Category: America

Who Put the Hell in Helloween?

Who Put the Hell in Helloween?

During the Satanic Panic, the notion of Halloween as a Satanic High Holy Day came to prominence, but the elements necessary to this mythology were set in place much earlier.

This episode focuses particularly on the early years of Wicca, some missteps in disassociating  the movement from Satanism, and early evangelical personalities spinning “ex-Satanist” yarns from this material, which is to say, we focus particularly on the 1960s Occult Revival  up to and including 1973. To set the mood for the era’s pop occultism, we hear some audio snippets by records released by witches, Louise Huebner, Gundella the Green Witch,  Barbara the Gray Witch, and Babetta, the Sexy Witch.

Barbara the Gray Witch
Back of Barbara the Gray Witch 1970 LP

We first have a quick look at Anton Lavey’s creation of The Church of Satan in 1966. While this sketched out cartoonish tropes of  the Panic narrative, Lavey’s carnival-barker style and insistence that there was no actual Satan in his school of Satanism, undermined the influence he might have among all but the most credulous and paranoid.

The real roots of the Panic lay not in Lavey’s publicity stunt, which in the wider historical context was a mere flash in the pan, but in a much older idea conceiving witchcraft and Devil worship or traffic with demons, a notion that held sway for more than seven centuries and therefore not to be quickly rooted out by modern Wiccans.

Some of the sticking points here are rooted in 19th and early 20th century writings on witchcraft by the American folklorist Charles Leland and British Egyptologist Margaret Murray, and their “witch-cult” concept regarding witchcraft as an underground survival of ancient pagan religion.  Problematic here too were their identification of the deities of this religion as “Lucifer” (Leland) and “The Horned God” (Murray).

We then turn to Gerald Gardner, the British civil servant, who in his retirement got the whole Wiccan ball rolling, declaring in the early 1950s, that he had been initiated into the ancient mysteries of this witch-cult by members of a surviving Coven in the New Forest region.  In particular, we examine the way in which Gardner’s emphasis on UK traditions within Wicca, strengthened an association between Halloween and witches (despite virtually no mention of witch gatherings actually occurring on Halloween in earlier historical writings).

Sibyl Leek
Sibyl Leek and her jackdaw “Mr. Hotfoot”

We then have a brief look at Sybil Leek, first acolyte of Gardnerian Wicca in the US, and darling of 1960s journalists. (Leek was profiled in our 2019 Halloween episode, “All of Them Witches.”) As the United States was the birthplace of the modern Halloween, Leek’s insatiable engagement with the press around that time, did much to strengthen the idea of Halloween as a singularly important time for witch gatherings and ritual.  She also provides Halloween recipes!

By the 1960s, Wicca had branched into two paths, Gardnerian and Alexandrian, the latter named for the British witch Alex Sanders, who with his wife Maxine, headed a coven in London. Sanders has much to do with continued confusion between Wicca and Devil-worship thanks to his indiscriminate pursuit of media interest inclined to titillate audiences with the old diabolic model. We discuss his involvement with the British band Black Widow and their Satanic sacrifice stage-show, publicity involvement in the film Eye of the Devil (1966) , and his feature role in the documentary Legend of the Witches (1970) and mondo “documentary” Secret Rites (1971).

Sanders Secret Rites
Sanders in “Secret Rites”

Just as Wicca originated in the UK, only later to be embraced in the US. fraudulent ex-Satanist testimonies were first told in Britain. In 1970 Bristol-born Doreen Irvine began relating stories of her involvement in the occult, tales that took their final form in her  1973 publication From Witchcraft to Christ.  We hear a bit of her tale of teenage street-life, drugs, and prostitution leading to Satanism, her claims to curious supernatural abilities, and her crowning as the “Queen of the Black Witches” on the Dartmoor moor.  As well as her warnings about celebrating Halloween.

While the ex-Satanist narrative, never really caught on in the UK, it hit the big time with American Mike Warnke’s 1972 book purporting to document his experiences in Satanism, The Satan Seller.

Mike Warnke
Mike Warnke in his early days.

