This weeks episode goes a bit more out there as we take a look at a historic exorcism that, despite being a well-documented case for the time, tends to fly under the radar. This is the story of Anna Ecklund, who found herself cursed and possessed by five demons and suffered months of exorcisms lasting for 23 days, in Earling, Iowa, way back in 1928.
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“Then, too, her whole body became so horribly disfigured that the regular contour of her body vanished. Her pale, deathlike and emaciated head, often assuming the size of an inverted water pitcher, became as red as glowing embers. Her eyes protruded out of their sockets, her lips swelled up to proportions equaling the size of hands, and her thin emaciated body was bloated to such enormous size that the pastor and some of the Sisters drew back out of fright, thinking that the woman would be torn to pieces and burst asunder. At times her abdominal region and extremities became as hard as iron and stone. In such instances, the weight of her body pressed into the iron bedstead so that the iron rods of the bed bent to the floor.”
These were the words chronicled in “Begone, Satan”, a pamphlet written by Carl Vogl which documented a prolonged exorcism carried out on a young girl named Anna Ecklund in 1928. Heavily documented at the time and later in Time magazine, it was alleged that she had been possessed by several demons, including Beelzebub, Judas Iscariot and Lucifer himself.
This is Dark Histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
The story of Anna Ecklund is not one for the faint of heart. At the time of its publication in 1935, it would have been quite a terrifying and eye-opening education into the life and practices of one of the Catholic churches more extreme solutions to the troubles of demonic possession. It is, however, also a tale that willfully obfuscates the history of its subject.There are precious few facts that detail Anna Eklunds early life. In fact, even now her name is not a 100% certainty, she has been named as Anna Ecklund, Anna Schmidt and many contemporary reports simply called her “A certain 40-year-old woman”. Dramatic as her story was, her name was just one of the details repressed following the incidents of 1928 as a means of protection from the public who may very well not have taken kindly to being around a person with such a strange and potentially threatening past.
Of the precious few details concerning Anna’s early life, it is generally accepted that she was born in or around 1882, in Wisconsin. Her father was named Jakob Ecklund with her mother appearing to have left the scene whilst she was still at an early age. There are no records of her name, nor where she had gone, or indeed if it was the case, what had befallen her. Anna was a practising and devout Catholic who attended church several times a week and appeared to enjoy the religious ceremony and rituals of religion. She lived out the first 14 years of her life seemingly as a normal child for the times, though her father was rumoured to have made even such a simple existence difficult for her.
Jakob Ecklund was, as far as we can tell, a difficult father at best. He was a drunk and not only against Anna’s practising of religion but openly mocking towards the Church and its ministers. On his deathbed, whilst having his final sacrament administered by a priest, he scoffed and insulted him, his last words, those of hate. Though the records of the family history are not particularly detailed. He took a mistress named Mina whilst his wife was still alive and the woman of his fancy just so happened to be either his sister by blood or step-sister by marriage and Anna’s aunt. Mina had a colourful background of her own and was well known in the town for having a reputation of practising witchcraft and black magic. Most dubbed her rather straightforwardly as a witch and as she passed through the streets, rumours flew quite openly.
At some point between Anna’s 10th and 14th Birthday, Joseph had on several occasions tried to pressure Anna into an incestuous relationship, though Anna had flatly refused him outright. This pressure from Joseph and refusal from Anna, as one might imagine, caused no small amount of tension in their relationship which now spiralled into a very dark place.
It is around this same time, at the dawning of the 20th century, that we first hear of Anna in any real detail, as it is also around the age of 14 that Anna started to act a little differently. She began missing church and when questioned, told of how she was unable to attend, of how she felt revulsion in the presence of religious symbolism and a physical resistance that was creating a literal barrier, stopping her from entering any religious buildings. She had also begun uttering sexualised thoughts of “unspeakable acts”. This behaviour was deemed as a form of possession and in 1908, Father Theophilus Riesinger was called in to perform an exorcism, which he undertook, apparently successfully, on June 18th, 1908.
