The Long-Lost Friend: Medicine in Pennsylvania

To understand The Long-Lost Friend, we have to understand the context in which it appeared:  early-nineteenth century Pennsylvania.  I’ve been particularly interested in how medicine was practiced in that setting.

When the Pennsylvania Dutch (or Germans) came over to this country, they were already a self-sufficient lot.  Their arrival in the New World only brought these tendencies out more.  The local government generously offered new settlers hundreds of acres each, and Penn’s good relations with the Indians meant that the land was relatively secure.  As such, families could live considerable distances from each other, leading them to rely more upon their own expertise when family members or animals became ill.

Linguistic isolation was another important factor among the Pennsylvania Dutch.  Doctors were few and far between outside the major cities, and the understandable preference among the German immigrants for practitioners who could speak their language narrowed the field even more.  Medical care often became a function of what medical practitioners, midwives, herbalists, pharmacists, folk healers, patent remedies, books, and folk wisdom happened to be at hand.

Nonetheless, these people were well-educated, the result of Protestant doctrine that the Bible should be read for oneself.   Most could read, and they often prized books among their family collections.  Some English-speaking observers complained about their love of books of crafty peasants and robbers, proving that complaints about taste in reading are by no means modern.  Overall, this population was both isolated, geographically and linguistically, and literate, leaving them open to such works as The Long-Lost Friend to help them through their everyday troubles.

One curious note I’ve been considering:  though Hohman’s intent was to make the book’s knowledge available to all who needed it, it paradoxically seems to have enhanced the network of local healers who people called upon in times of trouble instead…

Published in: on May 3, 2010 at 6:38 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. Man I can’t wait for your Long-Lost Friend to be available! I check your blog regularly because I’m very interested in grimoires and archaic religious practices and rites. I was never really interested in the The Long-Lost Friend or any of the Pow-Wow or hexenmeister literature, but after seeing how much detail and research you’ve put into this and how you have constantly kept us updated online with new info, I have to say I am really impressed! I anxiously awaiting your edition, and am wishing you and yours the best of luck.

  2. I think the common belief was that anyone could “try”, as they called it, using Hohman’s remedies, but it was generally believed that only “gifted” sorts: pow-wow doctors, braucherei, hexerei, etc., had a far better success rate because they were often part of a magical lineage. These people knew the secret gestures and often were skilled herbalists. Anyone else who used Hohman was just reciting strange verses with mixed success.

    Thanks for the Hohman updates, Dan. I’m chomping at the bit to read your book.

  3. I don’t know if it’s just a matter of the “Doctors” of the time being gifted, or more if it’s simply a matter of experience and convenience. I know how to change the oil in my car and have all the tools to do so, yet 9 times of 10 I pull into an oil change shop simply because it’s easier and faster than DIY. Sure someone could dig through the Friend looking for whatever remedy they currently need, then track down whatever items they may need to carry out the instructions, but it was probably a lot easier to just call someone who already knew the remedies and probably brought along any of the odd or difficult to find ingredients.

  4. The Doctor,


    Kevin and Dave,

    I should probably answer this topic in its own post.

  5. This is genuinely interesting. The comments about the context of Dutch/German settlers relying on folk medicine are intriguing. Did they rely upon it more heavily than other European settlers in different areas? (For example the English in Virginia) Or were they unique in this? Are there, for example, other such texts that were used by different colonial groups in different areas? If so, how much overlap is there between them?

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