A Methodist Exorcism: 1763

Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, by William Hogarth, 1761

Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, by William Hogarth, 1762

Today let us look at an account of an 18th-century Protestant exorcism. It may be difficult to look beyond the conventional religious sentiments in the following passages (which I do not mean to ridicule), but I was struck by the paranormal elements and parallels to some poltergeist cases.  The story comes from the Rev. John Wesley’s journal dated 1 October 1763 [Vol. iii, p. 149].  The location is London:  Wesley writes that he was in town on this date and Rosamond’s Pond is mentioned, a pond in St James’s Park, near what is now Buckingham Palace, and, at the time, an unsavory site, notorious for crime and illicit assignations. The persons named are associates of Charles Wesley, but if the narrator was actually Charles, I would have  expected John to name him in this, his own private journal.  The narrator seems to be a fellow Methodist enthusiast.  If he had been a Church of England clergyman, he would have had the service of exorcism provided in the Book of Common Prayer at his disposal instead of offering prayers and hymns. Perhaps the case, being both “natural and diabolical” did not seem to warrant a full exorcism or perhaps there was no time to apply for a license from the bishop? 

October 1, 1763.

I now received a very strange account from a man of sense as well as integrity.

“I asked M. S. many questions before she would give me any answer. At length, after much persuasion, she said, ‘On old Michaelmas Day was three years, I was sitting by myself at my father’s with a Bible before me, and one whom I took to be my uncle came into the room and sat down by me. He talked to me some time, till, not liking his discourse, I looked more carefully at him; he was dressed like my uncle, but I observed one of his feet was just like that of an ox. Then I was much frighted, and he began torturing me sadly, and told me he would torture me ten times more if I would not swear to kill my father, which at last I did. He said he would come again on that day four years, between half-past two and three o’clock.

“‘I have several times since strove to write this down, but when I did, the use of my hand was taken from me ; I strove to speak it, but whenever I did, my speech was taken from me; and I am afraid I shall be tormented a deal more for what I have spoken now.’

“Presently she fell into such a fit as was dreadful to look upon; one would have thought she would be torn to pieces. Several persons could scarce hold her; till, after a time, she sank down as dead.

“From that Michaelmas day she was continually tormented with the thought of killing her father, as likewise of killing herself, which she often attempted, but was as often hindered. Once she attempted to cut her own throat; once to throw herself into Rosamond’s Pond; several times to strangle herself, which, once or twice, was, with much difficulty, prevented.

“Her brother, fearing lest she should at last succeed in her attempt, and finding her fits come more frequently, got a strait-waistcoat made for her, such as they use at Bedlam. It was made of strong ticking, with two straps on the shoulders to fasten her down to the bed, one across her breast, another across her middle, and another across her knees; one likewise was buckled on each leg, and fastened to the side of the bed. The arms of the waistcoat drew over her fingers and fastened like a purse. In a few minutes after she was thus secured, her brother coming to the bed found she was gone. After some time he found she was up the chimney, so high up that he could scarce touch her feet. When Mary Loftus [The Wesleys were descended from the primate of Ireland, Adam Loftus. I don’t know if this Loftus is a relative or an Irish-surnamed servant.] called her she came down, having her hands as fast as ever.

“The night after I fastened her arms to her body with new straps over and above the rest. She looked at me and laughed, then gave her hands a slight turn and all the fastenings were off.

“In the morning Mr Spark(s) [Rev. Sparks, a close friend of Charles Wesley.] came. On our telling him this he said, ‘But I will take upon me to fasten her so that she shall not get loose.’ Accordingly he sent for some girth-web, with which he fastened her arms to her sides, first above her elbows round her body, then below her elbows; then he put it round each wrist, and braced them down to each side of the bedstead. After this she was quiet a night and a day, then all this was off like the rest.

“After this we did not tie her down any more, only watched over her night and day. I asked the physician that attended her whether it was a natural disorder? He said, ‘Partly natural, partly diabolical.’ We then judged there was no remedy but prayer, which was made for her or with her continually, though while any were praying with her she was tormented more than ever.