Though this ordeal sees scant few mentions in any written history of the case, all seemingly went well, as again Anna’s life falls into obscurity. One can assume that she lived a relatively normal life, if somewhat troubled. At some point, her father passed away and once again, Anna was finding it more and more difficult to practice her religion. This time her actions against her faith had stepped up and she had found herself lashing out at her spiritual counsellor, at one point attempting to suffocate him. She was gaining compulsive urges to destroy her religious symbols and was hearing inner voices that were driving her to despair. She initially sought the help of doctors and after several qualified physicians had observed and dismissed her as being physically fit and well over a period of several years, Anna instead turned to the spiritual and enlisted the help of the church.
Once in the care of The church, her counsellors themselves spent several years attempting to diagnose and alleviate her condition and failing, though during the period they took note of several oddities which they found difficult to explain in natural terms. Firstly, it was noted that Anna was able to understand languages that she had never understood previously and had never studied. In particular, it appeared that she now understood Latin and when priests spoke to her in the language, it was said that she foamed at the mouth, becoming enraged. Further, she was able to sense when blessed articles were in her close vicinity, becoming furious, even normal objects which had no specific spiritual significance but had been blessed or touched with holy water would not pass unnoticed and she would call the priests out on such objects, demanding them to be removed at once. When the priests caring for her begun to suspect supernatural forces were at play, they asked Anna herself what she thought of the matter, she acted completely unaware and was unable to give any information regarding who or what may be behind the suspected demonic troubles that were now making her life so difficult.
Finally, in 1928 and after many years of these observations, the church formally deemed Anna to be possessed and once again Father Riesinger, by now well known and well trusted for his work on demonic exorcisms, was approached to take the duty for the second time. It is from this point that a fuller picture of Anna can be built, as her time spent with Riesinger was documented fully. In fact, it is still to this day one of the most documented cases of exorcism performed by a member of the Catholic church. The details of the ritual were witnessed by Father Joseph Steiger, a long-term friend of Reisinger’s and both witness accounts were included in a pamphlet titled “Begone, Satan”, written by Karl Vogl and published in German in 1935 and English in 1973, it’s original intentions were to act as an informational pamphlet to be handed out to seminarians of the church to inform and educate on the subject of demonic possession and the practice of exorcism. The pamphlet tells of a very strange tale indeed.
Father Theophilus Riesinger was born in Bavaria in 1868, growing up on his small family farm. Highly religious from a young age, he was just 12 years old when, whilst suffering from illness, he decided to devote his life to his God and at the age of 21, joined a monastery in Altotting, a village that still today stands as an important pilgrimage point after a statue of the Virgin Mary revived a young boy who had drowned in the river in 1489.
During his period in Altotting, Riesinger decided that his future lie in the priesthood, but was denied the opportunity by the Provincial Father, who declined his application. Unperturbed, he set off to study in Sasbach and upon graduation with a strong recommendation in 1892, he left for New York where he stayed for a brief period before settling in Detroit where he began his life as a Novitiate. In 1899, his training and studies complete, he was ordained as a priest and wound up back in New York, placed in the Saint Fidelis Monastery.
His life took a more bizarre turn in 1912 when he was transferred to Wisconsin where he undertook Exorcisms and battled evil spirits. This work was not without criticism and though he was well liked generally, it appears there were some that were not keen on the amount of attention he brought to the perhaps unfashionable elements of the Catholic church. In a short biography of his life, there is a passage that reads:
“We must add that there were some, both without and within the province, who could not see eye to eye with Father Theophilus. We think it true to say that the opposition was not due to the personality of the man but to the nature of his work, more specifically to his exorcisms.”
Indeed, his life and work had been widely publicised in the press as he had become more and more embroiled in the practice of demonic extraction. No case had gathered more media attention at the time than his work on the exorcism of Anna Ecklund which saw him placed onto the cover of Time magazine and which now loomed large over his head as he prepared to battle with her demons for the second time.
