Protection from Trotter Head

Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

The document pictured here bears the following inscription: “Trotter Head, I forbid thee my house and premises. I forbid thee my horse and cow-stable, I forbid thee my bedstead, that thou mayest not breathe upon me; breathe into some other house, until thou hast ascended every hill, until thou hast counted every fencepost, and until thou hast crossed every water. And thus dear day may come again into my house, in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”

Such prayers on paper are one example of powwowing, rituals in Pennsylvania Dutch folk culture for healing sickness and preventing illness in humans and livestock and for protection from spiritual forces (see Patrick J. Donmoyer, “Powwowing,” Winter 2017). “Trotter Head” was one of the malevolent spirits that was a serious concern among the rural Pennsylvania Dutch in the 19th century and into the early 20th century.

The textual amulets were often placed above the lintels of house and barn doors or near a person’s bedstead. The one illustrated here was used in a house 4 miles west of Liverpool, Perry County. It had been placed above a door lintel and was covered by a piece of tin, circa 1900. It was later found and donated to The State Museum of Pennsylvania on January 5, 1925, by W.H. Remphfer of Bunkertown, Juniata County, who said it had been placed in the house 25 or 30 years prior to ward against witches. The four holes in it are from the paper being folded and nailed above the door. The document was transferred to the Pennsylvania State Archives in April 1982 and resides in Manuscript Group 8.

The prayer is identical to one in the book Der lange Verborgene Freund (Long Lost Friend) by John George Hohman, first printed in the United States in 1820. A German-speaking immigrant to Pennsylvania in 1802, Hohman claimed that he gathered the information partly from a Romani book and partly from secret writings gathered throughout the world with great difficulty. His widely distributed book became a popular manual for the practice of powwowing in the Pennsylvania Dutch community in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The title that Hohman gave to this protective prayer is “To Prevent Witches From Bewitching Cattle, To Be Written And Placed In The Stable; And Against Bad Men And Evil Spirits Which Nightly Torment Old And Young People, To Be Written And Placed On The Bedstead.” Hohman assured his readers, “This will certainly protect and free all persons and animals from witchcraft.”

Rather than just relics from a distant time, written word prayers can still be found in some houses in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Some contemporary practitioners of powwowing even advertise their services on the internet.

Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.