Precursors to Salem Part One: Elizabeth Knapp

The events that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in the early 1690s are probably the most infamous and historically recognizable witch trials that took place. Resulting in the hangings of nine individuals, five who died in jail, and another who died under torture, the trials have become synonymous with the nature of magical persecution and fear of devilish intervention. However, the events at Salem are often seen in retrospective isolation, the result of colliding tensions within a small, religiously zealous community when they were in fact part of a wider trend of mysterious events that took place in the years leading up to Salem, right until its own decline. 

In the late December snow of 1671, in the small village of Groton, around fifty miles west of Salem, the sixteen-year-old servant of clergyman Samuel Willard began to display some unusual behaviour. Roaring and shrieking, she contracted herself into strange frames, “sometimes weeping, sometimes laughing” in “many foolish and apish gestures” as well as claiming to see dark, shadowy vanishing figures in the cellar of her master’s house. 

The possession of Elizabeth Knapp was one of the earliest accounts of the mysterious events that began to encapsulate New England’s magical imagination in the latter half of the seventeenth century, marking the beginning of traits that would soon rear their head at Salem. An account of her ailments was produced by her master, Samuel Willard, as a “fine-grained clinical study of what seemed in the end a clear case of demonic possession”. It later widely circulated as A Brief Account of a Strange and Unusual Providence of God Befallen to Elizabeth Knapp of Groton by Me, Samuel Willard, with further source material found in Willard’s letters to the Harvard graduate, Cotton Mather, who produced his own version of the events in his Magnalia Christo Americana (The Ecclesiastical History of New England). 

Elizabeth Knapp suddenly collapsed to the floor “in the midst …. of violence and [was] taken with a violent fit”, with “leapings, strainings and strange agitations”, taking the strength of four men to control. She continued to have a number of these sessions of possession and claimed to experience visions of the Devil. Two decades later, another cohort of individuals would have similar experiences. On numerous occasions, the Devil would present to Knapp “the treaty of a covenant” and promise “such things as suited her youthful fancy, money, silks, fine clothes, ease from labour, to show her the whole world”, in a backlog of visitations lasting three years, some of a deeply sexual nature. What followed were attempts to soothe her fits with prayers from a Mr. Rowlandson of Lancaster but to no avail. Her fits continued, on one occasion lasting up to forty-eight hours, as she began to see enchanted creatures in the fireplace, declaring that “she had seen devils in their hellish shapes and more devils than anyone there ever saw men in the world”. As “she barked like a dog and bleated like a calf”, a doctor was called to assess her condition, whereupon she was diagnosed with a stomach disorder “occasioning fumes in her brain and strange fancies”. 

The possession lasted throughout the long New England winter, to which Willard noted that her symptoms exacerbated “fall[ing] into her fits when any strangers go to visit her, and the more go, the more violent are her fits”.  Eventually, she came to declare, in a fit of self-martyrisation or self-loathing, that the reason she had been chosen by the Devil for her torturous possession was due to a long list of arduous sins for a young Puritan girl. She confessed “disobedience to her parents, neglect of attendance upon ordinances, attempts to murder herself and others”, including the young children of her master as the cause for her receptivity to hellish evil, sobbing that “she had led a spiritually unprofitable life”, pleading with the small crowd that had amassed around her to make their peace with God and make better use of their earthly time than she herself had done. Cotton Mather would later argue that to be chosen to endure such torture was not to be chosen as a representative of the Devil, but instead to be chosen as an advocate for God, instead “perversely flattering to be singled out to combat evil”, later claiming himself to be “a man greatly assaulted by Satan” for “I have done much against that enemy”. He claimed that the Puritan society of New England tempted the Devil’s vexation, quoting Joseph Glanvill of the Royal Society, as “here will the Devils show most malice but where he is hated, and hateth the most?”, a further badge of honour that they were God’s chosen people. 

As the year ended, so did Elizabeth’s possessions, along with a confession that “most of the apparitions she had spoken of were but fancies, as images represented in a dream”, rather than any real threat to the Groton community. She still claimed that the Devil had appeared to her, often at times of personal discontent with her labour along with “strong possessions to practice in witchcraft”. Cotton Mather later suggested that in his 1702 Magnalia that upon this confession “her Tongue being drawn out of her mouth to an extraordinary length, a daemon began manifestly to speak in her …. without any motion of her lips at all” and told “it was not He, but They, that were her tormentors”, but from Willard’s accounts, it appears that all signs of possession had ended. 

The tale of Elizabeth Knapp is interesting in the context of New England belief surrounding the role of demonic witches and their hellish role in possessions. The case bears a striking resemblance to the later experiences of the young girls at Salem.  Manifesting a source of evil in oppressed female adolescents, moreover in a respected Puritan minister’s house. The involvement of Cotton Mather here also draws a key link between the two cases and represents a myriad of relationships across Massachusetts’ religious structures and their reliance on people like Willard and Mather as key intellectuals and advisers on such matters (for better or for worse). The case however in some respects also differs from that in Salem, as unlike the girls, Knapp’s possession did not bring about a formal accusation of a bewitching and is, as Katherine Howe summarises, a case of “a bewitched victim without a witch”. 

Despite these differences, our knowledge of the Knapp case and how it was received is fundamental to understanding both historical and contemporary receptions to the growing Salem craze, as not only did Mather sway his involvement in the later trials and make distinct connections between the two but so did Willard himself. In Some Miscellany Observations on Our Present Debates Respecting Witchcrafts (1692), Willard was one of the first individuals, as one of the few men who understood the nature of such claims, to criticize the conduct of the trials before October. He questioned, as Cotton’s father Increase would later also do, the nature of preternatural knowledge as legal evidence, stating that matters of supernatural accusation held no place in the courtroom. His disapproval was met with “unkindness, abuse and reproach” and by the height of the craze he faced accusations of witchcraft. 

Overall, it is impossible to see the events and claims of Salem without seeing their direct correlations with the possession of Elizabeth Knapp. From the mere symptoms of her torture to the individuals involved, there is a clear line of connection between the events and therefore must be examined in the context of one another.

Written by Melissa Kane


Bullock, Oliver. The Witch Craze in Britain, Europe and North America c.1580-c1750 2016.

Mather, Cotton. Magnalia Christi Americana Or, the Ecclesiastical History of New England, from its First Planting in the Year 1620 unto the Year or Our Lord, 1698. 1702.

Mather, Cotton. “Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (1689). In The Penguin Book of Witches, edited by Katherine Howe. Penguin Books: London, 2014.

Nash, Gary B. “Review.” William and Mary Quarterly 43, no. 1 (1986): 138-40.

Russell, Jefferey B.; Alexander, Brooks. A New History of Witchcraft.2007.

Schiff, Stacy. The Witches, Salem, 1692: A History.2015.

Skinner, Charles M. The Gloucester Leaguers of Massachusetts. 1896. Legends of America. 2020.

Willard, Samuel. “A brief account of a strange and unusual providence of God befallen to Elizabeth Knapp of Groton by me, Samuel Willard (1671-2).” In The Penguin Book of Witches, edited by Katherine Howe. Penguin Books: London, 2014.

“Episode 01 | Unobscured’”. 2021. Historyunobscured.Com.

Historic Ipswich. “The Spectre Leaguers, July 1692”. 2021.

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