The Historian by Robert Wood: Three Cross Knife, part 1

Submitted photo
An image of the three cross knife. The three crosses are noticeable near the back of the blade.
Submitted photo An image of the three cross knife. The three crosses are noticeable near the back of the blade.

Although not freely discussed, there was widespread belief in the supernatural among the Pennsylvania Dutch. Many of these beliefs were brought with the immigrants, and their counterparts could be found in the old country.

According to Boyertown resident Gerald Landis: “There were various amulets, counter measures, and other methods used by our ancestors to ward of diseases, meager harvests, spells of witches, the devil, etc. These “gegen mittel” (counter mediums) included the bible, pow-wow (“brauche”) salt, verses—written and spoken—and the lesser known “drei kreitzer messer” (three cross knife) among many others.

Gerald Landis owns a “three cross knife” made by his great-grandfather, John Hoffman (b.1847, d.1917), who lived in the Huff’s church area. He was a farmer, blacksmith, carpenter, and could pow-wow. Also, according to Landis, he was expert in blood-letting, which was done in the middle of the back.

It was Hoffman who made the knife at a five-points cross road above Fredericksville sometime in the nineteenth century. Landis says he vividly recalls the formula for making it.


“First—the iron was to be obtained free and without much ado and talking. You never said what it was to be used for.

“Next—you asked someone to help you make it, again in secret and without begging or much talk. The assistant was “far ring tzu laufa’” (to walk a ring). This was a ring a few yards from the person making the knife and it was to protect the maker from “feirdliche geschpenster, brillende leewe, und wiescht gashtige gediere, und der deiwel selwer” (ferocious apparitions, bellowing lions, and ugly horrid animals, and the devil himself).

“All the forces of evil would present themselves at the making of the knife to scare the makers and to prevent its completion. He was to recite “Der Vater Unser” (the Lord’s Prayer) while walking the ring. The maker was to ignore all ‘goings on’ and proceed with the manufacture of the knife, the ring walker to continue walking and reciting. The knife was to be made at a cross roads between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on New Year’s Night. No talking was to take place from the time you left until the time you return.

“I was told you were allowed three hammer strokes per night per knife. This is rather doubtful when I look at my knife, as I can’t see that only six strokes could make it. I say ‘six,’ as the three crosses, I assume, were put in by an X-marked tool and this required three strokes, not to mention the notches.

“One could start three knives and follow through with them to completion. It took three years to make them as you were to do one-third of the work each year. The maker had to be the same man. The ring walker was never mentioned to me as having to be the same person.

“Upon completing the first ‘nacht om kreitzweg’ (night at cross road) you were to put the unfinished product ‘ins dunkel, abatich wo die sonn es net trefft so wie ins keller winkel’ (in darkness, especially where the sun will not touch such as in a cellar corner). One was not to advertise that the knives were being made.

“Upon completion the knife was always given away [for a particular use, later returned to the owner] without much ado and nothing offered in return.

“The ‘drei kreitzer messer’ I have is 8 1/6 inches long, 1/8 inch thick, and 5/8 inch wide at its widest point. It is unpainted wrought iron. I was never able to account for the four notches. I was always told, ‘Es soll so sei’ (It shall so be).

“The three crosses were painted in to show up better on the reproduction. It is my opinion that the three crosses stand for ‘Vater, Sohn, und Heiligen Geist’ (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost).

“Great-grandfather mentioned that all types of evil animals and fire, etc. were around him while the ring walker walked and he made the knife. Each year it was worse, and the final year the devil himself was present and the lions howled.

“The knife was given to a relative, my great-great-grandfather. Upon his death it came to great grandfather.

See next week’s edition, March 27, for part 2.