THE DEVIL CAME TO
The True Story of the 1949 Exorcism Case
In 1949, the Devil came to St. Louis....
Or at least, if you believe the stories that have been told for the last fifty-odd years, a reasonable facsimile of him did.
This is the story that has been told for three generations and it is the story that has inspired books, films and documentaries. It is, without question, the greatest unsolved mystery of St. Louis. And, let's face it, a story that has become a confusing and convoluted mess over the years. There are so many theories, legends, tales and counter-stories that have been thrown into the mix that it's become very hard to separate fact from fantasy. So, let's see if we can get to the bottom of what happened in 1949, despite all of the unanswered questions that have been left behind.
What really happened in Maryland that would drive a family halfway across the country to look for answers? And what happened at the old Alexian Brothers hospital in St. Louis that still has former staff members whispering about it in fear today? And most of all, was this boy really possessed by demon?
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The True Story of the 1949 St. Louis Exorcism Case
THE ST. LOUIS EXORCISM
The case began not in St. Louis, but in either the small Washington, D.C. suburb of Cottage City, Maryland or Mount Rainer. There seems to be some debate about this because there have been a couple of different houses that have been identified as the home in question. As most readers already know, what has come to be known as the "St. Louis Exorcism Case" would go on to inspire William Peter Blatty's 1971 best-selling book and the movie based on it, The Exorcist. In the novel, a young girl is possessed by a demon and is subjected to an exorcism by Catholic priests. In the true story though, the subject of the alleged possession was not a girl but a boy who has been identified in various accounts as "Roland" or "Robbie Doe". Robbie (as we will call him here) was born in 1935 and grew up in this area. He was the only child of a dysfunctional family and had a troubled childhood.
In January 1949, the family of 13-year-old "Robbie Doe" began to be disturbed by scratching sounds that came from inside of the walls and ceilings of the house. Believing that the house was infested with mice, the parents called an exterminator but he could find no sign of rodents. To make matters worse, his efforts seemed to add to the problem. Noises that sounded like someone walking in the hallway could be heard and dishes and objects were often found to be moved without explanation.
And while the noises were disturbing, they weren't nearly as frightening as when Robbie began to be attacked. His bed shook so hard that he couldn't sleep at night. His blankets and sheets were torn from the bed. When he tried to hold onto them, he was reportedly pulled off the bed and onto the floor with the sheets still gripped in his hands.
Those who have come to believe the boy was genuinely possessed feel that he may have been invaded by an invisible entity after experimenting with a Ouija board. He had been taught to use the device by his "Aunt Tillie", a relative who took an active interest in Spiritualism and the occult. Tillie had passed away a short time before the events began and it has even been suggested that it was her spirit who began to plague the boy. This seems unlikely though, especially considering the timing of her death. She lived in St. Louis and had died of multiple sclerosis on January 26, 1949 - a number of days after the phenomena surrounding Robbie began. However the family did feel there was some connection, as was evidenced in the written history of the mystery.
Father Bowdern passed away in 1983, never publicly acknowledging the fact that he was involved in the St. Louis case. He had talked with other Jesuits though and eventually these stories reached a man named Thomas Allen, an author and contributing editor to National Geographic. He managed to find one of the participants in the case, Walter Halloran, S.J., who was then living in a small town in Minnesota. Halloran was suspicious at first but he did admit that there had been a diary. But was it the diary that fell into the hands of Father Gallagher? Maybe or maybe not...
According to legend, the diary that Halloran had access to later turned up as a 26-page document of the case that was literally snatched out of the old Alexian Brothers hospital just before it was demolished, so where did the 16-page diary come from? And what happened to it? Accounts have it that Father Gallagher later loaned his 16-page diary to Father Brian McGrath, S.J., then dean of Georgetown University, in the spring of 1950. When Gallagher later tried to retrieve the diary, he was told that seven pages of the diary had been lost. Only nine of the 16 pages remained and they were only photocopies.
And what about the later 26-page diary? Sources say that this longer document was found in the Alexian Brothers Hospital on South Broadway in St. Louis. The old psychiatric wing of the hospital was being torn down in 1978 and workmen were sent in to remove furniture from that part of the building. One of these men found the document in a desk drawer of a locked room and he gave it to his supervisors, who in turn passed it on to hospital administrators. It was eventually identified as the work of Rev. Raymond Bishop, S.J., a priest who had participated in the exorcism. The manuscript was locked away but Father Halloran had access to it. He made a copy of the diary and sent it to Allen, who published a book about it in 1993.
As it has turned out, the only details that we have about the case have come through the "diary" and from witnesses who were present at the time. The Catholic Church has never released details of the story. The diary does reveal details though, many of which have been overlooked and forgotten over the years.
As mentioned already, the strange noises and scratching in the house progressed into actual witnessed attacks on Robbie himself. Worried that the incidents might have something to do with Aunt Tillie, Robbie's mother attempted to make contact with her spirit. According to the priest's diary, she asked questions aloud and implored Tillie's spirit, if it was really her, to knock three times and make herself known. Allegedly, Robbie, his mother and his grandmother all felt a wave of air pass over them and then heard three knocks on the floor. Robbie's mother asked again, this time for four knocks and they again came in reply. They were followed by scratching sounds on the bed mattress, which then began to shake and vibrate onto the floor. And while these events must have certainly been chilling, it still seems unlikely that they could have been involved with Aunt Tillie, or her ghost.
There are other explanations for what was going on. Many believe that Robbie may have been the victim of "poltergeist-like phenomena", where unknowing people actually manifest a form of psychokinesis that causes objects to move about in their presence. It often centers around troubled young people and has been documented many times over the years. Other principals in the case would further explore this explanation.
Another explanation, and one offered by more people that you might imagine, was that the boy truly was possessed and that the invisible presence wreaking havoc in the house was not connected to Aunt Tillie at all.
