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!

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