“A victim of his obstinate devotion to the cause of the unhappy Armenian race”

The Murder of Rev. George P. Knapp (1915)

In: Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies
Ilias Chrissochoidis Stanford University Stanford, CA USA

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The sudden death of Rev. George P. Knapp (1863–1915), head of the American Mission in Bitlis and pioneer investigator of the Armenian genocide, has remained unresolved for over a century. A hitherto ignored deposition from 1919 describes his tragic last days and murder by Turkish gendarmes escorting him to Diarbekir.


The sudden death of Rev. George P. Knapp (1863–1915), head of the American Mission in Bitlis and pioneer investigator of the Armenian genocide, has remained unresolved for over a century. A hitherto ignored deposition from 1919 describes his tragic last days and murder by Turkish gendarmes escorting him to Diarbekir.

The Armenian people owe a debt of gratitude to the Knapps, one of many American missionary families serving the destitute communities of Anatolia for decades prior to and during the Christian genocides of the early 20th century. A native of Vermont, George Cushing Knapp (1823–1895) and his teacher wife Alzina M. Churchill settled in Diarbekir, Turkey, in 1855. In 1858, they established a station in the remote city of Bitlis, where they raised four children in full immersion in local Armenian life and culture.1

Grace Higley Knapp (1871–1953) is known for her two valuable books The Mission at Van: In Turkey in War Time (1915) and The Tragedy of Bitlis (1919), containing testimonies of the criminal treatment of Armenians in Anatolia.2 But it was Grace’s brother, George Perkins Knapp (1863–1915), who pioneered the systematic documentation and reporting of the atrocities against the Armenian people.3 The most accurate biographical information on Knapp is his memorial record at the American Research Institute in Turkey, which is reproduced below:


Born in Bitlis, June 13, 1863.

Graduated Harvard University, 1887; Hartford Seminary, 1890.

Ordained May 28, 1890. Married July 2, 1890, to Anna J. Hunt of Barre, Mass.

Sailed from New York, July 19, 1890.

Arrived Bitlis, October, 1890.

In Constantinople, 1896–97; in U.S.A. 1897–99.

Arrived Harpout, November 16,1899.

Transferred to Bitlis, 1910.

Spent 1913–1914 at Harpout; then returned to Bitlis.

Died at Diarbekir, August 10 (?), 1915.

Mr. Knapp was the son of Rev. and Mrs. George C. Knapp, of Bitlis; and from his infancy was familiar with the Bitlis region, and loved its inhabitants. In childhood he learned both Armenian and Turkish well, so that he had easy access to the heart of the people. Returning after his education and marriage, he came into the region at a time of stress, and was known as a friend of the Armenians. In 1896, he was suddenly arrested on a charge of sedition, and was on the point of being expelled from the country when a resolute demand was made for his trial on the charge specified, and he came to Constantinople. The Government delayed very long in bringing any charges against him, and he finally went to America for a time, to let things quiet down. The charges were never pursued at all by the Government. He served for a couple of years as secretary of the National Armenian Relief Committee, with headquarters at Barre, Mass., his old home; and then he returned to the Eastern Turkey Mission, with Harpout as his station. He had been known in Bitlis as “Mr. George,” to distinguish him from his father; he was henceforth known in Harpout as “Mr. Knapp,” and there was no attempt on the part of the Government to allude to their sentence of expulsion. In Harpout, he originated quite extensive plans for agricultural and industrial undertakings for the needy people; and his versatility, his untiring labors, and his generous sympathy gained him to an unusual degree the confidence and affection of the poor people for whom he worked. In his previous station he had done a great deal of touring; and this branch he again took up to a certain degree, though very carefully. In 1910, after a year’s furlough in America, he left his wife and children there and returned alone to Bitlis to work for his former field and people. Spending the year 1913–1914 in Harpout, he was back again the next year in Bitlis. In July of 1915, Miss Charlotte Ely died in Bitlis, and Mr. Knapp thus became the senior member of the station. Shortly after that, he left Bitlis to go to Diarbekir. The next word that came regarding him was from a friendly Turk who arrived in Harpout with the news that Mr. Knapp had died in Diarbekir of disease, that he had arrived there in very sick condition, had been devotedly attended by the Armenian pastor and wife and by an Armenian nurse and her husband, a Turkish doctor; but that despite every care, Mr. Knapp died suddenly, and was buried by the Armenian pastor. Possibly the whole truth may never be known; but foul play was naturally suspected. In any case, the earthly work of George Knapp was done.4

