The Exorcisms of Emma
In the most remarkable true exorcism case in American history, a woman claiming demonic possession inspires a quest to find evil incarnate. Archival records unlock the story for the first time.
The following story has been reported based on the firsthand accounts of those involved. Highly detailed notes on this case have been stored in a seminary library for many years and sealed with this message: “These are not to be published through the press or from the pulpit.” The editorial team of Truly*Adventurous has reviewed these records, but we are among the few who ever have.
July 17, 1931
It was early morning in Vatican City. Most people were asleep, including the pope himself, Pius XI. But his stone-faced Papal Secretary of State never slept, or so it seemed as he tackled the papers at his desk at 2 a.m. It was a fraught time to head up Vatican affairs, and the stress took its toll. Pamphlets had circulated the last few days accusing the pope of being an anti- Fascist agitator and calling for his arrest. “Down with the pope!” was the slogan of the day. The Vatican bureaucrat was pulling an all-nighter to deal with the fallout. That’s when a deafening roar sent him flying from his seat.
Vatican City shook. Windows shattered. A powerful explosion reverberated through the air. Thousands of residents ran screaming, some for shelter, others toward the epicenter of the explosion. Vatican officials brandishing torches ran through the dark, passing fig trees that seemed to have been dropped from the sky —uprooted and sprawled unnaturally across the ground. Twisted metal was everywhere.
Smoke hung in the air as gendarmes—Vatican police—rushed to check on the pope. With the same urgency, messages were sent to Italy's political leader, Benito Mussolini. There had been ten popes assassinated in history, but the last had been more than six hundred years ago. If Pius turned out to be dead, hell on earth would be unleashed.
The gendarmes and the Papal Secretary breathed a sigh of relief to find Pius in his bed. As the melee turned into a frantic hunt for the perpetrators, a faction within the church credited a petite woman named Emma, five thousand miles across the ocean in the depressed farm town of Earling, Iowa (population: 350) with saving the pope’s life. The unassuming woman, the subject of a series of dangerous exorcisms, had turned herself into a secret weapon in the war on evil.
Emma H. Schmid had brown eyes and a ruddy complexion. She was born in Switzerland shortly before her Catholic parents, Jakob and Anna, farmers, emigrated to the United States. Put to work as a teenager in a factory, likely making dresses, she heard other workers mock religion and stood up in its defense. Her parents also rejected the Church. Emma frequently argued with her father and brothers about their lifestyles, and her father emotionally and possibly physically abused her.
Emma was belittled, ostracized and made to feel worthless for the very thing most important to her: her faith. Church was her refuge, a place to get away and envision a better life. Sometimes she attended afternoon and evening services on the same day. She dreamed of becoming a nun.
As a young adult, Emma underwent a medical operation. The nature of the operation remains unclear, though it may have been a hysterectomy, often prescribed to treat the now-debunked diagnosis of a woman’s “hysteria,” with which Emma was branded. (She was brought to New York to be seen by hysteria specialists.) After surgery, things went downhill. Emma’s personality changed, particularly in relation to religion. Notes recorded from priests listed some of these behaviors: “She threw blessed articles away, smashed crucifixes, and had thoughts of despair.” The young woman who had always loved church voiced urges to destroy vessels of holy water and confessed to wanting to strangle her priest. She struggled to control sexual urges.
Something dark seemed to rise inside of her. “There is something running up my back into the head,” Emma tried to describe what she experienced, “and from there into the heart.” Capping her terror, she reported hearing nightly voices coming from “below.”
She prayed for someone who could help.
Theophilus Xavier Riesinger was better known to parishioners as Father Theo. Stout, with a dark heavy beard and wire spectacles, the Bavarian- born priest had served two churches in New York City when he began to answer requests to perform exorcisms on parishioners who believed they were under the control of a demon spirit. Though possession always claimed a place in Church doctrine, some dioceses wanted nothing to do with the concept, and the leaders of Theo’s drew a line in the sand. The split with the local Catholic authorities ran deep enough to ship Theo out of the Big Apple.
Exiled to Marathon, Wisconsin, he ministered to a modest church called St. Anthony’s. He fit right into the rural ethos. He was the rare priest who could go from giving communion at services to wielding an ax to clear land for a new building.
Soon after settling at his new post, Father Theo, 39, got word from Thomas Drumm, Bishop of Des Moines, about a strange case. Twenty-six-year- old Emma Schmid of Germantown was suffering from disturbing experiences. Theo had met the devoutly religious Emma and her family years before, when she was sixteen and Theo was studying theology in Milwaukee before his stint in New York. His notes reflect finding her “always truthful and obedient, cheerful and companionable, and [leading] an exemplary life.”
Despite the fallout from his possession cases back east, the request to look into such a claim did not faze Father Theo. As one of his colleagues, Reverend Father Carl Vogl, later wrote of Theo’s state of mind before Emma’s case: “He had little suspicion that he would meet with the severest experience as yet encountered by him.”
