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The Exorcist: Father Theophilus Riesinger and the Possession of Anna Ecklund

23 days of exorcism drained the priest—and the demons.

In 1935, Rev. Celestine Kapsner translated a German magazine article by Reverend Carl Vogl and published it as a 48-page booklet titled Begone, Satan! The entire account can be read here, courtesy of Archive.org.

Although only intended to illustrate Satan’s power to seminary students, the story of a 1928 exorcism quickly spread to Catholic and secular publications alike. In so doing, the reverend at the story's center, Theophilus Riesinger, also became America’s foremost exorcists, with a 1936 Time article labeling him a “potent and mystic exorcist of demons.”

The controversial episode of a Wisconsin woman’s possession and exorcism has since become the most prominent and publicized exorcism cases in American history. 

What follows are the details of the Anna Ecklund case, as claimed by Reverend Vogl in Begone, Satan!

Related: 8 Paranormal Books You Haven’t Read Yet but Should 

Riesinger was born in Germany in 1868 but joined the Capuchin order in Wisconsin in 1899. By 1912, he was well-known for his expertise in exorcisms and so was called upon when a young woman by the name of Anna Ecklund (sometimes referred to as Emma Schmidt) reported possession symptoms. 

Starting at the age of 14, Ecklund had grown an aversion to holy objects. Although raised in a Catholic household in Marathon, Wisconsin, she found herself unable to enter churches, as if an unseen force held her back. In 1912, Riesinger was called in to perform an exorcism on Ecklund, and successfully purged her of her demonsor so he believed. 

father theophilus riesinger
  • St. Joseph's Parish

  • Photo Credit: St. Joseph Catholic Church / Facebook

In 1928, Anna Ecklund again found herself unable to pray or go to church, much less receive the sacraments that connected Ecklund to her faith. The spirits’ sinister voices now dogged her every step, pressing her to commit terrible acts. Anna despaired, feeling that she must be losing her mind. Riesinger contended that the demons had redoubled their efforts. He believed, as explained by the Catholic mythos, that she was being possessed by the returned demon, who brought seven fellow spirits with him. These spirits would make exorcism exceedingly difficult. 

Related: 9 Real-Life Cases of Exorcism and Demonic Possession 

Riesinger well knew the stakes and the potential trouble an exorcism could cause. After the first rite, rumors spread that Anna had become possessed because of her father Jacob’s incestuous advances, or perhaps because her aunt Mina had practiced black magic as a witch. With the suffering woman’s soul on the line and the potential for intense local backlash, Riesinger consulted with his friend, Reverend Joseph Steiger of St. Joseph’s parish in Earling, Iowa. Together, they decided to bring Anna to an isolated convent in Earling, run by the Franciscan Sisters to ensure privacy and protection. There, they began the preparations for the woman's exorcism.

The Exorcism 

father theophilus riesiner
  • Father Theophilus Riesinger

  • Photo Credit: Alchetron

Upon receiving the Mother Superior’s permission, the reverends brought Anna to the convent on August 17, 1928. She immediately refused food that had been blessed and could sense when holy water had been sprinkled ahead of time, hissing in aversion. The first of three sessions began on Anna the next day as she was bound to an iron bed to prevent any dangerous behavior. With years of experience, Riesinger also fully expected her to attack during the ceremony. He had the strongest sisters from the convent standing by to assist.

Yet, nothing had prepared the reverends for what happened next. As they spoke the opening prayers, Anna sank into a deep sleep with her eyes shut tight. Then, as they officially began the rite of exorcism, she allegedly ripped through her restraints, leapt into the air, and clung to the wall above the room’s door. Theophilus had the sisters drag Anna from the wall and into the bed, restraining her even as she made inhuman howls that would last through the end of the first session on August 26.

Related: Possessed: The Real-Life Exorcism of Roland Doe 

Over the following two sessions, from September 13 to 20 and December 15 to 23, Anna deteriorated quickly. Although she ate less and less, she regularly vomited impossible amounts during the exorcisms. The vomit seemed to consist primarily of tobacco leaves and other debris. At the same time, the demons inside of Anna began to physically change and distort her body. Not only did her head swell and elongate, but her face became so disfigured that few recognized the humble woman who had arrived at the convent. By the end, she had become a pale, deathlike figure–her body emaciated and her eyes glowing like red embers. 

The Demons Inside

father theophilus riesinger
  • A dramatization of the exorcism in "The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund"

  • Photo Credit: North Bank Entertainment

As the exorcism progressed, Anna's behavior also changed. She began to produce an impossible amount of urine and feces in addition to the vomit. Anna also responded to the priest’s actions with vitriol, foaming at the mouth whenever Riesinger spoke Latin blessings.

On one occasion, her body even expanded to twice its normal size, causing the sisters in the room to wince in fear of the woman bursting. Anna spoke in languages she had never heard before and could list the childhood sins of the nuns and priests around her. After a short time, several sisters asked to leave their home for a less troubled convent. 

They could hardly be blamed, as Anna’s transformation continued. Her once soft voice often sank into a guttural growl capable of creating impossible sounds. Her body grew heavy, and pressed upon the iron-wrought bed frame with such weight that it bent. Even as she slept she muttered in unsettling tongues, blaspheming God and verbally assaulting anyone in the room. Hope remained, though, as Anna could be brought back to her senses by blessed or holy objects.

Related: 9 Unholy Demonic Possession and Exorcism Movies 

The longer they chased that hope, the closer to evil Riesinger, Steiger, and the sisters found themselves. When directly asked about the spirits within her, Anna listed several, with Beelzebub as their leader. However, she noted that she had been possessed at the command of her father, Jacob, and his mistress, Mina, with the help of Lucifer himself.

By her account, the first exorcism had failed because Jacob and Mina had continued to poison her food with cursed spices. The duo had been damned and now joined the demon hordes within Anna. When asked what business the spirits had with her, a voice claiming to be Judas Iscariot finally replied, “To bring her to despair, so that she will commit suicide and hang herself!”

A Vision and an End

the exorcist
  • Still from "The Exorcist"

  • Photo Credit: Warner Bros.

With the demons identified, the exorcism would soon come to an end. On December 23, 1928, the final session began. Anna Ecklund stood upright on her bed and collapsed, screaming at the top of her lungs. Once her shouts reached a fever pitch, an unearthly stench passed through the room, and Anna quieted. She opened her eyes. Then, she spoke in a clear voice, for the first time in many months. After 23 days, the exorcism was over, and the evil was gone.

Related: 6 Modern-Day Cases of Demonic Hauntings 

In the years that followed, Ecklund was able to live a relatively peaceful existence. Her identity was kept secret. Reverend Steiger lived out a full life. And as more and more people read Begone, Satan! Riesinger's stature grew. Prior to his passing in 1941, he was well known throughout the Catholic community, and was featured in Time magazine in 1936.

The exorcism lives in in pop culture as well. William Peter Blatty drew on the events in Earling while crafting The Exorcist, among other well-known exorcism cases. The case was also adapted into the movie The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund. Even in Earling, there is a legend that demonic claw marks permanently mar a door in the local convent, the last evidence of an epic battle between good and evil. 

Published on 22 Sep 2017

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