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New folklore book includes Fayette County legends

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Posted: Friday, October 25, 2013 2:00 am

In the early days of the nation, Mary “Moll’’ Derry supposedly lived a life filled with magic near Haydentown in Georges Township.

She told fortunes, could undo hexes and cast her own curses. She often helped people, but woe to those who crossed her.

In his new book, “Witches of Pennsylvania,” author Thomas White wrote, “She was probably the most well-known witch of the western half of the state.

Sometimes known as the ‘Fortune Teller of the Revolution’ or the ‘Witch of the Monongahela,’ Derry had already become a legend before her long life ended.’’

White, who is an archivist and curator of special collections for Pittsburgh-based Duquesne University, has long been intrigued by folklore and legends. He’s written eight books, most of them on the supernatural in Pennsylvania.

“People don’t realize what a rich source Pennsylvania is,’’ said White.

White previously told Fayette County tales in his “Ghosts of Southwestern Pennsylvania and “Gangs and Outlaws of Western Pennsylvania.’’

He continues in “Witches of Pennsylvania’’ where he devotes a special section to Derry in his chapter called “Accounts of Witchcraft Around the State: 1780-1920.’’

White explained that Derry was born in Germany in 1760 and came to America during the Revolutionary War with her husband, Valentine, a Hessian solider who switched sides and fought with the Americans. After the war, the Derrys moved to Bedford County and then to Fayette County in the 1790s. Derry lived in Georges Township until her death from old age in 1843.

The book contains several stories of misery that befell people who angered Derry, ranging from farmers whose animals became sick to men who tormented her and were hanged. But Derry was also kind, trying to warn tragic heroine Polly Williams to beware her fiance. Williams ignored the advice and her body was discovered the next day at the bottom of White Rocks.

Derry was so well known that she also turned up in newspaper articles and works of fiction, although sometimes her name was changed because people feared her.

White’s book also includes a story about the Providence Meeting House and graveyard, often known as the Quaker Church, near Perryopolis in a chapter on “The Witch in Urban Legend.’’ A witch was allegedly tried and executed on the church property in the 1800s. White said the woman’s ghost supposedly pushes around people who come to the property at night. A photograph of this property is used on the back cover of White’s book.

“There was never a witch executed here,” he said. “The Quakers didn’t acknowledge witchcraft.’’

This story became prominent during the late 20th century when tales of the supernatural became a national fad.

“In the 1980s and ‘90s, there was a satanic panic: the idea that a lot of children were being abducted and sacrificed,” said White. “Remember that Proctor and Gamble changed its symbol (people claimed the man-in-the-moon trademark contained devil’s horns and an inverted 666) and Geraldo Rivera was on television, doing a show on satanists.

“There was a big panic and educators and some law enforcement took it seriously.’’

White said during this time, the story of the Quaker Church ghost began circulating and some people said satanic cults were meeting there. White refutes this: “There were no cults on the site — maybe some teenagers or one or two weirdos — but a satanic cult was never there although people believed it at the time.’’

Only one known witch trial ever took place in Pennsylvania and that was eight years before the famous Salem, Mass., witch trials when Pennsylvania was still a colony. Margaret Mattson, who was of Swedish descent and from the defunct New Sweden colony on the Delaware River, was accused of practicing witchcraft. Several people said she bewitched their cattle. Another said she appeared in spectral form and threatened his daughter. Mattson stood before William Penn and denied it all.

“William Penn handled it carefully,’’ said White.

“He found her guilty of having a common fame of being a witch but not actually being a witch. He gave her a slap on the wrist because, clearly, her neighbors didn’t like her so he did this to appease them. She got a fine but no actual punishment.’’

White said Penn also took the state out of the equation when it came to witchcraft so that people who believed in it had to consult other practitioners if they felt they were cursed.

This also allowed a subculture to exist in the state related to the supernatural.

In his book, White traces the story of witches into modern day as people continue to be fascinated by supernatural forces for both good and evil.

“People like to think there are things beyond our dry, mundane, technical world,’’ he explained. “It’s a humanizing force that pushes against the dehumanizing force of the modern world where everybody is a number.’’

”Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lure” by Thomas White is available through retailers, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.

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