Wednesday, November 9, 2011

STRANGE BREW-The Hancock County Witch Trial***By Jane Mehaffey

Hancock County, the smallest county in the state of West Virginia, sits atop the state’s northern panhandle. During its 163 year history, Hancock County has seen its share of lawsuits filed in the county’s court system. But an unusual trial occurred in 1969, when 34 year old Frank Daminger, a thoroughbred horse trainer living in the unincorporated community of Newell, sued 10 of his neighbors for slander after they allegedly called him “a warlock and the devil’s consort.” The trial offered up a strange brew of hex, lies, and spooky landscapes that briefly focused national attention on this quiet, rural community.
Frank Daminger, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, graduated from Lancaster Catholic High School in 1953. Sometime in the late 1960’s he, his wife Katherine, and their two children, aged 3 and 6 at the time of the trial, moved to Newell, West Virginia. Mr. Daminger was a lower tier horse trainer and no doubt settled inNewell because of its proximity to Waterford Park Racetrack. [Now known as Mountaineer.]

Grant Street in Newell where Mr. Daminger
 Although it remains unclear what happened, a conflict soon arose between Mr. Daminger and his neighbors. Accusations, allegations, and odd behavior lead Mr. Daminger to bring a slander suit against ten of his neighbors.
A thirty-five page lawsuit was filed on September 27, 1969. According to pre-trial briefs filed by Mr. Daminger’s attorney Frank A. Pietranton of Weirton, ten of Mr. Daminger’s neighbors publicly called him a “warlock and devil’s consort” who possessed “evil powers of casting spells and hexing.” The neighbors also allegedly accused him of practicing witchcraft and holding ritualistic ceremonies in local cemeteries.
Crew cut and dressed in a conservative dark suit, one newspaper reported that he looked more like an accountant than a warlock. But interestingly, Mr. Daminger did concede in the filing that he had “studied witchcraft for the past 15 years.” Later on during the trial, he was seen reading a book titled Witchcraft, Magic, and Alchemy, a work his neighbors referred to as his “witchcraft book.” At one point during the trial, Mr. Daminger laughed and said that he was reading the book to “find out what I’m accused of.”
The ten defendants in the lawsuit, all residents of Newell, were:

• Thelma Franczek
• John Franczek
• Ruth Smith
• Ronald Smith
• Cathy Six
• Arnold Six
• Margaret McGrew
• Richard McGrew
• Lora Ann Fabbro (Fabro?)
• Jennie LaNeve

Mr. Daminger sought a total of $150,000--$50,000 collectively and $10,000 individually-- for damaging his reputation and ruining his career.
According to Mr. Daminger, in May 1968, these neighbors “entered into a conspiracy” bent on destroying his good name and reputation. Attorneys for the neighbors were Mr. Edward Zagula of Weirton and Mr. William Conklin of Chester. At the time, Mr. Zagula was also the Hancock County Prosecuting Attorney. In pre-trial briefs, the neighbors stated they were innocent of the charges and contended that Mr. Daminger “prayed in Latin and asked the demons to arise and further show these non-believers his power.”
The trial opened in Hancock County Court on Monday morning, November 3, 1969, just three days after Halloween. Presiding was Judge Ralph E. Pryor. Judge Pryor, from Wellsburg, West Virginia, was well respected and known as a fair minded, no nonsense judge. A graduate of Warwood High School and Bethany College, Judge Pryor served with distinction in World War II, receiving the Purple Heart. After the war, he earned his law degree from Harvard University in 1948. From 1952 until 1960, he was the Prosecuting Attorney in Brooke County before winning election as judge of the First Judicial Circuit. He served in that position until his death on July 3, 1972 at the age of 51.
On the morning of the trial, an all male jury of twelve was seated. During the selection process, Judge Pryor asked each potential juror if he believed in witchcraft. Each man denied such a belief. The jurors in the case were:

Albert W. Gardner
Gilbert Ferrelli
Carl G. Tharp
James Hinchee
William Gruber
Willis Hebb
William C. Higginbotham
Lawrence A. Ward
Hugh M. Cunningham
Dale L. Sole
Joseph L. Haynes
Charles O. Thompson