An intimate portrait of Knapp is offered by his sister in the chapter “Greater Love Hath No Man” in The Tragedy of Bitlis: “[He] in a unique sense laid down his life for his friends, the Armenians. He died because he loved them, literally. This is the firm conviction of those who know most about the circumstances of his last days.”5

Moving to the US at age 14, Knapp studied at Harvard University and the Hartford Theological Seminary, before marrying Anna Jay Hunt and returning to Bitlis in 1890.6 The Sasun massacres of 1894 prompted him to document and publicize the Turkish atrocities in the West.7 His anonymous reports in the Hartford Seminary Record and then in the London Times were “probably the most detailed and extensive account” of the events at the time.8 The furor they created abroad made him a hero among local Armenians but also turned him into an assassination target (“The Turks showed their animosity […] by more than one attempt to shoot him.”)9 In 1896, the Turkish government charged him with sedition and murder, and sought to put him on trial as instigator of an Armenian revolt in Bitlis. His detention attracted international attention, causing outrage among Christians.10

Following his ordeal with Turkish authorities, which was closely followed by the press in early 1896, he departed for America, where he spent the next two years raising money for Armenian orphans.11 In 1899, he returned to Harpoot taking charge and resuscitating the local mission and orphanage.12 After a brief stay in America, in 1909, he finally settled in his parents’ mission in Bitlis, where he witnessed the 1915 genocide.13

Knapp’s sudden death in 1915 has from the outset been considered suspicious, yet its exact cause and circumstances have remained unverified for a century (as late as in 2004, we read that he “died prematurely during the war”).14 Its earliest report, in the New York Times, closes with the telling qualifier that Bitlis “became one of the storm centres of the war.”15 A year after his death, a Harvard publication reports that he died “on or about August 7, 1915, from fever or poison, after helping Armenians who sought refuge at his mission when Turkey entered the War.”16 Fully aware of the perilous conditions of his work, his sister rejects, in 1919, the story of his contracting typhus and concludes “The truth will probably never be known, but that he died the death of a martyr is practically certain.”17

“Men have their ways, but God has His own,” goes a popular saying by Turkish-born Greek Orthodox Church Saint Paisios of Mount Athos. In January 2014, while examining the papers of Ernest Wilson Riggs, director of Euphrates College in Harput (1910–1921), at Hoover Institution Archives, I came across a folder titled “Murder of Rev. G. P. Knapp, Head of the American Mission, Bitlis.”18 As I was researching modern Greek history at the time, I had no way of evaluating the significance of this source. It took me years to realize that not only did it remain unpublished, but it was practically unknown in scholarly literature. The only citation I have been able to locate so far is in Russian expert (and Stanford alumnus) Joshua A. Sanborn’s book Imperial Apocalypse: The Great War and the Destruction of the Russian Empire (Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 89.

Attached to the folder is a Department of State N[ear] E[ast] Bureau/Division sticker addressed to “Rev. James L. Barton.” The six typewritten pages contain the English translation of the sworn testimony of a young Armenian taken in Bagdad on October 16, 1919 and received, presumably by the State Department, on February 4, 1920. The anonymous narrator was a former accountant at the Imperial Ottoman Bank branch in Bitlis who had been sheltered by Knapp in the summer of 1915 and then joined him in jail before witnessing his cruel murder by their military escort on the way from Zok to Diarbekir. The text below is a full and faithful transcription of the source and all editorial corrections/ additions appear in square brackets.

The time has come to reveal the details of George Perkins Knapp’s last days and brutal murder, and to honor an American martyr in the fight for bringing justice to the Armenian people.

Vw / Turkey / K 67

COPY19 Rec’d FEB 4 1920



On Friday, June 18, 1915, Major Helil (later Helil Pacha) entered Bitlis with 10,000 men after having massacred all the Christians of Seerd (District of Bitlis) three days before.

On Tuesday, June 22, the military authorities of Bitlis (The commanding officers of the troops of Major Helil and those of a battalion of 400 men who were sent from Konia to take part in the massacre of Bitlis) surrounded the city and gradually arrested all the Armenian men 14 to 60 years of age.

On Friday, June 25, the city Bitlis had been “purged of Armenians” as the Turks say.

On Saturday the 26th, the massacre started in the city itself; the troops took the Armenians, chained tog[e]ther by hundreds to the outskirts of Bitlis in order to shoot them. They were chiefly taken to the villages of Hambe and Parkhande, southe[a]st of Bitlis, and to the hills of Papehene-Han, northwest of Bitlis, where I myself was taken on Friday, June 25, 1915, at 8:30 in the evening, together with 15 other people amongst whom was the Reverend Hatchik, Protestant pastor, attached to the American Mission (I was saved this night because I was the accountant of the Imperial Ottoman Bank at Bitlis and at the request of the Director I was given 5 days of grace in which to turn over my affairs to him)[.]