By this time, the family was becoming desperate. They began seeking help for Robbie and according to one account from 1975, called in two Lutheran ministers and a rabbi. Robbie had been baptized a Lutheran at birth, so one has to wonder why a rabbi was called to the house, although some have suggested that perhaps one of the ministers had asked him along. The account goes on to say that while the rabbi was examining the boy, Robbie suddenly began to shout in an unknown tongue. After listening for a few moments, the rabbi announced that he was speaking in Hebrew! Not only that, but the reports add that a professor from Washington University would later hear the boy's speech and he insisted that Robbie was speaking Aramaic, an ancient language of Palestine. If this account is accurate, we have to ask how a 13-year boy from Maryland would have learned to speak Aramaic?
Rev. Luther Schulze, one of the Lutheran ministers and the pastor from the family's own church, tried praying with Robbie and his parents in their home and then with Robbie alone. He took the boy to the church to pray with him and he begged whatever was bothering him to leave. It didn't help however and the strange afflictions continued. The weird noises continued to be heard in the house and Robbie's bed went on shaking and rocking so that he was unable to get any sleep at night. Finally, in February, Schulze decided to question whether the house was haunted, or the boy was. He offered to let Robbie spend the night in his home and his parents quickly agreed. They were anxious to try anything that might help by this time.
That night, Mrs. Schulze went to the guest room and Robbie and the minister retired to the twin beds located in the master bedroom. About ten minutes later, Schulze reported that he heard the sound of Robbie's bed creaking and shaking. He also heard strange scratching noises inside of the walls, just like the ones that had been heard at Robbie's own house. Schulze quickly switched on the lights and clearly saw the vibrating bed. When he prayed for it to stop, the vibration grew even more violent. He stated that Robbie was wide awake but he was completely still and was not moving in a way that would cause the bed to shake.
Schulze then suggested that Robbie try and sleep in a heavy armchair that was located across the room. While Schulze watched him closely, the chair began to move. First, it scooted backward several inches and its legs jolted forward and back. The minister told Robbie to raise his legs and to add his full weight to the chair but that wasn't enough to stop the chair from moving. Moments later, it literally slammed against the wall and then it tipped over and deposited the boy unhurt onto the floor.
Trying not to be frightened or discouraged, Rev. Schulze made a pallet of blankets on the floor for Robbie to sleep on. As soon as the boy fell asleep though, the pallet began to slide across the floor and under one of the beds. When Robbie was startled awake by the movement, he raised up and struck his head on one of the bedposts. Again, the minister made up the pallet, only to this time have it whip across the floor and slide under the other bed. Robbie's hands were visible the entire time and his body was taut with tension. The blankets reportedly did not wrinkle at all as they moved across the floor, as they should have if someone was pushing them.
After this active night, Schulze was now both puzzled and a little afraid. He suggested that Robbie's parents take the boy to see a doctor and a psychologist to rule out any kind of physical or mental problems that might be causing the phenomena to take place. The minister also contacted J.B. Rhine, the famed founder of the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University. He explained what was going on and Rhine and his partner and wife, Louisa Rhine, drove up from North Carolina to see the boy. Unfortunately, no activity took place while the investigator was present, but Rhine did deduce that it sounded like a classic poltergeist case in which the boy's unconscious abilities were influencing the objects around him. The details fit well with other experimental results that Rhine had been obtaining.
And while the explanation suggested by Rhine must have appealed to the minister (as he had contacted the investigator in the first place), he did an abrupt about-face a short time later when the phenomena took another turn. A week or so after the incident at Schulze's home, bloody scratches began to appear on the boy's body. Perhaps startled by this new turn of events, Schulze suggested that the family contact a Catholic priest.
And here's where things get (if possible) even more confusing.
According to some sources, Robbie's family then turned to the Catholic Church for help and his father went to the nearby St. James Church in Mount Rainier, Maryland. Here, he met with a young priest named Edward Albert Hughes. He was the assistant pastor of the church at the time. He was skeptical and reluctant to get involved in the matter, but he did agree to go and see Robbie. During the visit, Robbie allegedly addressed the priest in Latin, a language that he did not know. Shaken, Hughes was said to have applied to his archbishop for permission to conduct an exorcism. The sources go on to say that the ritual was performed at Georgetown Hospital in February. Robbie seemed to go into a trance and he thrashed about and spoke in tongues. Hughes ordered the boy to be put into restraints but he somehow managed to work a piece of metal spring loose from the bed and he slashed the priest with it. The stories say that Hughes subsequently left St. James, suffered a nervous breakdown and during masses that he held later in life, he could only hold the consecrated host aloft in one hand.
That was the story anyway, although according to research done by Mark Opsasnick in 1999, that I confirmed on my own three years later, none of this may have happened at all. This incident appears only in the book Possessed by Thomas Allen. There are a number of other suppositions and possible problems in the book and this is one of them. The stories about Father Hughes turned out to be almost totally inaccurate. Father Hughes became assistant pastor of St. James Church under Rev. William Canning in June 1948 and he served without a break until June 1960. (He was later reassigned to St. James in 1973 and stayed there until his death in 1980.) Church records do not indicate that he ever suffered a breakdown, nor that he ever even made an attempt to exorcize Robbie at Georgetown University Hospital. However, Robbie was checked into the hospital under his real name for several days during the period when the alleged exorcism attempt took place, but that is all. Records say that he underwent extensive medial and psychological evaluations.
Father Hughes also never actually visited Robbie in his home. In truth, his mother brought him to St. James for the only consultation. There is nothing to suggest that Robbie spoke to the priest in Latin and no evidence to say that Father Hughes was ever slashed with a bedspring. Those who knew Hughes personally remember him suffering no injuries during this period and the fact is, the church social calendar showed him quite busy during the weeks after Robbie's release from the hospital.
