For almost as long as humans have been around there has been talk and lore on demons in some form or another. These entities take on many forms across cultures, and one theme that can be found in various far-flung places is that of demonic possession. Throughout history there have been tales of these insidious things trying, and sometimes succeeding in, invading our bodies and taking over our minds for their own nefarious purposes, and often leading to exorcisms in many forms to try and banish these dark forces. Every so often there is a truly baffling and spectacular such case, and one of the truly most harrowing and terrifying was the marathon exorcism of a demon-plagued young girl in a small town in Wisconsin.
The woman known as Emma Schmidt, more well-known by her pseudonym Anna Ecklund, was born in 1882 in in Wisconsin, of the United States, to German immigrants. Not much is known about her early childhood, but there doesn’t seem to have been anything particularly abnormal about her in these early years. She was raised in a devoutly Catholic family, and was apparently always known as a quiet, but mostly charming and cheerful girl. In later years there has been speculation that her father might have been abusive towards her, but this has never been confirmed. All in all, there doesn’t seem to have been anything at all that would have heralded the strange, dark days that were ahead of her, hanging over the horizon like a cloud, but that would change when she reached the age of 14.
It began with a sudden, inexplicable aversion to all things religious. Anna had always gone to church regularly and actually seemed to enjoy it and to be very involved with these activities, but upon turning 14 she found herself feeling very ill and uncomfortable when she entered the building or even laid eyes upon religious imagery. This grew in intensity until she had a hard time even stepping into the church at all, as if some barrier was barring her entry, and if she did manage to enter she would become horribly ill and panicked, overcome with an unbearable dread. Communion wafers were vomited up, holy images deeply upset her, and it got so bad that the once pious girl began to go into fits when confronted with the Bible, holy water, or any holy imagery, eventually not going to church at all. Even eerier still were her vocal musings about how she wanted to vandalize church property or attack priests, which she would relay in a sort of trance and not remember saying later.
In the meantime, she allegedly exhibited many other behavioral oddities. At home she would blurt out incredibly, deeply obscene things, detailing depraved, unspeakable violence and sexual acts she could not have possibly known about, as well as an insatiable, unhealthy interest in sex. There were also epic mood swings and sudden violent outbursts in which she would shout at people or break things in abrupt fits of rage that sprang from seemingly nowhere. On top of all of this she became morose and distant, spending most of her time alone, shunning all company and keeping herself in self-exile within her room, and this deeply unsettled her parents.
As things progressed for the worse the advice of medical and psychiatric professionals was sought, but no one could find anything physically wrong with her, nor any particular reason for her outbursts. Every single professional who looked at her deemed her to be completely normal, and she never did seem to display her bizarre, aberrant behavior during these visits. However, at home things were getting scarier, Anna’s violent temper and antisocial tendencies underscored by the added weird detail that she could purportedly sometimes be heard to blurt out words or phrases in Latin, a language she had no knowledge of. This would last for several years, until Anna’s exasperated mother began to suspect that she might be under the influence of demonic forces and turned to the church for help. And so would begin the next chapter in Anna’s frightening odyssey.
Anna was referred to a Capuchin priest originally from Bavaria, Germany, by the name of Father Theophilus Riesinger, who was known as a bit of an expert on demons and came to examine the besieged family. After witnessing Anna’s total aversion to religious objects and prayers uttered in Latin, as well as her knowledge of languages she could not have possibly known, including allegedly Latin, Polish, and other Slavic languages, Riesinger came to the conclusion that the girl was possessed, and went about organizing an exorcism, which was carried out in June of 1912. According to all accounts, this first exorcism seemed to work just fine, and Anna returned to normal for years, but it seems that whatever dark forces had gravitated towards her were not quite done with her yet.