Father Theo followed Roman Ritual, which contained the church-mandated guidelines to “diagnose” a possession and differentiate it from illness or fraud. “I am not so easily convinced that there is a possession,” he explained to the Milwaukee Journal in a rare interview. “Hundreds of persons have been sent to me by priests and laymen who believed that there is a possession. Usually I find otherwise.”
Emma’s case was another story. She reportedly spoke in voices that weren’t hers. Some of the voices coming out of Emma spoke in English or German, languages Emma spoke natively. But Theo and the other attendants also documented that some of the voices understood Italian (which Father Theo had learned in New York), Polish, Latin, and Hebrew.
Emma’s formal education stopped at elementary school, and she did not know these languages.
“Apparently,” Reverend Vogl, who studied the case at the time, wrote of the voices, “they would have understood any language spoken today and would have answered in it.” Father Theo even found that certain voices preferred certain languages.
During a session one day, Emma appeared to be hurtled across the room. She was a petite 5'7” — just 135 pounds by one record — but one priest who was helping and known to be “strong as a bear” reported being unable to lift her from the ground even with the help of three others. The priests observed Emma undergoing chilling physical changes. “Her abdomen” — as described in the priests’ records — “would either move up or down with terrific rapidity beyond the power of a human being or swell up to the immense volume of a big barrel on which no weight would make an impression.” At those times, according to witnesses, the iron rods of the bed bent down to the floor. During trances of possession, attending priests tried to open her eyes, which were shut impossibly tight. When they forced her lids open, they said they found a “thick, yellow skin” over the eyes, with “something like a big pea” seen moving beneath them.
When they presented objects secretly blessed or sprinkled with holy water, she foamed at the mouth and became angry. She was indifferent to unblessed objects. Father Theo unleashed a prayer known as the appeal to St. Michael, recommended by the Vatican as a tool of exorcism:
Carry our prayers up to God’s throne,
that the mercy of the Lord may quickly come
and lay hold of the beast, the serpent of old,
Satan and his demons,
casting him in chains into the abyss.
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Classifying the case as a true possession, Father Theo urged Emma to allow him to place her at St. Joseph Parish in Earling, Iowa, where she would be cared for by the Franciscan sisters. He hoped Earling’s isolation would conceal her condition from others. “I should like to have her brought here,” Theo explained at Earling, “since it would create too much excitement in her home.” Emma feared what might happen but agreed. “I will come, no matter how hard it will be,” she wrote in a letter to Father Theo.
They put Emma on a train from Wisconsin to Iowa and warned the conductors her behavior could turn on a dime. Not told the nature of the problem, the conductors surreptitiously watched her, walking back and forth in the train car. At some point on the trip, Emma apparently exhibited frightening behavior. Details about the train ride were never revealed, but the conductors came out the other side rattled.
Father Theo took a different train to another depot in Iowa. A friend of his, Reverend Joseph Steiger, served as pastor at St. Joseph’s. Steiger, who had a pleasantly placid face with wire- rimmed glasses, drove to meet his colleague, but his car acted up. What should have been a quick drive reportedly took two hours. Once he arrived, Steiger could find nothing wrong with the car. Father Theo waved away his friend’s apologies.
“I would have been much more surprised if everything had gone smoothly,” he reassured. “The devil will try his utmost to foil our plans.” Theo then blessed the car with the sign of the cross and climbed into the backseat.
Emma didn’t just fear being away from home and the ongoing exorcisms; she feared her own behavior and impulses, of which she no longer seemed to have control. When representatives from the Earling parish met Emma at her station, she regarded them with daggers in her eyes, later confessing an urge to hurt them.
At St. Joseph’s convent, she wouldn’t touch food that had been secretly blessed; when the sisters brought her an otherwise identical serving without the blessing, she ate. The woman who grew up dreaming of becoming a nun was now living in a convent, but in a state of semi-captivity under the grimmest circumstances.
Only a small circle of trusted people were told what was happening, but keeping Emma’s secret proved difficult. Theo’s notes indicated that “she intermittently roared and bellowed and barked and mauled and moaned and shrieked.” Screams echoed through the neighborhood and into windows. People rushed to the convent asking if someone was being murdered, or a pig slaughtered. Michael Schwarte, then a schoolboy, years later recalled that word got out what was happening. “In a small town like this, everyone knew what was going on.”
Exorcisms were held in a bedroom in the convent. Emma’s teeth gnashed as her arms were bound to the bed frame. Theo would begin with the Litany of All Saints, evoking the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in the name of Jesus Christ. When Theo recited the words “Lord, save your people from the persecution of the devil,” an agitated voice from Emma moaned and yelped.
The exorcist wished to determine the identity of the spirits. According to doctrine, they had to tell him their names. And in order to expel spirits, he needed to elicit confessions from them. He detected distinct voices, some deep, some raspy or shrill. Some were bestial, and still others sounded more human. Theo was intrigued when he heard a feminine voice that was not Emma’s, and tried to engage.
