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superstitions, funerals, fairies, skeleton, oak tree, black horse, fairy circle
A handwritten manuscript entitled, "Superstition Among the Pennsylvania Dutch", compiled by Victor C. Dieffenbach, dated January 12, 1953. Within, Dieffenbach discusses a number of superstitions he grew up hearing, ranging from the neigh of a black horse signifying an upcoming funeral to the existence of fairy dance circles.
Packet 577-211-1 to 577-211-9
Superstition Among the Pennsylvania Dutch
“Won en schwartzer gaul greisht, Mittwuch-moryets eb er gfressa hut, no hairt mer seller dawg nuch fun ra leicht!“ (If a black horse neighs on a Wednesday morning before he eats, you will hear that same day about a funeral.)
This was told by an old man by the name of Phillip Ziegler; he was a stone-mason, and as such was employed by my father in building some wall. He was a little, stooped old man, grey, and wrinkled. He looked more like a half-wild hunter than an artisan; and he was no very good mechanic. He was illiterate; but his prophecies or prognostications usually did not fall far short.
As he had quite a distance to walk home at night, and having a grown son at home to attend to his few chores, and also to be a companion to his mother, “old Philpy” as we used to call him, stayed with my Dad over-night. As it was in the Summer-time, and warm, he insisted on sleeping in the barn. So one morning when we came out to the barn, he was sitting on a bench underneath the forebay, and was smoking his pipe. I went into the horse-stable to curry the horses, and Dad started to feed them; but before he got into the feed-entry old Philpy said something to him, and he paused a moment before entering. That is where Harry - a coal-black gelding in the first stall, started to neigh; this he did nearly every morning, and often during the day-time, whenever anyone came to the stable, or close to it. He was a very friendly horse, and got a lot of petting, besides choice tid-bits like an apple, a lump of sugar, a cookie, or a bite of cheese, etc. But when the old man heard him neigh, then he said the words at the top of this column.
“Un er hut ivver der bookel gogookt, dort nunner gaya morya - de berichta de cooma sellawake bye!“ (And he looked over his back, down towards East - the tidings will come from that direction!”)
This was before the advent of the rural free delivery of our mail. After breakfast I went to Spannuth's Mill, and to the creamery with our milk, driving this same horse. On the way home I stopped at the Post-Office in Frystown (the P. O. was called “Cross Kill Mills”, since the first P. O. had been located in Newcomet’s Mill, and the creek is called Cross Kill.) and got the mail from the day before. I had a bunch of letters and papers, but I saw I had one letter with a black border all around the edge; and I knew what that meant; it was a funeral-notice.
So, as soon as I came home I took it out to Dad where they were working; when I handed them to Dad, and the old mason saw the black band on the letter he let fall his trowel down on the ground, put his hands up in the air, and yelled: “Er hut fer - sei eppes gawisst! Waar iss es?” (I’ll be damned if he didn’t know something! Who is it?)
Dad looked and saw it came from Tulpehocken P. O. (New Schaefferstown) and was from the Holtzmaus - some of my grandma's relations.
When “Philpy” heard where the letter came from, he said - “Ya well! Er hut sell awe gawisst - er hut sellawake gogookt!” (Yes well! He knew that too - he looked down that way.)
Another time the same horse neighed very early in the morning and that time one of the neighbors died.
Skeleton in a Hollow Tree.
Near my Dad’s home, and very close to the road going to Bethel (de Sond-lane) in old Dan Gerber’s woods, stood a very tall old black-oak tree. It was hollow at the bottom, but further up it was solid; it was a very tall tree - “uff des wennichsht feer foos ivver der schtumba”. (At least four foot in diameter.)
Whenever Gerber’s or their tenant came over to see us in the evening they would go up the other road towards the Rough Mountain to the north, until they were past their swamp, and would then cut across the field and the orchard to the house. Old Dan said: “No doona meer net in de dreck-lecher draita in der lane; un 's iss so dunkel dort om bush he!” (Then we don’t step in the mud-holes in the lane; and it is so dark along the woods.) But it had not rained for weeks, and all the puddles were dry.
Along came “der oldt Hunsgraimer, der Waldfogel”. (The old dog-jockey - Waldfogel.) He had a decrepit old horse, and a horde of dogs and he built himself a shack of brush and bark underneath the giant oak.
