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Speaker to illuminate Western Pennsylvania’s dark history

The haunted Quaker Church Cemetery near Perryopolis detailed in White’s book, “The Witch of the Monongahela.” The cemetery will be among the topics discussed during White’s talk Oct. 18.  


By Elizabeth Perry

Just in time for Halloween, the McKees Rocks Historical Society will welcome Author Thomas White to share regional stories about haunted roads, witchcraft and the supernatural.

White has written 10 books detailing historical accounts of paranormal and magical lore. He's also the archivist and curator of special collections for the Gumberg Library at Duquesne University.

“I’ve always been interested in tall tales,” White said.

White compiled his first book, Legends and Lore of Western Pennsylvania in 2008 and published in 2009. Currently White is working on another anthology collection of Pennsylvania folklore and legends.

His latest book, “The Witch of the Monongahela,” details the stories built up around Moll Derry, also dubbed “The Fortune Teller of the Revolution.” Derry’s husband was a Hessian soldier who came to the Americas to fight for the British. When they got here, the couple switched sides.

Derry went on to gain a reputation as someone who could tell the future, repel hexes or make them against her enemies.

The author has been immersed in the history of Pennsylvania for most of his career. Prior to his position at the Duquesne library, he worked at the Heinz History Center for eight years. White said the region has a surprisingly rich history of witchcraft and folk magic.

“People who practiced this magic were evenly divided, but women were more likely to be called a witch,” White said.

Immigrant communities had many names for people who wielded mystical power; Powowers, Brauchers, Hex Doctors, Cunning Folk and Witch Masters. In fact, William Penn presided over a witch trial a decade before the tragic witch hunts in Salem, Mass. The major difference between the bloody Salem trials and their Pennsylvania counterparts was that Penn declared no one would be killed as punishment. Penn knocked the penalty for witchcraft down to a fine. That leniency made the practice flourish locally.

Interest in witches and ghosts always comes to the fore around Halloween. White believes the holiday functions as sort of a societal “release valve.”

“It's a time where everyone can agree it’s OK to be interested in supernatural stuff,” White said.

The end of the year, when days get colder, was much more frightening in ancient times. To our ancestors, a bad harvest could mean imminent death. To them, Halloween was a time of celebration, but also a way of looking at the long dark winter ahead.

“The dead were somehow closer at that time,” White said.

Today, the holiday has been “Americanized,” White said and “re-exported to the world,” meaning that it’s blended the traditions of many cultures and put a modern spin on them.

Dressing up in edgy, scary or political Halloween costumes is a way to address complicated cultural issues in an easier way, White said.

“Also, it’s just fun,” White said.

To hear White's spookily historical accounts in person, join the McKees Rocks Historical Society at Mickey’s Place, 1625 Pine Hollow Road, Kennedy, on Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 6 p.m.



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