“Is there a woman here?” Father Theo asked.
“I command you to tell me your name,” replied the priest.
“My name is Minnie, Minnie, Minnie.” Answering in threes was common among the voices that presented themselves as malicious spirits through Emma.
“Are you living or dead?” asked Theo, according to his detailed transcripts.
“I am dead,” said the voice.
Minnie had been Emma’s aunt on her mother’s side and had been believed by the townspeople to be a witch. She was also known as mistress to Emma’s father, Jakob. Theo began to believe that Minnie was the one who had made Emma vulnerable to possession. By “interviewing” Minnie, he thought he could discover the key to the case.
“Are you damned?”
“Yes, I am damned.”
By one account, Emma — when possessed with Minnie — “spit and vomit” so much that Theo had to constantly wipe off his cassock.
“Did you give something to the girl,” the priest prodded, “by means of which the relation of this girl to the devils was established?”
“I have done that,” the voice answered, then acknowledged lacing Emma’s food and drink with “bewitched” herbs years earlier. If the voice was to be believed, the devious secrets of Emma’s abusive home life were coming to light. Theo concluded Minnie’s poisoning created “a condition in [Emma’s] body which gave the spirits, as they interpreted it, ‘a Satanic right’ to enter her.”
Father Theo was made for taking punishment. A fellow man of the cloth marveled at his “superhuman” stamina, and another itemized qualities including “nerves of steel and an iron constitution” as well as “a powerful, well-modulated voice, lively imagination, retentive memory.”
As a twelve-year-old boy in Bavaria, he endured a long illness which inspired a desire to devote himself to God. He entered the religious path in his twenties, relatively late. Some of Theo’s professors’ notes from his theology studies still survive. “Behavior always exemplary. Intellectual attainments gratifyingly successful … untiring diligence and inflexible energy.” Father Theo used a regiment of self-denial to build up his endurance. “The priest who makes an exorcism must pray as he has never prayed before,” Theo later said. “As a rule, priests who exorcise do not live more than a couple of years after an exorcism, but God has given me an extra gift of strength.” Instead of “exorcising” he preferred simply calling his work “casting out devils.”
Reverend Steiger, Father Theo’s friend, by contrast, was not comfortable with the exorcisms. He often had to leave the room as Emma convulsed and screamed. Bishop Drumm checked in with Steiger, asking if he’d properly thought through the decision to allow Emma Schmid in Earling. “I will caution you most emphatically that there may be some very serious consequences resulting to you in person… The devil will certainly try his utmost to seek revenge on you, should you be willing that this unfortunate woman be relieved of this terrible oppression.”
“Well, I hardly think that it will be as bad as all that,” Steiger answered. “The devil has no more influence than God permits.”
Steiger’s private concerns deepened, however, as he observed how Emma had to be carried back and forth to the site of the exorcisms. For a time, she stopped eating solids and had to be force fed through injection by the nuns.
“Great God, she is dying,” Steiger said one day. He went to retrieve the holy oils. If Emma died, Steiger knew the exorcisms would be blamed and their careers — his, and certainly Father Theo’s — ruined.
Father Theo tried to calm him down. “The woman will not die,” the exorcist insisted with his usual unflappable faith in God and in himself. “Absolutely not. This manifestation is only one of Satan’s cunning tricks. He cannot and will not be permitted to kill her.” Theo had another reason to be confident. Emma, who many in her hometown believed to be so fragile, was fighting hard to reclaim her life.
Steiger’s sleep became fitful. During the night, he was awoken by gnawing sounds. He had been in his modest house for over a decade and had never heard such noises. Freight trains rattled in the distance through the plains, but this was something different. Something all around him. As he searched for the source and pounded the walls, the noises became louder. Was his mind buckling under the pressure? Was it rats? Hellrats, was all he could think — according to the assistant pastor, Arthur Ring, in whom Steiger confided — his mind spinning from sleep deprivation. Others involved in the exorcisms reported similar disturbances.
Observers noted that during exorcisms the “spirit” voices speaking through Emma were particularly hard on Steiger, another reason he became uncomfortable. Attendees of exorcisms were warned to take confession first, because the demonic spirits would try to humiliate them, spilling their secret sins and fears, as well as predicting their fates. In one exorcism session, according to Steiger, the demonic voice lashed out at him: “You will have to suffer for this … Just wait until the end of the week!” Father Theo’s records of the prediction reflected an even more precise threat than Steiger’s account: “The evil spirit who was in [Emma] predicted that the auto of a certain priest would be smashed on a definite day when he would be using it on a sick call, and that in such a way that no cause would be detected.”
