In this sixth and final part of our series on exorcism – in conjunction with Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Rite (releasing nationwide on January 28th) – B-D takes a look at two more famous real-life exorcisms that managed to garner quite a bit of attention in their day. Interestingly, both represent cases when an exorcism became something of a community affair (either intentionally or unintentionally), with throngs of onlookers either witnessing the ritual or actually taking part in it. The difference between them is that in one case the officiating pastor became a respected and sought-after member of the community, while in the other the entire affair was viewed with deep suspicion by skeptics from several corners. Both stand as fascinating examples of the exorcism phenomenon.
Place: Mottlingen, Wurttemberg, Germany
A resident in the small village of Mottlingen, Germany – located in an isolated section of the Black Forest – 28-year-old Gottliebin Dittus was born to deeply religious and superstitious parents and raised in strict adherence to the Lutheran faith. Though her mother and father both died when she was a child, Gottliebin continued to live with her three older siblings and practice at the local church run by Reverend Johann Christoph Blumhardt – a pastor whose belief in the power of the devil was strong.
Neighbors of the Dittus family had lately been reporting eerie noises emanating from within the home during the night, which prompted a local doctor and several other villagers to stay there over the course of an evening. All came away from the experience claiming that the home was “haunted” after reportedly witnessing strange phenomena there. Around the same time Gottliebin began reporting visions of a woman holding a baby in her arms, and later fell into an inexplicable coma for an entire day, prompting Reverend Blumhardt to visit the home. After observing the now-conscious young woman he suggested she be taken to stay at the nearby home of a cousin, as it appeared the bizarre happenings were affecting her worse than the other siblings. As soon as she left, the “hauntings” at the Dittus home allegedly ceased, but Gottliebin continued to be plagued by strange phenomena. It was then determined that she was possessed by a demon.
Blumhardt began visiting Gottliebin on a regular basis, with Gottliebin claiming that shortly after her birth, evil spirits had tried to steal her away before her mother invoked the name of Jesus. In addition, she claimed that her aunt was a witch who had tried to indoctrinate her when she was a child. Blumhardt also witnessed in Gottliebin what he claimed were clear symptoms of possession: speaking in different voices; suffering from violent convulsions; hurling blasphemies; and violently attacking her siblings, among other things. At one point she began speaking in the voice of the dead woman she’d earlier claimed to have visions of, telling the pastor that during her lifetime she had murdered two children and was now in the grip of the devil himself.
Blumhardt soon began the process of carrying out the exorcism, praying over the young woman and fasting in an attempt to cast the evil spirit out. Soon Gottliebin was claiming possession by several demons, and the number continued to grow through the following weeks and months – first three, then seven, then fourteen, and soon enough numbering into the hundreds and later thousands. The once-pious woman became increasingly violent and blasphemous, and she began vomiting up objects such as sand, glass, and nails and losing large amounts of blood. Several of the spirits who had allegedly taken control of her body spoke through the young woman, some of whom reported that they were in fact victims of the possessing demons. In a moment of lucidity Gottliebin reported that she’d recently had a vision in which her soul flew around the earth and witnessed these demons causing a catastrophic earthquake someplace far away. Only a few days later, news of a terrible earthquake in the West Indies reached the village of Mottlingen, seemingly validating the young woman’s possession. Through it all the entire village paid close attention to developments in the case and became deeply invested in the young woman’s deliverance.
The exorcism continued for nearly two years, at which point the hold of the demons over Gottliebin finally seemed to be loosening. On Christmas 1843, the possessing spirits – as if sensing their imminent eradication – made one last attempt at maintaining their control in the earthly sphere when they allegedly made a spiritual attack on Gottliebin’s brother and sister. While the brother recovered quickly, the sister Katharina soon began exhibiting many of the same symptoms as Gottliebin, and Blumhardt proceeded to turn his attentions on her, as this occurrence seemed to lessen Gottliebin’s own torment. Three days of exorcisms later, Katharina let out one final, terrible scream before proclaiming, “Jesus is victor!” and coming to rest. It was then that both Katharina and Gottliebin were announced to be cleared of demonic influence. Following the ordeal, Blumhardt become something of a celebrity in Mottlingen and nearby communities, with hundreds of parishioners from all around flocking to him in the hopes of being cured of their myriad afflictions. In fact, Gottliebin herself soon moved into the Reverend’s home to assist him in “curing” others long-term.
