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True Story of America's First Famous Exorcism

By Edited May 2, 2016 2 2

Wall Walker

Emma Schmidt/Anna Ecklund

The very word “exorcism” stirs controversial feelings and conjures upsetting images for the average person. 

America’s first famous exorcism occurred in the early 20th Century.  Its details were not made available to the public until the mid 1930s, and the female victim was anonymous up to a point.  Today, little thought is given to her.

But Emma Schmidt (also known as “Anna Ecklund”)

would tangentially be immortalized in the classic horror novel and film, The Exorcist.

Exorcists Among Us
Human kind since pre-recorded history has availed itself of exorcism in one way or another. 

Exorcism, at its most basic, means ridding an afflicted person, place, or object of evil spirits.  This “ridding of bad spirits” is found in the ancient cultures of Native Americans, the Jews of antiquity, stone-age Malaysians, and early Christians. 

It is a global phenomenon born of ignorance and superstition.  The afflicted, often diagnosed with “evil spirit” possession, may merely be mentally ill or emotionally distressed.  The image of the shaman dancing around a possessed person, shaking rattles and blowing smoke into the victim’s face, may seem quaint and dated.  Shadows of such practices, however, remain in every religious “cleansing” ritual extant (baptisms, christenings, ritualistic bathing, the New Age practice of “smudging” etc.).  All symbolic gestures of that nature are intended to keep evil spirits away or drive them out from a “sinner”.

These primitive exorcisms or those done by street preachers or TV evangelists are not what spring to mind for most people when the word “exorcism” is uttered.  Public perception of exorcism is more directed by the real exorcists, that élite corps of Vatican clergy whose grueling job it is to drive out demons or evil spirits (many times Satan himself) from a person harboring such evil.

Exorcist Alone

Whether or not any lay person believes in exorcism is irrelevant.  The sufferer believes in it, and that’s all that matters.  The palliative effect of such a highly ritualized event as exorcism, sanctioned by none other than the mighty Catholic Church, is very powerful for those weak in mind and spirit.

To the Catholic Church’s credit these days, though, it examines claims of demonic possession with great skepticism.  It only authorizes exorcism after all other reasonable remedies (such as medical or psychiatric treatments) have been explored and abandoned.

To prove just how rarely a real exorcist is ever called into service, the exorcism of Emma Schmidt in Earling, Iowa, in 1928, was not only America’s first famous exorcism, it was one of the last in America officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church.

Many other infamous actions in the United States (including the notorious “Robbie Mannheim” case from the 1940s, the catalyst for William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist) did not have full authority of the Catholic Church behind them.  [Mannheim’s family was Lutheran.  The first Mannheim exorcism was conducted by Anglican Episcopalians, a Protestant faction, not the Catholic Church.  A Catholic priest got involved later.]

Somewhere in the Midwest
In almost all cases of exorcism, even the best documented ones, the significant details are always shrouded in mystery or with misinformation.  This is intended.  It protects the identity of the person who subjected himself or herself to such an extreme rite.  This allows that person to go on and live a relatively normal life without unnecessary privacy invasions.  In recollection, events may also be colored by the subjectivity of the participants. 

In any case, complete truth can never be determined—the principals are usually dead by the time the incident surfaces, or so much time has passed that records were destroyed or lost.  Such dodgy documentation is frustrating for researchers, and there does come a time when it should be required to give up the real facts in a claimant’s history and not hide behind the chicanery of pseudonyms.
A perfect example of this diversionary tactic involved the artist Shirley Ardell Mason.  Shirley was the famous multiple-personality patient known as “Sybil Dorsett”.  Her identity as

“Sybil” was not revealed except through the Johnny-come-lately work of a couple of journalists.  By the time they confirmed her identity, Shirley had been dead (of breast cancer) for a few weeks.  Barring that too-late exposure, chances are very good that secret would have gone to Shirley’s grave with her.

Another misleading case involved the California woman whose poltergeist activity in her home also included her being repeatedly raped by a ghost.  Her real name was Doris Bither, and her 1974 case was publicized (under the pseudonym “Carlotta Moran”) in a best-selling 1978 novel (and on the big screen later) as The Entity.  However, just like Shirley Mason, details of Doris’ life are sketchy—her year of birth, for example, apparently was never recorded by the team of “paranormal” investigators who invaded her home for a few months.  Similarly, her date, place, and cause of death are also unclear (she died in 1995, 1996, 2002, or 2006 of pancreatic cancer, a heart attack, or “cancer” based upon multiple, and conflicting, sources).

