October 31, 2021

The Devil and Elizabeth Knapp: Demonic Possession and Witchcraft in 1671

Have you ever been to Groton, Massachusetts? It's a really beautiful old town, with historic houses, quaint churches, and some bucolic farmland. And one October night 350 years ago, teenager Elizabeth Knapp met the Devil in Groton. 

Knapp worked as a servant girl for Reverend Samuel Willard. In October 1671, Reverend Willard noticed that Knapp was acting strangely. Sometimes she would shriek loudly for no apparent reason. Sometimes she would laugh hysterically at nothing. When asked why, she just shrugged and continued with her chores. 

Her behavior became stranger as the month wore on. On October 30, Knapp acted as if she were being attacked by an invisible assailant. The following night, October 31, she fearfully told the household that she had seen two strange people lurking in the cellar. Reverend Willard and others searched, but found no intruders. Willard wondered if perhaps she was pulling a prank on him.

Eugene Delacroix, “Mephistopheles Flying over the City” (1828)

It was no prank, however. On November 2, Elizabeth Knapp told the reverend that the Devil had approached her repeatedly, asking her to sign her name in his book with her blood. He said he'd give her fine silk clothes, money, and a life of idleness if she did. In return, all she had to do was kill her parents, her neighbors, and Reverend Willard’s family. The Devil was quite specific in his instructions regarding Willard's family. Knapp was to throw his youngest child into the fire and kill Reverend Willard with a hook as he slept. 


If I were Reverend Willard, I would have removed Knapp from my house ASAP and had her locked up. But Willard was a kinder, braver, and more tolerant person. He was concerned for Elizabeth Knapp's soul and thought there was still hope. After all, Knapp told him she had not yet signed the Devil’s book. She just liked to walk with the Devil at night and listen to his sweet promises. And perhaps she was not really even talking with Satan - a local physician said her behavior was the result of a sour stomach and corrupted blood. 

The physician prescribed lots of bed rest, and at first Knapp's symptoms improved, but then they worsened as November progressed. She barked like a dog, bleated like a calf, and skipped around uncontrollably. Knapp also said she still had not yet signed the Devil’s book, but only because she couldn’t find a knife to draw her blood with. Upon hearing this the physician changed his diagnosis to diabolical possession. 

On December 2, Knapp screamed out in terror. She had seen a dog with a human head entering the house. Other members of the household saw a large, doglike footprint in the fireplace's ashes. Knapp also claimed that a local Groton woman was bewitching her, but Reverend Willard and others ignored this claim. The woman was not arrested or charged with witchcraft. 

By December 8, Elizabeth Knapp confessed that she had indeed signed the Devil’s book but refused to practice witchcraft or kill the reverend’s family. It was for these reasons the Devil tormented her. Several ministers were called in to pray over her, and as they did Knapp shouted obscenities in a voice that was not her own. Reverend Willard said the voice could be heard even though Knapp’s mouth did not move. He believed it was the Devil himself speaking through her. 

And then... it all stopped at some point in January of 1672. Most of what we know about Elizabeth Knapp's possession comes from a letter Samuel Willard wrote to Reverend Cotton Mather in Boston. Unfortunately, he didn't explain why the possession ended, just that it did. Happily, it didn't seem to have any long-term effects on Elizabeth Knapp. She later got married and had several children. She didn't throw them - or anyone else - into the fire. 

A portrait of Samuel Willard (1640 - 1707)

I have a few thoughts on this incident from Groton's past. First of all, it is spooky. Every time I read about the Devil telling her to kill Samuel Willard with a hook and throw his child into the fire I get creeped out. It's like something out of a very gory horror movie. 

The story is true, but was Elizabeth Knapp really possessed by the Devil? I suppose it's possible, if you believe in a literal Devil who possesses people, but it's important to also think about some of the sociological aspects of Puritan society. Most possession cases from 17th century Massachusetts involved young women or girls. Sadly, young women and girls were usually at the bottom of the Puritan social hierarchy because they were female and unmarried. They had little power or influence. 

Elizabeth Knapp said the Devil promised her wealth, nice clothes, and free time - all things she didn't have. He also told her to kill the people she spent her days working for. Maybe this wasn't demonic possession, but just Knapp expressing her repressed hopes and anger? If she said these things herself she would have been punished, but when she said the Devil was saying them she got the sympathy and support of her community. Maybe it was a way for her to vent her anger and frustration.

