The Demonic Possession of Elizabeth Knapp

Whoso is wise—will observe these things.

—Psalm 107 (Mather’s own epigraph to Book VI of the Magnalia)

Elizabeth Knapp (1655–1720) of Groton, Massachusetts, was the daughter of James Knapp (or Knopp) (1626–abt1699) and Elizabeth (Warren) Knapp (1629– ), both of them immigrants to New England who settled first at Watertown, and then later removed to the new town of Groton. Elizabeth is my seventh-great grandmother. The following account of Elizabeth’s unfortunate possession by a demon in 1671 when she was sixteen years old is quoted in full from Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana, Book VI, Chap. VII, pp. 66–67 (London, 1701). In the transcription that follows, [square brackets] are original to Mather’s text while items in {braces} are my editorial insertions. Mather’s account is based on a report by the Rev. Samuel Willard, minister of Groton, in whose home Elizabeth was living as a servant during many of these incidents.

Mather’s account of Elizabeth Knapp’s possession is one of fourteen examples he gives of “Wonders of the invisible World” that have manifested themselves in New England. His general introduction to these examples is given here first, to provide context for the specific account of Elizabeth Knapp which follows.

CHAP. VII. Thaumatographia Pneumatica.
Relating the Wonders of the invisible World in Preternatural Occurrences.

Miranda cano, sed sunt credenda.—

WHEN Two Goats were offered unto the Lord (and only unto the Lord) on the Day of Expiation, among the Ancient Israelites, we read that one of them was to fall by Lot unto Azazel. Azazel cannot without some Hardship on the Sense, be taken for the Name of the Scape-Goat it self; But it is no other than the Name of the Devil himself, as might easily be proved from the Monuments of the greatest both Jewish and Christian Antiquities.

In the Signification of the Word Azazel there is indeed a notable Declaration of those Two Properties that have signaliz’d the Devil; his being first a powerful, and then an Apostate Spirit. [זַע] Fortus, & [לֵזָא] Abiens, Fugiens. The Scape-Goat, presented as a Sacrifice unto the Holy God, was order’d by him to be delivered up unto Azazel upon these two Intentions. One Design hereof might be to intimate unto the People what would be the miserable Condition of them, who did not by Faith in the Messiah get the Guilt of their Sins removed. They that have their Sins lying upon them, and are led forth with the Workers of Iniquity, must become prey to Azazel, even to Satan, unto whose Temptation they did in their Sinning yield Obedience. And indeed our Lord has expresly told us (perhaps not without some Allusion to this Levitical Goat) that he will send the Goats which have their Sins upon them, to be with the Devil and his Angels.

But another and a greater Design of it, might be to represent a main Article in the dreadful Sufferings which were to befal our Lord Messiah when he should come to suffer for our Sins. When our Lord Jesus Christ underwent his Humiliation for us, this point was very considerable in it; he was carried into the Wilderness, and there he was expos’d unto the Buffetings and Outrages of Azazel. The Assaults that Satan then and afterwards made on our Lord Jesus Christ, producing a most horrible Anguish in his Mind, made such a Figure in his Conflicts for us, that they were well worthy of a most particular Prefiguration. And one thing in the Prefiguration must be, That the Goat for Azazel must be sent into the Desart. In the days of Moses it seems Desarts were counted very much an Habitation of Devils: Yea, they really were what they were counted: And for that cause, the Names of Shedim and Zijim, were put upon them; and when the Scriptures foretel Desolations to such and such places, they still make the Devils to be their Inhabitants.

Who can tell whether the Envy of the Devils at the Favour of God unto Men, may not provoke them to affect Retirement from the sight of populous and prosperous Regions, except so far as they reckon their Work of Tempting Mankind necessary to be carry’d on? Or, perhaps, it is not every Countrey, before which the Devils prefer the Desarts. Regions in which the Devils are much serv’d by those Usages, either in Worship or Manners, which are pleasing to them, are by those doleful Creatures enough resorted unto: Yea, if Sin much abound any where, some Devils entreat that they may not be sent from thence into the Wilderness. But Regions, like the Land of Israel, where the true God is continually pray’d unto, and where the Word of God is continually sounding, are filled with such things as are very uneasie unto the Devils: The Devils often recede much from thence into the Wilderness, as the Devil of Mascon would say to Mr. Perreaud the Minister that liv’d in the haunted House, While you go to prayer, I’ll go take a turn in the Street.