In an unusual move after jury selection, Judge Pryor called a recess. Defense attorney Zagula had requested that the judge, the jury, the attorneys, and their clients take a field trip to visit Nessly Chapel Cemetery where Mr. Daminger was alleged to have taken several neighbors to witness “the Black Mass.”
So, at about 10:30 a.m. the entire court boarded a chartered bus and headed north along WV State Route 2. The first stop on this bus trip was the old cemetery at Nessly Chapel Methodist Church located about four miles from New Cumberland.
Constructed from locally hewn stone, Nessly Chapel is a beautiful Methodist church situated along the highway. Originally built in 1826 and named for an early settler, Jacob Nessly, the church was re-built in 1902. A narrow, poorly paved road twists behind the church leading to the small cemetery where approximately 265 grave markers dot the gently rolling hillside. The graves themselves are located several hundred yards opposite the gate and can be reached by following a faint gravel track in the grass.
Reports from the time of the trial state that the cemetery was surrounded by woods and enclosed by an iron fence. Today there is a bolted gate locking out vehicles, although visitors may enter through spaces between the gate and the signposts. No reports from the time mention the gate. Then, as now, no houses or buildings, not even the road, are visible from the cemetery. [Apparently at one time there was another entrance to the cemetery located directly behind the church. One source told me that this entrance was destroyed in a landslide of some sort.]
At the cemetery, Judge Pryor first pointed out Waterford Park’s water tower which was visible above the trees about one mile away. He then asked the jurors to observe “the general surrounding area and the terrain and whether there are any dwellings or buildings thereon.” He also asked them to note the route a person would take from the entrance gate to the location of one tombstone in particular.
We could not find the stones
mentioned in this article.
That tombstone was old and weathered to the point that the letters were indecipherable. Referred to as the “Miller” stone, it had a rounded top. A forefinger carved from the stone pointed upward to the sky. [According to the cemetery record on the website at Find A Grave, there is only one grave named Miller inNessly Cemetery. That is the stone of a child named Miller, an infant boy who died February 9, 1910. He was the son of E. L. Miller & Florence J. Anderson. It is not clear if this is the same headstone mentioned during the trial.]
Judge Pryor then turned attention to a second grave marker nearby. Protruding from the top of this stone was a three inch iron rod where the stone was broken off. One report identified this as the “Manypenny” headstone. [According to Find A Grave website, there is no grave marked Manypenny in Nessly Cemetery.]
913 Grant Street as it looks
The court once again boarded the bus and headed farther north to the tree lined Grant Street neighborhood in Newell where Mr. Daminger and his neighbors lived. The jury saw Mr. Daminger’s former home, a narrow, yellow painted frame house at 913 Grant Street. By the time of the trial, Mr. Daminger and his family had moved to a mobile home park on Route 8 out of concern for their safety. [possibly Red Barn Trailer Court?]
The jury took note of seven houses where the events had allegedly taken place. A large tree between Mr. Daminger’s former residence and the house next door was also pointed out. 911 Grant Street, the house next door, was identified as the home of defendants Richard and Martha McGrew. Three days after Halloween, the McGrew’s still displayed a three foot high witch riding a broomstick.
I talked to a nice lady on Grant Str.
and she told me this was the
field talked about in in the trial.
The court also toured a large field next to the Homer Laughlin China Company. Referred to as “the point,” it was there, according to the pre-trial briefs, that Mr. Daminger was allegedly seen in “embarrassing situations” with a teen-aged girl from Newell. [Clark Field?] Judge Pryor asked the jury to note the absence of lights at the location.
The court returned to New Cumberland just before noon. Opening statements in the trial were set to begin after a recess for lunch. During the recess, Mr. Daminger said that his attorney, Mr. Pietranton, would be calling twenty-two witnesses and that the defense would present 17 witnesses. Defense attorney Zagula speculated that the trial would last 3-4 days.
Reports about the number of spectators in court that day vary. It seems there were at least fifty spectators, most of whom were women. In addition, an estimated fifteen reporters from the local papers as well from the papers in Wheeling and Pittsburgh were on hand for the proceedings. At the conclusion of the trial, the story was picked up by both the AP and the UPI wire services and appeared in papers all over the country. [Sources have told me that newsmen from the New York papers, as well as journalists from Time and Life magazines came for the trial. I have not yet been able to verify these reports.]
When court reconvened and before opening statements, one of the defendants, Mrs. Jenny LaNeve, was released upon a motion from Mr. Pietranton. Through her attorney, Mr. Conklin, Mrs. LaNeve presented to the court a signed affidavit in which she denied that she had “in any way or at any time slandered Mr. Daminger, but that if she did it was purely unintentional and purely inadvertent.” Mrs. LaNeve also apologized to Mr. Daminger. There were no objections and Mrs. LaNeve was enjoined from any further proceedings.
The first witness called to the stand was Mrs. Thelma Franczek, a thirty-seven year old mother of four. Mrs. Franczek, of 920 Washington Street, was a member of the Newell Block Mothers, a group formed to protect the neighborhood children because of the lack of a police department in the community.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Zagula said the he “had no wish to revisit the Salem trials of 1693.” Nevertheless, during Mrs. Franczek’s testimony a number of strange details came to light.