A Look Back in History: ‘X' Does More Than Mark the Spot

In 1976, the American Folklife Society hired famed restoration architect, John K. Heyl to restore the 1753 manor house. Although Mr. Heyl drew a measured drawing of the finished sketch of the 1753 manor, the American Folklife Society turned the plans over to the Preservation Trust of Berks County when the Boyer family finally decided to bequeath this property to them in 1979.

When John K. Heyl, the noted restoration architect from Allentown, did blueprint measurements on the Keim houses for the American Folklife Society, he noticed the exceptional hand-forged iron hardware. Done by a local German schooled blacksmith, they were artistically fashioned in the early 1700-period style with rat-tailed pintels, upon which iron strap hinges held the raised-panel doors. However, some of the folk art shaped forged iron hinges of these buildings had an unusual feature from all others used on the property. Concealed from view when the doors are closed were mysterious “X’s” painstakingly embossed in the strap hinge roll as it is fitted to the pintel on the doorjamb.

The manor house divided into the typical Continental German floor plan of kitchen, Stube room, and Kammer was outfitted with exceptional iron strap hinges on all the doors. But the first floor Kammer (back bedroom), adjacent to the Stube room (stove room) or “Great room,” had iron hinges with three mysterious “X’s” forged into them.

This downstairs Kammer or small bedroom, known as the dying room, in Colonial times was where ill members of the family slept and drew their last breath before departing to the other side. Often a Seelen Fenster or “soul window” was located in this room, on the outer wall, and only opened to allow the deceased member’s soul to leave his or her body, exit the home, and depart to heaven. Opening a window of a deceased person’s bedroom is still practiced in Berks County today, that the spirit may enter heaven.

Although the Keim workhouse did not have a Kammer on the first floor, it did have a board partition dividing the kitchen from the Stube room. Upon further investigation, the iron hinges on this earlier batten board door revealed the largest “X’s” secretly punched on its underside to possibly protect the pioneer occupants who slept behind the door. As was the religious custom in pioneer days, the large, Great Room of the manor may have been used for worship with French Huguenot neighbors like today’s House-Amish continue to practice every fortnight. A molded cornice along the open beam ceiling in this room still had its Bible and songbook bookshelf in place to hold religious text.

The meeting room, heated by an iron German jamb stove like the room above, was fed hot coals by an opening in the back wall of the Central fireplace. Of all the ornate ironwork in the manor house, the escutcheons on the forged iron locks entering the Stube rooms were very elaborate. The blacksmith had incorporated into these Moravian-style locks an elegant (good luck) swan with a curved neck atop and a reverse motif at bottom.

Not coincidence, the “X” marks on the backs of iron interior strap hinges were the result of folk belief in ancient German sympathetic magic used to protect the family’s inner sanctum as found on other items such as guns, etc. Unlike “hex signs,” which were not used at the early Keim farmstead, true occult magic is hidden from view! An “X” is considered the symbol for Christ (in the Greek alphabet), and three in a row represent the Holy Trinity, often used in popular secretive powwowing rituals.

Another ancient Pennsylvania German folk belief was if a witch crossed her apron strings while looking at a hunter carrying his gun, she could steal the fire from his gun. Thereby, when he attempted to shoot at game, the gun would not ignite and the hunter missing his intended target. According to Pennsylvania German dialect folklorist, Dr. Edwin M. Fogel, who collected Pennsylvania German folklore previous to 1915, if a gun is “ferhext” (bewitched), stick two pins on the gun in the shape of a cross to break the spell. And if you really want to avenge the witch, lay the bewitched gun in a creek and the “hex” will not be able to urinate until she personally comes to the owner of the gun to ask for forgiveness, states Fogel!

Old Rhineland folklore was also known for the use of talisman charms, which were carried by flint gun huntsmen in the advent that they came upon such a sorceress while hunting game and the amulet would assure them of accuracy. Old John Keim, Betsy’s brother, never allowed people to even trespass in the enchanted 100-acre forest, so hunting was definitely forbidden! There were confirmed accounts of the Keim sisters stealing fire from the guns of would be hunters seen trespassing near the homestead. It was also common knowledge among people living near Lobachsville that the Keim women had other supernatural powers, and as the German dialect phrase went, “they could do more than eat bread!”

It is likely whichever Keim sister was in charge of butchering the chickens drew an “X” on the chopping block where she held the neck of the fowl between nail posts before chopping off its head. A common Pennsylvania German folk practice, chickens beheaded in this manner were not supposed to flop around and make a bloody mess afterwards. Nevertheless, the more ancient habits of the spinster Keim sisters carried on from the 19th Century into the beginning of the 20th Century made them paranormal to the outside world. Rarely did these recluse sisters leave the farm to be seen in public. When motorized buggies became popular and drove by their home, they would hide and call them lightning wagons in German.

Relying on two or three cows for milk and cream for butter, each sister had her own chores and ran the household and farm, cooperatively. If by chance a cow would give bloody milk, they might follow the sympathetic formula to boil the tainted milk on the stove stirring it in the design of a cross or letter “X” to break the evil spell and exorcise the hex from the bewitched cow.

In 1974, an elderly neighbor to Betsy Keim stated that as a young boy, he was sent to the Keim house by his mother to fetch an item. Betsy, speaking in her authoritative German tongue sat him down on the spiral staircase alongside of a gallon crock filled with coins, while she looked for the item. Shaking in his boots, he dared not move or make her cross until she came back to release him. Some of the Keim’s earthly treasures were finally revealed at Betsy’s estate sale.

FOOTNOTES TO MYSTERIOUS KEIM FAMILY:

1. Eshelman, John E., “The Keim Family of Lobachsville,” Volume XXI Number 1. The Historical Review of Berks County, October-December, 1955.

2. Bertolet, Dr. Peter G. Fragments of the Past: Historical Sketches of Oley and Vicinity, (1860).

3. The American Folklife Society, which was entrusted to operate the historic Keim houses and a portion of the estate for a museum and festival grounds in the 1970’s by the owner Richard Boyer, placed the buildings on the Historic National Register May 1st, 1974.

4. Richard Boyer, a descendant of Mahlon Boyer from Pine Grove made a gift of the historic Keim buildings to the Historic Preservation Trust of Berks County in 1978, after the American Folklife Society decided no longer to hold their folk festivals.

5. Fogel, Edwin M. Beliefs and Superstitions of the Pennsylvania Germans, American Germanica Press, Philadelphia, PA 1915.

6. The soul window located in the Kammer of the 1737 Bertolet Log cabin, which was restored when the cabin was removed from Oley Township and rebuilt at the Daniel Boone Homestead, is one of the best examples of this Rhineland folk practice.

7. Conversations with John Mertz, concerning a local neighbor who demanded the Allentown Hospital open a window for her Mother’s departed soul.

Sociologically speaking, “cultural shock” was twice as devastating for Betsy Keim, as she realized her sisters were gone and no one else could replace them. Betsy continued to use primitive household tools and folkways, and the leap from habitual Colonial ways to the automation of the 20th Century was much too great. Yet, her old German religion brought comfort in a mysterious all-powerful God, who she knew could be trusted in his design for the earth.

Richard H. Shaner is director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.

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