Elizabeth Knapp

Back in 1671, the Reverend Mr. Samuel Willard was instrumental in preventing prosecution on the charge of spectral evidence when sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Knapp of his parish in Groton, Massachusetts became "bewitched" and accused not only a "very sincere and holy woman" but reviled her own pastor, Mr. Willard.

The victim of this "possession" was Elizabeth Knapp, the daughter of James and Elizabeth (Warren) Knapp, born at Watertown, MA on April 21, 1655. She was the granddaughter of two prominent men and original proprietors of Watertown, William Knopp/Knapp and John Warren, both emigrant ancestors of their respective families.

Elizabeth Knapp was a servant in the Willard household when she first exhibited signs of possession. In his detailed account of the episode, Willard described his amazement when Knapp suddenly began to behave in "a strange and unwonted manner," giving abrupt shrieks and then bursting into extravagant laughter when asked what was wrong. As her symptoms intensified (she fell into violent fits, complained of being strangled, and attempted to throw herself into the fire), Willard wondered whether she was in genuine distress or merely dissembling.

According to Willard, in one of her early fits, "in which she was violent in bodily motions...in roarings and screamings, representing a dark resemblance of hellish torments," she frequently cried out, "money, money," sometimes "sin and misery" along with other, unrecorded words.

Cotton Mather, the recipient of Willard's detailed account of the case, reported that, "...Her tongue would be for many hours together drawn like a semi-circle up to the roof of her mouth, so that no fingers applied to 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...Her tongue being drawn out of her mouth to an extraordinary length, a daemon began manifestly to speak to her; for many words were distinctly uttered, wherein are the labial letters, without any motion of her lips at all; words also were uttered from her throat, sometimes when her mouth was wholly shut, and sometimes when her mouth was wide open, but no organs of speech were used therein. The chief things that the daemon spoke were horrid railings against the godly minister of the town; but sometimes, likewise, she belched out most nefandous [sic] blasphemies against the God of heaven."

Within three weeks of the initial signs of distress, Elizabeth Knapp indicated that the Devil had appeared to her and that either a particular woman in the neighborhood or "the Devil in her likeness and habit" had caused her first fit a few days before. Owing to the fact the Willard did not believe the accused woman was a witch, she never came to examination before the magistrates; instead he had brought her to the Elizabeth Knapp herself, and allowed her to reason and pray with her accuser. Under these circumstances the latter began to contradict herself, and finally, coming out of her possession, withdrew her accusations. It is unfortunate that the good people of Salem Village and their minister were unaware of, or did not take notice of this incident which preceeded their own involvement with witchcraft. Many lives would've been spared had they focused on dealing with the "possessed" rather than the accused in Salem.

Knapp shortly "confessed that she believed Satan had deluded her" and never again complained about the woman. When Knapp accused another woman, Willard was similarly wary—even though by the second week of Knapp's possession he felt sure that Satan was responsible for her condition. Elizabeth was forced to work out her conflicts with the Devil himself.

Under pressure to reveal the "true and real occasion" of her fits, she declared that the Devil had appeared to her many times over the previous three years, that he offered to make her a witch, and that he proffered to her "money, silks, fine clothes, ease from labor, to show her the whole world, etc." She admitted that the Devil came because of her discontent, and that he came more frequently once she started to work as a servant in the Willard household—a household much more prosperous than her own. She further confessed that she was tempted to murder her own parents, her neighbors, the Willard children, "especially the youngest," and herself.

She vehemently denied, at least at first, having signed a covenant with Satan. As the weeks went by, Knapp's fits became more intense and her sense of what was happening more confused. She alternated between violent convulsive states and trance-like stupors, between denying that she had given in to the Devil's temptations to become a witch and admitting that she had. She believed at times that her great discontent made her a witch: "It is too late for me," she murmured plaintively at one point; at another, with little effort, she revealed that the Devil told her what she had long feared, that "she had done it already…" that "she was his sure enough." Other times, she struggled against this particular Puritan truth: she condemned herself as a sinner, admitted that she was tempted to sign the Devil's book, but "utterly disclaimed" having done so.