It's possible that the confusion about Hughes' part in the case came from the assistant pastor that he had later in life. According to this pastor, Frank Bober, Hughes confided in him about the first exorcism attempt. Bober later became an important figure in the case, being very accessible to journalists. He has appeared in literally dozens of articles, books and documentaries about the case and Thomas Allen cited him as being "extremely reliable" about Hughes' role in the incidents. Others believe that Bober "dramatized" many of the re-tellings of the events and created much of the confusion that surrounds this part of the case. Who knows?
But even if we consider the idea that this part of the story didn't actually happen, what was documented as occurring around this same time was strange enough that all of that becomes almost irrelevant.
Robbie's hospital stay was documented as occurring between February 28, 1949 and March 2, 1949 but according to the priest's "diary", strange things began to happen on February 26. The statement records that "there appeared scratches on the boy's body for about four successive nights. After the fourth night, words were written in printed form. These letters were clear but seemed to have been scratched on the body by claws."
At about this same time, Robbie's mother began to suggest that perhaps a trip away from Maryland might free the boy from the strange happenings. She thought that perhaps they could leave their troubles behind by visiting St. Louis. Robbie's mother was a native of the city and still had many relatives there. The more she considered this, the better the idea seemed. And apparently, the haunting entity agreed because the word "LOUIS" inexplicably appeared on Robbie's rib cage. When this "skin branding" occurred, Robbie's hands were always visible and his mother specifically notes that he could not have scratched the words himself. He had been under observation at the time and the words, according to witnesses, had simply appeared.
The priest's diary even noted that the writing also appeared on Robbie's back. Later on, while in St. Louis, there was some question raised about sending Robbie to school while in the city but the message "NO" appeared on his wrists. A large letter "N" also appeared on each of his legs and his mother feared disobeying what she saw as a supernatural order. It has been suggested that perhaps Robbie created the writing himself with his mind, either consciously or unconsciously. With that in question, it should be noted that before his parents consulted a priest, they also had him examined by a psychiatrist. He reported that the boy was quite normal, as did a medical doctor who gave him a complete physical.
At this point, records do indicate that Robbie's mother took him to consult with Father Hughes at the St. James Church. During this one documented visit, he suggested that the family use blessed candles, holy water and special prayers and to perhaps rid the boy of his problems. Robbie's mother began the use of the blessed candles and on one occasion, a comb flew violently through the air and struck them, snuffing out the flames. Later, an orange and a pear flew across Robbie's room. The kitchen table once overturned in the boy's presence, but without his aid, and milk and food flew off of counters and onto the floor. At another time, a coat jerked from a hanger and a bible landed at Robbie's feet. A chair that the boy was sitting in spun around so fast that he was unable to stop it. Finally, he was said to have discontinued attending school because his desk refused to remain in the same place.
According to records, Robbie had been removed from the eighth grade at Bladensburg Junior High School early in 1949. There were many fellow students and neighbors who later spoke of him being a problem child and often into trouble. Although school records do not reflect such problems, they may have been caused by the alleged strange occurrences that plagued Robbie at the time. If people thought that he was faking the movement of his desk, the displacement of objects and other reported happenings, they might have come to believe that he was a troublemaker or looking for attention. For those who believe the young man was never possessed at all, the later reports from those who knew Robbie only strengthened their disbelief.
Some of the reports are a little odd though, including stories about neighbors hearing strange cries coming from the house and banging objects. There is also the account that comes from a fellow student of Robbie's in 1949. He said that "we were in the eighth grade and we were in class together at Bladensburg Junior High. He was sitting in a chair and it was one of those deals with one arm attached and it looked like he was shaking the desk - the desk was shaking and vibrating extremely fast and I remember the teacher yelling at him to stop and I remember he kind of yelled back "I'm not doing it!" and they took him out of class and that was the last I ever saw him in school…. I don't know if he was doing it or what was doing it because I can't get it clear in my mind. It was very close-mouthed in the neighborhood at first - no one knew anything. I hadn't seen him in some time and I was wondering what happened to him. I would still see his father around and I remember going to his house and his German grandmother came out and she could barely speak English and she told me he was in St. Louis visiting relatives and would not be back for awhile. He hadn't been in school and from what I saw I knew something strange was going on but I didn't know what. When that Washington Post article came out later that summer, I knew from the details it was him."
The activity reportedly continued at the family home. The priest's diary went on to add that "the mother took the bottle of holy water and sprinkled all of the rooms." She then took the bottle and placed it on a shelf but it snapped into the air and flew onto the floor, although it did not break.
A 1975 report stated that attempts were also made to baptize Robbie into the Catholic faith in order to help him. The press mentioned that one of these attempts was made during Robbie's hospital stay (not an exorcism as was later reported) and then later in St. Louis. One baptism attempt was allegedly made in February 1949. It was said that as Robbie's uncle was driving him to the rectory for the ceremony, the boy suddenly glared at him, grabbed him by the throat and shouted, "You son of a bitch, you think I'm going to be baptized but you are going to be fooled!"
The Catholic baptism ritual usually only takes about 15 minutes but for Robbie, it reportedly lasted for several hours. It was said that when the priest asked "Do you renounce the devil and all his works?" Robbie would go into such a thrashing rage that he had to be restrained.
As mentioned, Robbie was released from the hospital on March 2. During that time, a strange incident took place that I learned of almost by accident from a source who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area. He said that the father of a friend of his told him about the incident in the summer of 1982. The older man said that it was one of the most frightening moments of his life and that it occurred in the old infirmary in Georgetown in 1949. There had been an outbreak of flu that year and most of the 12-15 year-old boys in the neighborhood (including him) were moved to the infirmary for observation. "He said that one night, around 9:00 p.m.," my correspondent told me, "two doctors and a boy who looked about 14 walked into the room that he and a number of boys were housed in. Needless to say, my friend's father, as well as the other boys, had known nothing about this boy. My friend’s father said that he looked directly at the boy as did the other boys. He said that the boy glared into his eyes. He said that at that moment he was terrified and that some of the boys began saying aloud the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary. He said that he was so frightened by the boy's eyes that he could not sleep for many nights. He said that after about five minutes, the boy and the doctors left the room. My friend's father said to me that he found out about a year later that the boy was the one who was possessed by the devil and that the boy was held over night in the infirmary before being moved to St. Louis."
