October Genealogy Blog Party – What’s the Scariest Thing I’ve Found in Genealogy Research?

I’ve been having great fun participating in Elizabeth O’Neal’s Genealogy Blog Party at Little Bytes of Life.

October’s theme – the scariest thing I’ve found in my genealogy research – turned out to be the hardest in terms of coming up with an idea.

I’ve nary an axe murderer, fire or flood to be found in the family trees. I have lost ancestors to epidemics, which had to be really scary in the times before antibiotics and vaccinations, and to Indian attacks in colonial America, which must have been just as scary to families living in frontier villages.

halloweenwitchpublicdomain
Source: ClipartPal, Public Domain

However, since this is October and Halloween is almost upon us, I am going to share the story of my ancestress, the witch. Elizabeth Knapp was not one of the Salem witches. Her case actually pre-dated the Salem witch trials by twenty years and she wasn’t actually accused of witchcraft. It was said she was possessed by the devil!

Elizabeth was born 21 February 1655 in Watertown, Suffolk, Massachusetts to James Knapp and Elizabeth Warren.

Her “case study,” if it can be called that using modern jargon, was written up by Rev. Cotton Mather in his Magnalia Christi Americana, Book VI, Chapter VII, pages 66-67, published in London in 1701. However, this wasn’t a first hand account on his part as he was born in Boston in 1663. Groton was a small village on the frontier in the 1670’s. It isn’t likely that the Mathers ever even visited there.

Here is his presentation of Elizabeth’s case:

In the Town of Groton, (October 1671) one Elizabeth Knap 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 December 17,  her Tongue being drawn out of her mouth to an extraordinary Length, a Demon 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 Demon 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.

Source: Magnalia Christi Americana, by Cotton Mather, published in 1702, found in the digitized book collection of familysearch.org.

Sixteen year old Elizabeth must have been the talk of the town with Cotton Mather’s description of her “affliction.”

What became of Elizabeth Knapp? She went on to marry Samuel Scripture on 7 June 1674 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and have ten children. Neither her nor Samuel’s death date is not found in the town records. However,  the family lived in Groton, which was abandoned more than once because of Indian raids and some records may be lost. The birth of her last child, Lydia, was recorded on 28 July 1700, so we know that she lived until then at a minimum.

The modern interpretation of Elizabeth’s possession is that she was possessed by hysteria rather than by the devil. Given the reactions of the Salem townspeople to their own accusations of witchcraft, it must have been a very difficult and scary time not only for James and Elizabeth Knapp, Elizabeth’s parents, but for the unnamed woman accused of causing her affliction.

6 thoughts on “October Genealogy Blog Party – What’s the Scariest Thing I’ve Found in Genealogy Research?”

  1. So interesting not to mention scary! This theme is a great one except I can’t see to find a scary relative anywhere! 🙂 I know they have to be there, I just haven’t found them yet!

  2. Wow! I wonder what caused her hysteria. and what made it leave her which I imagine it did if she went on to marry and have a family. Thanks for sharing this story. 🙂

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