous living.
Then a mysterious illness fell upon Ike Yoder. Day after day he would faithfully do his work, attend the town meetings, and do his duties as church deacon. But he grew thin and pale, and folks soon noticed that he moved slowly, like a much older man. The Yoder family was alarmed. Mrs. Yoder made sure Ike had plenty of good food to eat, and though he ate with the appetite of a young boy, he grew thinner and paler.
The local doctors came to see Ike. They prescribed herbal remedies and large doses of castor oil, but these seemed to have no effect. Ike even went to the big city to see the specialists. They poked and prodded him, and gave him even more medicines that tasted horrible and made him feel worse than he had before. Ike continued to lose weight, and became so tired and worn out that Mrs. Yoder was afraid she would lose him altogether. His children too were worried greatly about their father.
The specialists finally told Ike there was nothing more they could do, not that they had done anything so far and that it might be best if he put his affairs in order. Ike was tired and weary, but he wasn’t ready to pass away. One night he told his wife that he was thinking of visiting the local hex doctor. His wife didn’t approve of these “powwow doctors,” who were known to use faith healing and even occult practices, and Ike didn’t like the whole idea either, but all the other doctors had failed. Maybe this was what he needed. They had heard many tales of the powwow doctor succeeding where others had not, so Ike made up his mind.
The hex doctor was a mysterious man, but he was well respected in the community. He was tall and thin as a rail, with unruly white hair and a sharp, chiseled face. He spoke with a calm yet authoritative voice. He was reported to have special knowledge and magical powers. Not only did he use herbal concoctions, he was familiar with magic marks and symbols that were able to drive evil spirits away. The belief in hexes, or evil spells cast upon one person or his belongings by another, was more widespread in the Pennsylvania Dutch towns and farmlands than Ike had imagined.
The doctor had Ike lay down and examined him from head to toe, passing his hands over and above Ike’s body all the while whispering what sounded like chants. This went on for some time, but finally he told Ike to sit up. “All the signs point to a hex, a curse of some kind, that is upon you,” the doctor told him. “Do you have any enemies?”
When both Ike and his wife told the doctor that there were no enemies that they knew of, he frowned and from his bag withdrew a small black book. Ike could see the title – “Der lang verborgene Schatz und Haus Freund.” It was known in English as “The Long Lost Friend,” by John George Hohman. Ike knew it contained a collection of supernatural recipes, spells, and procedures for the occult healer. Quickly turning the pages, the hex doctor came to place he wanted. He recited a powerful incantation, the appeared to put himself into a trance. In a voice deeper and unlike his own, and with his eyes staring intently at Ike, the doctor said to him, “I see an old man, dressed in blue trousers with white stripes. He has a small pointy beard on his chin; his right hand shakes like a palsy. Over his arm he carries a red horse blanket.”
Mrs. Yoder almost screamed, “Why that sounds like Jake Wetzel, our neighbor.”
The doctor blinked rapidly several times, and stood quiet a moment, bringing himself out of the trance. “Is he mad at you for some reason?” the doctor asked Ike. “Does he hold anything against you?”
Ike thought for a moment, and then replied. “He has asked several times to buy some of my south fields, where our lands join, but I don’t want to sell. The last time was a few months ago, just before I started feeling sickly.”
“Ah ha,” the doctor said. “Has he said anything particular to you when you wouldn’t agree to the sale? Has he done anything unusual to you since then?”
Mrs. Yoder was quick to answer. “He would come to the field each time Ike wouldn’t sell it to him about evening and wave his red horse blanket over the field three times. My sons finally chased him away and that’s the last we’ve seen of him.”
“Well that is it then,” said the doctor. Old Jake Wetzel has hexed you, and if the spell can not be broken, you will surely die.” Mrs. Yoder almost fainted dead away on the floor. Ike and the doctor helped her to a chair. Then the doctor wrote out a set of instructions and gave them to Ike. “This is what you must do,” he said. “The quicker the better.”
When they got home, they quickly opened the doctor’s instructions. Doing as they were told, they softened some beeswax, and formed it into what looked like a little man. They tried to make it look exactly like Jake Wetzel. They loudly declared that the wax image was indeed Jake, as this had to be done to “fix” the image upon Jake, the man they were sure had hexed Ike Yoder.
Ike was feeling so poorly, he went upstairs to his bed, and his wife carried on with the doctor’s orders. She took several long pins from her sewing box and began to stick them into all areas of the little wax man. This was to “torture” Jake and loosen the hold of the hex on Ike. When the figure was full of pins, Mrs. Yoder put it into the fireplace to burn. Some of the wax was consumed by he fire, some dripped into a puddle among the ashes under the grate. But now the doctor’s “cure” was complete. They could only wait to see if it worked.
For six long days, Ike lay in his bed, eating little and growing more pale and wan. Mrs. Yoder was sure the cure had failed and had just about given up hope. But on the seventh morning, the hex doctor came to their house to tell them that Jake Wetzel had dropped dead right in front of his house. Mrs. Yoder shrieked with delight at the news, and she and the doctor started up the stairs to tell Ike. But Ike didn’t need to be told. At the very moment of Jake’s death, the strength started returning to Ike. He was sitting up in bed when his wife entered the room. He looked better than he had in weeks. “What’s for dinner?” he wanted to know. In no time at all Ike and his wife and their children and the hex doctor were gathered at the table. From that day on Ike Yoder was a healthy man.
This story is taken in it’s entirety from a book entitled “Spooky Pennsylvania, Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore.” The stories therein are retold by S.E. Schlosser. This and many other fine tales can be found on her award-winning website: www.Americanfolklore.net