That Friday, undaunted, Steiger visited a sick parishioner. He was surrounded by farmland, the lifeblood of the area. Iowa and the rest of the Midwest was shifting into the era of the Great Depression, with conflicts growing over agricultural prices and productions — there were both “milk wars” and “cow wars” on the horizon, complete with militant movements to enforce competing sides. Devastating drought conditions were settling into the region.
Steiger got back on the road in the same new car that had acted up when picking up Father Theo at the train depot. By his own account, a black cloud suddenly appeared before the car as he reached a bridge over a ravine. As Reverend Carl Vogl relayed Steiger’s experience, “it seemed as if his eyes were blindfolded,” and the vehicle crashed with “an indescribable force” even though Steiger had by that point shifted it into the lowest gear.
The car smashed through a trellis, hanging over the ravine, wobbling with the weight of the driver. A farmer who heard the crash rushed over.
“Father, father! What has happened? Are you hurt?”
Steiger slowly crawled out, frightened nearly to death. He went to a doctor to get checked for injuries, then insisted on going straight to Emma. Before he entered the room, a voice from the woman, addressing Father Theo, roared: “I fixed your partner.”
Steiger entered with defiance, saying of the devil: “My auto is a complete wreck. But he was not able to harm me personally.”
The demonic voice coming from Emma replied: “Be ready for a whole lot more of fun.”
Among the spirits he believed held Emma in their grip, Theo sought to confront Jakob, Emma’s father.
“I solemnly command in the name of the Crucified Savior of Nazareth that you present the father of this woman and that he give me answer!”
A rough voice grumbled back from Emma.
“Are you the unfortunate father who has cursed his own child?” Theo asked.
“Who are you?”
“I am Judas.”
The moment was so chilling for the devoutly religious group, Vogl later described Steiger and some of the Franciscan sisters stampeding out of the room.
To Father Theo's demands to know Judas's intentions with Emma, the answer came: “To bring her to despair, so that she will commit suicide and hang herself! She must get the rope, she must go to hell!"
Between sessions with Father Theo, Emma tried to describe her harrowing experiences. “My body,” she said, “feels as if filled with fire.” She gave more details: “I am enveloped in dark night as in a cloud. Very many devils are present hissing in all directions and like flashes of lighting. I see their heads with the fiery eyes, two gigantic serpents are above me.” Emma described a vision of battle in which Lucifer, Beelzebub, and her father Jakob directed legions of devils against St. Michael, “the fight [growing] fiercer and fiercer.” In a culture and era in which there was little recourse for domestic violence, Emma claimed to witness an otherworldly battle with the spirit of her abusive father.
After contending with the voice who identified itself as Judas, Father Theo tried again to draw out Jakob Schmid, this time making contact.
Theo asked, “What do you want to do here?”
The voice replied: “I want to lead my child to hell.” Theo grew confrontational and protective. “You are in hell, but your daughter will never go to hell with you.”
The voice grew more belligerent: “Am I not the father of the child? Can I not do with her as I please?”
“No!” boomed Theo.
The priest carefully observed Emma, who seemed entirely unconscious as he carried out involved interrogations of the other voices. Between sessions, Emma would explain she didn't know what had happened during the exorcisms.
Father Theo identified other spirits, including John, a former suitor of Emma's whose advances she had rejected and who had committed suicide. Here was a novelty of the case that not only jolted Father Theo, but also began to attract intense interest from his superiors both in the Midwest and in Rome. According to the exorcist and the clerical observers, Emma appeared to contain “legions,” or a multitude of spirits, a number Theo eventually tallied as being in the millions.
Church officials always approached exorcism cases with special caution, and the administration of Pope Pius XI restricted authorizations for who could perform exorcisms. Some within the church found the reports of Father Theo’s interactions with Emma impossible to believe. None had heard of anything like it. Some suspected hallucination or outright trickery. Theo had already had his life and career overthrown back in New York because of exorcisms, and Emma’s case could invite far more trouble.
Theo bolstered his position with eyewitnesses, including Father Steiger, who went on record behind the scenes verifying the reports. A Milwaukee based physician (also a practicing Catholic) studied Emma’s convulsions, which he concluded were not due to medical causes. The doctor also observed and verified Emma’s knowledge of languages she had never learned. Steiger’s sister and housekeeper, meanwhile, wrote affidavits attesting to what they seen, backing up Theo’s accounts.
The case was further boosted by another woman, a purported spiritual conduit named Therese Neumann, a celebrity among Catholics around the world. Therese, 29, lived in a small Bavarian village and as a child became partially paralyzed. She had lost and regained her eyesight, according to reports, and claimed to eat only consecrated wafers or bread. She also claimed to experience stigmata, or the spontaneous appearance of wounds similar to those Christ received in the crucifixion. One visitor from India reported Therese displayed square wounds that went straight through her hands. Worshippers came from all over to see her. Others came to test her, some leaving unconvinced. One German journalist named Fritz Gerlich sought out Therese in order to expose her as a fraud. He ended up so fully enraptured by her he converted to Catholicism.