Shortly after being released from the hospital and being found normal, Robbie boarded a train to St. Louis with his parents. The family was graciously taken in by relatives in Normandy, Missouri, which is located on the northwest side of the greater St. Louis area. Here, the boy's mother hoped that he might be freed from the strange and horrifying events. For those readers who are convinced that nothing was occurring in this case aside from overactive imaginations and silly superstition, they may want to consider the trip to St. Louis itself as evidence that something strange (supernatural or not) was taking place. The fact that Robbie's parents would uproot the boy from his home, his father would travel back and forth, jeopardizing his employment and they would all travel halfway across the county in a last ditch effort to find help is suggestive (if not downright convincing) that terrible things were indeed happening.
Unfortunately, Robbie did not improve in St. Louis. His aunt and uncle in Normandy, as well as various other relatives, witnessed more of the "skin brandings", as well as saw his bed and mattress shaking on many occasions. On March 8, 1949, the shaking of the mattress and scratching continued. A stool that was sitting near the bed was seen flying across the room by Robbie's cousin. The cousin was so concerned about Robbie that he even tried lying down on the bed beside him to stop the mattress from shaking. To his dismay, it didn't work. Finally, one of the relatives, who had attended St. Louis University, went to see her old teacher there, Rev. Raymond J. Bishop, S.J. She asked him if he might be able to assist Robbie and while we have no idea what his initial reply may have been, he did agree to look into the case. It was Bishop who brought William Bowdern into the case.
Bowdern was not on the faculty of St. Louis University. In 1949, he was the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church, located at the corner of Grand and Lindell. He was a native of St. Louis and had served as a chaplain during World War II. He had many years experience dealing with people and their problems and he listened carefully to the story that Bishop told him. Then, he and Bishop went to Paul Reinert, S.J., the president of the university. All of them were skeptical about the case and concerned with bringing embarrassment to the church and the college but decided that it might be well to have the boy say some prayers and to give him the priestly blessing.
Apparently, Father Bishop first went to the house alone. He came to bless the house and the room in which Robbie slept. A second-class holy relic of St. Margaret Mary was pinned on the boy's bed. But even after the blessing and in spite of the relic, the bed still shook and swayed and the scratches still appeared all over the boy's body. Bishop then sprinkled holy water on the bed in the form of a cross and the movement suddenly ceased. Moments later, it started up again after Bishop stepped out of the room. Then, a sharp pain allegedly struck Robbie in the stomach and he cried out. His mother pulled back the bed covers and lifted the boy's pajama top to reveal red lines that zigzagged across the boy's abdomen. During this entire time, Robbie was in clear view of at least six witnesses.
The next two nights passed in the same way, with a shaking mattress, scratching and objects being thrown about. On March 11, Father Bishop returned to the home and this time brought Father Bowdern with him. The Jesuits were still skeptical about the case but open-minded enough to observe the boy and also to study the literature available about demonic attacks on humans. The priests came and prayed again and this time, the activity did not respond. However, as soon as Bishop and Bowdern left, a loud noise was reportedly heard in Robbie's room and five relatives rushed to see what had happened. They discovered that a 75-pound bookcase had swiveled in a complete circle, a bench had turned over and a crucifix that one of the priests had left under Robbie's pillow had moved to the end of the bed. As they rushed into the room, the mattress was violently shaking and bouncing once more.
Unfortunately, there is no reliable, clear-cut information about how the decision was reached by the Jesuits to perform an exorcism. According to church doctrine, there are a number of different conditions that have to be met to show that someone is truly possessed. Whether or not these conditions were met is not for me to say or judge but regardless, Bowdern and Bishop went to Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter for permission to perform an exorcism on March 16. Ritter had a reputation as a down-to-earth progressive and earlier in the decade, he had campaigned hard to integrate the St. Louis schools and parishes. Later, he would also have a large role in the sweeping reforms that came to the church as Vatican II. The Jesuits, who already have a tense history with the regular church, had no idea how Ritter would respond to the request. Surprisingly, he promptly agreed.
And the exorcism began...
It also isn't certain how many people were actually actively involved in the exorcism. The names of the exorcists given out in St. Louis were Father Bowdern, Father Bishop and Father Lawrence Kenny. Father Charles O'Hara of Marquette University in Milwaukee was also present as a witness (he later passed on information about what he saw there to Father Eugene Gallagher at Georgetown) and there were undoubtedly a several hospital staff members and seminary students who were also in attendance.
One of these students was Walter Halloran, the priest who passed along the 26-page diary to Thomas Allen. At that time, he was a strapping young former football player who had been asked along to hold Robbie down. Exorcisms were known for being often violent rituals and the Jesuits must have felt that the young man would prove to be very useful. For reason though, Halloran was removed from the exorcism about one week before it came to end, leaving his accounts of it rather incomplete.
And while Halloran would go on to have his own uncertain (and often conflicting) recollections of the case, hospital staff members would remember the events with fear. Steve Erdmann, who wrote about the case in 1975, personally knew at least one of the nurses involved. The man's name was Ernest Schaffer and he was barely able to talk about the case more than two decades later. He stated that the priests had a "terrible time" during Robbie's hospital stay. He had many conversations with the priests and believed that what he saw was supernatural in origin. He said that he cleaned vomit out of the boy's room on several different occasions.