So, too, with America’s first famous exorcism, the details about its possessed female subject are sketchy or contradictory.  

This exorcism Eve, born somewhere in the Midwest, was named Emma Schmidt.  A pseudonym was later assigned: Anna Ecklund.  [At this date, there remains some uncertainty about her real name (as with the “Robbie Mannheim” case—not his real name, though in that hoax his real name is known today).]  However, it is possible Anna is the real name and Emma the false one; it is also likely that neither is correct.

What sketchy details survive about Emma Schmidt are blurred by retellings and a less-than-thorough job of documenting her personal history.  What seems certain, though, is the victim of demonic possession Emma Schmidt was born somewhere in the Midwest, probably about 1882. 

Father Dearest
Emma Schmidt received only the most basic of educations (the term “elementary” was used in reference to her formal schooling, but whether this means she completed school through the 8th grade or merely only learned to read and write is not known).  She was actively involved in her church as a child and pre-teen. 

Emma’s father was an abusive alcoholic named Jacob (likely a pseudonym).  He was apparently an amoral man who allegedly felt a compelling need to sexually molest his pubescent daughter.  Emma, according to what the Church recorded, fended off his drunken advances, and according to her he never successfully raped her. 

Emma’s mother had a sister named Mina with whom her father was having regular sexual intercourse.  Emma’s mother died (cause and year unknown, but probably in the early 1890s based on later developments).  This left Emma under her father’s lecherous care with his mistress, Aunt Mina, as the mother figure in the household

It is at this earliest stage in Emma’s narrative that problems arise in separating fact from fiction.  Almost every source consulted states—with absolutely no proof—that Mina was a murderer of children.  [No connective child-murder story or story of missing children from the relevant period nor any police reports about such crimes was uncovered.]  Aunt Mina, of course, may not even have existed; or perhaps she did, but under a different name. 

Reportedly, Emma began behaving oddly at the age of 14.  This would be about 1896, probably a dissociative reaction to her mother’s death.  As a teen, however, she became agitated at the symbols of religion (crucifixes, etc.) and blasphemous about her religion.  This condition apparently raged off and on for the next two decades, leaving the young woman a chronic insomniac who also heard voices telling her of “unspeakable” sexual matters and sexual acts.

According to the little history gathered, Emma’s Aunt Mina was believed by their community to be a witch.  Mina allegedly put special herbs in Emma’s food, thus “poisoning” her into a permanent state of demonic possession around 1906, with Emma’s full involvement in the “possession” delusion by 1908. 

Another explanation for her “possession” was that her father, before his death, had cursed her for not submitting to his sexual demands.  [At the time of her exorcism in 1928, Emma claimed she was still a virgin, though she was in her 40s.  There is another possibility: Jacob had an incestuous relationship with Emma after all, and her response to this repeated trauma was “possession” as a coping mechanism.].  No matter the true source of her behavior, the family (apparently despite its alleged inclinations toward witchcraft, child murder, and incest) was reportedly devout. 

Emma got to the point where she could no longer enter a church, despite her desire to attend services.  She claimed an “unseen force” prevented this.  She also reported an escalation in the depravity of the sexual acts the voices in her head whispered to her.

The Padre
Father Theophilus Riesinger (1868-1941) was an ordinary Catholic priest who happened to have been trained in the ritual of the Church’s approved protocol for exorcisms.  Riesinger, born in

Father Theophilus Riesinger (the exorcist)
Germany, was Emma’s priest in Wisconsin.

Emma had displayed her “possession” behaviors since she was a teen.  By 1912, she was tormented beyond reason.  Riesinger “exorcised” her that year, completing the ritual on June 18, 1912 (she would have been 30 years old then).

His work came untethered when Emma reverted back to her earlier behaviors.  She continually complained about sexual distractions and claimed she was also tormented by the spirits of her dead father and her deceased Aunt Mina.  Her neuroses, whatever their origins (like Shirley Ardell Mason a couple of decades later), left her unable to act normally.   Riesinger’s concern for Emma was genuine, and he tried to help her in Wisconsin.  He was not successful in ministering to her, however.