In the second month of her possession, she called Willard to her. In tears, she admitted "that she had belied the Devil in saying she had given him of her blood, etc. [and] professed that most of the apparitions she had spoken of [during this confession] were but fancies, as images represented in a dream, [and] earnestly entreated [Willard] to believe her." He did not believe her. When he pushed her again to tell the truth, she returned, in greater detail, to the next closest thing to the trust that she knew—her original story: "She declared that the Devil had sometimes appeared to her; that the occasion of it was her discontent; that her condition displeased her, her labor was burdensome to her, [and] she was neither content to be at home nor abroad; and [that she] had oftentimes strong persuasions to practice in witchcraft, had often wished the Devil would come to her at such and such times, and [had] resolved that if he would she would give herself up to him soul and body. But though he had oft times appeared to her, yet at such times he had not discovered himself, and therefore she had been preserved from such a thing."

But for Knapp to say that she was simply possessed was not enough for Willard, who, as her minister was expected to do more—chiefly, to get her to rest contented with the condition that so displeased her. His response to her at this time was equivocal: he told her "that she had used preposterous course, and therefore it was no marvel that she had been led into such contradictions," but he "tendered her all the help [he] could, if she would make use of [him] and more privately relate any weighty and serious case of conscience to [him]." This response precipitated a crisis. At first she just told him that she knew nothing more than she had related to him, but afterwards her fits became more extreme and her emotions more volatile. She tried to kill herself and began to lash out at others, "striking" those who tried to hold her, "spitting in their faces," and then laughing.

A few days later, Willard said, the Devil in Elizabeth Knapp took over completely. The Devil made his presence known, Willard continued, "by drawing her tongue out of her mouth most frightfully to an extraordinary length and greatness, and [making] many amazing postures of her body." He then began to speak "vocally in her," railing at her father and another person, "calling them rogues, charging them for folly in going to hear a black rogue who told them nothing but a parcel of lies and deceived them, and many like expressions." Once Willard himself entered the scene, Satan turned his rage on him directly, calling him "a great rogue," then "a great black rogue," and telling Willard that he told the people "a company of lies." Amazed and apparently visibly shaken, Willard fought back, challenging the Devil to prove his charges and calling him "a liar and a deceiver." Then the Devil denied he was Satan, saying he was "a pretty black boy" and Knapp his "pretty girl", adding that he had no love for Willard. When Willard retorted that he, "through God's grace," hated him as well, the Devil answered with "you had better love me." Once other people in the room also began to converse with the Devil, Willard tried to put a stop to the discourse and pray, but the Devil afterwards resumed his heckling of his godly adversary, even claiming that he "was stronger than God."

Two days later, Knapp confessed that the Devil "entered into her the second night after her first taking, that when she was going to bed he entered in [as she conceived] at her mouth, and had been in her ever since." She also said that "if there were ever a devil in the world there was one in her." After the aid of an "assembly of ministers" was precluded by inclement weather, the Devil continued occasionally to speak within her, but within a few weeks he was "physically" gone—apparently for good. She continued "for the most part speechless," feeling "as if a string was tied about the roots of her tongue and reached down into her vitals and pulled her tongue down—and then most when she strove to speak." Her fits became less intense, although she was observed "always to fall into fits when any strangers go to visit her—and the more go, the more violent are her fits."

By the beginning of the third month of her possession, Knapp had again disowned having signed the covenant, had denied knowing whether or how the Devil entered her, and had reaffirmed that the cause of her fits was her discontent and that she was still tempted to murder. When Willard brought his lengthy account to a close, she was still possessed. She acknowledged that the Devil yet had "power of her body" but expressed a fervent hope that "he should not of her soul."

In his final remarks, Willard cast Knapp's behavior in terms of the Puritan view of possession. Although reluctant to pass authoritative judgment on what he had witnessed for the preceding two and a half months, he clearly believed that Knapp's "distemper" was both real and diabolical and that the Devil was actually present within her. To support his belief, he pointed out that the enormous strength of Knapp's fits was "beyond the force of dissiumulation": that the healthiness of her body when she was not having convulsions argued against any "natural" explanation; and that when "the voice spoke" within her, her mouth and vocal chords did not move and her throat was swelled to the size of a fist. As further evidence that Satan spoke through her, he told his readers that Knapp had never expressed such hostility to him. On the contrary, both before and after "being thus taken" she had always been "observed to speak respectfully concerning [him]." He also noted that the words uttered to him were aspersions Knapp said the Devil had suggested to her during his temptation of her, and that Knapp "had freely acknowledged that the Devil was wont to appear to her in the house of God, and divert her mind, and charge her [that] she should not give ear to what that black-coated rogue spoke."