“The Friday before Michaelmas day last Mr W. [Perhaps the Rev. Washington of Queen’s College, another associate of Charles Wesley.] came to see her. He asked, ‘Do you know me? ’ She said, ‘No, you all appear to me like blackamoors’ ‘But do you not know my voice?’ ‘No, I know no one’s voice except Molly L.’ ‘Do you pray God to help you? ’ ‘No, I cannot pray, God will never help me; I belong to the devil, and he will have me; he will take me body and soul on Monday.’ ‘Would you have me pray for you? ’ ‘No, indeed, for when people pray he torments me worse than ever.’ In her fits she was at first convulsed all over, seeming in an agony of pain, and screaming terribly; then she began cursing, swearing, and blaspheming in the most horrid manner; then she burst into vehement fits of laughter; then sunk down as dead. All this time she was quite senseless; then she fetched a deep sigh, and recovered her sense and understanding, but was so weak that she could not speak to be heard unless you put your ear almost close to her mouth.

“When Mr W. began praying she began screaming, so that a mob quickly gathered about the house; however, he prayed on till the convulsions and screaming ceased, and she came to her senses much sooner than usual. What most surprised us was that she continued in her senses, and soon after began to pray herself.

“On Sunday evening Mr W. came again, asked her many questions, pressed her to call upon God for power to believe, and then prayed with her. She then began to pray again, and continued in her senses longer than she had done for a month before, but still insisted that the devil ‘would come the next day between two and three and take her away.’

“She begged me to sit up with her that night, which I willingly did. About four in the morning she burst out into a flood of tears, crying, ‘What shall I do? What shall I do? I cannot stand this day; this day I shall be lost.’ I went to prayer with her, and exhorted her to pray for faith, and her agony ceased.

“About half an hour after ten, ten of us came together, as we had agreed the day before. I said, ‘Is there any among you who does not believe that

God is able and willing to deliver this soul?’ They answered with one voice, ‘We believe He both can and will deliver her this day.’ I then fastened her down to the bed on both sides, and set two on each side to hold her if need were. We began laying her case before the Lord and claiming His promise on her behalf. Immediately Satan raged vehemently. He caused her to roar in an uncommon manner, then to shriek, so that it went through our heads, then to bark like a dog. Then her face was distorted to an amazing degree, her mouth being drawn from ear to ear, and her eyes turned opposite ways, and starting as if they would start out of her head. Presently her throat was so convulsed, that she appeared to be quite strangled; then the convulsions were in her bowels, and her body swelled as if ready to burst. At other times she was stiff from head to foot as an iron bar, being at the same time wholly deprived of her senses and motion, not even breathing at all. Soon after her body was so writhed, one would have thought all her bones must be dislocated.

“We continued in prayer, one after another, till about twelve o’clock. One then said, ‘I must go, I can stay no longer.’ Another and another said the same, till we were upon the point of breaking up. I said, ‘What is this? Will you all give place to the devil? Are you still ignorant of Satan’s devices? Shall we leave this poor soul in his hands?’ Presently the cloud vanished away. We all saw the snare, and resolved to wrestle with God till we had the petition we asked of Him. We began singing a hymn, and quickly found His Spirit was in the midst of us; but the more earnestly we prayed, the more violently the enemy raged. It was with great difficulty that four of us could hold her down; frequently we thought she would have been torn out of our arms. By her looks and motions we judged she saw him in a visible shape. She laid fast hold on Molly L. and me with inexpressible eagerness, and soon burst into a flood of tears, crying, ‘Lord, save, or I perish. I will believe; Lord, give me power to believe; help my unbelief.’ Afterwards she lay quiet for about fifteen minutes. I then asked, ‘Do you now believe Christ will save you, and have you the desire to pray to Him? ’ She answered, ‘I have a little desire, but I want power to believe.’ We bid her keep asking for the power and looking unto Jesus. I then gave out a hymn, and she earnestly sang with us these words:

‘O Sun of Righteousness arise,
With healing in Thy wing!
To my diseas’d, my fainting soul,
Life and salvation bring.’

[written by John Wesley.]