Place: Bristol, England
In the year 1770, tailor George Lukins was putting on a Christmas play with several other young men in his Yatton, Somersetshire neighborhood when he suddenly suffered a convulsive fit and toppled to the ground. After recovering he claimed that an invisible hand had struck him down, and that it had likely been due to the religious nature of the role he’d been performing in the play. However, this supposed “invisible hand” continued to plague the young man, and over the next 18 years he continued to suffer from convulsions, during which he would become violent and engage in all manner of bizarre behavior, including declaring himself to be the devil in an eerie, inhuman tone; speaking and singing in different voices both male and female; and getting down on all fours and barking like a dog. After these fits, each of which would last about an hour, Lukins would emerge greatly debilitated and exhausted, and though many medical treatments were attempted in order to cure him – including a 20-week stay at local St. George’s Hospital – none seemed to have any effect.
Around 1788, the now-44-year-old Lukins began claiming he was possessed by seven demons, and that only through the intervention of seven clergymen who would ask for his deliverance could he be freed from their influence. Word of this strange proclamation began spreading around the small community until eventually the case came to the attention of a local Anglican Reverend by the name of Joseph Easterbrook. After concluding that Lukins – who showed a strong aversion to religious objects – was indeed possessed, Easterbrook gathered together six other clergymen and together prepared to perform an exorcism on the afflicted man at Temple Church in Bristol, where Easterbrook served as vicar.
News of the event quickly spread through the surrounding communities, and it was even published in several local papers. As a result, what Easterbrook had planned on being a private affair became a public spectacle, with throngs of onlookers gathering at the church to witness the exorcism. The ritual, which took place on June 13th, 1788, began with a hymn, during which Lukins began violently convulsing and contorting his face. He then began speaking in the voice of one of the alleged demons, saying that he would never release his hold over Lukins and that he would torment him even worse for attempting the exorcism ritual. Soon enough other supposed demons began speaking through Lukins, and at one point two men from the community even had to hold the man down to keep him from injuring himself or others. Lukins went on to sing an inverted version of the Christian hymn “Te Deum”, singing “we praise thee, oh devil; we acknowledge thee to be the supreme governor”. At one juncture a skeptical clergyman from the community – who was not one of the seven performing the ritual – asked the illiterate Lukins a question in Latin in order to prove the possession was a fraud. However, Lukins reportedly answered with a suitable Latin reply, convincing the other man that this was indeed a case of true possession. Indeed, when asked his name Lukins replied, “I am the devil”.
After commanding the evil spirit(s) to depart from Lukins’ body several times over by invoking the Trinitarian formula (“In the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit”), Lukins began crying out horribly and making exclamations including, “Our Master has deceived us!” and “Must I give up my power?” As the ritual went on, Lukins’ wailing and convulsions increased to an agonizing level, until finally his body relaxed and he proclaimed in his own voice: “Blessed Jesus”. He then recited the Lord’s Prayer before thanking the clergymen and others present and exiting the church.
As word of the Lukins exorcism spread, controversy quickly followed in a country and era in which more and more people had become skeptical of alleged supernatural phenomena. A surgeon by the name of Samuel Norman who had once shared accommodations with Lukins claimed he was merely a talented ventriloquist who was deceiving the public. It was also claimed that Lukins’ original story – that he had been slapped by an “invisible hand” while performing the Christmas play – was nothing more than a case of public drunkenness. Others implied that Lukins used his supposed possession as an excuse not to work or contribute to the community, with some claiming his fits would miraculously clear up once others in town took up a collection for him. Another theory, put forth in an article in The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, was that Lukins was legitimately suffering from epilepsy and/or St. Vitus’s Dance (a similar disease) and that Easterbrook and the other clergymen had wrongly chalked it up to a spiritual cause. As for Lukins himself, though he became quite the public figure during this period what ultimately became of him is mostly a mystery.