Believers listened closely to Therese’s predictions and reports of visions. On December 22, 1927, Therese told a visiting bishop from Cleveland: “In your country there lives a person in whom soon great things will be done.” Father Theo did not initially connect the prediction with Emma, though he read the words to Emma and she later reported hearing a voice at that moment that said: You are that person. A priest based in Buffalo, Reverend Frederick J. Bunse, heard about Father Theo’s work and also zeroed in on Emma as being the chosen one prophesied by Therese. The Cleveland bishop, meanwhile, prodded Therese whether the person in question was dead. “Oh no,” she replied, “the one I am talking about is alive. She is living in your country and soon great things will be done in her.”
Then something changed. Emma, it seemed, fought off enough of the demonic spirits to make room for other communication. Through Emma, Father Theo found himself discoursing not only with voices claiming to be the evil legions, but with divine spirits. Emma — or the voices speaking through her — delivered speeches that surpassed the theological understanding expected from a layperson. The priests studying the case concluded that her “historical, theological and scriptural knowledge… could not have been acquired or invented by [Emma].” Theo and many in the church began to consider Emma a true energumen, or a powerful vehicle through which to transmit spirits and deliver prophecies.
To supporters of Emma’s case, the shape of the “great things” predicted by Therese Neumann came into focus. Demonic voices coming through Emma in late 1928 insisted that the Antichrist had been born and that Judas would possess the human form. Now, the voice of Jesus Christ came through Emma and awed those who believed in her case. Father Theo was marked for death, the voice decreed: “Your confessor will not live anymore, unless I prolong his life. And I will prolong it if it will become necessary… He must prepare the world… [the] Antichrist will appear quite unexpectedly.”
It was a frightening twist that threw everyone involved for a loop. Theo, 62 years old, now believed he had been bestowed with one mission — to prepare the world for the Antichrist, possibly to stop that ultimate enemy of good. If the prophecy was right, that mission was all that kept him alive. It also meant that every demon he expelled from Emma brought him closer to his life’s divinely ordained purpose and to his demise. His life voyage sailed between Scylla and Charybdis: if he eased off on the search, he would die; if he successfully completed it, he would die.
Through the array of voices, demonic and heavenly, Theo identified a larger plan from the afterlife: Lucifer was hatching a scheme to force his way back into heaven, from which he had been expelled at the beginning of time. In order to do so he relied on the coming of the Antichrist, sending devils through Emma as a kind of support army to take over earth.
Through the first half of 1931, Emma Schmid and Therese Neumann’s warnings of looming evil crested. One of the priests studying both cases, Reverend Bunse of Buffalo, found in the links between the two women a “divine purpose… correlating Konnersreuth [Neumann’s village] and Earling.” In the Midwest, Emma and Father Theo became a kind of precognition task force for the church, along with Therese and her entourage of clergymen and worshippers in her tiny Bavarian hamlet. Their cautions were viewed with increased gravity, especially when Therese gave a stipend to a priest to give a Mass for the pope, saying she feared for his safety.
The women’s urgent messages reached Rome and reached it — many would claim — just in time.
The next evening, July 16, 1931, around 7:30 p.m., as the Papal Secretary of State worked at his desk and Pope Pius slept, the unimaginable happened. Church sextons were inspecting St. Peter’s Cathedral in Vatican City, where the pope often conducted Mass. One found a tin box in a dark corner at the tomb of Pope Clement XIII, its sleepy marble lions keeping watch. On the tomb, a message: Dynamite will blow up this case. Reporter Arnaldo Cortesi, the New York Times’s foreign correspondent, described the object as a “metal cylinder eight inches long and four inches in diameter, wrapped in paper.”
A sergeant from the Papal gendarmes arrived, then guards swarmed. They brought the box, which they determined to be a cocoa tin, to a guard office and examined it. They listened — no ticking, no smoke. A hopeful thought occurred to the investigators. It could be a hoax.
They decided to place the box in an open field. They posted guards around the gardens to prevent anyone from getting through the gates. When the bomb exploded in the middle of the night, it left a crater in the ground. Glass and debris flew everywhere. A now antique term for an explosive — Infernal Machine — was fittingly applied by the press to what seemed to many a war between heaven and hell.
An artillery expert was brought in who concluded the bomb was designed to explode as soon as it was lifted from the floor. Had it not been discovered when it was, it would have done far more damage, racking up untold casualties. Remarkably, nobody was hurt.
Officials rushed to find Pope Pius, who had slept through the explosion. The pope excused himself into his study to pray. Vatican City was surrounded with guards, who frantically looked for clues and searched anyone who tried to enter. Mussolini, Italy’s premier, was described as shocked when told at an airfield what happened, and he sent more resources to aid the Vatican’s officers. Some thought the Fascists, Mussolini’s party, were responsible for the bombing following recent clashes with the Vatican; others thought it was anti-Fascists trying to stir tensions. In a world checkered with bright line political movements, Vatican officials pointed the finger at Communists or terrorists. The bombers were never found, and the case remains unsolved.
