Thursday, November 10, 2011

Strange Brew Part 2 by Jane Mehaffey

According to testimony and remarks from the attorneys, Mr. Daminger “acted weird” and had “weird ways.” Neighborhood children became frightened and ran home after seeing him reading his “witchcraft book” on his porch one afternoon. Mr. Daminger allegedly showed a young girl what he called “a voodoo doll,” and he indicated that another young girl was going to suffer a heart attack.

There were allegations that Mr. Daminger used his evil powers to seduce his thirteen year-old babysitter Polly who was Mrs. Franczek’s niece. Additional allegations placed him in an “embarrassing situation” with a teen aged girl at “the point” in Newell while his wife was at home.
Mr. Daminger did not deny that he had studied witchcraft. He also admitted that he read fortune telling cards and read instructions from a book on those cards. He had no idea, according to court statements, “that anyone in this day and age would take such things seriously.”
However, there were additional allegations that Mr. Daminger visited cemeteries where he performed “rituals that he himself described as ‘the Black Mass.’ ” Allegedly, he claimed that he could communicate with the dead. It was also said that he often repeated incantations in Latin to call upon spirits.
As tensions mounted in the neighborhood, Mrs. Franczek testified that various plots designed “to run the witch (Mr. Daminger) out of town” were discussed and some were acted upon.
Mrs. Franczek, Mrs. Lora Fabbro, and one other woman went as a delegation to racing officials, known as stewards, at Waterford Park with letters outlining the alleged sexual activities he was suspected of. Evidently this was an attempt to have Mr. Daminger “ruled off the track” so that he could not run his horses there and would be forced to leave the area.
913 Grant Street as it looks
Mr. Daminger’s landlady, Mrs. Ann Juszczak, was pressured by neighbors to evict him from 913 Grant Street. A petition to make him leave town was also drawn up.
Mrs. Franczek testified that the neighbors discussed killing Mr. Daminger and throwing him in the river or burying him in the graveyard. They also considered hiring a man from Youngstown who “had a black belt in karate and could work over anyone for a five dollar bill.” They were told that this expert could do such a good job on Mr. Daminger that there wouldn’t be any marks on the body.
“Just like that,” Mrs. Franczek said, snapping her fingers three times, “he’d be dead.”
Mrs. Franczek also detailed a rather gruesome plot to have Mr. Daminger accused of murdering his landlady. This scheme involved killing a cat and smearing its blood all over one of the landlady’s dresses. Mrs. Jusczak was to hide while Mr. Daminger was blamed for her murder.
“That was a joke,” Mrs. Franczek said, smiling. “We knew it might not work, but we did get a kick out of it.”
The plot did not work because the landlady, who was “completely drunk at the time,” sobered up and wouldn’t go through with the plan.
Mr. Daminger’s attorney pointed out that all these schemes were “in addition to an unbelievable amount of personal harassment suffered by Mr. Daminger by his neighbors.”
People spat on Mr. Daminger and threatened to beat him up. They threw stones at him and at his house. Bonfires were set near his home and cherry bombs were tossed into his yard. People made the sign of the cross when they saw him on the street. A hex sign was posted facing his front door and a cross was put on a tree between his house and the McGrew house.
Another odd event was a candlelight ceremony held at 915 Grant Street, the home of Ron and Ruth Smith. The neighbors gathered there dressed in white, chanting, and carrying candles to “ward off evil spirits.”
But perhaps the most bizarre part of the trial involved Mrs. Franczek’s re-telling of a nighttime trip to Nessly Chapel Cemetery.
Sometime during the summer of 1968, at midnight on a moonlit night, Mrs. Franczek, Mrs. Fabbro, and Mrs. Juszczak accompanied Mr. Daminger to the lonely cemetery behind Nessly Chapel to witness what Mr. Daminger called “the Black Mass.” According to reports, Ron and Ruth Smith were concealed in the trees to watch events unfold.
As they walked from the gate to the cluster of graves, Mr. Daminger spread salt along the path “to ward off evil spirits.” They stopped in front of the Miller stone, and then turned to the right to the Manypenny stone, the marker with the iron rod protruding from it.
Mr. Daminger took off his ring and asked the three women to kiss it. As Mrs. Franczek stated he “took off his ring and we all kissed it. He then placed his ring on top of the stone. He then took a drink from a bottle of wine that we had and poured some wine on the tombstone. He capped the bottle, and placed the bottle on top of the stone too.” (R2)
“The bottle fell off, and he picked it up again, took another drink and put it on the stone again. It fell once again, so he started all over again.” Mrs. Franczek testified that this action was repeated a total of three times.
According to reports, Mr. Daminger grinned broadly while Mrs. Franczek recounted how frightened they were.
“It was moonlight and midnight and we were up in that cemetery and we were scared,” she said.
Mr. Pietranton explained that the bottle moved because his client pulled a string attached to it. The whole ceremony was intended as a practical joke to prove that Mr. Daminger had no occult powers. According to his attorney, Mr. Daminger was not given a chance to explain this joke to the women.
In an interview with one reporter, Mr. Zagula stated that this Black Mass was all about a lot of “hocus pocus by which Mr. Daminger caused a wine bottle to fall from a tombstone in a moonlight, midnight demonstration of his occult powers.”
Before court adjourned, Mr. Pietranton presented a statement dated July 23, 1968. It was directed to Mr. Daminger and was allegedly signed by Mrs. Franczek on behalf of several of the neighbors. It reads:
“Male Witch
You are a male witch and you use your occult powers to get sexual pleasures.
You put little girls under evil spells and then rape them.
You put an evil spell on me and caused me to fall and hurt my ankle.
You put me under a spell so you could make love to me.
You have ruined all the teenaged girls in the neighborhood.”
Mrs. Franczek denied that she had signed the statement.
At the conclusion of her testimony, Judge Pryor adjourned the court until 9:30 a.m. the next day.
The second day of the trial, Tuesday, November 4, 1969, dawned wet and bleak. But after convening court for the day, Judge Pryor met in camera for about one hour with attorneys from both sides. When the judge and the attorneys re-entered the courtroom, Mr. Zagula read the following statement:
“We the undersigned defendants in the above-styled matter do hereby reiterate the denial of the claims of the plaintiff as set forth in our answer heretofore filed herein, except as may have been otherwise indicated by the testimony adduced herein, and declare that we, presently, irrespective of earlier suspicions or statements which may have indicated the contrary, do not believe the plaintiff has committed any crime or immoral act with any female person, minor or adult, for which the plaintiff has charged us with having stated, but which we have denied, and further we do not believe he has any supernatural powers claimed or pretended to be used for any ulterior purpose or profit.
“For any act or conduct on our part which may have caused or contributed to the injury of or damage to his reputation and business we apologize to him, an apology from him for any act or conduct on his part which may have damaged or injured us in our reputations or in any other way, being made simultaneously by the plaintiff herewith.”
Mr. Pietranton moved that the suit be dismissed. Judge Pryor approved the motion and adjourned the court at about 10:30 am.
Mr. Daminger and his wife, who was in court for the proceedings, were pleased. According to one report, Mrs. Daminger, described as a tall, attractive brunette with streaks of gray in her hair, ran to her husband to hug and kiss him. (NR 2) She stated that she was “absolutely pleased that our name has been vindicated.”
“I am elated that we have finally reached a solution in this unbelievable affair,” Mr. Daminger said. “I hope no one ever has to go through what I’ve been through in the past year.”
One reporter asked Mr. Daminger if he would continue to study witchcraft. Holding his book Witchcraft, Magic, and Alchemy, he replied, “Certainly, but it is purely academic study, combined with curiosity.”
And so this strange brew boiled down to nothing with an anti-climactic and rather unsatisfying end. Mr. Zagula summed it up best when he said, “The whole business of gossip and witchcraft simply got out of hand and everybody became involved to a ridiculous degree.”

