I first learned the story of Elizabeth Knapp in 1982, when I read Entertaining Satan: Witchcraft and the Culture of Early New England by John Demos. Demos is a master storyteller, and much of the narrative as well the psychological insights are borrowed from his chapter on Elizabeth Knapp. With the exception of some irresistible passages lifted from William Bradford and Nathaniel Hawthorne in the first paragraph, all the quotations are taken from Samuel Willard’s “A Brief Account of the Strange and Unusual Providence of God Befallen to Elizabeth Knapp of Groton,” in John Demos, ed., Remarkable Providences, 1600–1760 (1972).
In 1671, Groton was an obscure frontier settlement on the far edge of Western civilization. To the west of the Nashua River, all was a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men,” “dangerous to travel to known places,” much less to venture into the unknown.
The paths and tracks of this sparsely populated town must have seemed exactly like those described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his short story “Young Goodman Brown”: “A dreary road darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as it could be; and there is this peculiarity in such solitude that the traveler knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and thick boughs overhead; so, that with lonely footsteps he may be passing through an unseen multitude.”
“[I] inquired how she did, and she always answered well – which made me wonder.”
Soon, however, all New England would know about Groton, because of the strange case of Elizabeth Knapp. In the autumn of 1671, Elizabeth Knapp, a sixteen-year-old servant girl, began, in the words of her employer, Samuel Willard, the village minister, “to carry herself in a strange and unwonted manner. Sometimes she would give sudden shrieks, and if we inquired the reason, put it off with some excuse; and then she would burst into immoderate and extravagant laughter, sometimes even falling to the ground. I myself observed oftentimes a strange change in her countenance … and conceived she might be ill, and therefore diverse times inquired how she did, and she always answered well – which made me wonder.”
On the evening of October 30, as the Willard family was sitting in front of the fire, Elizabeth suddenly screamed, “’Oh, my legs!’ and clapped her hands on them. Immediately afterwards, she cried out, ’Oh, my breast!’ And removed her hands thither. And forthwith, ‘Oh, I am strangled!’ And put her hands on her throat. Those that observed her could not see what to make of it, whether she was in earnest or dissembled.
“The next day she was in a strange frame of mind, sometimes weeping, sometimes laughing, and making many foolish and apish gestures. In the evening going into the cellar, she shrieked suddenly; whereupon some went down to search but found no one. Later the same evening, the rest of the family being in bed, she was suddenly thrown down into the midst of the floor with violence, and taken with a violent fit, whereupon the whole family was raised; and with much ado she was kept out of the fire from destroying herself.”
“[The] devil presented her with things to tempt her and threatened her with sin and misery to terrify her.”
Through the following week until the Sabbath Day, she was “violent in bodily motions, leapings, strainings, and strange agitations, scarce to be held in bounds by the strength of three or four men – violent also in roarings and screamings, representing a dark resemblance of hellish torments, and frequently using in these fits diverse words, sometimes crying out, ‘Money! Money!’ and sometimes ‘sin and misery.’” When Willard asked her why she used those words, she replied “the devil presented her with things to tempt her and threatened her with sin and misery to terrify her.”
On Wednesday, November 1, she began to accuse one of Willard’s neighbors, a person whom Willard believed sincerely to be “upright before God,” saying that the woman or the devil in her likeness had come down the chimney and stricken her on that night she first became violently ill. When the accused woman was brought to Willard’s house, Elizabeth started violently, even though her eyes were closed, as they often were in the midst of her fits. Elizabeth seemed to know the woman’s touch even though no words were uttered. After prayers that evening, however, Elizabeth withdrew her accusation, saying she believed Satan deluded her.
Throughout November and December, 1671, Elizabeth’s fits continued intermittently, followed by intervals of depression and self-reproach. At one point, a physician was sent for; he proclaimed that “her distemper was for the main part natural, arising from the foulness of her stomach and the corruptness of her blood,” and he prescribed the usual purges and blood-letting. At first, these treatments seem to have a salutary effect, but when the fits recurred more violently than ever, one lasting for almost forty-eight hours straight, the physician withdrew his diagnosis and pronounced it a case of “diabolical possession.”
When Elizabeth told him she did not know how to write, he told her he would guide her hand.
Willard began to question Elizabeth closely, asking her whether she herself had come to some agreement with the devil. At first, she denied having made such an agreement with him, but later she admitted that “she had some thoughts so to do.” After a particularly violent fit, Elizabeth confessed to some neighbors who were sitting with her that “she had given her blood to the devil and made a covenant with him.” But when Willard himself appeared to question her about the statement, he extracted the following confession only with great reluctance:
One day soon after she began working for Willard, she was sitting in a downstairs room, when she looked out the window and saw the devil in the shape of an old man coming across a great meadow near the house. The devil demanded some of her blood and cut her finger with a knife. Catching the blood in his hand, he told her she must write his name in her book. When Elizabeth told him she did not know how to write, he told her he would guide her hand. Then he took a little sharpened stick, dipped it in her blood, and she wrote her name with the devil’s help. She said she had contracted herself with the devil for a term of seven years – one year she would work for him, and the other six he would serve her and make her a witch.