While Warnke’s fraudulent stories garnered him celebrity in the early days of the modern evangelical movement, by the late 1970s, he had reinvented himself as a popular Christian comedian.  He did, however, revisit the theme once the Satanic Panic got rolling, with the 1979 release of the album “A Christian Perspective on Halloween.”

We hear his Satan Seller narrative of a good Midwestern boy corrupted by drugs in a California college, eventual elevation to High Priest within global Satanic underworld, eventual self-destruction through drugs leading to a stint with the Navy, during which he’s saved. Along the way, are some bizarre details about his fingernails, strange ordinations in real-world sects, and eventual exposure and fall within the evangelical community.

Another evangelical making the rounds with ex-Satanist stories in in Warnke’s day was John Todd, who began spinning his yars tales around 1968 in Phoenix. We only briefly discuss Todd as he really hits his stride outside our timeframe, namely, in  the late ‘70s when his story of involvement in a Satanic underworld reached its greatest audience via Jack Chick comics.

We wrap up the show with a look at some early collaborators with Warnke in the the occult fear-mongering business — David Balsiger, Morris Cerrullo, and Hershel Smith (AKA “the Skin Eater) as well as their collaboration on the legendary “Witchmobile,” an “anti-occult mobile unit” that roamed the US and Canada from 1972 to 1974.

Witchmobile
Herschel Smith and the Witchmobile
America and the Old, Dark Christmas

America and the Old, Dark Christmas

In earlier centuries, Americans partook in many of the same dark Christmas traditions that gave birth to Europe’s Krampus.  This episode examines our untamed holiday history.

The most obvious example of this is the character of Belsnickel, (sometimes: Pelznickel, Belschnickle, Bells Nickel, etc.), who, like the Krampus, usually appeared on St. Nicholas Day, carrying a whip with which to threaten or strike naughty children. He was found particularly in German-settled areas of eastern Pennsylvania, but also in Appalachian West Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and Southern Indiana.

Belsnickel’s costume could vary widely depending upon what was available to the performer, but usually involved a long coat, hat, and almost always false whiskers — all chosen primarily to cover the actor and make him difficult to recognize. For that same reason, his face would also often blackened with soot or covered by any sort of mask available.

Belsnickel drawing
Belsnickel illustration by Ralph Dunkelberger (1959) in Berks History Center (PA)

Belsnickel often wore a fur coat or hat, a coat trimmed with fur, or a fur-lined coat turned inside out (to create a weird effect and make the garment less recognizable). The choice of fur probably had less to do with some essential attribute of the character and more to do with the season itself. Nonetheless, the name “Belsnickel,” which is a derivation of the German “Pelznickel,” has often been incorrectly interpreted as “Fur Nicholas.” In fact, the “Pelz” here derives from pelzen, meaning, “to beat.”  Pelznickel (and Belsnickel) carried in his pocket or bag, small treats, which he would scatter over the ground. Naughty children trying to grab these would feel his whip.

Like Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht or the Krampus of Alpine Austria and Bavaria, the whip was the Belsnickel’s essential attribute. In fact, in the 1800s, Pelznickel/Belsnickel would probably not have been that different in appearance from the Krampus as the modern image we have of that creature was only standardized as such with advent of Krampus postcards and their imagery dreamed up by city-dwelling artists, along with growth of a competitive community of mask-carvers in the early 20th century.

The popularity of the Belsnickel tradition soon saw it spill over from its original December 5-6 celebration to all the days leading up to Christmas and later New Year.  As the tradition grew in popularity, Belsnickel was no longer represented as a solitary character but by groups of Belsnickels, whose behavior became increasingly rowdy and unwelcome. Rather than giving gifts or treats, these groups tended to ask for handouts from homes and businesses visited.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us a number of American newspaper accounts documenting this trend.

Belsnickel appearing in groups. (photo: Museum of the Shenandoah Valley)

We also take a side-trip to South America, where the figure of Pelznickel arrived with German immigrants in the town of Guabiruba. Brazil. Unlike North America, where the Belsnickel had largely died out by the 1940s, Pelznickel events sponsored by the Sociedade dos Pelznickel continue to thrive – but with an interesting twist.  There, the Pelznickel wanders about outfitted  in moss and other tropical vegetation, accessorized with Krampus-like mask and horns.

