Earling, Iowa, a quiet community just shy of 500 people, sits about an hour northeast of Omaha, Nebraska. Much like many small Midwestern towns, Earling was built around the railroad. It was platted between 1881 and 1882 when the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway laid tracks through the state. However, unlike many small Midwestern towns, in 1928 it played host to the devil.
Emma Schmidt (referred to as Anna Ecklund in a 1936 Catholic Church-sanctioned publication, “Satan Begone!” by Father Carl Vogl) was born in 1882 and grew up in Marathon, Wisconsin. According to a 2003 article in the Council Bluffs, Iowa, Daily Nonpareil which revisited the exorcism, Schmidt’s “Aunt Mina was reputedly a witch who had placed a spell on some herbs which she placed among the girl’s food.” Whether from the actions of her aunt, or some other influence, Schmidt’s behavior changed.
A highly religious girl, Schmidt attended the local Catholic church, but by the time she turned 14, she was repulsed by Holy Communion and expressed the desire to attack priests and destroy objects inside the church. Her family took her to doctors, who could do nothing for her. At that point, they called in Father Theophilus Riesigner to perform the rights of exorcism in 1912.
Schmidt responded with violence when approached with blessed items —and only blessed items. She responded similarly when prayed over in Latin. Riesigner discovered the undereducated Schmidt could speak Latin and German. He rationalized this due to the fact she had been exposed to those languages in church and in the German-settled Wisconsin community where she lived – but she could also inexplicably speak Hebrew, Polish and Italian.
The priest performed an exorcism and Schmidt’s life went somewhat back to normal (although years later he later discovered she continued to hear voices no one else could hear). However, if Schmidt’s behavior was due to an unwanted entity or entities, the exorcism, as some exorcisms go, only sent the creature(s) inside Schmidt into hiding. In 1928, the devil showed itself in her again.
According to Vogl’s work, by the time Schmidt turned 40, she was again a devout Catholic, but something had gone wrong. She began to have aversion to the church. “Some interior hidden power was interfering with her plans,” Vogl wrote. Inner voices spoke to her, compelling her to do acts “most disagreeable” to her. “The poor creature was helpless and secretly was of the opinion that she would become insane.”
Riesigner arrived in Earling that year to preach at St. Joseph Parish. There he asked the local pastor, Rev. Joseph Steiger, if he could bring Schmidt to Earling for an exorcism. The distance from Schmidt’s hometown, Risesigner hoped, would keep word of the exorcism from getting out. Steiger and the local Bishop agreed so Risesigner brought Schmidt to the Convent of the Franciscan Sisters outside town.
Vogl described the exorcism in detail: “The woman was placed firmly upon the mattress of an iron bed. Upon the advice of Father Theophilus, her arm-sleeves and her dress were tightly bound so as to prevent any devilish tricks. The strongest nuns were selected to assist her in case anything might happen. There was a suspicion that the devil might attempt attacking the exorcist during the ceremony. Should anything unusual happen, the nuns were to hold the woman quiet upon her bed. Soon after the prescribed prayers of the Church were begun, the woman sank into unconsciousness and remained in that state throughout the period of exorcism. Her eyes were closed up so tightly that no force could open them.”
Things changed soon after the exorcism began. Schmidt pulled herself free of the bonds that held her to the bed and threw off the nuns. Then she began to rise. “Her body, carried through the air, landed high above the door of the room and clung to the wall with a tenacious grip,” Vogl wrote. “All present were struck with a trembling fear. Father Theophilus alone kept his peace.”
The nuns grabbed Schmidt and pulled her – kicking and screaming – back down to the bed and tied her fast. Schmidt howled like an animal, her body distorting as she convulsed. She cursed God whenever Risesigner approached her with blessed items. She ate, but refused to eat blessed food. Schmidt never saw the blessing take place, she simply knew what food was blessed and what was not. After a period of refusing food, Schmidt expelled copious amounts of “unusually foul smelling … green vomit,” according to the Daily Nonpareil. Voices came from the woman’s chest, claiming they were demons that possessed Schmidt. The entities threatened the priest and nuns.
Schmidt’s body twisted and convulsed as she was tied to the iron bed frame, becoming light enough to levitate on occasion and swelling to become heavy enough to bend the metal frame on others.
The entities possessing Schmidt eventually lost their purchase. Their voices howled “Beelzebub, Judas, Jacob, Mina,” until they finally fell silent. This exorcism was a success. Schmidt resumed her life and returned to the church.
The exorcism lasted 23 days.