The drama of Anna’s second exorcism in 1928 begun immediately with her trip to the convent where the ordeal would take place. It had been deemed appropriate that everything would be organised and undertaken in strict secrecy and that Anna should be taken away from her home so as to not draw attention to herself and to allow her to return to a normal life after the procedure. No one was to know of the events outside of those directly in contact with either Anna or those working alongside and assisting directly with the exorcism itself. Father Riesinger had thought he had found a suitable location in a Convent in Earling, Iowa, though he first needed to gain permission from both the mother superior of the convent and the Pastor of the local Parish to carry out the duty within his working borders. The Pastor, Father Steiger was a long-term friend of Reisinger’s and so when approached, though reluctant, he agreed that if he could gain permission from the mother superior, then he would welcome the ritual to be performed under his watch. This was a rather disingenuous deal on Steiger’s part, who expressed his fears of the practice to both Riesinger and the Bishop. He had only entered into the deal doubting that the mother superior would agree in the first place. He was then, rather dismayed to find out that Riesinger had, in fact, already gained the permission prior to his approach and so, the pastor anxiously stepped aside and permitted Anna to be transported to the convent where the exorcism could begin.
Anna travelled by train to the convent itself and the priests escorting her first found it necessary to make the personnel of the train aware of the situation as a precautionary measure. When Anna arrived at Earling station, though it is documented that she was herself very willing and happy to enlist the help of the church and submit to an exorcism, she attacked the priests who had come to meet her, lashing out and choking them.
Riesinger was to arrive at the convent on the same night as Anna but by another route so as to keep the pair separate until the exorcism was to begin in proper. He had arranged to be driven by Steiger whose car was apparently rather new and in perfect working order. On the night in question, however, the car failed to start and though no mechanical fault could be found, failed in making any headway towards the station where he was to collect the priest. Arriving two hours late, he found a calm Riesinger who merely shrugged off the complications as the work of the devil, who, he stated: “Will try his utmost to foil our plans”.
Finally, all parties converged at the convent and preparations for the exorcism could begin in earnest.
#1: The exorcism of Anna Ecklund. 18th-26th August.
On the night of 17th August, once everyone had arrived and settled into their temporary new home of the convent, Anna immediately began emitting behaviour that would terrify the permanent occupants. During their time at the convent, the nuns would assist both Father Riesinger with his duties as exorcist and take care and watch over Anna. During meal preparations, one of the sisters in the kitchen took it upon herself to sprinkle holy water over Annas meal before taking it up to her room and serve for her. Upon entering, however, Anna displayed a trait that would happen time and time again over the coming months. The mere presence of the food, blessed as it was, enraged her and she “begun purring like a cat” whilst refusing to eat even a single mouthful until it was taken away and a fresh, unblessed meal had been brought up for her. This reaction to and knowledge of blessed items, despite the fact she should have no knowledge of what had and had not been blessed prior to entering the room, became a feature, with Anna howling and screaming like an animal. She is described as writhing in agony on the bed, whilst making various unnatural noises.
“This ugly bellowing and howling took place every day and at times it lasted for hours.” Wrote Vogl in Begone, Satan!” “At other times it sounded as though a horde of lions and hyenas were let loose, then again as the mewing of cats, the bellowing of cattle and the barking of dogs.
This consequently terrified the nuns who were assisting the exorcism and drove them to create a rotating schedule that allowed for each to work for only a short period before being able to rest and recuperate, away from the screams.
This also created a second problem. That of the local villagers of Earling, who day by day during the performances of the exorcism could hear the sounds echoing from inside the stone convents walls and gathered around, exchanging quiet whispers of what they believed was happening inside.