Pelznickel Brazil
Pelznickel in Guabiruba, Brazil.

The Belsnickel gangs were not the only groups of costumed youth carousing or begging on American streets during the holiday.  Some of the earliest reports of this sort of thing come from Boston, where they were known as “Anticks” or “Fantasticals,” a name also used elsewhere.  In Philadelphia, they might be called”Belsnickels” or simply “clowns” or “shooters” (thanks to the fact that these groups tended to carry noisemakers, including guns).  In New York, these bands of noisemakers, often equipped with actual musical instruments played discordantly, were known as Callithumpians, or Callithumpian bands.

In Philadelphia, the rowdy costumed traditions of immigrants from Great Britain and Scandinavian melded with those of the Germans and were eventually domesticated by civil authorities into a more manageable form, the annual Mummers’ Parade.

In New York, no such solution was found, and Mrs. Karswell reads for us dramatic newspaper account  from 1828 describing holiday chaos in that city.

Eventually a remedy to New York’s seasonal turmoil was suggested by John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, whose love for the traditions of “Old Amsterdam” suggested Holland’s patron Saint Nicholas as a distraction from the street carousing.  His re-creation of pious domestic rituals involving the saint would eventually displace holiday activity from the street to the home, and refocus festivities from rowdy unmarried men to children rewarded for good behavior.  Some peculiar twists and turns along the way are described.

st. nick
St. Nicholas material Pintard commissioned for the New York Historical Society.

NOTE: This episode consists of material originally written for the book The Krampus and the Old, Dark Christmas, but excised due to page-count.  Mr. Ridenour’s book, it should be noted, happens to make an outstanding gift for the holidays.

The book by your host
The book by your host. A most excellent gift!

 

Horror Hosts, Part Two

Horror Hosts, Part Two

A break from the usual themes for the Halloween season: the second part of our survey of 40 years of  Horror hosts, this time the hosts of the 1960s and a couple years of the ’70s.

Included in this installment: Morgus the Magnificent, Sammy Terry, Chilly Billy Cardille, Ghoulardi, The Vegas Vampire, The Cool Ghoul, Svengoolie, and Sir Cecil Creape.

Also: Psychic Bee fortune-telling with Mrs. Karswell

Ashtar, Orthon, and the Rosicrucians

Ashtar, Orthon, and the Rosicrucians

Messages delivered by the extraterrestrials Ashtar and Orthon to Contactees of the 1950s represented a sort of repackaging of 19th-century Theosophy, a philosophical descendent of the Rosicrucianism of the 1700s.

After our previous epiosde examining George King of the Aetherius Society, this episode looks at two other Georges of the Contactee movement, George van Tassel (channeler of Ashtar) and George Adamski (allegedly visited by Orthon).

We begin with a look at George van Tassel’s pre-Contactee life in Southern California during which he worked in aviation, a path that led to him taking ownership of a tiny airstrip in the nearby desert, Giant Rock Airport, named for the landmark boulder beside it.

We hear about van Tassel’s early involvement in a metaphysical group, The Brotherhood of the Cosmic Christ, and his progression into channeling messages from Space People. By 1953, he claimed to have encountered a Venusian by the name of Solganda, who welcomed him into his space craft.  We hear some amusing details revealed in interviews with the Contactee-friendly radio host Long John Nebel. (Nebel’s late-night show, Partyline, out of New York anticipated paranormal shows like Art Bell’s Coast to Coast and are well worth checking out.)

Chief among the Space People van Tassel claimed to contact was Ashtar, whose messages were largely devoted to warnings about humanity’s ill-fated dabbling with nuclear weapons.  Strangely, messages from Ashtar began to be received by other channelers even in van Tassel’s day, and he continues to be channeled in New Age circles to this day.

van tassel images
Van Tassl’s Integratron under construction and Giant Rock Spacecraft Convention.

We also hear about the Giant Rock Spacecraft conventions van Tassel hosted from 1953 to 1977, and about the Integratron, a domed construction van Tassel claimed would function as a sort of time machine or rejuvenator of the human body.  Unsurprisingly, the plans for the latter were provided by the Space People.