Back in the States on the day of the explosion, Father Theo transcribed a message Emma triumphantly relayed from the Virgin Mary about saving the pope: “My servant, your Confessor, gives me joy and I am pleased with his work; namely, that for my honor, the welfare of the church and the salvation of souls so many devils have been cast into hell. It was high time, for these devils helped to lay the bomb to destroy Rome and kill the Holy Father. Had the devils not been bound before and cast into hell, the bomb would not have been found.”
The notes written in German by Father Theo in Emma’s case file — compiled later by a group of priests — reflect a dramatic conclusion about Emma’s role in safeguarding the same pope who had narrowed the scope for exorcisms, a role that has never been revealed publicly. Emma and Therese, the notes declared, “both had their share in the discovery and subsequent harmless expulsion of this instrument of destruction. In fact, it kept disaster from Rome and the pope.”
“The pope is free! The pope is free!” lamented some of the spirits who fled Emma’s body, according to Father Theo’s transcriptions. With the foiled assassination attempt, Father Theo’s hunt to identify the Antichrist through Emma’s revelations shifted into high gear. “Ha!” taunted one of the evil spirits Father Theo expelled from Emma in the early 1930s. “In the year 1952, the Antichrist will begin its reign!” Father Theo put together a veritable war room of priests, including Bunse in Buffalo, to scour the globe for the Antichrist.
In Theo’s interpretations of the prophecies that arrived through Emma, he was on borrowed time. He had just long enough to follow Emma’s clues and find information on the Antichrist. Intelligence amassed. The human form of the Antichrist was said to be born in 1919, possibly in what was then known as Palestine, and possessed by the spirit of Judas. The parents of the Antichrist were said to be a nun of Jewish extraction and a schismatic Catholic bishop. The rule of the Antichrist would start in 1952, when the man would be 33 years old, the same age as Christ when crucified; and his reign would last for three and a half years and include three days of darkness foretold in the Bible.
The details gleaned from Emma’s possessions shocked Father Theo and his allies. They fell almost precisely into line with the prophecies of a nineteenth-century Catholic mystic named Catherine Emmerich, who had predicted the Antichrist’s reign would come approximately fifty years before 2000. Emmerich was eventually beatified, or officially recognized as blessed, by the Vatican.
The dark contours of the team’s daunting search came into focus: they were looking for an adolescent boy who also happened to be the embodiment of evil. But they had to constantly guard against an insidious possibility that the devil himself was tricking them from inside Emma.
Emma, for her part, also confronted a dilemma. The more intelligence she was able to share about the Antichrist with Father Theo, the closer she brought her spiritual guide and confessor to death. Once he was gone, her personal fight against her possessions would almost certainly be lost.
The global brotherhood of priests provided a powerful network of investigators. Father Theo could dispatch surrogates anywhere in the world to follow leads, and those clerical surrogates were respected and welcomed into homes, businesses, and governments. They could question suspected Antichrists and match up their personal details with the information obtained through Emma.
There were so many candidates who could be investigated, each with clear indications of talent as well as ominous signs of his future impact on the world. In Russia was a boy named Mikhail whose past was cloudy — he was the seventeenth child born to his parents, who didn’t stay in one place for long; now, just the right age, he was at a remote tractor station in Siberia and showing signs of being a prodigy inventing dangerous weapons. Catholic priests had been rounded up in Russia at that time, many never heard from again, and any surrogates sent by Father Theo had to operate covertly, and even then risked their lives. (Mikhail would go on to invent the AK-47, one of the most destructive assault weapons in history, with 1952 it’s first full year on the mass market.) Then there was an inconspicuous adolescent boy of the same age, Giorgios, living in a small Mediterranean village, who was being specially groomed for a military career. (Giorgios went on to lead a coup and became the ruthless dictator of Greece.)
One of the priests Father Theo recruited in his quest heard an odd announcement on the Columbia Broadcast Company by newscaster Edwin C. Hill on September 26, 1932, at 8:15 p.m. The priest scrambled to write it down word for word: “There is a twelve-year-old boy in Jerusalem connected with the second coming of Christ.” The age was exactly right for the Antichrist. The priest rushed to relay the information to Father Theo. But when they contacted Hill, the newscaster did not have the recording of the newscast and apparently did not remember saying it. They had plenty of allies who could search Jerusalem, but not enough to go on. They felt foiled by dark forces.
Meanwhile, despite Father Theo’s vigor, the exorcisms wore on him physically and mentally. There were times he worked around the clock, though even nuns who worked in shifts were breaking down. He became so exhausted he couldn’t recite the prayers and ritual texts, and at one point he was described as a walking corpse. Steiger’s housekeeper recalled that all the nuns involved in the exorcisms requested and eventually received transfers.
