Pennsylvania’s Haunted History: Murders in the Colonial Era

It’s that time of year again: the days are turning cooler, the nights are growing longer, and Halloween is rapidly approaching.  In a grim “celebration” of the morbid and the macabre, we’re exploring two of colonial Pennsylvania’s real-life horror stories: a curse-fueled murder in York’s reportedly haunted Hex Hollow, and the grisly hanging of a young Berks County servant accused of murdering her baby.

Flame Background

Murder in York’s “Hex Hollow”

John Blymire was born in 1895 in York, Pennsylvania.  Blymire came from a family of ardent believers in the supernatural, and as a child he was made to work for a locally renowned “hexenmeister” named Nelson Rehmeyer (for whom Rehmeyer’s Hollow, or Hex Hollow, is named today).

As an adult, Blymire came to believe he had been cursed by his mystical employer.  His growing paranoia was reinforced by his observations of other “hex victims,” eventually driving him to consult with an area resident and practicing witch named Nellie Noll.

Noll — or “the River Witch of Marietta,” as she was locally known — confirmed Blymire’s suspicions that Rehmeyer had placed him under a hex.  In 1928, she advised Blymire and his accomplice, another hex victim by the name of John Curry, that in order to lift the curse placed upon them, they must burn one of Rehmeyer’s books, Long Lost Friend.  

But when Blymire, Curry, and a third accomplice failed, they decided to take more drastic measures.

Having bungled their original mission, the trio later returned to Rehmeyer’s home — and bludgeoned him to death with a block of wood.  In a desperate attempt to conceal the evidence, Rehmeyer’s assailants tried to burn Hex House to the ground.  However, their arson attempt was also a failure, and the pair was quickly apprehended by local authorities after a neighbor discovered the hexenmeister’s decomposing corpse. Rehmeyer’s killers confessed to the crime, and were subsequently convicted of murder.

But in 2007, fascinated by the decades-old crime, a minister named Kenneth O’Neal decided to dig deeper into the fate of its lead perpetrator.  O’Neal found an aged John Blymire living quietly in a Philadelphia apartment where he worked as a janitor.  After their meeting, O’Neal recalled, “Things had happened to him in prison.  He was isolated in prison.  His thinking was fairly clear.  He held no bitterness.”

Jail Cells Lined Up Against The Wall

Did Susanna Cox Murder Her Baby in 1809?

Susanna Cox was born in 1785.  On June 10, 1809, at the age of 24, she was hanged in Reading before a crowd which supposedly swelled to 15,000 audience members.  Her crime? The murder of her infant son, who was born out of wedlock during a time when illegitimacy cast a shadow of shame over entire families.  Had Cox lived today, perhaps she never would have felt the need to take such drastic steps to hide the birth of her child.

Cox’s placement in time was unlucky in another way, too.  At the turn of the century, many of the laws we observe in contemporary society were still in the process of being formed, and Cox — a young domestic servant without so much as a rudimentary education, let alone the ability to defend herself in an archaic criminal court — was hardly granted the benefit of a comprehensive trial.

Nonetheless, though it came far too late for the unfortunate Cox, there was a dramatic shift in public opinion after her death by hanging.  Her account was widely published in both English- and German-language newspapers, and stories purport that her hangman was beaten and driven out of town.  Within less than a month of Cox’s conviction and death, Judge John Spayd resigned his position as judge and returned to his former job as a lawyer.

Though Cox may be long dead, her memory is certainly alive and well.  Her dramatic final moments are recreated every year at the Kutztown Folk Festival in Berks County — but these days, the “hangman” uses an effigy in place of a human being.

In an article penned in 1900, preserved today by the Berks County Historical Society, an attorney named Louis Richards wrote, “She shortly after ascended the scaffold, willingly surrendering a body of sins for the satisfaction of the offended laws of the country, when she was launched into eternity without a struggle!  The greatest decency was upheld during the whole awful scene, and tears of sympathy were seen flowing spontaneously from the almost numberless crowd of spectators.  It was indeed a day of sorrow.”

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