Two days later Elizabeth tried to recant her confession, but Willard refused to allow it, saying he suspected the confession was indeed true. The fits soon returned, more violent than ever, and on the following Sunday when Willard was away at the meetinghouse conducting weekly services, “the devil began to make a fuller discovery of himself. He began, as those persons who were with her testified, by drawing her tongue out of her mouth to an extraordinary length and making many amazing postures of her body. Then, the devil continued by speaking through her voice. Her father and another neighbor were called from the meeting, and when they came in, the devil railed at them, calling them rogues and charging them with folly for going to hear a rogue [Willard] who told them nothing but a parcel of lies.”
When Willard returned home unaware of what had transpired, he was greeted by what he described as a “grum, low, yet audible voice” calling him “a great rogue.” Willard was stupefied at first. Then he called for a light that he might see whether or not some fraud was being perpetrated, but he could not observe any part of her mouth moving, though her throat was swollen as if she had a fist inside.
“I am not Satan, I am a pretty boy and this is my pretty girl. I have been here a great while. But you are a rogue and I do not love you!”
“You tell the people a company of lies!” the devil challenged Willard. The minister replied, “Satan, thou are a liar and a deceiver, and God will vindicate his own truth one day.” “I am not Satan,” replied the voice, “I am a pretty boy and this is my pretty girl. I have been here a great while. But you are a rogue and I do not love you!” “Through God’s grace I hate thee,” the minister spat out. At this point, the other spectators could not refrain from entering into a debate with Satan, even though the minister ordered them not to.
Willard urged the people there to join in prayer. As they knelt down, the voice louder than before cried out, “Hold your tongue! What are you going to do?” Through God’s goodness, Willard wrote, Satan was silenced and Elizabeth lay quiet throughout the prayers. But when the prayers were finished, the voice sprung up again. One of the people told Satan that God had him in chains; Satan replied, “For all my chains, I can knock thee on the head when I please.” But another villager answered, “God is stronger than thou.” “That’s a lie, I am stronger than God,” the voice rejoined. This blasphemy so horrified Willard that he commanded silence and ordered everyone from the room.
Two days later, Elizabeth offered another confession and asked to be taken to Boston, saying she would never be well until a whole company of ministers had met and prayed with her. From mid-December to mid-January, Elizabeth remained for the most part speechless, breaking into fits only when strangers appeared. She was now notorious, and many people came from miles around to see her.
“God hath in his wisdom singled out this poor town of all others in this wilderness, to dispense such an amazing providence in.”
As a good Puritan, Samuel Willard regarded these extraordinary events as a message from God. “Let us consider the awfulness of the judgment itself,” he said in a sermon to the people of Groton. “This is none of those ordinary dispensations of God’s providence which are frequent and usual in the world. It is no common sickness and calamity, but it is extraordinary and stupendous. God leaves the common track, and comes in so unwonted a way of judgment. This is a voice to the whole land, but in a more special way to poor Groton. God hath in his wisdom singled out this poor town of all others in this wilderness, to dispense such an amazing providence in. Let us look upon ourselves to be set up as a beacon on a hill.”
We do not know how the story ended, but we do know that Elizabeth married a man named Samuel Scripture three years later, that they lived together twenty-five years, and Elizabeth bore at least six children. Her life after 1672 was unremarkable. She returned to the ranks of ordinary folk in a small rural community.
What are we in the late twentieth century to make of the strange case of Elizabeth Knapp? It would be a mistake, I think, to dismiss it all as an elaborate fraud. Willard himself, no fool, carefully considered that possibility and rejected it, citing “the great strength in her fits as beyond the power of simulation.” Epileptic fits or convulsions perhaps, but Elizabeth’s fits were significantly different from any others the physician had previously observed.
Her behavior should also say something to us about the powerlessness of young women in the world of the seventeenth century and her dependence on her learned young master.
The townspeople concluded that the root of Elizabeth’s distemper was deep inside herself, and so, I think, should we. She was truly ill – by our standards, if not by theirs. The literature of clinical psychiatry is full of symptoms analogous to Elizabeth’s. Her behavior should also say something to us about the powerlessness of young women in the world of the seventeenth century and her dependence on her learned young master. She needed his attention to feel valued and important.
It is notable, I think, that some of the severest fits occur in his absence, and that most remarkable episode of all – when the devil’s voice speaks through her – happened after Willard had appeared to turn away from her and refused to allow her to retract her confession. A psychiatrist might describe her behavior as “narcissistic rage.” For most of her life, Elizabeth was nobody special, but for a few short months, she held the attention of everyone who was important and powerful in her community, and the little town of Groton was “a beacon set upon a hill.”
Adapted from “The Strange and Unusual Providence of God Befallen Unto Elizabeth Knapp of Groton,” in John W. Tyler, From Chairman Mao to Julia Ward Howe: 36 Years of Chapel Talks at Groton School (2017).