They all hoped for a reprieve, but Therese Neumann in Bavaria predicted the worst was still to come for her American counterpart, Emma: “The lady will be possessed again.” After falling into a trance, Therese had visions of Emma’s possessions and exorcisms and said she never wished to see such things again. It was too painful, too terrifying. Emma endured such physical difficulty during her exorcisms that she was given last rites by the nuns in attendance. Father Vogl described a distorted appearance, with Emma’s “pale, deathlike and emaciated head… as red as glowing embers.” Her eyes, lips, and body appeared so bloated that nuns reportedly backed away in fear that the possessed woman would somehow burst into pieces.
By his own estimation, Father Theo had made progress. Every devil and damned soul he cast out of Emma was one less soldier in the Antichrist’s army. The voice of one devil complained that “Hell cannot afford to send more devils for the fight” and Theo reported Lucifer personally begged for the exorcisms to end. If there was a patron saint for Father Theo, a heavenly analog, no question it was Michael the Archangel. In Biblical stories, Michael led God’s armies to expel Satan from heaven. When Pope Leo XIII composed the standard prayer of exorcism, it was directed to St. Michael.
Theo had his sights on expelling Lucifer and Beelzebub as the leaders of the evil spirits. As his ally, Reverend Bunse put it: “Lucifer had to go.”
It had come down to an ultimate confrontation between Father Theo and evil. The small room was packed with nuns and assistants. Theo deployed his full arsenal of commands and prayers, with special objects hidden under his frock: a pyx, or container, holding the Blessed Sacrament, and a relic believed to have been part of the cross on which Christ was crucified. An assistant stood by to wipe perspiration from Theo’s face and forehead, which pooled down in “rivulets” on the floor. He had to take breaks to change his habit.
Out-of-body visions were not limited to Emma; Father Theo described a particularly striking vision he experienced, the room suddenly bursting into flames. Lucifer, a crown on his head, holding a sword of fire, approached. He was flanked by his right hand, Beelzebub. Lucifer threatened Theo, but confessed his powers had been weakened. Lucifer seemed to take the measure of the priest as they stared each other down. “What could you do,” the Evil Incarnate of Theo’s vision asked, “if you were bound as I am?”
When Theo ordered Lucifer back to hell, the voice coming from Emma complained: “Does he not know that I must prepare the way for the Antichrist? How then can he banish me into hell?” Theo’s notes claimed that as the countless demonic spirits exited, “they went through the hands, as a rule… also through the feet.” The spirits begged the exorcist not to force them to leave.
Observers described Emma’s arms dislodging from their bindings and away from attendants’ attempts to hold her down. Voices cried out: Beelzebub… Judas… Jakob… Mina — Hell — hell — hell! With the worst of the spirits banished, Emma’s body lifted nearly to a standing position, arms out. In a flash, her body was reported to be “carried through the air” — Theo said it was as if she were floating — and clung to a wall above the door. Except for the war-scarred Father Theo, those present trembled with terror.
The real fight, they all knew, was Emma’s to win or lose.
Theo shouted: “Pull her down. She must be brought back to her place upon the bed!”
Then her body sank down with an exhale of relief.
It took an hour before Emma regained consciousness. “Oh Jesus,” she said when she woke, “dearest Jesus, I am free. Oh Jesus, I love you. Oh Jesus, let me die.” She smiled brightly, and it seemed like the first time she had smiled in ages. The group in the room with Emma erupted into sobs and cheers and prayers. “Our joy was exceedingly great,” Father Theo later wrote, still filled with emotion. “We thanked God for our victory over hell.”
But Emma’s “liberation” — as the priests called Emma’s freedom — was short-lived, lasting only a few days. She continued to require exorcisms, some in Iowa and some in Wisconsin, though surviving records do not reveal exactly how long these went on. “This case will continue until Christ says, ‘It is enough,’” Father Theo lamented at one point. He was determined to keep her identity secret to prevent the hordes of followers of the sort Therese Neumann attracted. This was wise. Only a few years later, Therese Neumann had a vision of Adolf Hitler’s downfall, and there were rumors that Hitler, hearing this, became obsessed with her, having her monitored. Fritz Gerlich, the skeptical journalist who became one of Neumann’s devoted followers, used the inspiration of Therese’s visions to resist Hitler. The Fuhrer had him killed.
Father Theo worked with Emma for thirty years, from the time she was in her mid-twenties to her mid-fifties, eventually referring to her as “my mystic,” a tribute to how what he saw as prophetic visions on her part shaped his life. By the later stages of his role as her spiritual guide, Time Magazine described the once ruddy priest as “wise and white-haired.”
The exorcisms had left a chasm between Theo and his longtime friend Reverend Steiger, at one point leading Steiger to angrily confront his fellow priest. Theo was not surprised by this sad turn, understanding better than anyone how much the exorcisms robbed from those involved. Speaking with another friar, Clement Neubauer, Theo was very clear on his plans for Emma’s story. “Father, as to my exorcisms, I have not published a single word. Nor have I asked any person to publish a single word for me. But I have sent a complete account of all that has happened to the Holy See. Rome alone is competent to judge. Until Rome speaks, I shall be silent.”