The exorcism apparently started at the home of Robbie's relatives. The priests came late in the evening and after Robbie went to bed, the ritual began. The boy was said to go into a trance, his bed shook and welts and scratches appeared on his body. Bishop was said to have wiped away blood that welled up in the scratches while Halloran attempted to hold the boy down. An exorcism is said to be a dire spiritual and physical struggle. The demon that takes control of the person also tries to break the faith of the exorcist involved, as was evidenced in the earlier account of the 1928 exorcism in Iowa. Father Bowdern had prepared himself for the exhausting events through a religious fast of prayer, bread and water. It is said that from the time he first learned of Robbie's plight until the exorcism had run its course, Bowdern lost nearly 40 pounds.
As the prayers commanding the departure of the evil spirit began, Robbie winced and rolled in a sudden seizure of pain. Over the next two hours, the boy was branded and scratched 30 times on his stomach, chest, throat, thighs, calves and back. When Bowdern demanded that the demon reveal itself, the words "WELL" and "SPITE" appeared on the boy's chest. Another time, the word "HELL" appeared in red welts as the boy rocked back and forth, apparently in pain. All the while, he reportedly cursed and screamed obscenities in a voice that "ranged from deep bass to falsetto". The ritual came to an end on that occasion near dawn but little progress had been made.
The ordeal continued for many weeks and through many readings of the exorcism ritual. According to the witnesses, the boy's responses became more violent and repulsive as time went on. He was said to speak in Latin, in a variety of voices, in between bouts of screams and curses. He spat in the faces of the priests who knelt and stood by his bed and his spittle and vomit struck them with uncanny accuracy and over great distances. He punched and slapped the priests and the witnesses. He constantly urinated and he belched and passed gas that was said to have an unbelievable stench. He was even said to have taunted the priests and to have confronted them with information about themselves that he could not possibly have known. His body thrashed and contorted into seemingly impossible shapes and would continue during the nighttime hours. Each morning though, he would appear to be quite normal and would profess to have no memory of the events that took place after dark. He usually spent the day reading comics or playing board games with the student assistants.
Father O'Hara told Father Gallagher something even stranger. "One night the boy brushed off his handlers," he reportedly said, "and soared through the air at Father Bowdern standing some distance from the bed with a ritual book in his hands. Presumably Bowdern was about to be attacked but the boy got no further than the book. And when his hands hit that - I assure you, Gene, I saw this with my own eyes - he didn't tear the book, he dissolved it! The book vaporized into confetti and fell in small fine pieces to the floor!"
The ritual continued with the prayers being recited every day, despite Robbie's rabid reaction to them. The exorcism seemed virtually useless and so the priests requested permission to instruct Robbie in the Catholic faith. They felt that his conversion would help to strengthen their fight against the entity controlling the boy. His parents consented and he was prepared for his first communion. During this time of instruction, Robbie seemed to quiet somewhat and he was moved to the psychiatric wing of the Alexian Brothers Hospital. He seemed to be enjoying his lessons in the Catholic faith but this time of peace would not last. As Robbie prepared to receive communion, the priests literally had to drag him into the church. He broke out in a rage that was worse than anything the exorcists could remember.
The family was exhausted and was ready to give up.
Father Bowdern began searching for a new approach and so he made arrangements to return Robbie to Maryland and continue the ritual. It was said that during the train ride, Robbie became maniacal and struck Bowdern in the testicles. He reportedly cried "that's a nutcracker for you, isn't it?" The others present wrestled with Robbie until he finally fell asleep.
Bowdern found no accommodations to continue with Robbie in Maryland. No one would have anything to do with the boy and so he returned with him to St. Louis. Robbie's instructions in the Catholic faith continued. It was now Holy Week, the week before Easter, and Robbie was taken to White House, a Jesuit retreat overlooking the Mississippi River. As they walked the Stations of the Cross, located outside, Robbie suddenly became nervous and agitated. He ran away from the priests and launched himself toward the bluffs that loomed over the river. Halloran, the seminary student, tackled the boy and managed to subdue him. Shortly after, they returned the boy to the hospital.
The exorcism was now at an impasse. Seeking a solution, Bowdern again plunged into the literature regarding possession. He learned of an 1870 case that took place in Wisconsin that seemed similar to Robbie's plight and he devised a new strategy. On the night of April 18, the ritual resumed. Bowdern forced Robbie to wear a chain of religious medals and to hold a crucifix in his hands. Suddenly, Robbie became strangely contrite and he began to ask questions about the meaning of certain Latin prayers. Bowdern ignored him though, refusing to engage the entity in conversation, and he instead demanded to know the name of the demon and when he would depart.
Robbie exploded in a rage. Five witnesses held him down while he screamed that he was a "fallen angel" but Bowdern continued on with the ritual. He recited it incessantly for hours until Robbie suddenly interrupted in a loud, masculine voice, identifying himself as "St. Michael the Archangel". The voice ordered the demon to depart. Robbie's body then went into violent contortions and spasms. Then, he fell quiet. A moment later, he sat up, smiled and then spoke in a normal voice. "He's gone", Robbie said and then told the priests of a vision that he had of St. Michael holding a flaming sword.
The exorcism was finally over.
But what possessed Robbie Doe? Many believe that Robbie may have been faking the whole thing. Mark Opsasnick, during his research into the boy's troubled childhood, began to feel that the case may have started as a way to get attention, or to get out of school, and that it snowballed into the mess that it became. While he does some great investigative work into the early stages of the case, and does have many relevant points about Robbie's childhood and the many flaws in the chronicling of the case, he is too quick to dismiss some of the strange things that occurred in front of multiple witnesses. His report never delves at all into the events in St. Louis and in this way, leaves out just about everything that took place that was so hard to explain.
