In 1928, York, Pennsylvania was thrust into the international spotlight when three men murdered Nelson Rehmeyer, having become convinced he was a witch and had put dark spells on them. Community and legal responses to supposed witchcraft have continually captured scholarly and public attention, and this murder that took place at Hex Hollow, is no exception. Rehmeyer was a local farmer and known powwowing practitioner. According to David Kriebel, powwowing is a traditional medical practice—Brauche or Braucherei in the Pennsylvania Dutch dialects—common to southeastern and southcentral Pennsylvania. During the subsequent trials, the murderers reportedly claimed to believe that they could lift a hex that Rehmeyer had placed on them by burying a lock of his hair and burning his copy of Long Lost Friend.
Through revisiting the 1928 York witch trials, this paper will seek to investigate the role of journalism as a key contribution to historical memory through a case study of the York witch trials. Although the 1928 Hex murder and subsequent trials ended in January 1929, reporting on this case, especially newspaper coverage, continues to this day in a local media outlet. Similar to vernacular religion that Leonardo Primiano defined as “religion as it is lived,” this paper will regard news organizations as members of a community or tribe in North America where the first and official language is English. Accordingly, given the tradition of storytelling in journalism, newspaper agencies play roles both as individuals and in the production of narratives. Dwelling in the process of vernacularization, as Peter Gloviczki claims, “Journalism creates and controls experience by reenacting the creation of the world.” At the outset, Gloviczki points out that “both journalism and memorialization are intended for a mass audience.” Journalism at its core seeks to “serve as one of society’s main mechanisms for recording and remembering”; whereas, memorialization provides a process through which to “remember something, a person, place, or event.” Both are selective; in other words, to remember is to be necessarily selective.
Historical memory that incorporates vernacular religion is central to the relationship between mass media and memorialization. Thus, this paper underlines journalism as a subject in studying vernacular memorialization, utilizing Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to examine how these differing narratives have developed from the early twentieth century to today. Using the analysis of archival newspaper coverage of York witch trials, this paper will address the way utilizing mass media discourse as one of the keystones in studying historical memory is a valid analytical approach to vernacular memorialization. Ultimately, this paper will seek to provide a representation of newspaper narratives by examining the role of journalism in vernacular memorialization.
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
Keyword: discourse analysis, media representation, historical memory