Shane Free trained his camera on Thomas White.

Then he asked the question that has lingered more than eight decades after one of York County's most infamous crimes: Could Nelson Rehmeyer have really placed a hex on John Blymyer?

White, an author on Pennsylvania folklore and archivist at Duquesne University, was quick to answer.

"I don't know why he would have done it."

Rehmeyer was a farmer, who practiced powwow - protective and healing arts passed down from early German immigrants. It's a common misconception that powwowers can hex people, White explained. Witches cast evil spells.

Hex doctors fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of good and evil. They have the power to identify witches and break curses, White said, but power can sometimes corrupt the good.

Blymyer was likely misguided when he rounded up John Curry and Wilbert Hess and headed down a dark dirt road toward Winterstown to confront Rehmeyer on Nov. 27, 1928. The three beat Rehmeyer to death in his farmhouse and burned his body after trying to procure a lock of his hair and spell book. The chilling murder stunned the nation. A media frenzy ensued as Blymyer, Hess and Curry stood trial.

Free, a York County native who now works as a filmmaker and editor in Los Angeles, grew up with a curiosity about the so-called Hex Murder and trial. He has always gravitated toward supernatural tales. His feature length ghost hunting documentary "Investigating the Afterlife" premiered at the Bare Bones International Film Festival in April 2009.

For Free, 36, the chance to make a documentary about a true crime that happened near his hometown was irresistible. He launched the project, titled "Hex Hollow" in May and has been collecting contacts and stories.

In late July, he traveled to York County with his wife and co-producer, Kendra Kozen, to tape interviews and footage.

Free has spoken with J. Ross McGinnis, attorney and author of "Trials of Hex." Sean Coxen runs a Facebook community page on Rehmeyer's Hollow, where Rehmeyer's farmhouse still stands.

Filmmaker Shane Free, who is working on a documentary about York County’s Hex Murder case, interviews author Thomas White on a recent Tuesday in West
Filmmaker Shane Free, who is working on a documentary about York County's Hex Murder case, interviews author Thomas White on a recent Tuesday in West Manchester Township. (YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS - Paul Kuehnel)
He steered Free toward potential subjects. Archives at the York County Heritage Trust and Stewartstown Historical Society provided more information on the crime.

So far, Free has interviewed Rehmeyer's great-grandson Rickie Ebaugh and Jeannette Harvey a woman, now in her 90s, who knew Rehmeyer as a girl. Free spoke with a genealogist for the Rehmeyer family. White was his eighth interview.

On a recent Tuesday, White sat on a sofa in the sunroom of Free's parents' home in West Manchester Township. Free and Kozen sat across from him, behind cameras, and prompted him with questions.

Pennsylvania's hex history goes back to founder William Penn, who presided over the state's only official witch trial in 1684 - eight years before the hysteria in Salem, Mass. There is a strong tradition of powwowing in the state, which comes from early German settlers. The Germans had different customs than English settlers, White said, and so those traditions were well documented and preserved.

Folk magic became popular as a way for people in earlier times to explain the chaos of life. But as time progressed, belief in the supernatural faded. Witch trials became a curious chapter in history books.

"If you believe you've been hexed, the legal system isn't going to help you," White said. Hex doctors were the only option, he added.

Cults, new religions and a renewed interest in the occult appeared during the 1920s. Rehmeyer's murder represents the clash between old traditions and the modern world, White said.

The cover of Thomas White’s book ’Witches of Pennsylvania.’
The cover of Thomas White's book 'Witches of Pennsylvania.' (YORK DAILY RECORD/SUNDAY NEWS - Paul Kuehnel)
Though the belief in witchcraft has existed for centuries, the Hex case caused one of the first moral panics in the modern age. People who had never thought about witches were suddenly petrified that they'd be cursed.

The Rehmeyer slaying wasn't the only murder tied to hex at that time. Verna Delp's body was discovered in the woods near Allentown. She appeared to be poisoned. Norman Bechtel's body was found with stab wounds around his heart in 1932 in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. In 1934, Susan Mummey was shot and killed in her home by Albert Shinsky, who believed she had hexed him. He was declared insane and sent to a sanatorium.

Blymyer, in his 30s at the time of the Hex Murder, was described as a drifter with the mind of a 7-year-old. Curry, a troubled youth, was just 14. They were both sentenced to life in prison. Hess, 18, was represented by a powerful criminal attorney and given a reduced sentence.

Curry and Hess served about 10 years. Blymyer was released from prison in 1953. Afterward, they all led quiet lives, White said.

The hex hysteria became a distant memory, then urban legend. But powwowing still exists today.

"It's surprisingly prevalent," White said, adding that there's lots of activity in the southern half of the state. It's rooted in Dutch Country and Appalachia - anywhere that Germans settled.

Free, who is focusing on the Rehmeyer murder in his documentary, said he talked to two powwowers in the region. He said he plans to revisit York County in October for more interviews.

He expects "Hex Hollow" to be feature length - about 90 minutes. He has not yet set an end date, but hopes to release it on the festival circuit and on DVD. He'd love to screen the documentary at York's Capitol Theatre, too.

Nov. 28 will mark the 85th year since the Hex Murder. But Free is finding new clues. A Blymyer relative told him Blymyer suspected that Rehmeyer put a hex on his chickens, which led to the confrontation.

"I feel like with every interview, you get a new take on it," Free said of the case.

@FlipSidePA; 717-771-2051

Contribute to the documentary

Shane Free is filming his documentary about York County's Hex Murder and trial - titled "Hex Hollow." He plans to return to the area for more interviews and to shoot more footage in October. He's interested in speaking with locals who have memories or connections to the murder and trial.

Those interested can contact Free at hexhollowmovie@gmail.com. For updates about the movie, visit www.facebook.com/HexHollowmovie. Visit the Rehmeyer's Hollow page at www.facebook.com/RehmeyersHollow.

Read about hex

-- "Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History & Lore" by Thomas White

-- "Hex" by Arthur H. Lewis

-- "Hex and Spellwork: The Magical Practices of the Pennsylvania Dutch" by Karl Herr

-- "Hex Signs: Pennsylvania Dutch Barn Symbols & Their Meaning" by Don Yoder and Thomas E. Graves

-- "Murder and Mayhem in York County" by Joseph David Cress

-- "Trials of Hex" by J. Ross McGinnis

-- "Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch: A Traditional Medical Practice in the Modern World" by David W. Kriebel