A Cure for a Cut: PA Dutch Folk Medicine


When we think about Halloween today, witches are one of the iconic figures of the holiday. Part of that image is the boiling cauldron, where the witch makes preparations for her spells and conjures up many of her evil potions. While the image of the witch is often viewed as frightening, real-life folk medicine has a long history in Berks County.

Often called “Pow-Wow,” this practice can resemble our modern conceptions of witchcraft. What if you lived in Berks County or another Pennsylvania Dutch area and you accidentally cut yourself? A document in the Berks History Center collection, and written in Pennsylvania Dutch, offers an answer. It reads:  “press the thumb on the wound and say that I should not die and the wound should not bleed, nor swell, nor fester until the mother of God bears her second son, until all the water flows up the mountain.” With this little “spell,” and a bit of pressure on the wound, the bleeding was supposed to stop. The BHC Library contains other documents on Pennsylvania Dutch folk medicine and folk religion.

Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.


Scholla: Fire Charms January 20, 1941

Graeff, Arthur D. Scholla: Fire Charms. Reading Times. January 20, 1941

Destruction by fire was a constant threat to the security of farm homes of the early settlers of Pennsylvania. Civilized society had not yet erected guards against this menace and cooperative societies to insure against loss were unknown. It is not strange, therefore, that our fathers resorted to occult practices in their helplessness. The Pennsylvania Germans had several forms of fire charms and omens which would foretell the danger of conflagration.

The following Feuer-zettiel is supposed to have saved two of the buildings at Ephrata from the flames in 1747. Instructions are to draw the shield of David upon a piece of paper. The shield of David is formed by interlacing two equilateral triangles so that seven angles are formed. Into each angle mystical letters are written, the letters A, G, L, A, possessed a charm. In case of fire this design was to be drawn upon the sides of the threatened buildings. In addition to this procedure a verse from the book of Numbers was to be written on wooden platter, paper or breadcrust, carried three times around the building and then thrown into the flames.

Another zettlel consisted of a rhythmic incantation recited by the member of one sex to a member of the opposite sex. This would guard against the danger of fire, but only if recited on Friday, at full moon between the hours of 11 and 12 at night. This ritual could never be committed to paper and therefore could be transmitted only by word of mouth. The one who recited it faced the listener across a table on which lighted candles stood. Each actor placed his or her left hand upon the heart and with the right hand struck crosses over the breast.

The fire-spell used by conjurors was to hold two straws crosswise in his right hand and then repeat mystical phrases.

The omens by which a fire could be foretold were connected with sounds. A howling dog presaged a fire in the neighborhood. A feared sign was the striking of a clock during the tolling of a church bell. This was supposed to prophesy a conflagration within 24 hours. Sextons and bell ringers were careful to avoid such a coincidence. The horned beetle was believed to cause fires in stables and barns by carrying glowing coals from the hearth fire in then house to the outer buildings.

We have come far from those days, it is true, but many of us can remember the credulity with which we accepted the occult remedy of “blowing upon” burns and minor aches.

Leroy Gensler. Reading Times. 1/201941
Leroy Gensler. Reading Times. 1/201941
Leroy Gensler. Reading Times 1/20/1941
Leroy Gensler. Reading Times 1/20/1941