Willard and other Puritans knew this to be typical of Satan's behavior. Because Knapp was still ostensibly possessed, Willard could not finally say whether or not she had become a witch. Either way, like Knapp, he had not given up completely. "Charity would hope the best," he said, "love would fear the worst, but thus much is clear: she is an object of pity, and I desire that all that hear of her would compassionate her forlorn state. She is (I question not) a subject of hope, and therefore all means ought to be used for her recovery." Witch or not, however, Knapp was not simply an innocent victim. Her dissatisfaction had brought the Devil to her, and that moral ultimately had to be communicated. "She is a monument of divine severity," Willard concluded, "and the Lord grant that all that see or hear may fear and tremble."

From the Puritan perspective, Elizabeth Knapp's possession was the result of her ambivalence about the kind of woman she wanted to be. Had she been willing to rest satisfied with her lack of financial resources, with her work as a servant, and with her limited horizons, she would not have become possessed. The sin that brought the Devil to her was discontent with her condition, with her place in the divinely planned social order. It was the same sin that defined other, older women as witches and therefore, not surprisingly, the one that led Knapp at times to see herself as a witch. But for Puritans, possession was not itself witchcraft, only the potential for witchcraft. Ministers could prevent the onset of witchcraft by helping the possessed adjust to their place in society. In Knapp's case the Devil was able to take advantage of her discontent by attracting her with the things she most desired and leading her to commit (or to the brink of committing) other sins identified with witches, but he was not able to win her completely.

None of the other descriptions of New England possession are as revealing as Willard's account of the Elizabeth Knapp struggle, but they do disclose the parallels between Knapp's experience and the possession of other young women. Other possessed females and their ministers obviously shared with Knapp and Willard the belief that witches and the Devil focused their appeals on women's discontents and that in their fits the possessed were tempted to become witches. Yet Knapp was exceptional in acknowledging her discontents openly. Only occasionally did possessed females reveal the specific temptations laid before them. Most often, they portrayed themselves simply as hapless victims, referring vaguely to how they were tempted with "fine things," "comforts," or "the world." In other ways, however, either the possessed themselves or other colonists alluded to female dissatisfations.

When not possessed Knapp was in every way respectful of the man who was both her minister and master. When the demons were in her, however, she expressed an intense hostility toward him. She railed at him and called him a liar. She castigated her father and others for listening to him. She challenged his authority in the community and his power over her Among those she wanted to kill were Willard and his children. Elizabeth Knapp was a young woman who had accepted the Puritan explanation for her troubles, who deeply appreciated Willard's concern for her plight and his dedication to freeing her from the demons that held her in their power. But she had cause to resent him. He was a young, well-off, Harvard-educated minister whose life was full of promise; she was a young woman with little schooling and little prospect of anything but service to others, whether as a servant, daughter, or wife. He spent most of his time reading, writing, and traveling; she had never been taught to write, seldom left Groton, and spent her time sweeping his house, caring for his children, carrying in his wood, keeping his fires burning—all so he could continue to work in peace and comfort. These were the surface resentments and Knapp found ways to talk about these openly, even as she agreed that they were signs of her deplorable sinfulness.

But the intensity of her fits and the violence of her response to Willard spoke of a deeper resentment that was so fundamentally a part of her being that she could not acknowledge it, even to herself. Only when taken over by the Prince of Evil could she express the full force of her feelings—her desire for the independence and power embodied in the symbol of the witch and her rage at the man who taught her that independence and power with the ultimate female evils. When possessed, she could assert the witch within, she could rebel against the many restrictions placed upon her, she could dismiss the kind man in the black robe who himself symbolized her longed-for independence and power and tell him what a rogue she thought he was. For the moment, she could be as powerful as he. Other possessed females indicated a similar ambivalence toward both their ministers and their faith and struggled as vigorously to assert what their culture deemed unacceptable in women.

Despite Willard's fears, Knapp never became a witch; she married Samuel Scripture and lived out her life as befitted a good Puritan wife and mother. So successfully did she obliterate her discontent and internalize her culture's model of virtuous womanhood that she almost completely disappears from the public records after 1673.


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See lineage of Knapp Family

Read the Biography of Elizabeth's grandfather, Thomas Knapp

Read the Biography of Elizabeth's father, William Knapp

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