May 13, 2018

The Devil and Elizabeth Knapp: Demonic Possession in Groton

"She is a monument of divine severity; and the Lord grant that all that see or hear, may fear and tremble. Amen." (Reverend Samuel Willard, from a 1672 letter titled A Brief Accout of a Strange and Unusual Providence of God Befallen to Elizabeth Knapp of Groton.)

 In October of 1671, a teenage girl named Elizabeth Knapp began to show symptoms of a strange disorder. At first they were minor. Knapp would emit sudden shrieks with no apparent cause, and shrug when anyone asked her about them. At other times she would laugh uncontrollably as if at a private joke, sometimes to the point of falling to the ground in hysterics. She didn't tell anyone what she laughed at.

Her behavior got even stranger as the month continued. On October 30 Knapp was siting by the fireplace when she began to scream that she was being tormented:

In the evening, a little before she went to bed, sitting by the fire, she cried out, oh my legs! and clapped her hands on them, immediately, oh, my breast! and removed her hand thither: and forthwith, oh I am strangled, and put her hands on her throat; those that observed her could see what to make of it; whether she was earnest or dissembled...

Knapp was a maidservant in the home of Groton's minister Samuel Willard, and he scrupulously documented her situation in a long letter sent to Reverend Cotton Mather in Boston. Willard wrote that on the night of October 31 Knapp went into the cellar to fetch something. She screamed and ran back up, claiming she had seen two people down in the cellar. Other members of the household searched but saw nothing and wondered if Knapp had merely played a prank on them.

On November 2nd, Knapp delivered a shocking confession to Reverend Willard and other assembled neighbors: she was being tormented by Satan. Knapp claimed that over the last three years the Devil had frequently visited her, urging her to sign a covenant with him. The Devil promised to give her money, silk clothes, and release from the hard work she had to perform. In return for these things, the Devil simply asked her to sign her name (in blood) in a book. Oh, and also to murder her parents, her neighbors, and Reverend Willard's children. The Devil had even suggested she toss the Willards' youngest child into the oven and kill the reverend with a hook while he slept. Knapp denied signing the Devil's book, but did confess that she had often delayed leaving the Willard household until after sunset so the Devil could walk with her in the dark. She was drawn to the Devil even though she knew it was wrong.

Willard and other local ministers received her confession with concern but also some skepticism. Was her story true?

Her symptoms increased in the early days of November. A physician was called in, "who judged a main part of her distemper to be natural, arising from the foulness of her stomach and corruptness of her blood, occasioning fumes in her brain, and strange fantasies." You have to love that seventeenth century medicine! Knapp was briefly relieved from her duties at Reverend Willard's home and sent to rest at her parents' house.

Her fits lessened and she returned to the Willards, but as the month went on and the days grew darker her symptoms became worse. At times her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth, at other times she barked like a dog or bleated like a calf. She ran around the house yelling and skipping and no one was able to restrain her. Reverend Willard wrote that the physician changed his diagnosis and "consented that the distemper was diabolical, refused further to administer, and advised to extraordinary fasting." Multiple ministers were called in to pray for her. Knapp still claimed she had not signed the Devil's book, but did say she had been sorely tempted to but was foiled because she couldn't find a knife to cut her finger.

On December 2, Knapp became highly agitated and said she saw a dog with a woman's head outside the house. It was a witch and was trying to get in. The Willards did not see the creature, but did see a strange canine paw-print in their fireplace. Knapp claimed that if the witch were apprehended her fits would stop. She identified the witch as a local woman, but after investigating the authorities dismissed her claim.

On December 8, Knapp finally confessed to what the Reverend Willard had secretly suspected: she had signed her name in the Devil's book. She said that one day shortly after coming to work for the Willards she had looked out the window and seen the Devil in the shape of an old man walking across  a meadow towards her. He carried a large book in his hands. She heard his terms and then...
...with a knife cut her finger, he caught the blood in his hand, and then told her she must write her name in his book, she answered that she could not write, but he told her that he would direct her hand, and then took a little sharpened stick and dipped in the blood and put it into her hand, and guided it, and she wrote her name with his help.
She agreed to serve the Devil for seven years, but balked at working witchcraft for him. This was why the Devil tormented her so violently with fits.

On December 17th the Devil took complete control of her body. He began to speak through her, insulting her family and the ministers who gathered around her. He insulted God and threatened violence agains the people who were praying over Knapp. Willard believed that it was truly the Devil speaking through her, claiming that Knapp's mouth and lips were immobilized even though words came out.

During January Knapp was silent for long periods of time, although she now claimed that her confession of signing the Devil's book was false and that she had never been tempted to murder the Willard family. She said that although the Devil controlled her body she prayed that he would not take her soul.

And then...

Willard's letter ends there, at mid-January, 1672. He closes his letter with some arguments why, despite the claims of skeptics, he thinks Knapp's possession was authentic. His key arguments are that he thought the strength she displayed during her fits was beyond what was natural, and that her mouth did not move when the Devil spoke. She also used words and phrases while possessed that she had never used before.

Still, Willard writes that he found her multiple contradictory stories about signing the Devil's book puzzling, and admits that other explanations for her behavior may be possible.

Although this information is not included in his letter, it seems that Knapp was eventually cured of her demonic possession (whatever it may have been). Historian David Hall notes that Knapp married in 1674 and had at least six children. Let's hope she wasn't tempted to throw any of them in the oven.

It's interesting that Knapp's symptoms appeared in the dark months of the year. In England, the months of October through mid-January would have been celebrated with harvest festivals, dances and the lavish feasting and misrule of Christmas. Those holidays were suppressed in Puritan New England but it seems like the Devil still wanted to have a little fun.

It's also fascinating to compare this case with the Salem witch trials. Groton's leaders dismissed Elizabeth Knapp's claim that another member of the community had bewitched her. The town might have had a full-blown witch hunt, like Salem, if they hadn't.

Samuel Willard's letter is a fascinating document. I found a copy of it in David Hall's fantastic book Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England. The letter is about fifteen pages long and really goes into detail about the case and what Willard and others thought of it. It's a window into the lives and minds of people who lived here over three centuries ago.


Sue Bursztynski said...

What a fascinating story! Yes, I was thinking the same, that it was good that this didn’t lead to a literal witch hunt. At least nobody was hurt.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comment, Sue. Wiser heads prevailed in this case. Perhaps it was just adolescent rebellion? It must have been hard to be a teenage serving girl in rural 17th century Massachusetts.

Meredith Allard said...

I agree with Sue that this was a fascinating story. It's too bad that wiser heads did not prevail in Salem in 1692. And thanks for the tip about the book! I will definitely look into that.