Saylor Family (19th century) Family of prominent German powwowers, or folk doctors who practiced magical medical arts. The Saylor Family were influential healers for about two centuries in the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania.
The American branch of the Saylor family was founded by Johann Peter Seiler, born on September 26, 1721. He was orphaned. With his brother, he immigrated to America in 1738 and worked off the cost of his passage as an indentured servant. He settled first in New Jersey and married Anna Margaret maurer of Greenwich. A daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1750. The couple had 10 children in all.
The Seilers moved to Raubsville, Pennsylvania. Johann established a successful folk medicine practice using herbal remedies, charms, magical spells and a laying on of hands. By 1779, he owned 200 acres of land. In the 1780s he bought more tracts near the HexenkopF and surrounding areas. He had a large library of books, a still for preparing herbal concoctions and beehives. In the revolutionary War, Seiler served as a lieutenant colonel in the army, and three sons served as privates.
Seiler was among the first practitioners to be called a powwower. He treated both whites and Indians; the latter called him “the great powwow man.”
Seiler died on January 8, 1803. His tombstone bears a carving of a hexenFoos, a six-pointed flower drawn with a compass, intended to keep evil spirits away.
Seiler’s son Jacob became well known as a powwower and so did Jacob’s son Johannes and Johannes’ son John Henry.
But the star of the Saylor family was Seiler’s youngest son, Peter, born in 1770. Peter inherited the family estate and his father’s medical practice. By then, the spelling of the family name had changed to Saylor. Peter developed his own unique brand of witchy medicine, spurred on by the popularity of the handbook The Long Lost Friend (1820) by John george hohmAn, another famous powwower. Peter lived to the age of 91 and devoted himself to his medical arts, practiced out of the family estate, where he built a splendid stone house. Saylor’s Lane, leading to the house, was often lined with the carriages and carts of patients waiting their turns.
Peter was a formidable figure, and stories circulated about his magical prowess. It was said that he once butchered a hog and left it hanging inside one of his magical circles. A man tried to steal the hog but, upon entering the circle, became unable to move until Peter arrived and set him free. Peter also was said to be able to tie knots in threads with his tongue.
In powwowing, disease and illness are caused by the Devil and the Demons and wItches who serve him. Illness is cast out, based on the model set by Jesus in the New Testament, when he exorcized Demons into a herd of swine. Similarly, powwowers of the 19th century cast out illness into animals.
Peter was especially known for his ability to cast out illness, and his favored receptacle was not animals, but the hexenkopF, a large rocky hill that had the profile of a witch’s head. The German immigrants had brought witch lore with them, and they associated the Hexenkopf with witch activities; Peter’s activities increased the witch lore and the fear of the hill. He was known to cast Magic Circles on the ground and stand within them, uttering his incantations to “call down power.” He and other powwowers in his family—as well as in the tradition in general—believed that his magical powers waxed and waned with the moon. The best and most powerful day was the first Friday following a full moon; the most difficult cases were treated then.
Peter trained his son Peter Jr. and his nephew Jacob in powwowing. Shortly before he died in 1862, Peter instructed his son to take certain witchcraft books out of his library, weight them down with stones and throw them in the Delaware river because he wished that the books be never more used. Peter Jr. complied. The instruction evidently was conditional for him to inherit the family estate and the medical practice.
Peter Jr. changed the spelling of his last name to Sailor. He was 53 when his father died, and he was able to practice powwowing for only six years before he was paralyzed by a stroke on August 22, 1868. He died on September 3. He was a bachelor and had no children to train, but he did instruct John Henry Wilhelm.
Jacob Saylor moved to Bethlehem Township and established his practice. He also began writing down some of the remedies, but the collection was never published. It survives as a manuscript at Franklin and marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
After 1868, the Saylor male line of powwowers ended, and the calling was pursued by the Wilhelms, who were related to the Saylors by marriage. John Henry and his brother, Eugene, were the most famous. Their father, Jacob Wilhelm, also was a renowned healer and wrote a detailed book of his cures.
The old Saylor home reportedly is haunted by unknown spirits or ghosts. Disembodied voices have been heard, and a repairman once insisted that the furnace turned on by itself. The nearby Wilhelm home no longer exists, having burned to the ground in 2002.
- Heindel, Ned D. Hexenkopf: History, Healing & Hexerei. Easton, Pa.: Williams Township Historical Society, 2005.