The Exorcist: Father Theophilus Riesinger and the Possession of Anna Ecklund
Father Theophilus Riesiner became America’s foremost exorcist, with a 1936 Time article labeling him a “potent and mystic exorcist of 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!. Although intended to illustrate Satan’s power to seminary students, the publication quickly spread the story of a 1928 exorcism to Catholic and public publications alike. In so doing, the reverend at its center, Theophilus Riesiner, also became America’s foremost exorcist, with a 1936 Time article labeling him a “potent and mystic exorcist of demons”.

More importantly, this controversial case of a Wisconsin woman’s possession and exorcism has since become the most prominent and publicized case in American history.

Related: Bitten by the Devil: The Strange Possession of Eleonore Zugun

Riesinger was born in Germany in 1868 but joined the Capuchin order in Wisconsin in 1899. By 1912, he was well-known for an 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. From age 14, Ecklund had grown an aversion to holy objects and an obsession with deprived sexuality. While raised in a Catholic household in Marathon, Wisconsin, she found herself unable to enter churches, as an unseen force held her back. Fortunately, Riesinger was able to exorcise her demons – along with those of over 20 other faithful in the coming years.

Then, in 1928, the bishop of Des Moines called on him to perform the rite of exorcism on Anna a second time. As a 46-year-old woman, she 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 simply be going insane, but Riesinger knew that the demons had redoubled their efforts. In particular, within the Catholic mythos, a returned demon brings 7 fellow spirits with him – making exorcism almost impossible.

The Exorcist: Father Theophilus Riesinger and the Possession of Anna Ecklund
Image credit: Mary L. Martin. Interior view of St. Joseph’s Church, Earling, Iowa.

Riesinger well knew the stakes and the potential trouble an exorcism could cause. After the first rite, Anna had dealt with rumors that she’d become possessed because of her father, Jacob’s incestuous advances or because her aunt Mina had practiced black magicks as a witch. With the suffering woman’s immortal soul on the line and the potential for 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, local convent run by the Franciscan Sisters to ensure privacy and protection. There, they began their preparations.

The Exorcism

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, to the point that she would hiss in aversion. The first of 3 sessions began on Ecklund’s the next day, as she was bound to an iron bed to prevent any tricks. With years of experience, Riesinger also fully expected her to attack during the ceremony, so he also had the strongest sisters on standby to assist.

Yet, nothing had prepared the Reverends for what happened next. As they spoke the prescribed prayers to start, Anna sank into a deep sleep with her eyes shut impossibly tight. Then, as they officially began the rite of exorcism, she leapt into the air, ripped through the restraints, and clung to the wall above the room’s door. Theophilus alone seemed unperturbed and 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 session, on August 26th.

Related: Five Modern Cases of Demonic Hauntings and Possessions

Over the following two sessions, from September 13th to 20th and December 15th to 23rd, Ecklund deteriorated fast. Although she began to eat less and less, she regularly vomited impossible amounts during the exorcisms, including 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 often glowing like red embers.

The Demons Inside

As the exorcism progressed, Ecklund’s behavior also changed – the hellish creatures within her revealing themselves in full. She began to defecate impossible amounts of shit and urine, on top of the vomit that seemed to come from hell itself. Anna also responded to the priest’s actions with vitriol – foaming at the mouth in rage 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 also spoke in languages she had never heard before and could list the childhood sins of the nuns and priest around her. In a short time, several sisters asked to leave their home for a less troubled convent.

The Exorcist: Father Theophilus Riesinger and the Possession of Anna Ecklund
Father Theophilus Riesinger pictured outside St. Joseph’s Church in Appleton.

They could hardly be blamed, as Anna’s transformation continued. By the final session, she exuded an inhuman odor of rot, even as hordes of flies appeared and disappeared around her. Her body seemed to turn to stone at times, especially her abdomen and extremities, which pressed upon the iron-wrought bed frame with such weight that it bent. Her once soft voice often sank into a guttural growl capable of creating impossible sounds. Even as she slept, the creatures came to the surface – whispering without moving her lips, blaspheming God, and verbally assaulting anyone in her room. Hope remained, though, as Anna could be brought back to her senses by blessed or holy objects.

The farther they chased that hope, though, the closer to evil Riesinger, Steiger, and the sisters found themselves. When directly asked about the spirits within her, Ecklund listed several, with Beelzebub as their leader. However, she noted that she had been possessed at the command of her father, Jacob, and aunt Mina, with the help of Lucifer himself. By her account, the first exorcism had failed because they had continued to poison her food with cursed spices. The duo had been damned and now joined the demon hordes within Anna – Jacob for sexually assaulting his daughter and Mina for committing 4 abortions in her life. 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

With the demons identified, the exorcism would soon come to an end on December 23, 1928. However, by this point, even with the breaks in between, the reverends were exhausted. At the very end, Riesinger, in particular, looked as though he had aged 20 years over just a few days. Before the end, though, they experienced the only case of exorcism where the exorcists had a waning vision of the powers of hell. In the final half hour of the last day of Ecklund’s rite, both reverends saw a crowned Lucifer and hairy Beelzebub appear in the corner of the room. Although confined to that space by God himself, they seethed with rage as the room filled with flame, bitter that holy law forbade them from harming anyone present.

The Exorcist: Father Theophilus Riesinger and the Possession of Anna Ecklund
Cornelis Galle I, “Lucifer” (c. 1595). (Courtesy Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University).

Afterwards, the possessed Anna Ecklund stood upright on her bed and collapsed, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Beelzebub, Judas, Jacob, Mina! Hell! Hell! Hell!” After several repetitions, an unearthly stench passed through the room, and Anna opened her eyes. Then, she spoke in a clear voice, for the first time in many months, “My Jesus, mercy! Praised be Jesus Christ!” After the 23 days that the combined sessions of the rite had lasted, the exorcism was over, and the devils had been returned to hell.

In the years to come, Ecklund was able to live a relatively peaceful existence; with her identity concealed, the only troubles she had were a few milder possessions, as one or two spirits temporarily returned. Steiger, though the demons had threatened to cause his death by car accident, lived out a full life. As accounts of the case established it as the classic American exorcism, Riesinger became a world-renowned exorcist before passing in 1941.

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For him, the stakes had been high, as the reverend’s writings reveal his belief that the end times were coming soon, with Judas controlling the Antichrist. Meanwhile, the case served as the only exorcism officially sanctioned by the Catholic Church, even as it shaped popular beliefs about spirits and demons. Not only did the events in Earling inspire William Peter Blatty’s portrayal of possession in The Exorcist, but the film adaptation has informed popular beliefs, as well. Even in Earling, there is a legend that demonic claw marks mar a door in the local convent – as the last evidence of an epic battle between Heaven and Hell.

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