On the morning of 18th August. The exorcism began. Father Riesinger almost immediately came to the conclusion that it would be a prolonged affair that would span several attempts and this first episode lasted for 8 days until the 26th August, opening as it meant to go on. On Father Riesingers advice, the sisters had tied the arms of Annas dress to forgo her the use of her hands, intending to stop or inhibit Anna attacking any of those present during the exorcism. The priests along with the Pastor attended Mass in the morning and then after arming themselves with their various holy symbols, took off towards Anna’s room to begin the exorcism. As soon as Riesinger begun reciting the names of the Holy Trinity, Anna leapt from the bed, slipping through the hands of the sisters assisting the ritual and landed, as documented and witnessed by three priests and several nuns, atop of the door, sideways on the wall where she clung, spitting growls and murmurs. It took all present a moment to regain their composure before prying her down and lying her back on the bed and further assistance could be called to help hold Anna to the bed frame so that she could not repeat the trick.
Although Anna had not eaten well for weeks and not at all during the days of the exorcism, she began to froth at the mouth, vomiting vast quantities of substances. At times this was described as a fluid and others as real, physical objects, such as tobacco leaves and spices. She had reportedly only taken a teaspoonful of water and milk on the mornings of the exorcisms, however during the ritual itself, was said to vomit up to twenty or thirty times a day these bizarre expulsions, at times described as “Quantities that were, humanly speaking, impossible to fit inside a normal being.” Throughout it all, the room filled with a foul stench and Anna remained comatose, her eyes and mouth closed, apparently completely unaware of any commotion or physical goings-on. In her comatose state. With her lips unmoved, she spoke in various languages, predominantly in Latin, German and English, whilst at other times she was described as communicating with the now familiar bestial growls and demonic murmurings.
“The evil spirits simply spoke in an audible manner from somewhere within her.”
Through these bursts of speech, Riesinger learnt all manner of details concerning the demonic presences with Anna and came to the conclusion that she was possessed by not only one demon, but five, those of her father Jacob and his mistress Mina, now apparently residing in hell, along with Beelzebub, Judas and Lucifer himself. Alongside the main five were scores of others lesser demons that would arrive in packs, screaming and growling atop of one another until they could be driven away by Reisinger exorcisms. This process of battle continued for eight days until the group feared for Annas life, as she became emaciated and pale. On the 26th August, it was deemed necessary to break the proceedings and to commence anew after Anna and all present had been given time away to recuperate and renew their convictions for the further battles that lay ahead. It was only after the exorcisms ceased that Anna would once again open her eyes and return to a normal waking state.
#2: The Demons Inside. 13th-20th September (details of demons and motives etc.)
The second Exorcism began on 13th September and this time lasted a further seven days. This time the group were able to ascertain further details of the demons that possessed Anna, driving her to frenzy. When spoken to separately, each demon would answer Riesinger in the language they were addressed and Riesinger theorised that they would have been able to command any language they so wished.
The first to offer up any clues as to why he was present was Beelzebub. He told Riesinger in broken, winding sentences that it was he who had possessed Anna from the age of 14 and he who had been the subject of her initial possession as a child. He had been charged by Satan to undertake his task and it was Annas father, Jacob who had commanded Satan to possess his daughter, cursing her for her unwillingness to commit incest with him in the living.
Next came Judas. When Riesinger asked of the demon “Are you Judas Iscariot, the former Apostle?” He replied in booming, elongated tones, “YES! I am the one.” This voice came as such a shock to the sisters assisting that they fled the room and were left quivering with fear, unable to re-enter the chamber for some time. Judas went on to explain that it was his charge from Lucifer to torture Anna and drive her to suicide, “To Bring her to despair, so that she will commit suicide and hang herself! She must get the rope, she must go to hell!” He replied.
Later, Jacob would arrive and enrich the group with his story, offering a motive for the possessions. He had spent his life ridiculing the church and casting aside any semblance of faith, this, however, was not enough to cast him to damnation. It was, Riesinger submitted, the cursing of his own child and bringing about the demonic possession in the first that committed him to eternal damnation. Now in hell, he schemed against his daughter who had shunned his sexual advances in life, aiming to ruin her. His was a bitter and twisted possession with little motive other than to cause suffering upon Anna, his own child.