Thus to omit what Alexander Hales reports of one retiring ad loca destituta omni Habitatore, where Spirits taught him the things which he wrote in his Book de Magicis; we know that in Lucian the famous Magician Mithrobarzanes, with his Companions betook themselves ἐστὶ χωρίον ἔρημον, ϗ̀ ὑλῶδες, καὶ ἀνήλιον, into a Desart, woody, shady Region for a Conversation with Spirits.

Whatever becomes of the Observation which we have hitherto been making, there has been too much cause to observe, that the Christians who were driven into the American Desart, which is now called New England, have to their sorrow seen Azazel dwelling and raging there in very Tragical Instances. The Devils have doubtless felt a more than ordinary Vexation from the Arrival of those Christians with their sacred Exercises of Christianity in this Wilderness: But the Sovereignty of Heaven has permitted them still to remain in the Wilderness, for our Vexation as well as their own.

Molestations from Evil Spirits, in more sensible and surprising Operations than those Finer Methods wherein they commonly work upon the Minds of all Men, but especially of Ill Men, have so abounded in this Countrey, that I question whether any one Town has been free from sad Examples of them. The Neighbours have not been careful enough to Record and Attest the prodigious Occurrences of this Importance, which have been among us. Many True and Strange Occurrences from the invisible World, in these parts of the World, are faultily buried in Oblivion. But some of those very stupendious Things, have had their Memory preserv’d in the written Memorials of Honest, Prudent, and {catchword: “Faith-”; page 67} Faithful Men; whose Veracity in the Relations cannot without great Injury be question’d.

Of these I will now offer the Publick some Remarkable Histories; for every one of which we have had such a sufficient Evidence, that no Reasonable Man in this whole Countrey ever did question them; and it will be unreasonable to do it in any other. For my own part, I would be as exceedingly afraid of writing a False Thing, as of doing an Ill Thing: But have my Pen always move in the Fear of God.

{Mather’s first example, the possession of Ann Cole of Hartford, is omitted here.}

The Second Example

In the Town of Groton, one Elizabeth Knap (October 1671,) was taken after a very strange manner; sometimes weeping, sometimes laughing, sometimes roaring, with violent Agitations, crying out Money! Money! Her Tongue would be for many Hours together drawn like a Semicircle, up to the Roof of her mouth; so that no Fingers apply’d unto it, could remove it. Six Men were scarce able to hold her in some of her Fits; but she would skip about the House yelling and howling, and looking hideously.

On Dec. 17. her Tongue being drawn out of her mouth to an extraordinary Length, a Dæmon began manifestly to speak in her; for many Words were distinctly utter’d, wherein are the Labial Letters, without any motion of her Lips at all: Words also were utter’d from her Throat sometimes when her mouth was wholly shut; and sometimes Words were utter’d when her mouth was wide open; but no Organs of Speech us’d therein. The chief things that the Dæmon spoke, were horrid Railings against the Godly Minister of the Town; but sometimes he likewise belch’d out most nefandous Blasphemies against the God of Heaven. And one thing about this young Woman was yet more particularly remarkable: She cry’d out in her Fits, that a certain Woman in the Neighbourhood appear’d unto her, and was the only Cause of her Affliction.

The Woman thus cry’d out upon, was doubtless an Holy, a Devout, a Vertuous Person; and she, by the advice of her Friends, visited the Afflicted. The possess’d Creature, tho’ she was in one of her Fits, and had her Eyes wholly shut, yet when this innocent Woman was coming, she discover’d her self wonderfully sensible of it, and was in grievous Agonies at her Approaches.

But this Innocent Woman thus accus’d and abus’d by a malicious Devil, pray’d earnestly with as well as for this possess’d Creature: Whereupon coming to her self, she confess’d, That she had been deluded by Satan, and compell’d by him unreasonably to think and speak Evil of a good Neighbour without a Cause. After this, there was no further Complaint of such an ones Apparition; but she said, some Devil in the Shape of divers, did very diversly and cruelly torment her, and then told her, it was not He but They, that were her Tormentors.

© RJO 1995–2022