We next look at the first Contactee to supposedly meet a being from space, George Adamski.  His connection to Theosophy is particularly obvious and is illustrated through newspaper excerpts read by Mrs. Karswell, in which Adamski represents himself as an  esoteric teacher from Tibet or Egypt (take your pick).

While continuing to publish metaphysical pamphlets in the late ’40s, Adamski was becoming more obsessed with space, including both astronomy and astral experiences of a more cosmic nature.  He relocated to a camp owned by one of his students at the base of Mount Palomar, where he set up a telescope and was sometimes mistaken by visitors to the famous observatory on Palomar’s peak as a professional associate of the astronomers (something he actively encouraged).

After producing, the first of his UFO photos in 1947, and 1950, Adamski arranged a saucer scouting expedition with friends and students, during which he claimed to have met Orthon.  We hear Adamski himself describe this meeting to Long John Nebel and about some curious clues and photographs left in Orthon’s wake — including the much debated bell-shaped flying saucer photos published in his 1953 book, The Flying Saucers Have Landed.

Adamski
Orthon & Adamski

Even at the height of his fame, rumors swirled within the flying saucer community that Adamski was a fraud, but alongside this are slightly mitigating reports by acquaintances that he occasionally confessed as much, while pleading that it was all in support of redemptive spiritual truths.

Oddly, perhaps — this brings us to the Rosicrucians, a movement influential upon Theosophy, and one founded upon a sort of hoax, more or less confessed to by its founder, the German Lutheran theologian Johann Valentin Andreae.

It’s believed that Andreae was behind at least the first publications mentioning Rosicrucianism, a series of anonymous pamphlets that appeared in Germany between 1614 and 1617.  In these, it was implied that a hitherto unknown body of knowledge, an amalgam of alchemy, hermeticism, Christian mysticism and Kabbalah had been gathered by the brothers of the Rosy Cross, themselves followers of a 14th century seeker named Christian Rosenkreuz, (German for “Rose Cross”).  Many Enlightenment-era scholars inspired by Rosicrucian ideals and not privy to the hoax went on to dedicate well intentioned projects dedicated to Rosicrucian ideals — all similar to Adamski’s notion of good teachings brought by imposters.

The similarity between the notion of hidden Rosicrucian adapts and the Masters of Theosophy did not go unnoticed by the movement’s leading light, Helena Blavatsky. In writing about the 1842 novel Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, she described the characterization of the Rosicrucian hero Zanoni as a perfect description of Theosophy’s hidden Masters of her.

Stranger still, it’s believed that Blavatsky’s notions of a sort of “higher science,” a technology that manipulates subtle spiritual energies, seems to have been directly influenced by Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel, The Coming Race and its concept of the “vril,” used by hidden survivors of a an advanced civilization comparable to Blavatsky’s Atlanteans.  A comparison to the mysterious powers channeled by van Tassel’s Integratron is naturally mentioned here.

We wrap up with a look at A.M.O.R.C. (The Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis) a uniquely American Rosicrucian organization known for its flamboyant advertisements for cosmic know-how published in the backs of magazines of the 1940s and 50s. Founded in 1915, this group of media-savvy adepts also went on to produce some particularly peculiar records in the 1960s, which we hear sampled at the closing of the show.

amorc
AMORC advertisement

 

Hex Murders and Madness in Old Pennsylvania

Hex Murders and Madness in Old Pennsylvania

Cases of madness and even murder were associated with Hexerei, a form of witchcraft brought to Pennsylvania by German immigrants.  Following up on our previous examination of the tradition of Braucherei or Pow-Wow as practiced in 18th and 19th century Pennsylvania, our current episode eplores some more disturbing cases of witchcraft beliefs surviving into the 1920s and ’30s.

Our show begins with a montage of voices extracted from the documentary Signs, Cures, and Witchery: German Appalachian Folklore. It was produced as a companion to an excellent book of the same name by Gerald Milnes.

