Philadelphia by Night

20 Nov

William Penn first landed in the New World in 1682. Armed with a land charter, he founded a colony based on religious freedom that just a century later would give birth to a new nation. Penn named the new city Philadelphia, derived from Greek words meaning ‘City of Brotherly Love’. Magic has lurked in the Philadelphia area for as long as it has been populated (and perhaps even before humanity settled there). Magical beliefs and practices flourished among the indigenous peoples of the area, and as immigrants, missionaries, and colonists were attracted to the area, each brought their own magic with them. Since well before the first European settlers arrived in the early 1600s magic has been a part of Philly’s history. The Lenape tribes who populated the area for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the European settlers arrived viewed magic (or what the Europeans would label as magic) as an integral part of daily life. It was simply how the world worked and was recognised and treated as such by members of the various Lenape tribes. While many of the specifics have been lost over the four centuries of European intercession in the area, some basic information was preserved through a variety of sources.

Traditional Lenape philosophy recognises Kishelamakank the Creator, a powerful spirit who in turn made four other spirits, called Manitowak or Spirit Beings, to aid him in creating the rest of the world. The Four Great Manitowak live in the four corners of the world and are related to the various elements, while their own spirit creations, the lesser manitowak, became the spirits of everything in the world: mountains, valleys, rocks, soil, rivers, lakes and ocean, and, of course, plants and animals. Along with these four great Spirit Beings and their spirit-spawn, the Lenape also hold sacred a spirit creature known as Mesinkhalikan (sometimes shortened to Mesink), the keeper of the forest and game animals. Mesink is a tall hairy bestial spirit-creature with a frightening face that is half-red and half-black. Because of his physical form, Mesink is often associated with Sasquatch, or Bigfoot, in modern folklore. Mesink not only aided the Lenape people in hunting when game was scarce, but also served as a reminder, teacher and enforcer of the import of respecting the Earth and its spirits, and walking in balance with both.


Traditionally, within the Lenape tribes, some individuals were seen as being destined for spiritual and religious service to the Earth and to the people. Often these individuals, called Metinuwak, were recognised for this destiny in early childhood and would be trained rigorously by other Metinuwak for the role they would take in the tribe. As the Lenape saw spiritual and physical health as being interwoven to the point of being inseparable, Metinuwak were responsible for medicine in Lenape terms – social and spiritual ceremonies and rituals, intercession with the spirits (both good and evil), prophecy, and counsel to the rest of the tribe. They were also in charge of medicine in conventional terms, such as herbs, potions, first-aid, and the like. While the use of rituals, ceremonies, charms, icons, prayers for spiritual intervention, and sacrifices might easily be broadly labelled as witchcraft and sorcery by modern standards, for the Lenape culture they were ingrained and core to the culture. Metinuwak were a vital part of the tribal structure and heavily relied upon for preserving the strength and health of the Lenape culture.

Not all magic workers among the Lenape were benevolent. Even among the tribes of the region whose culture was rife with magic, the terms ‘malliku’ (witchcraft) and ‘Nutschihhowe’ (meaning nightwalker or witch) were enough to bring fear into the hearts of the bravest Lenape warrior. Another of the Metinuwak’s roles among the Lenape was to protect the rest of the tribe from the malevolent actions, both physical and spiritual, of the Nutschihhowe. A Metinuwak might use charms, rites, specially blessed weapons, seasonal ceremonies or direct intercession with the spirits (especially in the form of nianque, the manitowak associated with various wild animals who served as guides and familiars to the Lenape people) to weaken a marauding Nutschihhowe. Nutschihhowe are purported to possess any number of magical abilities, including, but not limited to cursing, inducing illness or injury, haunting others’ dreams, fostering evil spirits, raising ghosts and undead zombies, controlling animals, causing droughts or storms, and extreme longevity. Even today, mysterious happenings arise in the Delaware Valley that those who believe the legends blame on these ancient Nutschihhowe.

In many ways, Philadelphia fostered both the retention of native forms of witchcraft and immigrant witches who practiced it. Like the Lenape before them, many of the immigrant cultures who came to Philadelphia had their own rituals, superstitions, charms and spells which, although their practitioners were also Christian, were ingrained into their own cultures. Cultural witchcraft from the colonial period included a broad variety of knacks and abilities. From being able to sense things that others could not (the outcome of a particular event, the coming weather, the sex of an unborn child, or the presence of valuable resources) to magical defences against natural, man-made or supernatural dangers (wards, witch bottles, protective charms and magical medicines and cures) each new group of immigrants brought their own version of witchcraft with them to help in the often hostile environments of the New World. In the Swedish and some German neighbourhoods of town, use of runes as a magical tool for religious worship was well as blessing and curses was not unheard of in the 17th and 18th centuries and underwent a modern resurgence in the late 20th century after a serious decline throughout the 19th century. Similarly, Pennsylvania Dutch Pow-wow and hex signs have not only remained present in the Philadelphia area for centuries, but have carved a niche for themselves in mainstream culture, which sees them as quaint local folklore.