Mina too spoke of her presence in a similar fashion. She had been damned in part for her affair with Jacob, but also for the killing of her own children. She spoke of her unrelenting acts of child murder with little remorse, even forgetting how many she had killed, at first stating three before correcting herself and confirming that she had murdered four of her own children whilst she was alive. Mina seemed to Riesinger a woman full of hatred and her disjointed speeches were documented as being:
“filled with such bitter hatred and spite that they far surpassed all that had happened so far. Her demeanour towards the Blessed Sacrament is beyond description. She would spit and vomit in a hideous manner so that both Father Theophilus and the pastor had to use handkerchiefs constantly to wipe off the spittle from habit and cassock. Because of her unworthy communions, it was clear that the Blessed Sacrament, the Bread of Eternal Life, which should have been the source of her eternal salvation, turned out to be unto her eternal damnation. For she tried to get at the Blessed Sacrament with a burning vengeance and hatred.”
These details were offered in broken fragments and shattered conversations and throughout, hordes of lesser demons would break the stream of questioning with their howling and protestations of pain and suffering. Whilst these interrogations were underway, Annas bizarre behaviour continued. At times she became so light in her body that she appeared to levitate above the bed and at others, so heavy that the weight crushed her into the bedsheets, bending the legs of the iron-framed bed. She verbally assaulted those present and spoke of their sins for which they had never confessed. Those present continued to fear for her life as her body became red and swollen to the extent she was unrecognisable and all feared they she would burst, only for her to then become emaciated and pale, hard to the touch. Her extremities stretched and elongated and her lips became swollen, compared to the size of her hands. The room itself became a stench filled pit of despair and none could remain for any period of time.
Once again the exorcism was stalled and on the 20th September, after a further seven days of ritual was suspended in fear of the life of Anna and the health of those present.
It was around this time that the whole affair was wearing heavy on Father Steiger, who had been taunted by Lucifer in an attempt to turn him against Riesinger. By now he had come to doubt his involvement with the case and a sense of foreboding fell upon the priest which, as it turned out was not altogether unfounded.
The trouble with Steiger
Throughout the periods of exorcism, the many demons speaking through Anna would berate and utter torturous ramblings towards those present and none received more of these taunts than Father Steiger. He found it difficult to sleep at nights and told of how rats were scratching in his walls night after night, or how his room would vibrate and rumble. In both cases, once he had given prayer and equipped himself with his religious symbols, the problems would cease, but the prolonged disturbances had begun to take a toll on his well being. He voiced his agitations directly with Riesinger, who had been a lifelong friend to Steiger but whose presence now brought about a feeling of annoyance to the troubled Pastor. Riesinger, as usual, took it all in his stride, assuring him that it was but the work of the devil and that he was working to dislodge their relationship. Not wholly relieved, Steiger reluctantly continued in his assistance and so it was, that on one evening during the second period of exorcisms that Lucifer was able to carry out a threat, this time directly on his life. It had not been unusual for Steiger, nor all those present to listen to prolonged speeches containing threats, at one time, the devil had told Steiger of how he would regret his involvement once the parish would turn against him under the puppeteering of the Devil,
“I’ll incite the whole Parish against you, “ The devil said “I will calumniate you in such a way that you will no longer be able to defend yourself. Then you will have to pack up and leave in shame and regret.”
On this occasion, however, the threats that came from the Demon were of a different nature.
“I cannot harm God directly, but I can touch you and his church. Just wait until the end of the week! When Friday comes then…” The demon tailed his sentence off ominously.