Even as Emma’s identity was carefully guarded, rumors spread of the terrible sights and sounds the exorcisms produced, supposedly prompting waves of converts who wanted to expel their sins to stave off possession. Reverend Vogl worked with Reverend Steiger to publish a pamphlet with an account of some of the Earling exorcisms (but only fragments of Emma’s larger story), using a pseudonym for Emma. The pamphlet led to an upsurge in fear of possession. Father Theo kept to his word about his own much more extensive records, which were in German and organized in manuscript form by several other priests, and kept all these years from public view.
Indications suggest Emma eventually shook off the need for more treatment from the Church and after her part in the epic paranormal battles, went on to her greatest triumph: a quiet, private life on her own terms.
An exorcism is a Rorschach Test. For those inclined to believe, it is an epic battle for a soul, and that conviction isn’t restricted to the past (trends suggest exorcisms currently are a growth industry in the United States). To secular eyes, the exorcism is at best a form of psychological role-playing, at worst a clash of an elaborate ruse with a naive religion, or a vulnerable victim with manipulative clergy. Emma’s case can be seen as a manifestation, spiritually or sociologically, of a larger obsession with sexuality, of her purity, her otherness as an unmarried woman; it can be seen as a deeply-rooted response to years of psychological abuse; it can be seen as a physiological response to unnecessary surgery forced upon her. Certainly, the assumption that Emma’s understanding of theology was too sophisticated to be her own smacks of sexism and classism. Her sudden ability to understand multiple languages, if accurate, is harder to explain.
As far as allegedly supernatural events go, exorcisms tend to be heavily observed and documented. Much of the behavior and incidents in the case of Emma Schmid were recorded by multiple people, and these accounts can be compared and evaluated, though the rigor of observation is impossible to determine from our vantage point. Through whatever lens it is approached, a narrative unfurls that is far more complicated and involved than the clichéd exorcism story.
When he reflected on it all, Father Theo never regretted taking on the Emma Schmid case. “These possessed people are the most wretched creatures on earth. Anyone who has the power to help them and does not use it is doing very wrong.” The story can be viewed from precisely the opposite angle. Emma was an incredibly strong woman who endured and overcame suffering — whether we believe the source to have been medical or spiritual — in order to guide and help Father Theo. To a believer, Emma fights through a metaphysical challenge; to a skeptic, Emma manipulates the highly educated group surrounding her. Either way, Emma arises as the true master of the singular situation.
Though he never published his accounts of the subject, Theo did finally write a letter detailing Emma’s revelations about the Antichrist. He must prepare the world, the voice had once commanded. Months after sharing those details, on November 9, 1941, at age 73, he collapsed at the pulpit while delivering a sermon. “A true warrior knight he died on the field of battle,” eulogized a colleague. Father Theo was celebrated as an indefatigable exorcist by his peers, though his work in that arena has been largely forgotten. He did not live to judge for himself whether the Antichrist appeared as he believed would happen, or instead whether the devils he claimed he expelled from Emma had sufficiently weakened the Evil One’s plans. Many believed Theo saved Emma’s life, but few knew that she had, in a way, marked him for death.
Author William Peter Blatty was said to have tried to look into the Emma Schmid case, though he would have only had access to fragments of it, and mostly drew on details of the 1949 case of a young man named Ronald Hunkeler in St. Louis for his novel The Exorcist and for its film adaptation. Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ubiquitous paranormal investigators of Amityville Horror and Conjuring fame, visited Earling, Iowa, and the site of some of the exorcisms for inspiration and to pray, with Ed calling Emma’s story “one of the most… credible cases in the Catholic Church.” Whether taken literally as a religious and supernatural narrative, or as a sociological or cultural phenomenon, the thirty-year exorcisms of Emma Schmid carve out a foundational and iconic, if untold, place in America’s supernatural history.
Emma never married or had children. She outlasted everyone who thought she would succumb to weak health or to the punishing exorcisms. Evidence suggests a continued estrangement from her family. Following her death in Milwaukee in 1964, her family buried her right next to her father, the very spirit she and Father Theo identified as having the strongest hold on her. Their joint tombstone reads For Me to Live is Christ and to Die is Gain, a Bible verse that appears shortly before a story about Saint Paul successfully exorcizing a demon spirit from a possessed girl.
Matthew Pearl is a New York Times Bestselling author whose nonfiction writing has appeared in the Vanity Fair, the Boston Globe, and The Atavist Magazine, and his longform narrative “K Troop” was Slate’s most read article of 2016. Matthew’s currently at work on a narrative nonfiction book for HarperCollins. He is a co-founder with Greg Nichols of Truly*Adventurous.
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