It's also interesting how her symptoms worsened as fall turned into winter. The Puritans didn't celebrate Halloween, but I was definitely struck by the October 31 date. Late fall and early winter was the time during the agricultural cycle when people had the most leisure time and the most fresh food. This is why so many major Western holidays (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas) happen during the period, and I also wonder if that's why Knapp experienced her possession then. She had more leisure time to express herself, and her community had more time to pay pay attention to her. I suppose it could also have been some time of seasonal affective disorder? Groton would have been very dark and very cold in 1671.

Lastly, I will point out there were many ways this situation could have been much worse. The people in Groton could have jailed or physically punished Elizabeth Knapp. They could have accused the local woman she named for witchcraft. But they didn't do any of those things. Instead, they took care of Knapp until her possession (whatever it was) ended. The Massachusetts Puritans have a bad reputation, which is perhaps justified, but in this case they responded calmly to a situation that must have been very unsettling. 

Samuel Willard may have remembered his experiences with Elizabeth Knapp when he opposed the Salem witch trials 20 years later, writing that it was hard to prove the existence of the Devil in a courtroom.


I write about Elizabeth Knapp and several other cases of alleged demonic possession in my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts. It's available wherever you buy books online. Happy Halloween!

October 17, 2021

Jack-O-Lanterns: Demons, Gemstones, and New England Origins

The jack-o-lantern is a ubiquitous symbol of Halloween. All across America, people carve faces into pumpkins, placing them on doorsteps and windowsills as part of the holiday celebrations. Despite New England's modern connection with Halloween because of Salem's annual October festivities, Halloween really only became popular in New England in the latter half of the 19th century as more Irish and Scottish immigrants arrived here. The English Puritans and their descendants did not celebrate before then. 

Still, despite this, the jack-o-lantern has deep roots in New England. It seems likely that people were carving jack-o-lanterns well before Halloween was even celebrated here, and that pumpkin carving became associated with the holiday only later. Read on if you dare...

Nathaniel Hawthorne: Giant Gems and Enchanted Scarecrows

Massachusetts author Nathaniel Hawthorne was apparently the first person to ever use the term "jack-o-lantern" in print. His 1835 story "The Great Carbuncle" is about a group of adventurers searching for a giant, glowing gemstone in the White Mountains. One of the adventurers tells his companions he will hide the gem inside his tattered cloak if he finds it.

‘Well said, Master Poet!’ cried he of the spectacles. ‘Hide it under thy cloak, sayest thou? Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack-o’-lantern!’

It's not entirely clear what Hawthorne means by jack-o-lantern here. It sounds like it could be our familiar carved pumpkin lit by a candle, but the term jack-o-lantern also was used to mean ignis fatus, the glowing swamp gas phenomena also called willow-the-wisp. Either usage makes sense in the story. Halloween is not mentioned at all in "The Great Carbuncle," which was published before the holiday was celebrated in New England.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

However, a carved pumpkin does appear in Hawthorne's 1851 story "Feathertop," when a New England witch named Mother Rigby uses one as a head for her scarecrow:

Thus we have made out the skeleton and entire corporosity of the scarecrow, with the exception of its head; and this was admirably supplied by a somewhat withered and shrivelled pumpkin, in which Mother Rigby cut two holes for the eyes and a slit for the mouth, leaving a bluish-colored knob in the middle to pass for a nose. It was really quite a respectable face.

Mother Rigby is so pleased with her handiwork that she brings the scarecrow to life, and since this is a Hawthorne story the scarecrow learns a lot about human morality. Hawthorne does not use the term jack-o-lantern in the story, though, and Halloween is not mentioned. 

John Greenleaf Whittier: Boyhood Memories?

The Massachusetts poet John Greenleaf Whittier mentions a carved pumpkin in his poem, "The Pumpkin," which was first published in 1846 (according to Cindy Ott's 2012 book The Pumpkin: The Curious History of An American Icon).

Oh, fruit loved of boyhood! the old days recalling, 
When wood-grapes were purpling and brown nuts were falling! 
When wild, ugly faces we carved in its skin, 
Glaring out through the dark with a candle within! 

Whittier was born in 1807. If he really carved faces into pumpkins when he was a boy, it would have been very early in the 19th century, long before Halloween was celebrated in New England. Whittier only refers to Thanksgiving in "The Pumpkin," but not Halloween, and he doesn't call the carved pumpkin a jack-o-lantern.
John Greenleaf Whittier

It's a little confusing, isn't it? The earliest instance historian Cindy Ott found where "jack-o-lantern" refers to a carved pumpkin comes from 1846. It appeared in a South Carolina publication called Tales for Youth, but again with no apparent connection to Halloween. It sounds as though people were carving pumpkins and using the term jack-o-lantern well before Halloween was celebrated, even if not always together.