Earling, Iowa (overview, church in background)

He had a friend in Father Joseph Steiger, one of the priests of the small, rural community of Earling, Iowa.  Riesinger went there on a missionary visit to that Iowa parish in 1928.

Earling, Iowa, is in the extreme western part of the state in Shelby County, roughly 40 miles (64 km) east of the Nebraska-Iowa border.  It boasted only a few hundred souls.

Amid its nondescript rural charm it did have one thing of keen attraction for Father Riesinger, however.

It had a convent. 

Get Thee to a Nunnery
Riesinger had an idea.  He again contemplated using the exorcism rite as handed down by the Catholic Church for centuries (by 1928 he had conducted several).  The exorcist’s handbook was ancient—it had last been updated in 1614, and it was in this antiquated practice (which had already failed him once in her case) Riesinger felt salvation lay for Emma.

The Convent of Franciscan Sisters was just outside Earling, and it operated in conjunction with the St. Joseph parish there in Earling (reporting to the Des Moines, Iowa, diocese).  Riesinger (rightfully) believed a change of venue might do Emma some good—by removing her from her normal environment he could disorient whatever “demons” possessed her. 

He thought anonymity and discretion were warranted; thus, the little convent in remote Iowa would be a good place for his next exorcism.  There would be no distractions: it was summer in 1928 when he first arrived, and people were simply not interested in the doings of the convent—it was merely another part of the landscape.  [Riesinger’s logic was a bit off.  Earling, Iowa, is almost 400 miles (640 km) away from Emma’s hometown of Marathon, Wisconsin.  Anonymity would have been more readily preserved in a major city than in a small rural community.  He could as easily have done this job in Minneapolis (120 miles west); Milwaukee (130 miles southeast); or Chicago (about 200 miles SSE of Marathon).]
Finally, after having discussed Emma’s case with Bishop Thomas Drumm of the Des Moines diocese, Riesinger received sanction from the Catholic Church to go ahead.

He talked about Emma’s case with the Mother Superior of the Franciscan convent, and secured her written permission to bring the possessed woman to their hostel and keep her in their care while he conducted her exorcism.  As a matter of tact, he also afterward asked permission of his friend Father Steiger to bring this woman into Steiger’s parish (a merely diplomatic gesture; he already had the permissions he needed). 

Emma in Earling
Emma Schmidt arrived in Earling, Iowa, by train, apparently unattended and under her own supervision.  This was the summer of 1928.  Father Riesinger felt this might be the most unobtrusive time for her appearance in town: the farmers were out in the fields, children were otherwise preoccupied, and hardly anyone noticed her arrival.

At the station, Emma was met by a group from the convent to escort her—she hurled sexual invectives at them and later reported an overwhelming urge to attack the Sisters who awaited her.

She was hastily installed in the convent under the supervision of the Franciscan nuns while Father Theophilus Riesinger prepared for her exorcism.  He enlisted the aid of his friend, Father Steiger, and another parish priest, Father Berner.  The nuns also provided moral and spiritual support. 

Emma was not a good guest.  Her blasphemies and sexually-charged foul language were almost non-stop.  She howled like a feral animal and had to be restrained in her convent bed. [It is interesting to note she was able to travel on a train for nearly 400 miles without any reported disturbances.]

Emma was preternaturally wise to religious trickery.  On her first night there, a novitiate brought her a supper that had been blessed.  Emma refused to eat it, shoved it aside, and began a feral act of purring like a cat which she sustained for hours.  Later, believers in her possession would argue that Emma could not possibly have known the foods or blessed objects brought near her were sanctified, thus “proving” her possession by demons. 

Nothing could be further from the truth—Emma would have every reason to believe every object in the place was blessed.  It was, after all, a convent, and she was, after all, there for an exorcism: she could rationally conclude her food and accessories would certainly be blessed as part of the process.  Having already been through the ritual in 1912 she would know what to expect.

Demons of Emma (interpret)

The real work began, and would consume a total of 23 days.  Exorcisms rarely succeed quickly; most may take weeks to reach a conclusion.  The process is lengthy by design: the constant prayer and vigilance, the continual interrogation of the “demons”, the “assaults” with holy water and Scripture are all forms of mentally wearing down the victim.  Finally exhausted the “demons” leave the victim (realistically, it is the victim who gives up the “demons”, not the other way around). 

