When Dr. Henry Ruffner gave his “bah, humbug” to German superstitions

Posted on October 30, 2014 by

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Dr. Henry Ruffner

Dr. Henry Ruffner

Since it’s Halloween Eve, I figured I would fall back on an article that I read in the past year, which was written by a Shenandoah Valley author. I’ve mentioned Henry Ruffner in this blog before, mostly because of the famous “Ruffner Pamphlet” and how it pertained to slavery in antebellum Virginia. Yet, as with all characters from that period, there’s more to the men and women than meet the eye.

Anyway, in September, 1840, Ruffner’s article, “Literary Recreations”, appeared (under the pen-name “Anagram Ferran”) in the Southern Literary Messenger. What surprised me most about the piece was how Ruffner distanced himself from his German heritage. Was it his higher education, his time spent among those of Scots-Irish descent (which included conversion to the Presbyterian church), or… what?*

MODERN MAGIC. – No. I.

The belief in ghosts, witches and the black art, has almost faded away from the minds of our population. Few above the condition of slaves are so ignirant as to cherish these ancient superstitions. If any have retained a lingering fancy for them, they are the uneducated part of the German Americans, who have been cut off, more than others, from the benefit of schools and the general diffusion of knowledge. But even among them, the grosser forms of superstition are nearly worn out. Some of them may yet harbor a strong suspicion, that the Devil and the witches do sometimes play malicious pranks on poor mortals; and generally the agricultural class, like many others of the same class in this country, do firmly believe in the moon – ascribing to that mottle-faced luminary, the changes of the weather, the growth of potatoes, and the shrinking of boiled beef, besides various other things which one would hardly suspect that cold lumpish follower of the earth to be capable of doing. So freakish, too, is the sort of government, which she is supposed to exercise over the changeable affairs of this world, that one might suspect her of being as mad as the lunatics, whose brains she is, or at least was, accused of cracking.

Early in the present century, while ignorance and her daughter superstition yet reigned over many in our German settlements, a certain German family in Pennsylvania was wofully plagued by some unaccountable doings, which, to their minds, bore infallible evidence that the evil spirit was yet a frequenter of the earth, and as ill-natured as ever.

You can read the balance (which is rather lengthy) of the article, here.

Certainly, it seems that at the ripe old age of 50, Ruffner had cast aside the nonsense of superstition… but, some sixteen years later, it may have bubbled up within him, once again. I’ll share that piece of Ruffner’s story tomorrow.

*Ruffner was born in what is now Page County, Virginia (near Willow Grove Mill), in 1790. A son of Col. David Ruffner, a young Henry later accompanied his family in their move to the Kanawha Valley. Educated in the Lewisburg Academy, and later at Washington College (what is now Washington & Lee University), Ruffner graduated in 1813. In 1819, he returned to Washington College as a professor, and later (1837-1848), served as the college’s president. Therefore, it was during this term that he wrote “Literary Recreations”.