I hope you enjoyed my account of the Daminger slander lawsuit, more commonly known as the Hancock County Witch Trial. This story was easy to research because it received so much attention and was a relatively recent event. It also helped because I knew the exact dates and the name of the central player. I wish all stories were this easy. I have presented only the facts as reported in the papers from the time. I did not check out the records at the courthouse. If you find anything that is in error or if you have any details to add, please let me know.
There are a couple of things about this lawsuit to note. I have not made an extensive study of witchcraft, but I have read that during the witchcraft trials in Salem, the accused “witches” were suspected of putting evil spells on young girls in the community. There is a similar theme here.
Also, I have read that most people accused of being witches were usually people who were different or who did not fit into the community. Similarly Mr. Daminger was an outsider and he definitely did not fit in
I learned in my research for this trial that in colonial America, people condemned for being witches were usually hanged. The “witches” in the Salem trials were hanged. In Europe, burning was the usual practice for executing people condemned as witches.
I am puzzled, though, about the motivations in this case. Without having been present at the trial and without hearing any testimony from Mr. Daminger or any other witness, it is hard to know what was truly behind all this hoopla. It seems to me that Mr. Daminger was trying to stir up a little excitement and the whole thing got out of hand.
Another thing that puzzles me is why these women agreed to go to the cemetery at midnight with Mr. Daminger when they were supposedly suspicious of him. I guess he put a spell on them.
© 2011 by Jane Mehaffey

Thank you again Jane for your help in finding the details of this story!