And there are other theories. Some would agree that while Robbie was not possessed, he was afflicted with another unexplainable paranormal disturbance. Earlier, I briefly mentioned "poltergeist-like" activity and how it can sometimes be associated with disturbed teenagers. While medical doctors have no interest in this, a few more adventurous scientists have grudgingly speculated that perhaps the human mind has abilities and energies that are still unrecognized. These energies just might be able to make objects move, writing to appear and beds to shake. If it can really happen, it just might explain what happen to Robbie Doe. As it happened, this turned out to be Reverend Luther Schulze's theory on what happened in Maryland.
Many are not willing to believe in any of this however and not surprisingly, skepticism runs rampant when it comes to the "St. Louis Exorcism Case". Many feel that Robbie suffered from a mental illness and not demonic possession. He may have been hallucinating or suffering from some weird psychosomatic illness that caused him to behave so strangely, to curse and scream and to thrash about so violently.
It should be noted though that people who have suggested that all of this was nothing more than a hoax or a mental illness are all people who were in no way involved in the case. The opinions of the priests and students who were present, the workers at Alexian Brothers and others who were there during most of the events that took place have to be considered and acknowledged far beyond those who speculate and yet were not even born in 1949.
In spite of the skeptics though, there were (and are) many who believe the events were real. They have no explanation for what took place in 1949 - and memories of those events still linger today.
AFTER THE EXORCISM…
Robbie left St. Louis with his parents 12 days later and returned to Maryland. He wrote to Father Bowdern in May 1949 and told him that he was happy and had a new dog. Robbie was a normal, typical American boy of the late 1940's. No matter whether you believe in demons or possession or not, most can agree that "something" very strange happened to him in 1949. If you believe that he faked the whole thing, then consider the trauma that he must have experienced when the joke went too far and he found himself subjected to an exorcism, which is certainly not a pleasant experience. If you believe that he was truly possessed, or even mentally ill, then we have to consider him a victim of an unexplainable horror. The only person who knew what really happened during that terrible winter and spring was Robbie himself and he never spoke about it again. Those who gently tried to prod his memory soon learned that he had only dim recollections of what had occurred anyway.
Robbie went on to attend a Catholic High School and remains a devout Catholic today. The boy of 1949 later went on to get married and to raise three children. There are a number of rumors that have swirled about this unfortunate man over the years, from the fact that he committed suicide to the claim that he was an American Airlines pilot. All that I can say is that through quite a bit of research, I have been able to learn the identity of "Robbie Doe". However, to get that information, I had to promise that I would never reveal who he was, or where he lives now. I will simply say that he had no further occurrences of anything supernatural ever occurred in his life. He still lives today in the Washington D.C. area.
Father Bowdern believed until the end of his life that he and his fellow priests had been battling a demonic entity. His supporters in this maintain that there were many witnesses to the alleged supernatural events that took place and that no other explanations existed for what was seen. A full report that was filed by the Catholic Church stated that the case of Robbie Doe was a "genuine demonic possession." According to Father John Nicola, who had the opportunity to review the report, he noted that 41 persons had signed a document attesting to the fact that they had witnessed paranormal phenomena in the case.
The only mention that was ever made of the exorcism was in the August 19, 1949 issue of the Catholic Review, a semi-official church publication. Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter of St. Louis appointed a Jesuit professor to conduct an investigation, but the results were never made public. Ritter asked his subordinates to stop talking about the incident after receiving the report because, according to the source, "It's not that they were hiding anything. It just was that they felt that the overall effect of the thing was counterproductive."
As mentioned, Father Bowdern never publicly spoke of the exorcism, both to protect Robbie's privacy and also because he didn't feel that it was right to do so. As he told Father Walter Halloran: "Make a statement about it and you'd have a whole group of people who would want to destroy it, and you'd have another group of people who would want to make it a true exorcism. I don't think they [Church authorities] are ever going to say a word about it. I think they will never say whether it was or it wasn't. You and I know it. We were there."
Father Bowdern took the knowledge of the exorcism with him to the grave. He remained the pastor of Xavier until 1956, went on to other assignments, ending his career at Ours of Xavier. And while he never spoke of what happened in 1949, there are rumors that he may have performed another exorcism before he retired. In June 1950, the bishop of Stuebenville, Ohio, aware of the 1949 St. Louis Exorcism, wrote to Archbishop Ritter and asked for help. The Ohio bishop said that a young man in the Stuebenville dioceses was attacking priests and nuns and it was believed that he might be possessed. Ritter, through his chancellor, asked Bowdern to look into the matter but there is no further information as to what might have occurred next. Father Bowdern passed away in 1983 at the age of 86.
Father Raymond Bishop, after 22 years at St, Louis University, was sent to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He taught here for more than 20 years and died in 1978 at the age of 72.
Father Walter Halloran, who later served as the assistant pastor of the St. Joseph's Cathedral in San Diego, California, was only a seminary student at the time of the exorcism. He was present during the sessions held at the St. Francis Xavier rectory and at the Alexian Brothers Hospital but not at the culmination of the events at the White House retreat. His statements about the exorcism have been conflicting (at best) over the years. On one hand, he states that he was not convinced that Robbie exhibited any sort of unnatural strength when he was "possessed". He was punched by the boy several times and believed it to be nothing more than an agitated adolescent could summon. He also didn't recall any foreign languages that the boy spoke, other than Latin, which he could have mimicked listening to the priests. This is in sharp contrast to other reports, including those of Father Bishop and Father Bowdern.
Perhaps in contemplation, Halloran later reversed some of his comments and later told an interviewer that while he was not an expert enough in the field to make a determination as to whether the possession was officially genuine or not, he did believe that it was real. "I have always thought in my mind that it was," he said. In addition, while being interviewed on the show of popular St. Louis radio Dave Glover, Halloran dismissed the idea that, as in the movie, Robbie ever levitated off the bed. However, he did add that on several occasions, the iron bed that the boy was on did actually levitate off the floor!
