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Local History: “Hex” Sparks Murder In York In 1928

November 18, 2018

Two hundred thirty-five years after the Salem witch trials, a community about 150 miles from Scranton held a witch trial of its own. The bizarre case involved the Nov. 27, 1928, brutal beating death of Nelson D. Reh­meyer, 59, a York County farmer. Neighbor David Vanover discovered the farmer’s body, “badly charred, the scalp cut and the skull fractured” in the kitchen of the dead man’s Hopewell Twp. home, according to a Jan. 8, 1929, Associated Press story published in The Scranton Times. Two days after the killing, 18-year-old Wilbert G. Hess confessed to killing Rehmeyer, saying he and two others, John H. Blymyer, 33, and John Curry, 14, “were trying to get a lock of (Rehmeyer’s) hair to bury eight feet underground to break a spell,” which they believed had been cast over Hess’ family, according to a Nov. 30, 1928, Associated Press story. A grand jury in York County indicted the three on Jan 7, 1929. At the time, District Attorney Amos W. Herr­man believed the true motive of the murder was robbery and planned “to stress that rather than the witchcraft angle,” the Associated Press reported in an article that appeared that day in The Scranton Times. Blymyer’s jury trial began a day later, and from the beginning, the supposed hex figured large in the case. Blymyer was accused of being a “powwow doctor” who told Hess his family had been hexed and the only way to break the spell was to get a lock of Rehmeyer’s hair and bury it. Blymyer took the stand on Jan. 9, 1929, and testified that Rehmeyer also bewitched him, according to an AP article. He admitted he and Ccurry bought rope from a hardware store. After talking to Hess, the group traveled to Rehmeyer’s home. After asking the trio what they wanted, “Hess and I grabbed him and threw him down. Curry joined in. We beat him with our fists. Struck him on the head with a chair,” Blymyer testified as “the defense attorney picked up a broken chair which the witness identified,” the AP story reported. “Before quitting the witness stand today, Blymer said he thought he did right in killing the farmer,” the story continued. “‘I am no longer bewitched now that he is dead,’ the witness said. ‘The spell is broken.’” Jurors also learned, however, that Blymyer suffered from mental illness and had been admitted to the Harrisburg State Hospital in 1923. He escaped from the institution after 48 days, the AP reported. A medical expert testified that Blymyer suffered from “delusions, hallucinations and illusions,” including “delusions of witchcraft,” according to the AP. Even so, the jury convicted Blymyer of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. Curry’s trial began on Jan. 10, 1929. A new jury heard from many of the same witnesses who testified during Blymyer’s case and reached the same conviction and sentence for the teen — life in prison for first-degree murder. Fifteen minutes after the Curry’s jury left the courtroom, Hess’s trial began. Hess told the jury he believed he had to confront Rehmeyer to help his family. “I went for my father’s and mother’s benefit,” he said on the stand, according to the AP. “They believed the only way to break the spell was to get a lock of hair from Rehmeyer, and my mother said I could go along with Blymyer and Curry to help overpower him.” Milton and Alice Hess, Wilbert Hess’ parents, also testified at the trial that they believed they were hexed. Hess’ jury also convicted him of first-degree murder and sentenced him to life in prison. York County Judge Ray P. Sherwood moved through the three trials swiftly, but the crime brought an unwelcome spotlight to the county seat. News reporters from Harrisburg, Philadelphia and New York came to York to write about the case, much to the chagrin of city and business leaders. “The avalanche of publicity that has descended upon York as a result of the witchcraft case has made the community witch-conscious,” a Jan. 12, 1929, International News Service story published in The Scranton Times reported. “The responsible leaders are eager to have the case over and done with.” ERIN L. NISSLEY is an assistant metro editor at The Times-Tribune. She’s lived in the area for more than a decade. Contact the writer: localhistory@timesshamrock.com

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