A Demon and A Pumpkin in Rhode Island

Enough with the history, let's turn to the spooky stories. Many years ago, during the Revolutionary War, two young women named Hannah Maxson and Comfort Cottrell were staying at the Westerly, Rhode Island home of one Esquire Clark. One day while the Esquire was away on business, and his wife was sick in bed, the two young ladies decided to practice a little love magic. 

They took a ball of yarn, and tossed it repeatedly down a well and then pulled it back up. As they did, they chanted some psalms backwards. The goal of this magic spell? To find the men they would marry. 

As the sun set, Hannah and Comfort saw a tall figure walking up the road towards the house. They ran eagerly towards it, but their excitement turned to terror as they saw the figure had an enormous, misshapen head with two glowing, fiery eyes. This was no dream lover, but a demonic monster. 

Hannah and Comfort ran into the Clarkes' house and locked the door, but the hideous creature pounded on it insistently. The young women hid behind Mrs. Clarke's bed in fear, listening with the sick woman as the monster tried to break into the house. The supernatural assault only stopped when Esquire Clark returned home. Seeing a demonic creature clawing at his front door, he said some prayers against evil, which sent the monster slinking off into the woods.

This story first appeared in a November 1860 issue of The Narragansett Weekly, and the author, Deacon William Potter, notes that Mrs. Clarke died from all the excitement. Hannah and Comfort vowed never to use magic again. But Deacon Potter includes a strange epilogue. He claims that the demon was really a hoax played by a young many who lived near the Clarkes. He put a carved pumpkin on his head to scare Hannah and Comfort, not anticipating his joke's deadly results. The neighbor only revealed his role in the story seventy years later. 

It's a good spooky, cautionary tale. Young ladies - don't mess around with the occult. Young men - don't play stupid pranks that kill people. But despite the carved pumpkin, the story doesn't reference Halloween. And it's not called a jack-o-lantern.

The Sea Captain and Satan

Captain Snaggs was a wealthy sea captain who lived in Barnstable on Cape Cod. He had earned his riches the old-fashioned way: by selling his soul to the Devil. He had been young and foolhardy when he signed Satan's contract, but as an old man on his deathbed he was filled with regret. He could hear the Devil's hooves coming up the walkway towards his house, and Captain Snaggs didn't want to go to Hell. So he jumped out of bed, climbed out the window, and ran like... well, he ran like hell. 

He ran down the length of Cape Cod to Orleans, where he hid in a hollow tree. But the Devil was hot on his heels, and could smell Captain Snaggs's soul. So Captain Snaggs ran again, this time to Wellfleet, where he hid in a cemetery. 

The Devil was not far behind, so Captain Snaggs grabbed a pumpkin from a nearby pumpkin patch, carved a face in it, and set it up on a tall, white gravestone. Then he lit a candle inside of it and ran towards Truro.

When the Devil arrived in the cemetery he said to the pumpkin, "Your contract is up, Snaggs. I've come to take your soul." When the pumpkin didn't answer, the Devil poked the gravestone with one talon. "Do you hear me Snaggs? Ouch! You're awfully tough for an old man! Where'd you get those muscles?" He grabbed the gravestone and gave it a mighty shake. The pumpkin fell to the ground and shattered. Realizing he had been tricked, the Devil ran towards Truro with a demonic roar. 

Captain Snaggs, meanwhile, had run all the way to Provincetown. He had reached the end of the Cape. There was no place left to go. When the Devil finally caught up with him, sulfurous smoke billowing from his nose and ears, Captain Snaggs stood there in terror.

With a tremor in his voice, he said, "All right, I'm ready. You can take me to Hell now."

The Devil looked puzzled and said, "Take you to Hell? We're in Provincetown, aren't we? We're already there."

As Elizabeth Renard notes in her 1934 book The Narrow Land, there are many variations on this story. The comedic ending always remains the same, but the name of the captain, the Cape Cod towns he visits, and the number of pumpkins involved all vary. You can listen to an excellent audio version of this tale at New England Legends, where the sea captain is named Jedidy Cole. 

Renard also notes that this story is probably of late origin, so perhaps it was first told after Halloween became a popular holiday here. It's hard to say. Have a happy Halloween!