…. AND INTO HISTORY
While the Jesuit community, out of respect for Bowdern and Archbishop Ritter, kept the secret of the exorcism, Reverend Luther Schulze in Maryland had no responsibility to do so. Soon after the family returned home in April, Schulze noticed that they were not coming to his church on Sundays. He stopped by to see them and learned that Robbie had converted to Catholicism that his parents planned to follow suit. Schulze apparently felt that the conversion released him from any confidential relationship that he had with them and so on August 9, he told a meeting of the Washington, D.C. branch of the Society for Parapsychology that he had witnessed a "poltergeist" in the home of a "Mr. and Mrs. John Doe", who lived in a Washington suburb. He used Robbie's actual first name and told them of the strange manifestations that he had seen in his home. He added that the boy was later taken to a city in the Midwest but did not speak of the exorcism, which he had no real information about.
But somehow, the secret leaked out anyway. News of a poltergeist outbreak reached the newspapers and Schulze made himself available for interviews. No exorcism was ever mentioned in the article, which kept the identities secret, but somehow, one of the accounts garbled the remarks from the meeting that Schulze attended and reported that three exorcisms had taken place in the Midwestern city. The idea of an exorcism was so much more interesting to the newspapers that the poltergeist story was abandoned in favor of the alleged exorcisms. Reporters began calling contacts at the archdiocese in Washington and the queries started a chain of events. A spokesman for Archbishop O'Boyle in Washington refused to provide any information to the press but, as mentioned, details ended up being leaked to the Catholic Review, the nationally syndicated paper. In the edition that was dated on August 19, a three-paragraph story appeared under a Washington dateline. It read:
A 14 year-old Washington boy whose history of diabolical possession was widely reported in the press last week, was successfully exorcised by a priest after being received into the Catholic Church, it was learned here.
The priest refused to discuss the case in any way. However, it is known that several attempts had been made to free the boy of the manifestations.
A Catholic priest was called upon for help. When the boy expressed the desire to enter the church, with the consent of his parents he received religious instruction. Later the priest baptized him and then successfully performed the ritual of exorcism. The parents of the afflicted boy are non-Catholics.
Strangely, at that point though, the possession had not been "widely reported" and the brief story seemed to be little more than an attempt by the Church to control the story. As it turned out though, it only whetted the appetites of the Washington press. Jeremiah O'Leary, an assistant city editor for the Washington Star-News, spotted the story and began trying to track down information. He later admitted that he called every priest that he knew before finally publishing a short story that was printed on the afternoon of August 19 on an inside page of the paper. The following day, the Washington Post printed a long and detailed story about the exorcism on the front page. They reported that the exorcism occurred in both Washington and St. Louis and had been carried out by "a Jesuit in his 50's". I have never been able to find any contemporary reports on the exorcism in St. Louis newspapers. The secret of the exorcism was finally out.
One of the readers of the newspaper stories was William Peter Blatty, an undergraduate at Georgetown University. Blatty, who was then in his junior year, was considering becoming a Jesuit. He became a writer instead and in 1970, began work on a book that would be based on the stories that he heard about the exorcist's "diary" and the articles that he read in college. As mentioned earlier, Blatty managed to track down Father Bowdern as he was doing research for the book but the Jesuit did not want to talk about the case. He did mention to him that yes, there had been a diary but he could not help him because of his promise of secrecy and the fear that any further publicity might disturb Robbie's life, even after more than two decades.
"My own thoughts", Bowdern later wrote to Blatty, "were that much good might have come if the case had been reported, and people had come to realize that the presence and the activity of the devil is something very real. And possibly never more real than at the present time… I can assure you of one thing: The case in which I was involved was the real thing. I had no doubt about it then and I have no doubt about it now."
At Bowdern's request, Blatty fictionalized the events of the exorcism and actually used the more lurid elements of the 1928 Iowa Exorcism to round out his book. To further hide the identity of Robbie, he changed the possessed victim to a young girl and moved the entire sequence from St. Louis to Washington. The exorcist in the book however, Father Merrin, is a thinly disguised version of William Bowdern. In 1971, Blatty's book The Exorcist appeared in print and became an instant bestseller.
THE DEVIL IN ST. LOUIS
When Robbie left the Alexian Brothers Hospital, Brother Rector Cornelius went to the fifth floor corridor of the old wing, had a statue of St. Michael removed from Robbie's room, turned a key in the door and stated that the room was to be kept permanently locked. From that day on, the Alexian Brothers in St. Louis maintained the secrets of the exorcism. The existence of Father Bishop's diary also remained a secret and a copy of it had been placed inside of the room when it was sealed. Everyone who worked in the hospital though knew why the room was locked. For years after the exorcism, people who were involved in the case, or who worked at the hospital, shared stories of things they heard and saw during the several week ordeal that occurred in the psychiatric wing. Orderlies spoke of cleaning up pools of vomit and urine in the boy's rooms. Staff members and nurses claimed to hear the sounds of someone screaming and the echoes of demonic laughter coming from Robbie's room. Most especially though, they spoke of the cold waves of air that seemed to emanate from the room. No matter how warm the rest of the hospital was, the area around the door to the boy's room was always ice cold.
And even after the exorcism ended, something apparently remained behind. Was it some remnant of the entity that possessed Robbie or perhaps the impression of the horrific events that occurred in the room? Whatever it was, the room was never re-opened. Electrical problems plagued the surrounding rooms and it was always cold in the hallway outside the door to this particular room. The entire section of the hospital was eventually closed but whether or not this was because of the "exorcism room" is unknown.
As the years passed, tales about the locked room were passed on to new Brothers who came to serve at the hospital. They knew that the room was located in a wing for extremely ill mental patients but did not understand why one room was kept sealed - until they heard about what had happened there. The Brothers who had been on the staff in 1949 would not soon forget what they had seen and heard.