“I now looked at my watch, and told her ‘It is half an hour past two; that is the time when the devil said he would come for you.’ But, blessed be to God, instead of a tormentor, he sent a Comforter. Jesus appeared to her soul and rebuked the enemy, though still some fear remained; but at three it was all gone, and she mightily rejoiced in the God of her salvation. It was a glorious sight. Her fierce countenance was changed, and she looked innocent as a child. And we all partook of the blessing, for Jesus filled our souls with a love which no tongue can express. We then offered up our joint praises to God for His unspeakable mercies, and left her full of faith and love and joy in God her Saviour.”

The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., edited by Nehemiah Curnock, 1909 

John Wesley grew up in the rectory at Epworth where the family was haunted by poltergeist activities and compiled an account of the phenomenon. He was both interested in and skeptical about supernatural manifestations.  Another excerpt from his Journal:

Sunday, 25–In the afternoon God was eminently present with us, though rather to comfort than convince. But I observed a remarkable difference, since I was here (Everton) before, as to the manner of the work. None now were in trances, none cried out, none fell down or were convulsed; only some trembled exceedingly, a low murmur was heard, and many were refreshed with the multitude of peace.

The danger was to regard extraordinary circumstances too much, such as outcries, convulsions, visions, trances; as if these were essential to the inward work, so that it could not go on without them. Perhaps the danger is, to regard them too little; to condemn them altogether; to imagine they had nothing of God in them, and were a hindrance to his work. Whereas the truth is 1) God suddenly and strongly convinced many that they were lost sinners; the natural consequence whereof were sudden outcries and strong bodily convulsions; 2) to strengthen and encourage them that believed, and to make His work more apparent, He favored several of them with divine dreams, others with trances and visions; 3) in some of these instances, after a time, nature mixed with grace; 4) Satan likewise mimicked this work of God in order to discredit the whole work; and yet it is not wise to give up this part any more than to give up the whole. At first, it was, doubtless, wholly    from God. It is partly so at this day; and He will enable us to discern how far, in every case, the work is pure and where it mixes or degenerates.

Of course much of the phenomena surrounding this troubled young woman foreshadows the poltergeist manifestations of, for example, the Bell Witch case and the Amherst Mystery. In the latter, Esther Cox’s body also swelled horribly and the threat, “Esther Cox, you are mine to kill.” was found written above her bed. “Kate,” the Bell Witch, swore at and physically tormented John Bell, whose face swelled and turned red:

this affliction increased, his tongue swelling from the sides and pressing against his jaws, so that he could neither talk nor eat for ten or fifteen hours. In the meanwhile the witch manifested a pernicious dislike for father, using the most vile and malignant epithets toward him… An Authenticated History of the Famous Bell Witch, Martin Van Buren Ingram, 1894 [A source, I have to say, which has been criticized for being written too long after events.]

Historically, so many of these types of “possessions” and polts begin with assaults, rapes, and near-rapes, that I wonder if  this was triggered by an actual visit from an uncle with evil intent. It is an interesting detail that the obsession ceased when the narrator referred to his watch to remind the young woman that the Devil had not come at the appointed time.

The episode of the strait waistcoat suggests séance-room tricks by the Davenport brothers and other mediums, who were able to free themselves instantly from the most secure bonds. The chimney-climb reminds me of the many Victorian tales of somnambulists performing risky feats while unconscious. There was also a hapless medium (or perhaps a saint!) who was constantly finding herself up trees or tied up without knowing how those things occurred. Maddeningly, her name escapes me.

There is much overlap/ambiguity in the manifestations above. They could be interpreted as seizure activity, poltergeist phenomena or as classic demon possession: the usual vile language, strange voice, animal sounds [St. John Vianney’s grappin, for example, growled like a bear or snarled like a dog.], convulsions. A 19th-century physician probably would have diagnosed hysteria. A 21-century physician might suggest epilepsy or a brain infection, while other persons would be eager to bring in the girl-exorcists.

Each generation has its own lens for viewing such phenomena. I find the persistence of patterns intriguing.

Should we drag in the convulsionnaires of Saint-Medard, of whom the young woman may have known? Any ideas as to the narrator?  I can’t find an online version of the Journals annotated by the Rev. C.H. Crookshank, which I hoped would tell the tale. Do not send by ox-hooved messenger to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.