Mar 1, 2008

Powwow doctors

Powwow doctors were folk healers who practiced a sort of magical faith-healing that was not all that uncommon in what Greil Marcus affectionately refers to as "the old weird America." Powwowism (also known as Braucherei or Hexerei), has little or nothing to do with Native Americans. It has a lot to do with Christianity and can be seen as an adjunct to the organized American faiths; one went to church on Sunday and visited the Powwow doctor on Monday.
Said Rev. G. W. Enders, pastor of a rural Lutheran parish near York: "Nearly all of my congregation, perhaps, have been powwowed for, at one time or another. ... I just ignore it." - Time Magazine, December 1928. Not all pastors were that tolerant, folklorist Dennis Boyer writes that "Clergy of all denominations waged a war against Braucherei from the pulpit that lasted from the time of Jefferson to the New Deal."
Powwowism seems peculiar to Eastern Pennsylvania, but it most likely seeped into the surrounding regions as well. (One can easily imagine it traveling west, beside the Kentucky rifle in the Conestoga wagon or in a satchel, steaming along the old mainline.)
Much of the tradition is said to be derived from a book called "The Long Lost Friend" ( "Powwows" was added to the title years later), written by Johann Georg Hohman and first published in Pennsylvania around 1820, though it's said he borrowed heavily from an earlier German text. You can read the entire book online here; it will give you a good idea of the thing in general. It was a practical sort of magic, aimed at quieting fussy babies, bringing good luck, and "getting the cow out of the bog." Hohman's book wasn't the only influence and the practice evolved over the years, varying widely from practitioner to practitioner.
Powwow doctors came in all shapes and sizes: male & female, black & white, part time & professional, and most of them seemed to enjoy a good standing in their communities. But as time went on, Powwowism became the object of ridicule and suspicion. Things came to a head with the "hex murder" of 1928, when an addled man in York County decided he had been cursed by a Powwow doctor. It all seems a tragedy of errors, but the doctor in question was killed and the addled man, along with two young accomplices, ended up in prison. Powwowism had received mainstream press attention before the murder (see the article from 1911 pasted below), but it was nothing like the attention it got after the murder. I found 13 articles about the case in the New York Times alone.
A few Powwow doctors still practice today, writes David W. Kriebel, Ph.D, though much more quietly than in the past. They are keeping up a tradition that is centuries old in particular - as old as humanity itself in general.

Art courtesy of


Anonymous said...

Wow, I stumbled upon this while trying to see who linked to my vintage base ball story.

Have you ever come across any evidence of powwowing or braucherei in Harford County? I understand it was fairly common in Carroll County in the 1850s, so it stands to reason it would have been going on here as well.

Anyway, it's a bit of a hobby of mine and if you're interested in it as well you may enjoy this story of mine:

falmanac said...

Great story! Thanks for posting the URL.
I imagine that Powwowing spilled over into Harford and Cecil Counties, but I have no evidence of it.

ycpa89 said...

The Fractur illustrations are nice, but they don't have anything to do with powwowing, except that both were practiced by Pennsylvania Germans. Fractur, such as those illustrated, were mostly birth and baptismal certificates or writing examples for school children. A small percentage of Fraktur were house blessings, so I guess you could stretch the connection there.
Nice post anyway.

falmanac said...

Good point about the Fractur Illustrations.