Other Alexians had their own stories to tell - of banging sounds on their doors at night, voices calling in the darkened corridors, and more. Staff members would continue the stories in the years to come and I have personally spoken to more than a dozen nurses, maintenance people, orderlies and doctors who have dark and distinct memories of the old wing and the locked room on the psychiatric floor. Some of them have told me that sometimes - even after all of these years - they still dream about that wing and that one locked door.
In May 1976, work began on a new Alexian Brothers Hospital and in the first phase of the construction, some of the old outbuildings were torn down and a new six-story tower with two-story wings was built. In October 1978, the patients were moved out of the original hospital building and the contractor ordered the structure to be razed. It was done, but not without difficulty. Workers on the demolition crew claimed to be unable to control the wrecking ball when that floor was taken off. The ball swung around and hit a portion of a new building but luckily did not damage. This incident seemed to further enhance the legend of the room - which continued to grow.
Before the demolition was started, workers first combed through the building for old furniture that was to be taken out and sold. One of them found a locked room in the psychiatric wing and broke in. The room was fully furnished with a dust-covered bed, nightstand, chairs and a desk table with a single drawer. Before removing the table, the worker curiously opened the drawer to see what was inside. He found a small stack of papers inside but neither he nor anyone else would ever learn how or why the report was in the drawer in a room that had presumably been locked since 1949.
The furniture, including all of the items in the locked room, was sold to a company that owned a nursing home a short distance away from the hospital. All of that which was salvaged from the hospital was locked in a room on the fourth floor of the nursing home and was never used. The nursing home itself was later torn down and many of these demolition workers, like the staff people and the city inspectors who had come through, refused to go on the fourth floor - and were never able to explain why. What became of the furniture from the locked room is unknown.
Or at least that's one version of the story…
In recent years, another, stranger version of the fate of the items within the room has come to light. According to sources, the furniture was removed from the locked room at the time of the demolition but was never sold to the nursing home with the rest of it. The bed, nightstand, chairs and desk table were instead moved and locked away in the basement of a rectory in St. Louis. A number of years later, the rectory was scheduled to be torn down and movers were brought to haul away a number of items that were left in the basement. According to one of them, he arrived at the rectory with some other workers and they were taken down into the basement by a priest. He unlocked a door to one of the rooms in the back and let the men inside of it. However, the worker distinctly remembered that the priest himself refused to set foot inside. Within the room, they found several pieces of furniture that they were directed to remove and then seal up into a wooden crate. After that, the crate was to be placed in a storage facility and locked. The movers completed the task and then moved the crate to a storage warehouse that is located almost directly across from the gates to Scott Air Force base in Illinois. According to his story, the furniture from the "Exorcism Room", as it became known, is still here, sealed in a crate and largely forgotten.
As for the papers the workmen found inside of the room though, they were far from forgotten. The paper appeared to be some sort of journal or diary and there was a letter attached to them that had been written to a Brother Cornelius that was dated for April 29, 1949. A portion of it read: "The enclosed report is a summary of the case which you have known for the past several weeks. The Brother's part of this case has been so very important that I thought you should have the case history for your permanent file". It was signed by Father Raymond J. Bishop, a Jesuit from St. Louis University. Apparently, Brother Cornelius considered the record best kept in secret, inside of the sealed off room.
The worker took the papers to his boss, the contractor for the demolition, who then passed them on to the administrator of the hospital, a layman. The administrator read the letter in bewilderment but then started to turn the pages of the diary. As he began to scan through it, he began to see references to exorcism and realized that the diary spelled out all of the secrets of the locked room. His daughter, who was attending secretarial school and helping out in her father's office, managed to get a look at the paper before the administrator locked them away. She recognized the name "Walter Halloran" in the text as he was an uncle of one of her classmates. The administrator made contact with the former seminary student, now a Jesuit priest, and passed on the papers to him. The diary was then allegedly sealed in a safety deposit box but only after a carbon copy was made of it. It is this copy that has been circulated today and provides what little, and often confusing, information that we have on the 1949 exorcism.
St. Louis legend has it though that this was not the strangest thing to happen when the locked room was opened. According to crew members who worked for the Department of Transportation, "something" was seen emerging from the room just moments before the wrecking ball claimed it. Whatever it was, the men likened it to a "cat or a big rat or something". I wouldn't begin to suggest what this creature might have been, natural or supernatural, but I will say that it has continued to add to the legend of the "St. Louis Exorcism Case" over the years.
In closing, I will not ask again what the reader believes occurred in St. Louis in 1949. The case, whether you believe in possession, demons and exorcisms or not, remains unsolved. There is simply no way to adequately dismiss every unusual thing that was reported in this case without just saying that everyone involved was a liar, drunk or insane. For myself, I can't say that young Robbie Doe was possessed, or not possessed, but what I can say is that this is one of the few cases of alleged "possession" that has left me with many lingering questions.
The reader, of course, is advised to judge for himself but as for this author, well, I think there are certainly more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies!
The full version of the 1949 story appears in Troy Taylor's Upcoming Book, THE DEVIL CAME TO ST. LOUIS -- Available Summer 2006!
© Copyright 2006 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Sources & Bibliography
Ebon, Martin - Exorcism: Fact Not Fiction (1974)
Erdmann, Steve - The Truth Behind "The Exorcist" - Fate Magazine (January 1975)
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen - Encyclopedia of Ghosts & Spirits (2000)
Hauck, Dennis William - Haunted Places: The National Directory (1996)
Linzee, David - Infamous St. Louis Crimes & Mysteries (2001)
Longo, Jim - Haunted Odyssey (1986)
Opsasnick, Mark - The Haunted Boy - Strange Magazine (December 1998))
Scott, Beth & Michael Norman - Haunted Heartland (1985)
Stulce, Corey - Based on a True Story (2000)
Taylor, Troy - Devil Came to St. Louis -- Available 2006
Taylor, Troy - Haunted St. Louis (2002)
Personal Interviews & Correspondence