Over the next few decades Anna’s turmoil and troubles would slowly creep back into her life, eventually growing to return with even more intensity and vigor than they ever had before. In 1928, at the age of 46, Anna, whose life had been basically destroyed by this unshakable evil presence, turned to Father Riesinger once again in sheer desperation. This time, Theophilus enlisted help, unsure of whether he alone possessed the ability to drive out the obviously very powerful and tenacious demon. He went to his dear friend Father F. Joseph Steiger to beg him to join him in his confrontation with the forces of evil, to which Steiger grudgingly accepted. It seems that at around this time that it came to light that, far from the deeply Catholic citizens they claimed to be, Anna’s father Jacob, who had since passed away, as well as her aunt Mina, were rumored to have been secret practitioners of witchcraft, who had supposedly cursed the girl at an early age through spells and special herbs sprinkled in her food, supposedly because the father was angry that he could not sate his incestuous desires for his daughter. There is no way to know whether this was actually true or not, but the idea that her own family had perhaps called these demons into her certainly added a layer of menace to the proceedings.
Anna was placed in a convent run by the Franciscan Sisters in Earling, Iowa, where the exorcism was to take place, a location chosen for its seclusion, as well as the idea that getting her far from home would hopefully disorient any demons within her. Getting her into the convent was another story, a process which apparently took several strong nuns and the two priests to do as the woman would flail and snarl as soon as she even caught sight of the place. She would have to be literally dragged into the convent walls and bound to a bed, where she growled and snapped at anyone who came near. On August 17, 1928 exorcism proceedings began in earnest, these two brave priests unsure of what sort of unholy confrontation awaited them as they approached the room where the crazed, snarling Anna Ecklund awaited them panting like a wild beast.
This time the priests first decided to experiment a bit with Anna to test the extent of the possession and whether it was even real at all. They tried swapping out real holy water to use regular tap water and found that Anna would only react violently to actual holy water and not the placebo, despite there not being any way for her to know which was which. The same held true for blessed food or any blessed object really, and it was considered completely inexplicable. She would also throw epic tantrums when Latin was read to her as a prayer, but not when it was just spoken conversationally, and this was all seen as definite signs of a genuine demonic possession the likes of which no one present had ever seen before.
From the beginning of this second exorcism, Anna was immediately thoroughly repulsed by holy water and crosses, reeling away from them, and absolutely refused to eat blessed food, which she could supposedly detect even without being told. She would often curl up in the corner to purr or hiss like a cat, or to deftly climb up the walls like a spider, until she was forcefully restrained to the bed and tied up. As soon as the exorcism began in earnest, Anna is said to have gone unconscious and to have levitated to stick up against the ceiling with so much force that it took several people to pull her back down. Even though the woman seemed to be totally in a comatose state at this time, voices, wails, growls, and screams were said to bellow out from her even in absence of any movement from her mouth. These vocalizations were common, and sometimes so extreme that they seemed impossible to have come out of the mouth of this woman, her voice often changing cadence, pitch and timber, with sometimes two voices at once speaking, alien beast-like noises surging forth, and myriad other animalistic sounds, including what sounded “like a pack of wild beasts suddenly let loose.”
Anna also had numerous other physical symptoms. She purportedly vomited forth rancid liquid and tobacco leaves, spat constantly, urinated copious amounts, allegedly sometimes 10 to 20 times a day. She also clawed or bit at anyone who came close to her and was said to exhibit strength far beyond normal. At the same time, her body supposedly began to change in appearance; her eyes bulged inhumanly from her face, her head and lips swelling up to incredible proportions, and her abdomen was claimed to distend to the point where it seemed it would explode, only to revert to its normal size again to start the whole horrific cycle anew. Her head also physically elongated at certain times, and much of the time she spoke without moving her mouth, the voices, seeming to emanate from her throat. At times, her body was said to inexplicably increase in mass, until the iron frame of the bed groaned under her weight. Steiger would later write of some of this:
As the days pass, Anna’s body swells and deforms more and more. At one point, it is so disfigured that her body has become a bloated, shapeless mass and nuns turn away from her bed, fearing she may explode.