The First Session: August 18 - August 26, 1928
Emma’s first session began with opening prayers and invocations for the possessed to reveal the names of the demons dwelling within her.   Emma was placed on a bed, with a group of Sisters nearby. As the prayers continued, a witness reported:

“With lightning speed the possessed dislodged herself from her bed and from the hands of her guards; and her body, carried through the air, landed high above the door of the room and clung to the wall with a tenacious grip.  All present were struck with a trembling fear.  Father Theophilus alone kept his peace.”

It was reported Emma was forcibly removed from the wall, returned to bed, and restrained. 

Although it was claimed Emma’s lips never moved a “loud, shrill voice rent the air . . . as though it were far off, somewhere in a desert”.  All present, except for Riesinger, were “struck with a terrible fear that penetrated the very marrow of their bones”. 

Emma’s condition worsened.

She willfully soiled herself as the exorcism progressed over the next few days, and the stench in the room was terrific.  She ate no solid food, contenting herself with a little milk or water.  Despite her lack of food intake, she vomited multiple times daily.  The material was described alternately as exceedingly dark, “like tobacco juice”, or a bilious green.  The nuns were kept busy cleaning up after her, and Riesinger doggedly kept on.

Emma screamed, moaned, and howled, sometimes for hours on end.  After a few days of this, townspeople got wind that something was going on at the convent, and they gathered on the grounds to try to get a look at what all the fuss was about.

Fathers Steiger and Berner kept them outside despite many who tried bribery and threats to get in and see for themselves what was happening. 

The Second Session: September 13 - September 20, 1928
Renewed activity after a rest period for Father Riesinger followed a similar course as the first session.  His physically wrestling with the 46-year-old Emma (described as “small of stature”) and his exhortations left him wringing wet with sweat so badly he had to change clothes at least twice a day.  Emma’s constant expectorating and vomiting on him did not help his wardrobe stay clean, either.

As for Emma herself, she was wasting away from the constant defecating and vomiting without eating much.  This, of course, alarmed the priests, who tried to get her to eat.  [In 1976, a similar problem of not eating during an exorcism would kill the German girl, Anneliese Michel, the real-life inspiration behind 2005’s horror movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose.]

During some sessions, Emma’s face reportedly bloated and swelled like an inflating balloon.  Her face “became so distorted that no one could recognize her”.  It suffused with blood; her head swelled, her eyes bulged, and her lips grew (to the “size of hands”).  During these “inflating” sessions, her abdomen allegedly expanded to its bursting point, only to deflate suddenly, turning “so hard and heavy that the iron bedstead would bend under the enormous weight”.

Environmental histrionics aside, Father Riesinger ably coaxed the names of Emma’s “demons” from her.  Perhaps not to his great surprise, considering the abuses Emma claimed from her childhood (beyond the obligatory Beelzebub and the strangely placed Judas Iscariot), her other two invaders were her father, Jacob, and her aunt, Mina.

Beelzebub’s presence is obvious.  Judas (hanging himself after betraying Jesus to the Romans) was probably internalized because Emma had tried to commit suicide several times in her life.  Jacob’s presence may have been a clear signal that, despite Emma’s protests to the contrary, he may have managed to rape her more than once.  Finally, Mina’s invasion can be accounted for by Emma’s disdain for the adulterous relationship between Mina and her father while Emma’s mother was still alive.

The demons spoke, though, and in voices suited to each character.  All wished to see Emma suffer and burn in Hell.  Mina obliquely reported from the Beyond she had killed.  Queries led this Mina-demon to answer “little ones” when asked whom she had killed.  Without further interrogation, it was automatically assumed Mina had killed children, probably her own though no one ever claimed she had ever been a mother.  [It is presumably from this oblique reference that almost every source jumps to the conclusion that Mina was a murderess].

The alternative explanation, of course, is that Mina had multiple abortions.  If she were in a long-term affair with a married man, certainly pregnancy could be a problem.  This would make sense, and her vestigial Victorian sensibilities would have left her feeling as if she had, indeed, “killed little ones”. 