During the Revolutionary era many forward thinking individuals were fascinated with the burgeoning pseudo-science of the period. As the scientific process was still far from perfect, many technological discoveries of that era were generally held to cross the line between magic and technology, like Benjamin Franklin’s Leyden Jar. However, like much of the ‘civilised’ world, Philadelphia of the ensuing 19th century was typified by an abrupt paradox. On the one hand, an Age of Reason was upon the city, which became one of the largest and most technologically advanced in the nation. And yet, it was also rife with crime, disease, disastrous fires and race battles as the city’s newly freed African American population struggled for basic human rights in the latter half of the century. But, along with all the technological advantages and socio-political challenges the new century brought with it, Philadelphia was also experiencing a surge of interest in the supernatural world. From seances where mediums actively sought contact with the spirits of the dead (and occasionally got far more than they bargained for), to stage magic shows where audiences paid good money to suspend their beliefs about how reality worked, to more clandestine conmen who made profit from marketing magical trinkets, the mysteries of the supernatural were high in the minds of Philadelphia citizens, from the penniless orphan in the street to the rich and influential.

Mediums and stage magicians experienced their Philadelphian glory days during the 1800s. Perhaps because much of the city’s new technology was as foreign to most of its citizens as magic was, a surge in public and private performances of ‘showmanship’ style magic typified 19th century Philly. Most mediums were fake but some, such as Miss Helen Hale, may actually have been able to conjure forth the spirits of the dead – she was never proven to be fraudulent, despite investigation by several groups. Also of interest were demonstrations that blurred the line between science and magic. In their early stages electric lights, Tesla coils, X-rays, the telegraph and the telephone were all displayed as magic before they became commonly accepted as science. Also frequently displayed were more complex creations, like the Turk, a famous chess-playing mechanism and a machine that its creator claimed had solved the nigh-timeless challenge of a self-perpetuating energy source – Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion Machine. As Philadelphia’s fascination with the supernatural grew, a religious/spiritual form of magic took root in the city. Brought to Philly by African American residents, especially those from Louisiana and other formerly slave-holding states, as well as the Caribbean, Hoodoo (like Pow-wow) incorporates Bible scripture and Catholic spiritualism with the native religious practices of its followers, in this case the spiritual beliefs of West Africa. While New Orleans was the undisputed Mecca of American Hoodoo, Philadelphia’s religious tolerance, wealth and accessibility did much to ensure the City of Brotherly Love was also a safe haven for those who practiced Hoodoo, among them ‘Sister Serafina’, a freed slave who came to Philly in the early 1800s and collected a following of rich upper-class women who relied on her for magic powders, potions and charms of all sorts.


However, the coming of the 20th century, followed quickly by the Great Depression and a pair of World Wars, drastically undercut the power base that various and sundry magic practitioners had built in Philly during the superstitious 19th century. Cults which thrived in the gaslights of the Civil War died a slow and wasting death as their members had to focus more and more attention on necessities like feeding themselves and their families. In these circumstances, even the most talented witches found themselves short on resources with which to maintain their followers’ loyalty. Also putting Philadelphian witches at a disadvantage for the first time since the city’s inception was the increasing disbelief and disinterest both in magic and the supernatural. While even today Philly has retained more neighbourhood- and culture-specific practices than almost any other American city, even The City of Neighbourhoods felt the effects of America’s modernisation. As the Industrial Revolution faded far enough into the past that new generations couldn’t remember a time without electric lights, radio, automobiles and eventually television, mobile telephones and the internet, fewer and fewer individuals held onto the previous century’s fascination with (and tolerance of) supernatural phenomena. However, in the 21st century Philadelphia is a city of potential. Just as Philly has started to reinvent itself in a variety of ways, so its supernatural side is experiencing a resurgence. New agers, neo-pagans and practitioners of magic both new and old seem to have flocked to the city in the past decade and a half, drawn by its centuries of history and the wealth of potential power to be found there. A new age of magic and mysticism in the City of Brotherly Love is all set to begin.

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