West View man's 'weird history' book on witches earns national honor
A lifelong history buff, Thomas White always has been drawn to what he affectionately calls “weird history.”
His slant away from the mainstream of local history led him to an Award of Merit from the American Association of State and Local History, or AASLH, for his book “Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History and Lore.”
The 112-page book, published last year by The History Press, begins with a witch trial presided over by William Penn in 1684 and continues through history all the way to modern urban legends.
White, 39, is a West View resident who grew up in Ross Township. He graduated from North Hills High School in Ross in 1993 and from La Roche College in McCandless in 1997. White is the archivist and curator of special collections at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.
The award will be presented Sept. 19 at the AASLH annual meeting in St. Paul, Minn.
“It was great to be nominated for it and to win this award,” said White, noting that his book is kind of an unusual topic.”
That just made it unique and helped grab the attention of AASLH voters.
“What we liked about it is it wasn't traditional,” said AASLH regional representative Terri Blanchette, an Ohio Township resident who combs through Pennsylvania; Washington, D.C.; and Delaware to nominate books in her region.
Nominated titles then are voted on by a committee at the group's headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. A total of 77 Awards of Merit were given out nationwide this year.
Blanchette said White's book fits in a modern niche. With many television shows and movies focusing on zombies, vampires, cults and similar topics, White's book touched a nerve within popular culture.
“It's a topic of interest,” Blanchette said. “All the while, it's told in a nonsensationalized manner. It's responsible and well researched — really a well-written book.”
White, who has written seven books, said he came across tales of witchcraft in his 15 years of researching local history. Some, such as the William Penn trial and the infamous murder of Nelson Rehmeyer after he allegedly hexed a trio of men in 1928, were easy to research.
Other times, White had to know what he was looking for, like when a Bryn Mawr woman summoned him to take a look at a metal plate found buried 10 feet below the ground. It turned out to be the page of a spell book and was inscribed with a charm to make the farm yield the treasures of the earth.
“It was a part of life back then, like a folk religion,” White said. “You can learn a lot about cultural and social history by looking at legends.”
White is quick to point out that the stereotypical vision of a woman in a cone-shaped hat riding a broom does not do the subject matter of his book justice. Rather, it is a historical look at the mystical ideas brought over by mostly German settlers, who kept excellent records, and how those ideals, people and the notion of local witchcraft evolved.
Ed Phillipps is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.