My new book, Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, was just released on Kindle recently. So now you can enjoy it either in paperback or on your device of choice. You can buy it wherever books are sold online

October 09, 2021

The Witches of Norton: Magic, Animals, and Poverty

Well, it's October now, the month which many people call "Spooky Season." Even thought it's always spooky season here at the New England Folklore blog, I do love this month and Halloween. It's the season for pumpkins, ghosts, and of course witches. 

New England is full of witch legends. Although the Salem trials are the most famous witchcraft incident in Massachusetts, lots of other cities and small towns held witch trials or have legends about witches. For example, Norton, a small town in the southeastern part of the state, was supposedly home to three witches in the 1700s. 

The most famous alleged witch in Norton was Ann Cobb. I am not sure exactly why Ann was suspected of witchcraft, except for the following. One day she went into town to purchase some items at the general store. She lived about two miles away from the town center, but arrived there only minutes after leaving her house. This was quite fast, so her neighbors suspected she had used supernatural means to travel so quickly. Perhaps she flew, or was transported by some sort of evil spirit? Historical sources don’t specify her neighbors' exact suspicions, but the event was so memorable the town named a bridge after her. (It still exists today, and bears the name Witch Bridge.) Apparently, it didn’t take much to be considered a witch in Norton. Ann Cobb was quite poor and was supported financially by the town in her old age. She died in 1798.

The Witches by Henry Fuseli

Dora Leonard was another Norton woman suspected of witchcraft. She supposedly caused various forms of mischief around town, like magically setting farm animals loose so they could wander free. Two boys also said she once caused them to miss a squirrel they were shooting at. Despite having a clear shot at a the animal, the boys missed it repeatedly. 

As they walked home, frustrated, they noticed a large cat watching them pass by. They believed the cat was really Dora and that she had used witchcraft to make them miss the squirrel. (It seems more likely they were just bad shots looking for someone to blame.) Much like Ann Cobb, Dora Leonard was poor and had to be supported by the town in her old age. As she lay dying in 1786, her house was supposedly filled with strange and terrible noises that frightened away the people attending to her death. Those details about her death are a standard trope in witch legends from New England. 

The third alleged witch in this small town was Naomi Burt. Local historian Duane Hurd wrote of her in 1859: “Naomi Burt was also accounted a member of the mysterious sisterhood of witches, and by her wonderful powers gave some trouble to those who fell under the ban of her displeasure.” Wagons lost their wheels when they passed her house, and oxen escaped their yokes. Children held their breath in fear as they ran past her home lest she bewitch them. Sadly, Naomi Burt took her own life on July 4, 1808, a harsh reminder that while these old tales of witchcraft are entertaining to read, it was hard to really be the person they were about. 

The Salem witch trials were the last trials of their kind in Massachusetts. They occurred in 1692, but people in New England continued to think their neighbors were witches for hundreds of years after that. They didn't bring them to court anymore, but instead whispered, gossiped about, and sometimes physically threatened anyone they thought was a witch. Often those suspected were poor women who depended on their neighbors' charity for survival. That's clearly the case with the Norton witches. Resentment at having to support someone easily curdled into hatred and accusations of witchcraft. 

In many cases, suspected witches were accused of making animals misbehave or preventing hunters from shooting their prey. Maybe this is because the witches were associated with the natural world more than the human world, as evidenced also by their ability to transform into animals. Perhaps they are protecting the animals from harm or mistreatment. "Free the oxen!" It's the more modern, romantic interpretation. 

James Audubon, The Dusky Squirrel

On the other hand, people in the 18th century would have had a very different opinion. A farmer depended on his oxen the way a modern person depends on their car, and a family needed their livestock for food. Any disruption threatened someone's ability to survive. And even though I love squirrels, those two boys probably would have eaten that squirrel for dinner if they killed it. Maybe they went to bed hungry that night.

Just to be clear, I am not saying these women were witches. They weren't. They were social outcasts accused of witchcraft. People just projected their fear onto them. Fear of hunger, of poverty, of illness, and of death. These are real fears we all have, but hopefully we don't project them onto our neighbors. So what's spookier: legendary witches, or real people who actually accused their neighbors of being witches? I think it's the latter.

If you want to read more witch stories for Spooky Season, and I know you do, I'll recommend my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, which was just published by Globe Pequot last month. It contains dozens of legends and historical accounts of witches from across this glorious state. It's available wherever you buy books online, and hopefully in your local bookstore as well.