Mina and Jacob were long dead, though, so it is apparent both somehow psychically scarred Emma for her to carry their “spirits”—burning in Hell as they were—within her. 

It is almost certain those two formed the crux of Emma’s possession delusion—Beelzebub and Judas were merely window dressing.

The Third Session: December 15 - December 23, 1928
The assisting nuns and Father Steiger were so frightened of Emma and the macabre proceedings (not to mention the unbearable stench) that not one of them stayed in her room for the entire exorcism.  Instead, this group worked in shifts. 

Only the exorcist Riesinger remained steadfast and vigilant.  The rigors of Emma’s exorcism were taking a toll on him, though.  He was 60 years old; when he resumed his work in December 1928 he reportedly had aged several years in appearance over the past couple of months.  

Father Joseph Steiger developed reservations about the exorcism early in its proceedings when results were not immediate.  He was disheartened and began to feel embarrassed by the medieval ritual in which he participated.  He was further discomfited when he had an automobile accident, driving his car off into a ravine while on an errand to a parishioner’s house.  When he got back to the convent to reluctantly continue helping with the exorcism, Emma chortled derisively, “It serves you right!” in reference, he presumed, to his car wreck. 

He was certain Emma could not have known of his accident.  When questioned, all the participants said they had not divulged this information to her.  [This is an obvious lie—nothing as interesting as a priest wrecking his car would remain unknown for long in a small town.  Either the person who let it slip to Emma about the wreck was too embarrassed to speak up, or the guilty party was not in attendance for questioning then.]  Regardless, Emma’s “supernatural” knowledge of his accident left Steiger agitated. 

During the exorcism Emma displayed a knack for languages with which some believed she had no experience.  She allegedly understood Latin and German.  This was perceived as a true sign of possession.  Believers point to her “elementary” education as proof she was possessed; she had no formal foreign language training; therefore, her understanding of these languages meant she was invaded by spirits. 

Certainly, one could draw that conclusion, but it would be wrong.  The Catholic Church, up until the mid 20th Century, conducted it masses in Latin, and any devout child or adult knew rudimentary Latin in the earliest years of that century.  Father Riesinger was German (in fact, he conducted this exorcism mostly in German as that was the language with which he was most comfortable).  Marathon, Wisconsin, lies in a state heavily settled by German people—Emma most certainly would have been exposed to the German language in her life time (consciously or not).

She still, however, reviled the holy objects brought near her.  She writhed and blasphemed under the prayers offered.  She also expectorated copiously (a noxious visual device used to great effect in 1973’s blockbuster, The Exorcist).   Through it all, her physical state deteriorated to the point of death. 

Father Riesinger kept hammering at Emma’s psyche.  He willed the demons to leave.  In late December he felt a shift in the dynamic of the exorcism.  Her vocal protestations against his prayers weakened into mewling moans and not the lung-bursting screams she’d previously used.  He commanded each demon by name to return to Hell, over and over repeating the order.

He hoped it was near completion: he was at the end of his physical endurance and began to doubt he had the stamina to finish the task.  The Sisters, too, were overwrought. 

Apparently, however, Riesinger had somehow gotten through to Emma.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux (July 1896)
She reported to one of the nuns that St. Thérèse of Lisieux had spoken to her.  St. Thérèse (1873-1897) was the co-patron saint of France, along with Jeanne d’Arc.  She had been canonized in 1925, just three years before Emma’s exorcism.  Tellingly, she was the patron saint of people who had lost their parents (as Emma had lost hers, her mother dying while she was still in her more impressionable years).  Emma claimed St. Thérèse had told her, “Do not lose courage!  The end is soon at hand.” 

The gathered group then observed the image of roses on the ceiling of Emma’s cell.  Such a vision was held traditionally as evidence of Thérèse's intervention.  [The “roses” were almost certainly a pareidolia experience, the mind’s eye forming images out of cracks and stains on the plaster work.]

One odd thing about Emma’s exorcism was that during the recitations she lay still with her eyes closed.  Any voices coming from her body purporting to be those of demons were somehow projected while her lips were tightly closed. 

Riesinger, however, had gotten through—she was held down as she thrashed about, but broke away from her handlers.  She allegedly stood erect upon her bed, rising to the upright position straight as a board from a prone position.   At the same time, Father Riesinger commanded once more for the demons to leave her.