By the 1890s, any public notice taken of Braucherei tended to be negative. Journalists were quick with comparisons to the Salem witchcraft mania and tended to focus on cases in which witchcraft belief led to madness.  We hear an example of this from an 1891 Pittsburgh Dispatch article describing two women driven to paranoia in the hills of Earl and Douglass townships. From the Public Weekly Opinion of Chambersburg, PA, we hear bits of an 1894 story describing the extreme (and destructive) measures taken by a George Kellar to rid his property of witches.

The first of the witchcraft-related homicides we examine comes from a March 1922 edition of the York Daily Record.  It’s the case Sallie Heagy, whose belief in witchcraft and a night-hag like entity known in Pennsylvania as “Trotterhead,” led to her shooting her husband while he slept.

We then move on to the most famous witchcraft murder in Pennsylvania, namely that of a part-time Braucher and potato farmer, Nelson Rehmeyer, who met his end in York County in 1928.  Mrs. Karswell opens this segment reading a description of the discovery of the decedent’s body taken from a Nov. 30 edition of the Hanover Evening Sun.

The murder was committed by a group of men organized by John Blymire, a third generation Braucher or Powwower, who believed himself to have been cursed by Rehmeyer.  We hear a bit of his troubled history (which included being committed to a psychiatric hospital from which he escaped) and of his accomplices, including John Curry, a younger man whom Blymire took on as a sort of magical apprentice and Wilbert Hess, whose troubles with his wife and farm, according to Blymire’s increasingly paranoic beliefs, were also tied to a curse by Rehmeyer.  We also hear of the involvement of the Braucherin Nellie Noll, sometimes called the “River Witch of Marietta,” from whom Blymire sought help in identifying Rehmeyer as the one responsible for the curse laid upon him. The commission of the crime itself is described in our show via the court testimony given by Wilbert Hess.

Rehmeyer's House in 1928
Rehmeyer’s House in 1928

The media circus generated by a witchcraft-related murder in 20th-century Pennsylvania resulted in  the press becoming obsessed with investigating any possible links to Braucherei in any Pennsylvania crime they reported on.  We hear several examples of highly speculative connections made including that of  the twenty-one-year-old woman Verna Delp, whose death by poison was erroneously connected to concoctions given her by a Braucher in 1928.   A similar connection is examined in the 1930 case of Mrs. Harry McDonald, who was found burned to death in her home, as well as the case of Norman Bechtel, whose body was discovered in 1932 in a mutilated state, bearing injuries, the press presumptively identified as “hex marks.”

Only 6 years after the Rehmeyer case, however, another murder with an undeniable connection to withcraft belief occurred in the vicinity of Pottsville (the same region as that of our Hex Cat case in Episode 69).  This was the murder on March 17, 1934 of Susan Mummey by Albert Shinsky.  Mummey was a local Braucherin, known by locals as “Old Susie,” or sometimes “The Witch of Ringtown Valley,” who had a cantankerous reputation with her neighbors.  At the age of 17, Shinksy experienced one such unpleasant encounter, which he came to regard as the origin of a seven-year curse placed upon him by Mummey — one that could only be resolved ultimately by slaying the witch with a magic bullet.  We’ll leave the lurid details of this case for you to experience as you listen, but suffice it to say, the region still seems to have had problems with Hex Cats in 1934.

Philadelphia Inquirer
From The Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 Mar 1934

Our show closes with a look at the Rehmeyer case explored in different media.  A highly fictionalized version of the story was produced in 1987 under the name Apprentice to Murder, this one featuring Donald Sutherland as a notably more bookish John Blymire type.  There’s also a good 2015 documentary, Hex Hollow, which features interviews with Blymire and Rehmeyer’s descendants.  Strangest of all is the manner in which this story seems to have influenced the musical psychedelia of the York County band Lenny Lionstar and The Hillbillies of The Universe.  We close with a snippet of their work.

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Witches, Healers, and Hex Cats in Old Pennsylvania

Stories of witchcraft and folk-healers in early Pennsylvania are surprisingly plentiful. In this episode, we examine the state’s German-American tradition of Braucherei that spawned these tales. The practice came over with immigrants from Germany’s southwestern Rhineland beginning in the late 1700s and established itself among the Pennsylvania “Dutch” (a misunderstanding of  “Deutsch”) in the state’s southern “Dutch Country” region, eventually moving westward through Appalachia and all the way to Indiana and south into the Ozarks.