Late one dark and rainy night he came to our house and hollered to be let in. I went downstairs and then I hollered for Dad, once I saw the shape the old man was in. He was all out of breath and almost hysterical. His eyes were bugged like a frog’s - his jaws were waggling so he could hardly speak, and he was trembling all over.
He said there came a man to his shack, and the man had no head; he had a forked stick, and he raked over the leaves, and said: “Ich such my kupp - won do Ihn finna doosht, don schmeirs en in seller hole baum - Ich woon dort drin!” (I am hunting my head; if you find it, throw it into the hollow tree - I live in there.)
We kept him that night and for several days, until it cleared up.
Dad said: “Daav oldt Deitsch Wander-ritter (this old German Knight) had just imbibed too freely of old Gerber’s cider, earlier in the day. But we found out later that other folk also avoided going past that spot at night. We came home from town late one night, and our horse shied at something when we came to the big old oak-tree; but we did not see anything unusual.
Years passed, and so did old Gerber; he died, and the farm came into the possession of his daughter-in-law, or rather his grand-daughter, as her long deceased father had been an only child. She sold the timberland to James Kalbach, a veteran lumberman of Myerstown. He bought and set up a brand new sawmill in the woods close to the big oak tree, as there was a spring close by. The men setting up the mill boarded at Dad’s place, and I helped them at their work.
When the trees were cut down I watched to see the old oak fall; it came down with an awful crash; and where it was hollow and thin, and just a brittle shell, it busted apart, and was all splintered up. As soon as it was safe to go near, I went over. I was barefooted (a 12 year old never wore shoes in Summer that time) and before I was real close I stepped on a bone lying there. It was an old bone, very white and dry; and I could see that it had just dropped there; but inside, in the cavity of the stump were more bones - a whole pile of them; and some were even sticking in the log between the splinters.
When I told the wood-cutters of my find, they refused to go along - they were afraid; so back I went alone. I could easily identify some of the bones as being human. The chest, collar bones, and a femur were identifiable; but the rest were too much broken up and scattered all around. But there was no skull, nor vertebrae of the neck. When I tried to tell old Jim, he only laughed at me, and said: “Sell dort sell waur en kolb os epper mull dort in der bush gschmussa hut!” (That was a calf that someone threw in the woods one time.)
I have yet to see a calf having a femur or leg-bone of the size and shape of one from a human adult. I secured a shovel and dug a deep hole and put in all those bones I could find and covered them up. I put a big stone at the head; and I still do not know what I buried; but I’ll still say the same words I said then - “Won sell en kolb waur, don bin Ich fer - sei awe ains!” (If that was a calf, then I’ll be darned I’m one too.)
I am quite sure that I could still locate that grave, although close to sixty years have since flown by.
The Fairie's Dance-Floor
Where the road goes in through the fields to what used to be known as the old John Zeller farm, about 2 miles west of Bethel, there used to be a narrow strip of timber along one side of the road; it was mostly young stuff - ash, birch, maple, and hickory. Then there was a strip of ground, covered with low grass, weeds, etc.; but it was always too short to cut for hay, and to my knowledge it was never plowed - why, I do not know. There was a lot of lobelia and wind-anemone, and wild strawberries; and a lot of a crinkly stuff like moss just spun all over.
Further north was the big meadow of at least eight acres; but exactly north, and very close to this place was a sump-hole or quicksand where one could push a rake-handle down until the bow of the rake was on the sod - then it was solid underneath. North of this meadow and only one field away, is the house where my grandmother had been born, and lived until she married. She had often told of seeing fairies, and of watching them, and seeing them dance by moonlight while singing. She said that a little wizened old elf no bigger than her thumb sat on a stone and fiddled away for dear life. She said they had a certain place where they always danced, and that the grass never grew tall, and was always much greener than elsewhere.
Well one day while picking berries we found such a ring in that strip bordering the “sump”. It was circular in shape, and could have been 4-5 feet in diameter. It looked just as if somebody had trampled it lately and it hadn’t had time to recover, or straighten out.
Dad’s hired girl and her pal - also a hired girl, on the old Holtzman farm, claimed they had both seen and heard them play and dance. But we could never see them, although the surface indications the next day seemed to be a reminder of some activity of the previous night.
We often watched by different moon’s phases, and different Zodiacal signs, but no fairies came.
Jan. 12th, 1953 Der Oldt Bauer
English and Pennsylvania German
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Dieffenbach, Victor C., "Dieffenbach on Superstition Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, January 12, 1953" (1953). Alfred L. Shoemaker Folk Cultural Documents. 229.
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