Kutztown native Richard L.T. Orth released a new book “Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch: Witchcraft, Faith Healing and Related Practices.”
For almost three centuries, the Pennsylvania Dutch — descended from Swiss, French, and German immigrants from Germany during the 17th & 18th Centuries — have practiced white magic, known in their dialect as Braucherei (from the German “brauchen,” to use) or more commonly referred to as Powwowing, and conversely, some engaged in black magic or Hexerei. The former (tradition) was brought by immigrants from the Rhineland and Switzerland in the 17th and 18th Centuries, when they settled in Pennsylvania and in other areas of what is now the eastern United States and Canada. Practitioners draw on folklore and tradition dating to the turn of the 19th century, when healers like Mountain Mary — canonized as a saint for her powers — arrived in the New World. The author, a member of the Pennsylvania Dutch community, describes in detail the backwoods practices, culture, and history of faith healers and deemed witches.
Orth grew up in Berks County and had been involved with the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown for more than 22 years, and a columnist for the Kutztown Patriot since 2009. He holds both his bachelor and master’s degrees from Kutztown University, but his life’s work and passion remains in the study of the rich Pennsylvania Dutch culture, its folk art, architecture, and folkways his experience includes curating museum collections, field research, and continual writing.
Having long been aware, yet ashamed, of his mother’s side of the family’s mysterious past, she was the youngest of 13 kids who grew up just north of the Kutztown area alongside her siblings, parents, and other kin where she knew of several family members who dabbled in both these traditional arts, but specifically an eccentric aunt who roamed the countryside tormenting innocent farmers and souls, often told to author, Richard L.T. Orth, as a youth. One particular tale she often told of, he had never forgotten through the years, was about this aunt who was once jailed for these mischievous acts only to somehow transform herself every night, while incarcerated, departing through her cell’s key-hole to care for her young child left at home. But, miraculous in disappearance, always remained unnoticed by guard. Orth, long writing it off in his rational mind as blasphemous, a part of him somehow believed parts of it true or not entirely surprised as he got older as this side of the family was always very peculiar. No less than four of his female cousins, in contemporary times, continued in the family’s long-standing tradition of engaging or at least dabbling in the Black (occult) Arts; but he instead chose to shy away and avoid such participation not to barter one’s soul, and rather be deemed a person of God and Country. Thus, as he got older, he instead focused on researching and writing about models of true Christian living as our Plain Dutch Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren of the PA Dutch Country.
However, adding to the mystique but puzzlement of the author, following recent deaths on his paternal side including some of dear, close family members, he subsequently was in charge of clearing out the old abandoned Victorian house of his childhood in Fleetwood. During this time, he stumbled across a few unique artifacts, some obscured, handwritten notes, odd newspapers clippings, and a handful of 19th Century books of names familiar to Orth from research while at the American Folklife Institute and mentioned by colleague and mentor, Richard H. Shaner. However, Orth having long been ashamed of his family’s mischievous doings, he continued to stay mum on the subject matter and for years, even to his close confidant, of his family’s peculiar backwoods folkways not to expose them. Orth, as most Dutchmen, had a healthy fear in such Hexerei, but also a deep respect for his family’s wishes of privacy or to divulge of such possessions or heirlooms, as his family had long known Shaner to be an overly eager antique dealer, first. Nonetheless, all now made sense to Orth, of those stories told since he was a little boy, family ramblings that continued on for years that didn’t make sense at the time, and conversations he stumbled upon that would suddenly cease upon entering the room, all but confirming what he had long suspected- both sides dabbled in Hexerei, thus, compelling him to write this book and finally free himself of the “family’s secrets” burden he harbored for years.
Orth’s book available at Amazon.com, http://www.american-folklife-institute.org/, http://www.mcfarlandbooks.com/ or on eBay.