Emma’s thrown voice from behind compressed lips roll-called: “Beelzebub!  Judas!  Jacob!  Mina!  Hell . . . Hell . . . Hell!”  As theses voices faded away, Emma opened her eyes.

She spoke sanely for the first time since the exorcism began: “Praised be Jesus Christ!”

In 1999, the Vatican issued revised guidelines for its exorcism ritual.  This protocol had not been updated since 1614, and it was the older version Father Riesinger used in exorcising Emma Schmidt.  Even so, then as

'Of All Kinds of Exorcisms & Supplications' (cover)
now, the Church made efforts to eliminate all other rational explanations.  [Emma was examined by medical doctors in Wisconsin who claimed to find nothing wrong with her physically.]

The Catholic Church today rarely sanctions an exorcism, as most “possession” cases, upon investigation, clearly are attributable to histrionics (faking), or psychiatric or organic conditions.

However, the Church will authorize such action if and only if after its investigation it, too, can find no physically rooted cause to the “possession”.  Even then, the Church will only claim the possession is a mystery.  It does not claim a person is possessed by demons—its stand on the issue is not only appropriate but politic.  Church officials will recognize the need for an exorcism, as almost all religions recognize the placebo effect as a palliative for a person suffering a “spiritual” crisis.

Exorcists today are schooled in modern psychiatry as well; many have been able to direct “possessed” people to proper psychiatric treatment rather than feed the sufferer’s delusions by performing the Exorcism Rite.  A spokesperson for the Church described the process of exorcism as following a formal request sanctioned by a bishop that includes extensive investigative work (including medical and psychiatric evaluations).

As a result of this vetting process the Church has, in recent years, only concluded a handful (out of thousands of claimants annually) that are considered sufficiently “mystic”.  Those supernatural experiences the Church reports as “unexplained” (even though the exorcisms were successful).  They do not automatically jump to the conclusion a sufferer is possessed by a demon (or even Satan).  The Church rightfully reports it does not know the cause, only that the exorcism was the apparent cure.

As with her life up to the time of the exorcism, precious little is known about Emma Schmidt afterward.  She returned to Wisconsin.  Apparently no longer suffering from demonic possession she was allowed to resume a normal life.  This involved her attending Mass as she saw fit without resistance from “unseen forces”, and she apparently became very devout.  Her time, place, and date of death are all unknown.

It was reported that within a year of Emma’s exorcism, all of the Sisters who assisted in her exorcism had asked for transfers from the Earling convent.  They carried too many bad memories of the experience.  The convent structure is gone from Earling—it fell into disrepair and was torn down in the late 1990s or early 2000s.

The Earling, Iowa, exorcism was documented by Fathers Riesinger and Steiger for Church evaluation.  With Church permission the case was written up by Father Carl Vogl, a German cleric who was not present at the exorcism.  He did, however, interview as many of the participants who would coöperate, and other witnesses about the event.  He then wrote a treatise on the case. 

A German magazine article, based upon Vogl’s story of Emma, appeared.  In 1935, Father Celestine Kapsner, a member and gardener of an abbey in Minneapolis, found this.  He ran down Vogl’s original German work.  He requested permission of the Catholic Church to translate it into English, and for the Church to allow it to be published as a case history of exorcism.  The Catholic Church put its official seal of approval on Father Kapsner’s translation of this German case account, and it was published in pamphlet form in late 1935 under the title Begone Satan!

The pamphlet was wildly successful.  Vogl, the German author, had spared no lurid detail of Emma’s history nor did he spare the squeamish from morbid or gross details (her vomit is described in graphic detail).  The document, however, is suspect, not because of Father Kapsner’s translation, but because of its source. 

Although Father Riesinger was German, it is highly unlikely that he would have broken confidences and divulged any particulars about Emma’s exorcism to anyone outside Church circles.  By the time of the pamphlet’s appearance he had conducted either 19 or 22 exorcisms (sources vary), and the details of none of those were published.  That implies the original German writer got his information from dubious sources.  Perhaps it was a townsperson or an attendant at the convent who only may have “heard” things or seen things taken out of context.  For example, this party may have seen a nun remove a slop pan filled with vomit early in the morning; later, this same person may have witnessed the removal of a second vomit pail the same day and erroneously inferred that Emma had vomited almost non-stop throughout the day.

