A curse as old as time led to a murder … The legal system provided a forum that not only contained the crisis but also provided the community with an opportunity to demonstrate insight and understanding in a situation that no prophet could have foretold … — J. Ross McGinnis
In 1928, York, Pennsylvania, was thrust into the international spotlight when three men were accused of murdering Nelson Rehmeyer, a local farmer and known powwowing practitioner. Powwowing, according to anthropologist David Kriebel, is a traditional medical practice (Brauche or Braucherei in Pennsylvania Dutch) that was commonly practiced in southeastern and southcentral Pennsylvania. The men told law enforcement that Rehmeyer was a witch and had put dark spells on them. During the subsequent trials, the three men claimed that they could remove a hex that Rehmeyer had placed on them by burying a lock of his hair and burning his copy of The Long Lost Friend. Researching the press reports on the 1928 York witch trials, this thesis utilizes semantic network analysis and historical discourse analysis to examine the media representation developed by newspaper media across time and to study the role of journalism as a key contribution to historical memory. From a sociolinguistic perspective, this thesis treats journalism as a social practice and analyzes discursive strategies in media narratives to study how journalism reconstitutes the past. It avers that media representations of the case used nomination and predication strategies to depict powwowing as “witchcraft” and omitted justifications of powwowing as a belief and practice among the Pennsylvania Dutch. This inaccurate media representation of powwowing played a critical component in shaping the collective memory surrounding the York witch trials and pathologized the community-based beliefs and identities in social remembrance of the York witch trials.
Keyword: discourse analysis, media representation, historical memory, Pennsylvania Dutch, powwowing