Witches next door: County history thick with sorcery

A scene from this year’s Monongahela Witch Festival in Washington County. (Photo by Natasha Heinz)

Halloween’s most famous, or perhaps infamous, character is the witch.

In “Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lure,” Thomas White writes that the large number of accounts of witches and witchcraft in the state are due to the Quakers’ tolerance for other beliefs and that Pennsylvania’s freedom of religion attracted German immigrants who brought with them strong beliefs in supernatural – including witchcraft, folk powers and healing.

For these immigrants, according to White’s book, witches were beings “who utilized dark magic that was beyond the normal use of a folk healer.” Their “criminal” acts are recounted in many accounts of witchcraft around the state and also in Greene County.

Folklorist S. P. Bayard collected stories in Greene County that included witches cursing farmers and their animals, creating spells to harass people and even an account of a witch from near Waynesburg who used to ride men as if they were horses.

White’s book includes the story of Moll Derry, the Witch of Fayette County, who moved to the area during the late 1700s.

“’Old Moll’ quickly established a reputation of having supernatural power and was probably what we would consider a hex doctor,” White wrote. “She was well known for predicting the future, curing ailments and, more maliciously, placing curses. Both respected and feared, Derry held a unique place in the community.”

One day, three men mocked Derry about her abilities, and she responded by telling them they would all hang. No longer after, the first man killed someone in a drunken fight, which led to his arrest and hanging. The second man fled to Ohio after robbing and murdering a peddler Fayette County. There, he committed another murder and was caught. He ended up confessing to both murders, was sentenced to death and was hanged.

“The third man, who was named Flanninga, had heard of the demise of the other two and remembered Molly Derry’s curse,” White wrote. “In despair, he crossed over into Greene County and committed suicide by hanging himself.”

Although these old tales of witches are anything but flattering, time changed how one usually thinks of witches. For example, Washington County has been the home of the Monongahela Witch Festival for four years in a row. Over 5,000 people checked out the first edition of the event, and the following ones were just as popular.

One Greene County native, who identifies by her witch name Rowan, said popular depictions of witches can hurt and help the cause at the same time. While some shed a positive light on witchcraft, they also add fake elements.

Growing up in Greene County, Rowan said she ran into a lot of fear and questioning of her beliefs. Although things are better, she said many witches still have to be careful with how others will perceive them.

“The majority of us are peaceful people. We don’t want to argue and we don’t want to fight, we just want to kind of be left alone to do our thing and that’s what it comes down to,” she said.

And their thing, Rowan explained, is above all connecting to nature. For her, mankind has been following the natural world since the first cave people saw the sun, the moon and the stars.

“Nature is witchcraft, honey,” she said. “When you think of witch, what do you think of? You think of this evil person who does all these bad things when, technically, what we do is worship nature and heal people.”

The healing, she added, comes from people like her who understand herbs and how to use them as a cure.

When comparing witchcraft to religions, Rowan explained she doesn’t see many differences between a spell and a prayer – it’s all based on what one believes in.

“You can simply right a wish on a leaf and let it go. To me, that’s what worshipping nature, that’s what asking the universe for help, that’s what it’s about,” she said.

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