Mahmoud Nedim Bey, Director of Health at Bitlis had instructions to burn the bodies of the wounded and dead Armenians [p. 2] at the place of execution.

Between June 27 and July 4 the doors of the American Mission were opened to all rich and poor Armenians who were without other means of assistance.

I could easily see from the windows of the Bank, where I had been living since the morning of June 22 with the Director and the cashier, the American flag flying over the Mission. Being totally ignorant of the intentions of the Turks and strengthened by temporary hope, the valiant G. P. Knapp, Head of the Mission, received at his establishment all the fugitives who presented themselves there.

The partial massacre continued daily and the Turkish soldiers also entered the Armenian homes and took at will women, girls, furniture, goods, etc. etc.

From the 1st to the 4th of July the deportation of the women was carried out in an orderly manner, while the horrors which always accompany such operations were confined to soldiers with degraded instincts.

On July 5 there remained in Bitlis scarcely 2,500 Armenians, women and children, out of an original number of 18,000[;] these were living under the protection of the American flag.

The indefatigable Rvd. G. P. Knapp fulfilled his new duties admirably; he fed the refugees regularly three times a day; encouraged them, consoled them and prepared them for their death. It was pleasure for him to be able to lessen the pain of all these poor people menaced with approaching death to whom he frequently said, “My children I will do everything possible to [p. 3] save you, and in case it is needed I am ready to be shot myself to save you.”

An order coming from the local authorities was published on July 9, 1915, giving the Moslem population three days only in which to make preparations for the evacuation of the city and the retreat to Diarbekir.

On July 15, 1915, the city of Bitlis was completely evacuated. No one was left except the Vali, a few high officials and about fifty gendarmes, three employees of the Imperial Ottoman Bank, and the American Mission under the direction of Rvd. G. P. Knapp with all its refugees.

Between the 16 and 22 of July the evacuated city was at the mercy of attacks by the Kurds and for this reason on the evening of 22.7.1915, the Vali ordered the personnel of the Bank to live at the American Mission, a place where they would have greater safety.

The schools and the church were completely filled with about 1,200 women and children, the other 1,300 had already died with sickness caused by grief and fear. The Rvd. G. P. Knapp directed this crowd like a father with his children. No obstacle was too great for his efforts, his sole desire was the safety of those who had no hope except that in Providence. At night he was on guard against possible attacks by Kurds, by day he was begging for mercy for his unfortunate charges from the Turks.

The Russian advance towards Bitlis unfortunately hastened events. The cashier and myself, after living there three days [p. 4] with the Revd. G. P. Knapp, were ordered to leave the city on July 25 by the Director of the Imperial Ottoman Bank. The Revd. G. P. Knapp regretted sincerely to see us leave. He already foresaw the plans of the Turks. Because we were forced to proceed in the direction of Zok (District of Diarbekir) he feared that the American Mission would also be forced to evacuate and he trembled for the safety of the 1,200 refugees whom he had successfully protected up to that time.

On August 2, 1915, having arrived at Zok, I was separated from my companions because I was an Armenian, was arrested, shackled, and thrown into prison.

Next day[,] August 3, 1915, Rd. G. P. Knapp, whose presentiments had come true, and who had been deported after us, was placed in the same room as myself (a place which had originally served as a latrine). His hands were also tied behind his back.

Though I was bound and prevented from moving by heavy chains I was able to listen to the encouraging words of the pastor, he often said to me, “Trust in God, my child, we were born to suffer and to die; one must even believe himself happy when in extreme pain; God is good, right and just and he will sever[e]ly punish our persecuters [sic]; I who am a foreigner share your fate for the glory of his name, and I sacrifice myself for these humanitarian sentiments; have courage, then there is nothing to fear before death.” I asked him why he had left Bitlis and where he had left his refugees. He replied that the Turks, during the night of July 28, 1915, had succeeded in getting him outside the Mission by a trick, and tied his hands behind his back, after having trampled under foot the American flag which was flying before the doorway, and had then sent him to this point. [p. 5] A little later 4 gendarmes entered our room, took us out, and tied us on the backs of two camels. We were taken along the road which leads from Zok to Diarbekir.

Arriving at a spot about four hours from Zok we were taken off the camels and were firmly bound to two trees two meters from each other.