That very Friday, The pastor was called to a home visit within the parish to read the last sacraments to a dying woman. The family offered to collect the priest and drive him to their home, but found their car unable to start and so with the utmost care due to the Devils threat lying in the back of his mind, Steiger made his preparations, praying for a safe journey and took off in his own car to the home of the dying woman. He had driven the road a hundred times before, and this lent him a manner of confidence, yet still, he drove with the utmost caution. On his return journey, however, a black cloud appeared in the road ahead at the very moment he had driven on a long bridge that cast over a deep ravine. The car slammed into the railings of the bridge, overturned and was left hanging over the edge precariously balanced and leaving Steiger tilting over the edge, a moment from either life or death. As luck would have it, he had suffered no serious physical injury and was able to crawl out from underneath the wreckage where he was met by a local farmer who had heard the accident and driven to the scene to offer aid. The farmer drove Steiger first to the doctors, who declared him fortunate and fit, then after back to the convent. As Steiger entered the room containing Anna, the devil filled the room with laughter,
“I certainly showed him up today. What about your new auto, that dandy car which was smashed to smithereens? It serves you right!”
For the remainder of the exorcism, the devil would repeat the incident to Steiger, threatening him to “be ready for a whole lot more fun.”
It was with such burdens and heavy sense of thought that finally, the third and final exorcism was to take place, this time, driving all involved to the limits of their physical and mental condition.
#3: Begone Satan! 15th-22nd December (the end)
On the 15th December 1928, the group began what was to become the third and final session of exorcisms. As was usual, the stench, the growls and insults continued as expected. From morning until night they battled with the demonic entities. Steiger deemed himself unfit and unable to be present for much of the final session, having reached a breaking point. He found himself other work throughout the parish and kept away for large periods, but assisted Riesinger when he could. Over the past two exorcisms, many of the lesser demons had been driven away and now, a final battle awaited between the exorcist and the four main perpetrators of the possession. Riesinger, sensing victory, took it upon himself to continue the exorcisms throughout the nights and for three days and nights, continued the rituals nonstop. Many were concerned that he would collapse and gave his appearance to that of “A walking corpse”, he had spent every ounce of his energy and finally on the 22nd December, made a significant breakthrough when Anna sprung from the bed, levitating so that only her heels barely touched the sheets. Exhausted, Riesinger commanded the demons to hell. Riesinger later admitted to a vision of the room circled in flame with Lucifer and Beelzebub standing in the corner, seething in rage with their inability to assault the priest. He described Lucifer as “tall, with matted black fur on his lower, hooved body”. At the end of the vision, the room shook and rumbled with a vast energy, before falling silent. Anna collapsed back onto the bed, opened her eyes and smiled stating simply.
“My Jesus, Mercy! Praise be jesus Christ!”
The demons had departed and with that, the exorcism ended. All that was left of the months of struggle was a foul stench that permeated throughout the room.
Over the following months and years, Annas life reportedly returned to normal. She continued practising her faith with “only a few small possessions” and none that she could not handle alone. She returned to the convent four months later to express her thanks and was in good spirit and health. The convent itself fared less well, however, with every nun present during the time of the exorcism putting in for a transfer, unable to remain with the memories of what had gone on during those trying months of 1928.
As a final word in the pamphlet, Theresa Wegerer, housekeeper to Father Steiger gave the following testimony:
“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.”
The descriptions and witness accounts of the Exorcism of Anna Ecklund are at times bizarre and at others, completely fantastical as far as any sceptical person might understand. Whether or not we believe them is a matter for each of us personally, however, it remains fascinating both in its ability to conceptualise an abstract aspect of faith and psychology and in the sheer amount of international attention and scrutiny that the case garnered. Even 80 years on, her exorcism remains as a pivotal case and has influenced generations of fiction and popular media on the subject.
As far as Anna Ecklund is concerned, after her ordeal, she appeared to have finally been able to cast aside her demonic possessions and vanished into history with only a few short lines of reassurance that for the rest of her life, she no longer suffered with demonic influence and seemingly lived out her days peacefully and able to embrace her Catholic faith.
Reisinger continued with his work as a priest in the Catholic Church, undertaking his more standard duties alongside exorcisms until on the 9th of November 1941 when he passed away peacefully aged 73.
For Anna and many others whose lives have been affected by demonic intrusions, the words of Riesinger will ring long in their memories:
“Depart ye fiends of hell, Begone Satan!”