In the second half of the twentieth century, North Carolina author and folklorist Manly Wade Wellman published a series of novels and short stories featuring the character of Silver John, or John the Balladeer, a man who wandered the Appalachians fighting supernatural terrors. John's only weapons in these fights are his knowledge of Appalachian folk wisdom, his silver-strung guitar, and a copy of The Long-Lost Friend. John relies on the belief that this last item, a thin, paperback volume will protect whoever carries with it from evil. The silver-strung guitar and it's bearer are Wellman's invention, but the The Long-Lost Friend was, and is, a very real book. And the belief that having it in your home or carrying it with you was a protection from evil was commonly held across much of the Appalachian region in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Long-Lost Friend was written in 1820 by George Hollman, a German immigrant to Pennsylvania. Originally written in German with the slightly lugubrious title Der Lange Verborgene Freund oder, Getreuer und Christlicher Unterricht fur Jedermann, Enthaltend: Wunderbare und Probmassige Mittel und Kunste, Sowohl fur die Menschen als Das Vieh, whch translates as The Long Hidden Friend, or, True and Christian Instructions for Everyone. Comprising Wonderful and Well Tested Remedies and Arts, for Men as well as for Livestock. The book was translated into English in the first half of the 19th Century as Th Long-Lost Friend and has been republished under multiple versions a of that title, and also as Pow-Wows. The book is thought to be the first grimoire, or book of magical instruction, written and published in America.
The word grimoire is less ominous than it sounds, the term is thought to be a corruption of the French word grammar, which is just a word for a school instruction book. Magic books have been around for centuries, but after the invention of printing in the Fifteenth Century, there was a particular craze for these books across Europe for the next hundred years or so. Much of this material was produced drawing from, translating and publishing books which had already been circulating in manuscript form. Because books were for a long time luxury goods, the early rounds of grimoires were consumed mostly by elites in society. And because many of these works were now being read by people unfamiliar with the original cultural contexts they had been written in, any of these texts began to be reinterpreted with an emphasis on ritualistic forms of magic. The magic was reinterpreted to suit the needs of the people using it — what may have started out as a simple peasant charm to keep milk from going bad, removed from its original context, became a "seal of power." The sort of thing that would suit you if you could afford a private grotto and wanted to gather together some of your other wealthy friends to go through a few bottles of port and prove just how important you were by telling demons what to do.
It wasn't until the Nineteenth Century, when printing had become much cheaper, that printed books of what we would call practical magic or folk magic began to be widely circulated. These were books filled with practical advice about protecting yourself and your livestock from both natural and supernatural threats. The sort of magic you could use every day on the farm. The Long-Lost Friend is very much in this genre.
George Holloman arrived in Philadelphia, traveling from Hamburg, in 1802, accompanied by his wife and children. He was part of a wave of immigration from the German Palatinate States that arrived in the late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth centuries. Many of these settlers arrived in North Carolina, where they assimilated quickly into the English-speaking settlements, but in Pennsylvania the German settlers were slightly more isolated, forming the unique, German-Speaking Pennsylvania Dutch culture. The "Dutch" in Pennsylvania Dutch has nothing to do with Holland, it's instead derived from Deutsch, the German word for German. It was in this context that Hollman and his family settle and where, as early as 1813, he was publishing charm books. Although the financial rewards it would bring to Hollman would be extremely limited, The Long-Lost Friend proved to be the most enduring of these.
The Long-Lost Friend is very a much a book of practical magic. The charms, spells and formulas contained within have to do with protecting personal property from theft, curing wounds, and a significant amount on animal husbandry. This excerpt on treating horses is typical:
A very good remedy to destroy Bots or Worms in Horses
You must mention the name of the horse and say: "If you have any worms, I will catch you by the forehead. if they be white, brown, or red, they shall and must now all be dead." You must shake the head of the horse three times, and pass your hand over his back three times to and fro.
Bots is Botfly larvae, which can be parasitic in horses, while worms is a little more complicated. In the German folk tradition that Hollman was drawing from, worms were not only the parasites, such as tapeworm or heart worm, that could infect livestock, but also a catch-all description for a semi-supernatural view of infection in animals. Any kind of livestock disease could be blamed on worms setting themselves up inside the animal, and treatment required drawing out the worm, be it visible or invisible.
As the German immigrants migrated South from Pennsylvania into the Appalachian mountains, they took The Long-Lost Friend with them. Printed multiple times in inexpensive editions, The Long-Lost Friend was soon ubiquitous across not only Pennsylvania, but the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina. It would not be unusual for a small homestead to possess only two books - The Bible and The Long-Lost Friend. An entire American magical tradition, Pow-Wow derives its name from a later edition of the book.
It was during the late Nineteenth Century that the book's reputation as a totemic object seems to develop. The book's reputation shifted from being just a repository of powerful knowledge to being in and of itself powerful. The belief emerged that carrying the book with you, or simply having it in your home, would work as a talisman against misfortune.
It was the book's presence in one particular home that led to its gradual disappearance from popularity. In 1928, a man named Nelson Rehmeyer was murdered by one of his neighbors, John Blymire. Blymie and his accomplice set fire to Rehmeyer's house in an attempt to destroy the evidence, but were soon apprehended and put on trial. The motivations for the murder remain unclear, the prosecution presented a case of simple robbery, but the story picked up and perhaps exaggerated by the sensationalistic press was that Blymie had murdered Rehmeyer after becoming convinced that Rehmeyer had cursed him. The story int he press was that he had had entered Rehmeyer's home in search of his spell book, The Long Lost Friend.Rehmeyer did indeed own a copy of this book, but so did most everyone else in the region. What didn't help was that this happened while America was in the middle of a slow-burning moral panic over magic and spiritual books circulated by mail. This was part of the general moral reform movements of the early Twentieth Century, and cracking down on superstition and non-mainstream religious beliefs was seen by some members of the establishment as being a moral responsibility. This usually took the form of prosecuting practitioners of the African-American Hoodoo tradition for mail fraud. The murder also took place as there was a growing fascination with "hillbillies" in American popular culture. Beginning in the 1920s, roots music was sold as "hillbilly" music to white audiences, and a heavy-handed stereotype of Appalachian people as backwards, superstitious, and violent began to emerge. These trends met in a perfect storm in the Rehmeyer murder, where dabbling with dangerous magic books had claimed a white victim, one with the added spice of hillbilly violence. The papers had a field day, and the story was national news for weeks.
This spelled the end for The Long-Lost Friend. The book, which probably few of the reporters had actually read, was characterized as a dangerous book of superstitious dark magic, never mind that the majority of the text was concerned with curing worms and "empty horn" in cows. For the first time in over a century, the book went out of print and was largely forgotten, to the point where when Wellman was writing about John the Balladeer carrying the book around in his pocket in the 1950s, it was already an obscure piece of regional folklore.
But few things stay hidden forever. In the past few years, with a revived interest in folk magic, interest in The Long-Lost Friend has also revived, and in 2012 Llewellyn Publications reissued the book, edited with annotations by Daniel Harms. Although the animal husbandry parts are considered less useful than they were a century ago, the other charms and spells give great insight into what our predecessors found important enough to call upon the supernatural for assistance with.