The commotion Anna was making through all of this was apparently so loud and fierce that outside of the convent curiosity seekers had begun to gather, as the exorcism continued on in earnest day after day. Over the course of the marathon exorcism, it became apparent that Anna was possessed by at least 4 distinct powerful entities, as well as a horde of lesser spirits. One of the prominent entities introduced itself as Beelzebub, also called the “Lord of the Flies” and one of the seven princes of Hell, who was claimed to try and engage the exorcists in complex philosophical debates and mind games. Another was supposedly Judas Iscariot, the very one who betrayed Jesus Christ, and who was said to have been trying to convince Anna to commit suicide so that her soul would be transported to Hell. The last two main spirits were Anna’s very own father and aunt, who had died since the first exorcism and seemingly had vengeance on their mind.
There were all manner of other strange phenomena orbiting the exorcism. The spirits apparently predicted a car accident that Father Steiger would be in as he drove home to visit his ill mother, and they relentlessly taunted and insulted those present, often gleefully revealing dirty secrets or information to the nuns that no one else could have known. There were also said to be swarms of flies and mosquitoes that would suddenly cloud the air out of nowhere, only to vanish just as fast, sickening stenches that would assail the senses of those present, and Father Theophilis claimed that he had a potent vision of the room aflame and Lucifer and Beelzebub standing in the corner berating him.
Over time this would all become so unbearable that the utterly terrified priests and nuns involved refused to stay for too long in Anna’s presence, instead working in shifts, lest the poisonous atmosphere and the penetrating words of the demonic entities infect their souls. Father Theophilus was the one who spent the most time in the presence of evil, steadfastly determined to rid the woman these strange forces, but it seemed that it might be a losing battle, such was the incredible intensity and power of the possession. Yet, he kept at it, and over three sessions lasting over 23 days the demons gradually began to weaken and lose their grip on Anna, before finally one day Anna bolted up in the bed to proclaim “Beelzebub, Judas, Jacob, Mina! Hell! Hell! Hell! My Jesus, mercy! Praised be Jesus Christ!” And just like that the demons were gone.
In the aftermath of the exorcism, most of the nuns who had been present asked to be transferred away, such was the trauma involved, and the convent would eventually be demolished in the 1990s. Anna would go on to lead a fairly normal life, although the experience would haunt her for the rest of her years. Theophilus Riesiner would gain some bit of fame from it all, going on to became America’s foremost expert on exorcisms, even earning a page in Time Magazine in 1936, and Father Steiger would go on to lead a quiet, pious life away from the spotlight, still quite shaken and disturbed by what had transpired. A priest named Father Carl Vogl went about interviewing anyone he could find who had been at the exorcism, including nuns and Steiger himself, in order to compile a record of the events in a booklet entitled Begone Satan: A Soul Stirring Account of Diabolical Possession in Iowa, from which nearly all of the information on the exorcism comes. It is all so dramatic that this account has long been criticized for perhaps being over embellished or even fabricated, but Father Steiger’s housekeeper, Theresa Wegerer, would claim:
I was a witness to almost the whole period of the exorcism of the Earling possession case and I can truthfully say, that the facts mentioned in Begone Satan are correct. Some of the scenes were even more frightful than described in the booklet. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind, that the devils were present and I will never forget the horrible scenes, vile, filthy, and dirty, as long as I live.
It is all a lot to take in, and if even half of it is true then we are looking at perhaps one of the most intense, paranormally-charged exorcisms ever. But was it ever real? Was this really the doing of supernatural demonic forces, or was it perhaps just a delusional, psychic break by a deeply religious girl who somehow came to truly believe that she was possessed by dark forces? There does not seem to be any real evidence other than the accounts given by those involved, so it comes down to trying to work out if this happened the way it was depicted or if it was perhaps exaggerated or made up. Whatever the answers may be, the exorcism of Anna Ecklund has managed to find itself a place amongst some of the most terrifying alleged exorcisms of history, and it will probably keep this title for quite some time to come.