I was only a little girl when my Grammy had me kneel before her in their little church. She anointed my forehead with oil, and laid her hands on me. I was sick, but I can’t remember what for. She prayed very quietly, and everyone believed I was healed. And healed I was.
In Christian circles the magic of healing comes from God himself. Faith healers consider themselves only to be the conduit through which the omnipotent power of the Creator is channeled. The patient must believe in this power. Otherwise the gift of wellness is not bestowed. Secular magic on the other hand calls upon natural and universal agents to impart the cure. Conditions are set, such as times and places that are propitious for healing. Disease may be transferred from a person to an inert object such as a potato, and then buried. In either case a ritual is consciously or unconsciously devised, and it’s not so much the charm or formula uttered that counts, but rather the strength of a person’s faith in the unseen power that heals him.
The Pennsylvania Dutch have practiced a form of mystical, magical folk medicine—known in dialect as Brauche or Braucherei and in English as Powwowing—since the 17th century when they transferred the Brauche or custom from their native homes in Germanic speaking areas of central Europe to their chosen homeland in colonial Pennsylvania. Braucherei is still practiced today in both urban and rural settings, and the formulas continue to be transmitted in the cutomary manner both orally from one practitioner to another, as well as via a printed body of charms and blessings not to mention the commonplace manuscripts containing favorite remedies, most of which the owner copied verbatim from this published corpus. The Borneman Pennsylvania German Collection is richly endowed with examples of both, and, as with the commonplace book Remedies for Man and Beast—Borneman Ms 96—the often pleasant surprise of a very personal item such as the child’s merit of reward shown in the first illustration is tucked in between the pages, in this case with a reminder probably from the teacher that ‟He who trusts in God has chosen well.”
Infections, injuries, or chronic health problems were as common then as now. The difference is that today we have ready access to medical evaluation and antibiotics for the treatment of potentially life-threatening cases such as necrosis, i.e. when body cells in a localized area begin to die off. In yesteryear a Pennsylvania Dutchman, when confronted with a similar situation—perhaps an infection that was about to turn gangrenous—might have sought self-treatment with this remedy, efficacious for both man and beast: Schwarzes Brandpulver zu machen | How to Make Black Powder [to Cure Necrosis].
He/she might have copied it from page 102 of the first charm book Die Land-und Haus-Apotheke known to have been published by Johann Georg Hohman in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1818.
The following is an exceptional and worthy powder to cure necrosis [kalten Brand] in people as well as animals, and to prevent it in external wounds. To make this powder take two ounces of the best gun powder, one ounce of alum, and one ounce sulfur. Pulverize, and make sure the ingredients are well mixed together. The concoction is now ready to use in the following manner: If a person has cellulitis (inflammation of any of the tissues of the body, characterized by fever, pain, swelling, and redness of the affected area), or a fresh wound where it is feared that it may become necrotic, take a teaspoon full of this powder and add it to a gill (1/4 pint) of good vinegar, and mix well. Use this solution to wash the wound as a preventative measure. Where the skin has already become necrotic, one should use the above described solution three times daily, and continue to do so.
For a horse or another animal, take a tablespoon full in a pint of good vinegar, and follow the instructions already given for curing people. Washing the wounds twice daily in the solution will totally prevent inflammation, tumors, or unnatural growth such as granulated flesh, also known as proud flesh or caro luxurians. N. B. White powder to cure dying flesh is made and used exactly like the black powder except that one will use a lot of saltpeter instead of gun powder.
In 1820 Homan had his second charm book Der Lange Verborgene Freund or The Long Hidden Friend printed in Reading by Carl Bruckmann. Since more than six hundred people in southeastern Pennsylvania had subscribed to his 1818 publication, his name was now known. Like any good salesman, he decided for his 1820 imprint to use testimonials of people he claims his wife or he had helped or cured.
Witnesses Who Can Testify That I, Hohman, Recently
Used Remedies for Them Out of This Book.
The first testimonial he uses is about Johann Bingeman’s son. The family lived in Ruscombmanor Township, Berks County [Hohman, 1820, 9]:
Johann Bingeman from Ruscombmanor Township in Berks County has a son, who burned himself badly. My wife came to them in the latter part of the year 1812. He already had flesh that was dying. My wife used remedies for it, and the necrosis soon ceased. The boy recuperated, and healed. At the same time my wife cured his wife of a strong case of erysipelas [Rothlauf ] on her sore leg.
Hohman ends his testimonials with a defensive statement to the effect that [Hohman 1820, 10]:
If any of the above-mentioned witnesses, who received help from my wife or me and through God, call me a liar and say that we didn’t help them as they themselves affirmed to us that we did, I’ll be forced to call them before a magistrate—if possible—so that they may confirm once again that we did help them. I’m pretty sure that for the most part we’d be able to get them to appear before the magistrate...
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Preservation of the Free Library of Philadelphia's Pennsylvania German manuscript collection has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Because democracy demands wisdom. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Blog post and Facebook transcriptions/translations by Del-Louise Moyer