The Demon lovers
“I am strangled!” cried the servant girl, though the only hands around her throat were her own. She shrieked and laughed and wept uncontrollably, spat at those who tried to restrain her, and said she feared for her life. At one moment she appeared terrified, and in the next seemed to possess some strange power: she looked her masters in the eye, and spoke to them as equals.
“This poor and miserable object,” was what Reverend Samuel Willard called the girl, in his account of her mysterious ailment. Her name was Elizabeth Knapp, and she was sixteen years old and a servant in Willard’s home when her symptoms began in the fall of 1671. “I myself observed oftentimes a strange change in her countenance,” Willard later wrote, “but could not suspect the true reason.”
Begin the story here. Or begin elsewhere, hundreds of years later and hundreds of miles away. After all, the characters remain the same. Begin in a church in the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, on an idyllic June afternoon in 1991. The winter has been a harsh one, but now the world is warm and breathless, lush, in leaf. You don’t have to travel back to this day to take part in it. You can watch the videotape. Start with the pretty young bride escorted down the stairs by her beaming husband. Her gown, which cost $2,000 at a store on the American side of the falls, has been confected from layer upon layer of snow-white tulle. In the video, there are moments when she seems to disappear within it. The bride’s friends have noticed how thin she is getting, how much less there is of her these days. At the gown’s final fitting, her bridesmaids saw dark bruises on her sides. Later, detectives and reporters and millions of viewers will study the tape of the wedding, searching the bride’s face for signs of distress, and searching her body for cuts, for welts, for injuries, for a record of the kind of trauma that could excuse what she has already done, and what she will go on to do.
“When you came back,” a police officer will ask Karla Homolka about her honeymoon, “did you have lots of photographs to show people?”
“Photographs and video,” she answers.
“And were these staged?” he asks. “In that sense that he told you, ‘You’re going to look happy, as if you were having a great time,’ or…”
“He didn’t tell me that,” Karla says. “But I knew to smile for a photograph or a video camera.”
Girlhood comes with two kinds of instruction manuals: the books that tells you what your body will do, and the books that tell you what other people will do to your body. As a girl, I was obsessed with first one, then the other. I read a book about periods, then woke up to find that I had immediately, obligingly menstruated. I was thrilled. I had never known how to follow the rules, but my body did.
Things got more complicated when I found the second kind of manual. In the winter of 2002, when I was thirteen, two girls my age disappeared from a neighboring town. I say “disappeared” as if that word really means something. For many years, I thought it did. Now I think it doesn’t. But at thirteen, when I saw first Ashley Pond’s face on the nightly news, and then Miranda Gaddis’, I tried to imagine the reality that word conjured: once there was a girl, and now there is nothing. She walked into the night, and now she is gone: vanished (another nightly news favorite) into thin air.
This is the word we use when we do not know what really happened. But even when we know there must be some earthly culprit, we are still tempted to conjure a stranger from that world called “thin air,” a being made of the darkness that is fated to swallow up the light, and you, my girl—so beautiful, so young, so pure, so worthy of protection—are the light our world turns toward, so why should the world of thin air be any different?
The day after Elizabeth Knapp cried out “I am strangled!,” she was, Reverend Samuel Willard tells us, “in a strange frame.” That evening, she was “taken with a violent fit, whereupon the whole family was raised; and with much ado was she kept out of the fire from destroying herself.” In the following days, both her “fits” and her desire for self-destruction only worsened.
It was hard to keep secrets in Groton, Massachusetts, which was then a frontier outpost situated at the westernmost edge of Christendom. Elizabeth soon became a local attraction, a development Reverend Willard seemed untroubled by.
If anything, he may have welcomed it. Willard was determined to learn the cause of Elizabeth’s ailment, and, he wrote, it was only once “diverse [people]…pressed upon her to declare what might be the true and real occasion of [her] amazing fits” that she finally “broke forth into a large confession.” She told the people of Groton that “the Devil had oftentimes appeared to her, presenting the treaty of a covenant and proffering largely to her . . . such things as suited her youthful fancy, [like] money, silks, fine clothes, ease from labor, [and] to show her the whole world.”
There was an earthly culprit in Ashley Pond and Miranda Gaddis’ case, of course. There always is. His name was Ward Weaver, and his daughter was a friend of both Ashley’s and Miranda’s.
The summer before she disappeared, Ashley fled problems in her own home, and stayed with the Weavers for several months. In August, she accused Ward of attempting to rape her. Ashley confided in a teacher, who called Child Protective Services. The report either never made it to the police, or was disregarded.
“They didn’t believe her,” Ashley’s stepmother later said, “because this wasn’t the first man she had accused of sexual crimes.”
The Devil, Samuel Willard reported, didn’t just offer his finery to Elizabeth Knapp. He also “urged upon her constant temptations to murder her parents, her neighbors, our children, especially the youngest, tempting her to throw it into the fire, on the hearth, into the oven; . . . [and] to murder my self.”
Yet every violent urge Elizabeth confessed to was matched by a violent urge turned inward, and this, too, was apparently the Devil’s work. “He persuaded her to make away with herself,” Willard wrote, “and once she was going to drown herself in the well, for, looking into it, she saw such sights as allured her.”
The summer after Ashley and Miranda disappeared, Ward Weaver granted an interview to a local news station. To show that he had nothing to hide, he took the crew on a tour of his home, in the process walking over a concrete slab he had recently poured in his backyard. The following month, Ashley’s body was found underneath it. Afterwards, Ward Weaver continued to deny all wrongdoing.
“You know how deep she was?” he said in another interview. “We went all the way down to the water lines. But how she got underneath there, who knows.”
I remember the removal of the concrete slab and the search for Ashley’s remains being broadcast live. I remember watching it with my friend and her family, and though I’d like to say there was some great suspense—that we hoped, prayed, there would be nothing to find—I don’t remember feeling surprised when Ashley really was down there, and when Miranda’s remains were found in Ward Weaver’s garage. I was fourteen by then, and older than either Ashley or Miranda would ever be, but wasn’t I still too young to assume the story had to end this way?
It would be years before I learned the details: how Ashley fled her home and went to live with the Weavers. How she looked for safety and did not find it. How even when she told a teacher that a grown man had tried to rape her, nothing happened, and no one helped her.
You know how deep she was?
Only after Ashley died, it seemed, did she become worth searching for. Only after no one could save her did she suddenly become worth saving.
In Reverend Willard’s account of his servant’s affliction—which is titled A Brief Account of a Strange and Unusual Providence of God Befallen to Elizabeth Knapp of Groton—there is little question as to whether Elizabeth is actually possessed by the Devil. To Willard, this seems a foregone conclusion. The question he is most concerned with, and the question he puts to Elizabeth again and again and again, is whether she asked for it.