Readers interested in spirituality live in an amazing time. Bookstores, libraries, and the Internet provide information on all manner of traditions, from the most orthodox to those that, a few centuries before, would have ensured a quick trip to the stake. It is hard for us to recall that, even a few decades ago, books on occult topics were quite difficult to come by, with a small advertisement or a friendly word unlocking access to all manner of possibilities. One individual who worked in his own small way to give people the mystical lore they desired was John Georg Hohman, the Pennsylvania German author known for writing The Long-Lost Friend.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, German farmers and tradesmen fled the area of the Rhine to escape warfare and starvation. Many of them crossed the ocean to America, where Pennsylvania, a British colony based on religious tolerance, welcomed them. These settlers became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (for Deutsch, or "German"), now known as the Pennsylvania Germans.
Along with a strong work ethic and vibrant culture, these settlers brought with them fragments of mystical knowledge: charms for warding off harm, techniques for healing maladies, or countering hostile magic. Some brought cheaply published manuals sold by peddlers who wandered the countryside in their scant baggage for the transatlantic voyage. Others held onto scribbled notebooks or scraps of paper, passed down from generation to generation, with one or two spells. For the most part, these remained valuable treasures for a particular family, kept in secret for use by only its members. John Hohman had a different perspective.
We know little about Hohman before he appeared in Philadelphia with his wife and son on a ship from Hamburg, Germany in 1802. Likewise, his date of death and place of burial remain mysteries. What little we know of him comes from hints in contemporary records and what he states about himself in his publications—broadsides, apocryphal gospels, hymns, and books of magic. As with other poor arrivals from Germany, he and his wife had to work off the price of their arrival for years. They never seem to have been too successful at farming; Hohman mentions being sick for a long period, and tax and court records indicate he had little money for most of his life.
Nonetheless, the Hohmans had another profession: healing. John accumulated quite a number of testimonials of those who had lost wens, healed burns, and overcome fevers due to his mastery of many charms from his homeland. Both he and his wife were called, whether to neighbors or others some distance away, to ease the suffering of many individuals.
Some might accuse the Hohmans of exploiting others for their benefit. We should recall the circumstances of the Pennsylvania Germans of the period, however. Doctors were quite rare, especially among the German-speaking population. For the most part, people made do with what they had in terms of resources, drawing upon those around them when they could not handle problems on their own. This might mean, in case of illness, that a farmer would turn to a pharmacist, a local healer, a midwife, an herbalist, or a book to diagnose and treat the condition. At any rate, the Hohmans'; poverty suggests that any possible plans to defraud their clients met with little success.
In 1819, John set out to publish of a manual of magic based on the charms he had collected and used. Hohman presented two rationales for his project. First, that he wished this information to be disseminated widely, so as to help as many people as possible. Second, he was poor and sought to make a little money for himself. It remains open to speculation as to which one was more important to him.
Der Lange Verborgene Freund, best translated as "The Long-Hidden Friend" but most commonly known as "The Long-Lost Friend," was released in 1820. The "friend" was the book itself, and the term was often applied to works intended to assist the reader. In presenting his book, Hohman appealed to two ideals common in magical literature: a body of powerful lore kept hidden from the public and its subsequent revelation to the world.
A look inside the book reveals a fascinating range of remedies for all manner of conditions. Especially prevalent are charms against fever, colic, bleeding, and theft, along with an array of incantations to ward off bullets and other weapons. Nonetheless, Hohman’s collection is diverse, also including methods to find treasure, make glue, attract dogs, or manufacture molasses out of pumpkins.
Hohman’s book proved to be a popular work. It was re-released in 1828, though the republication was not enough to keep Hohman’s property from being auctioned off on Christmas Day of that year. The first pirated edition, mingling Hohman’s charms with those from other books, appeared in 1837. Ten years after his last publication in 1846–the likely year of his death–three separate English translations had been released. It soon became popular throughout Pennsylvania Dutch country. After some time, it diffused outward to become part of the magical practices of people in many different locations, especially in parts of the South where it joined many other manuals associated with conjure or hoodoo.
The book became involved in a tragic death in 1928, when Nelson Rehmeyer, a healer living near Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, was killed in his cabin. The three men who murdered him had come to believe that he had placed a curse on them—a curse that could only be broken by acquiring his personal copy of the Friend and a lock of his hair. The group was more forceful than what they initially intended, and they were unable to make a clean getaway. The book—which suggested no such curse or remedy–was maligned as a source of superstition, and its popularity fell considerably.
Nonetheless, new editions of the Friend have appeared since then, and its influence has traveled across the country. It now stands not just as an example of the magical art, but a testament to the self-reliance and ingenuity of both Hohman and all those who came to America seeking to build a new life.
My new edition of The Long-Lost Friend includes an introduction with a wealth of information about Hohman and his work not before collected in one place. The book covers all of the assorted charms from the different editions, from the oldest to the most recent, including many editions only known from one or two copies. The charms are extensively annotated with links to other sources that clarify or correct Hohman's descriptions thereof, or that point out differences with the original German. You'll also get the German text itself, along with an index covering places, ingredients, ailments, Biblical figures, charms, and other elements, and an extensive bibliography for further reading.
Daniel Harms is a librarian and writer living in central New York. His major area of research is magic from antiquity to the present, especially necromancy and fairy magic. He has been published in Fortean Times, the Journal ...