We begin with a chant supposedly chanted in the 1800s by witches gathered at Hexenkopf Rock (“witch’s head” rock), an actual site about 15-minutes outside the old steel town of Bethlehem.  The locale is central to early Braucherei and to the other name by which it goes, namely “Pow-Wow.”

It was on land adjacent to the Hexenkopf that Johann Peter Seiler, who immigrated from Germany in 1738, eventually settled and set up shop as a folk-healer, or “Braucher” (one who practices Braucherei).  As he also offered treatment to the native Algonquin, his work was equated by them to that of their medicine man or his rituals, and he was supposedly dubbed  “The Great Pow-Wow.”  This is one origin story for the odd nomenclature, though others believe the term “pow-wow” was applied by English settlers as a disparaging comparison to native rituals.  The term is still used and carries no such disparaging connotation today.  Nor does it imply a borrowing of Native American traditions into Braucherei, which is firmly rooted in Old World traditions.

While the Braucher has frequently been described by outsiders a “witch” or “witch doctor,” it’s certainly not a label accepted within the tradition, as there are no “good witches,” only bad witches, (Hexes) who practice Hexerei.  Brauchers are often sought to remove curses placed by Hexes, though occasionally practitioners have been known to slip from one side to the other.

We next look at a sampling of the magical tools and techniques employed in Braucherei, the prominence of the color red, preponderance of written charms carried by clients, and the spoken charm, the famous “Blood Verse” used to stop bleeding.

A Braucher would always consider himself to be Christian, and much use is made of religious images and verbiage, especially from Catholic traditions.  Though the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated from Germany’s Protestant regions, Braucherei has served as a sort of underground continuation of medieval Catholic practice in a Post-Reformation world.

1930s Friend
1930s edition of “Long Lost Friend” with illustrations by Charles Quinlan. Courtesy Glencairn Museum.

We then discuss the curiously titled volume The Long Lost Friend, a classic sourcebook for Braucherei, published by German immigrant, printer, and Braucher John George Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1820.  Much of it, we learn, was borrowed (sometimes verbatim) from earlier European books of magic, though applications described therein are very specific to 19th century agricultural life.  We also hear a bit about another magical sourcebook used (more in Hexerei thanks to its inclusion of destructive magic), the Sixth and Seventh Book of Moses (published as a single volume).  We hear a bit about its notorious reputation, both in Braucherei and American Hooodoo.

6th book
The notorious “Sixth and Sevenths Books of Moses.” Don’t look at it too long!

The balance of our show is devoted to tales of witches and healers, gleaned mainly from newspaper archives and read by the inimitable Mrs. Karswell.

We hear of “Old Moll” of Fayette County, her fortune-telling with coffee grounds, of a legendary prophecy (curse?) laid upon some miscreants passing through town, and her appearance in connection with other local legends, as in the 1865 book,The White Rocks by A.F. Hill, a romanticized retelling of the murder of Polly Williams.

A hotbed of Braucherei, Berks County provides our remaining stories — an 1889 story in which a witch torments her victim in the form of a night hag, and the way in which a Braucher defeats her, and an 1892 story involving a baby covered in spots thanks to a visiting witch, who was eventually defeated while in the form of a cat.

Another witch in the form of a cat was the famous “Hex Cat” that haunted the farm of the Thomas family in Tumbling Run Valley in 1911.  This one made national news, with reportage appearing as far away as Hawaii.  It also generated a moderate frenzy of commercial exploitation.  I’ll leave the details of the case for you to enjoy as you listen.

Stay tuned for our next episode further exploring Braucherei, including some shocking criminal cases in which the tradition played a role.

I should also mention that we had some audio cameos in this show.  A number of our subscribers on Patreon joined in as witches in the chant at the Hexenkopf.  Thank you to: Allison Lovecraft, Victoria Howard, Angelica, Bridget Case, Jenny Matisiak, Molly Van Overhill, Alice Price, and Anne Luben!

(Long Lost Friend images courtesy the Glencairn Museum’s excellent 2017 exhibition on Braucherei)