Today’s Catholic Church would probably have not allowed such slipshod reporting to stand as its official published record on the case.  The writing is florid, tainted with extreme subjectivity and sensationalized details.  Quoted dialogue is obviously contrived (Vogl was not present for the exorcism) and embellished by liberal literary license.  It lacks the jaundiced and objective eye of the investigator.  However, although it is a third-hand account, it is a compelling read, and its influence lived in later years in pop culture.

William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist
Blatty’s 1971 novel about demonic possession of a teen girl named Regan in Georgetown, Maryland, was a best seller. 

The book uses, as its setting, Maryland, and Regan’s age, from a case in the 1940s known popularly as the “Robbie Mannheim” exorcism.  Mannheim, a teen boy, displayed signs of possession and underwent multiple exorcisms, ending in St. Louis.  Blatty alleges that his book relies on the Mannheim case as the basis for its narrative.  However, the details of the possessed person’s behavior—the girl, Regan—in the book are clearly derived from Emma Schmidt’s case. 

Blatty was a college student when Mannheim’s pseudonymous case made headlines.  He was also old enough to know of Emma’s case, and savvy enough to mine it for its most titillating details.

According to Begone Satan! (the earliest public record of Emma’s exorcism), she displayed the following behaviors:

1. inhuman strength, requiring up to six “athletic” nuns to hold her down.

2. she levitated more than once

3. she “wall-crawled”—leaping from her bed onto the wall above a door.  She held on to the wall in a crouching, insectile position, apparently defying gravity

4. voices spoke, blaspheming and verbally assaulting those in attendance while Emma was allegedly unconscious.  The voices emanated not through her compressed lips but from her throat

5. she vomited, spat, drooled, urinated, and defecated solids and fluids at levels all out of proportion to her intake of sustenance.  She allegedly urinated “buckets’ worth of liquid”

6. her vomit was described as having debris in it resembling chewing tobacco leaves (possibly self-ingested).  Other vomit contained what looked like spices.

7. her head elongated and swelled at times.  Her body appeared to expand, bloating severely.  Then it would retract.  Her lips swelled to outlandish dimensions

8. she showed signs of “possessed gravity” (while lying in bed she became so heavy the bed sank and the iron frame was bent).

9. she spoke languages which she did not know (an unfounded conclusion as no one knew what she did or did not know prior to her arrival).

10. she allegedly knew hidden things about the exorcism participants, secrets she revealed, reciting sins her tormenters had committed in childhood

11. swarms of flies and mosquitoes would suddenly manifest; just as quickly they disappeared

12. inhuman and unbearable smells were present, constantly assaulting the senses of those present (not surprising, as Emma defecated and vomited copiously throughout the three sessions)

Blatty claimed his book was based upon the Robbie Mannheim case (the teen Robbie himself was probably familiar with Emma Schmidt’s case as the pamphlet made for lurid reading). 

Every element of

Demon Woman
Emma Schmidt’s outward displays of possession found their way into Blatty’s book: the green vomit (now satirized in the vernacular as “pea soup”), the levitations, the foul language, the unrequited release of bodily functions. 

Robbie Mannheim did not exhibit nearly the level of neurotic histrionics as Emma Schmidt. 

The only real similarity between the Mannheim case and the novel, The Exorcist, is the rough age of its victim (13 years old) and its setting (Maryland).   Virtually every iconic element of The Exorcist comes directly from the Emma Schmidt case, which predates Blatty’s reference case by two decades. 

When searching for the true source behind The Exorcist it is probably wiser to look askance at a 13-year-old boy and look, instead, to the 46-year-old Emma Schmidt.  She was the subject of America’s first famous exorcism. 

Today, no one seems to know her name.  


Trucker Man
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Jan 5, 2012 3:03am
It would be difficult to find a better storyteller than you, my friend. Even when the subject matter is initially not that interesting to me, I find myself immersed in the tale nonetheless.
Jan 5, 2012 3:08am
Hey, that makes it kinda sound like I'm doing what I aim for -- thanks for the compliment. And thanks for taking the time to read about Emma Schmidt (all 5K+ words of her!!)
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