The four gendarmes who accompanied us, after a discussion decided to shoot Revd. G. P. Knapp first because he was a European and undoubtedly had much money on him. They immediately carried out their cruel plan. Three bullets struck him, one on the upper part of the right cheek, one in the middle of the breast and the last on the left side. His executioners robbed him while still in his death agony. While they were doing this a gendarme arrived on horseback carrying an order to bring me back to Zok. The demands of the Director, an intimate friend of the Vali, had succeeded in saving me a second time.

I left Rev. G. P. Knapp covered with his blood and showing no sign of life.

Being an Armenian, and much tried by the loss of all my property and especially by the loss of several members of my family (my mother, brother, sister, and a number of uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.) I am happy to render homage to the memory of Rev. G. P. Knapp whose courageous conduct and devotion to the poor Armenians was without limit since he gave his life in his attempt to save from massacre a crowd of innocent people who had taken refuge with him. I likewise express the hope that the relation of the experience which I survived by miracle (and to whose verity I attest under oath) will permit rendering the justice that is [p. 6] due to the memory of Revd. G. P. Knapp who fell under the shots of the Turks a victim of his obstinate devotion to the cause of the unhappy Armenian race.

Bagdad, Mesopotamia,

October 16, 1919.


“The Rev. George C. Knapp, of Bitlis,” The Missionary Herald 91/5 (May 1895), 187. For the Bitlis mission, see R. N. Cole, “Story of Bitlis Station, Koordistan,” The Missionary Herald 88/9 (September 1892), 357. Grace H. Knapp offers a detailed account of her parents and their missionary work in Turkey in The Tragedy of Bitlis (New York and London, 1919), 96–111.


The Mission at Van: In Turkey in War Time (1915) can be found online at:; and The Tragedy of Bitlis (1919) can be found online at:


A portrait of him as a young man is available online at


Amerikan Bord Heyeti (American Board), Istanbul, “Memorial records for George P. Knapp,” American Research Institute in Turkey, Istanbul Center Library, online in Digital Library for International Research Archive, Item #17182, (accessed on March 2, 2023).


The Tragedy of Bitlis, 112.


The Missionary Herald 86/8 (August 1890), 338.


Owen Miller, “Sasun 1894: Mountains, Missionaries and Massacres at the End of the Ottoman Empire” (Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 2015), 306.


Owen Miller, “Rethinking the Violence in the Sasun Mountains (1893–1894),” Études arméniennes contemporaines 10 (2018) [“The Massacres of the Hamidian Period (I): Global Narratives and Local Approaches”], 97–123: 116.


Knapp, The Tragedy of Bitlis, 115.


[Frederick Davis Greene,] Henry Davenport Northrop (ed.), Armenian Massacres or The Sword of Mohammed (J. R. Jones, 1896) 515–516. One American evangelist decried “that wily foe of Christianity, Sultan Hamid, [who] is testing the forbearance, and alas, apparent indifference of the Christian Powers.”: S. M. W., “Another Armenian Outrage,” New York Evangelist 67/7 (February 13, 1896), 10.


See for example, “An American Endangered: The Rev. G. P. Knapp Threatened with Arrest in Bitlis,” New York Tribune, February 11, 1896, 3; “Turks Angry […] Rev. G. P. Knapp charged with Sedition and Murder,” Boston Daily Globe, April 7, 1896, 3; “Mr. Knapp not in Danger,” New York Tribune, April 10, 1896, 7. See also: Knapp, The Tragedy of Bitlis, 116–119.


Knapp, The Tragedy of Bitlis, 119–124.


Knapp, The Tragedy of Bitlis, 124–125.


Susan Billington Harper, “Mary Louise Graffam: witness to genocide,” in Jay Winter (ed.), America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), 214–239: 220.


“Rev. G. P. Knapp, Missionary, Dead,” New York Times, October 2, 1915, 11.


M. A. DeWolfe Howe (ed.), The Harvard Volunteers in Europe: Personal Records of Experience in Military, Ambulance, and Hospital Service (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1916), 264.


Knapp, The Tragedy of Bitlis, 126.


“Ernest Wilson Riggs papers,” Box 1, Folder 1, Hoover Institution Library & Archives.


This is a copy of the English translation of the deposition. I assume the original (oral) one was given in Armenian or Turkish and was translated into English either in Baghdad or in Washington D.C. for the State Department. It is unknown why the deposition was made four years after Knapp’s murder. Perhaps the Armenian witness was hiding and had no access to American authorities. Or perhaps because the publication of The Tragedy of Bitlis by Knapp’s sister in 1919 rekindled interest in the suspicious circumstances of his death. All of this is, of course, conjecture.

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