The Haunted Boy: The Facts Behind The Exorcist

serialized from Strange Magazine Issue 20

Part 2

After the Movie

Media interest peaked after the movie’s release and subsequent success. The most fascinating and in-depth article ever to appear on the subject appeared in the January 1975 edition of Fate magazine. In a feature titled “The Truth Behind The Exorcist,” author Steve Erdmann reveals never-before-known information regarding the facts behind the story.

Erdmann begins his account by providing the readers with basic background information. The 14-year-old Mount Rainier boy, referred to in the aforementioned “diary” as “Roland Doe,” became possessed by an “invisible entity” after he and his “Aunt Tillie” began experimenting with an Ouija Board in January 1949. He was treated at D.C.’s Georgetown University Hospital before having the demon successfully exorcised by Jesuit priests at St. Louis University. Erdmann’s article is highly significant because in it he tells of a “diary” kept by one of the priests involved in the exorcism (which first came to light in the book William Peter Blatty On The Exorcist From Novel To Film). The article includes extensive quotes from that document to illustrate Erdmann’s story.

Erdmann also explains that during the fall of 1949 an unnamed Georgetown University student, whose father was a psychiatrist at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. and may have been involved in the case, told Georgetown faculty member Father Eugene B. Gallagher, S.J., of the existence of the mysterious diary. Father Gallagher obtained from the psychiatrist a 16-page diary-like document written as a guide for future exorcisms.

William Peter Blatty, according to Erdmann, was a student of Gallagher’s at the time and repeatedly asked his teacher for a copy of the diary. In the spring of 1950 Father Gallagher loaned the diary to then-Georgetown University dean Father Brian McGrath, S.J. When Father Gallagher attempted to retrieve the diary, he was told by Father McGrath’s secretary that only nine carbon pages remained. Erdmann wonders whether or not the diary had somehow found its way into Blatty’s hands.

The bulk of the article consists of reprints from the diary and details given by Father Gallagher, who was relating information supplied to him by Father O’Hara of Marquette University—an actual eyewitness and participant in the exorcism rite administered on Roland Doe. The following information is paraphrased from these sources.

Titled “Case Study by Jesuit Priests,” the diary begins by supplying background information on “Roland Doe” (born 6-1-35), son of “Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Doe” (obvious pseudonyms). It states that the family lives in a middle-class Washington suburban development.

January 15, 1949—A dripping noise was heard in his grandmother’s bedroom by the boy and his grandmother. A picture of Christ on the wall shook and scratching noises were heard under the floor boards. From that night on scratching was heard every night from 7 p.m. until midnight. This continued for ten consecutive days. After three days of silence, the boy heard nighttime “squeaking shoes” on his bed that continued for six consecutive nights. (Note that the article and presumably the diary makes no mention as to which family members actually witnessed or were present when these events transpired.)

January 26, 1949—“Aunt Tillie,” who had a deep interest in spiritualism and had introduced Roland to the Ouija Board, died of multiple sclerosis at the age of 54. Mrs. Doe suspected there may have been some connection between her death and the seemingly strange events that continued to take place. At one point during the manifestations Mrs. Doe asked, “If you are Tillie, knock three times.” Waves of air began striking the grandmother, Mrs. Doe, and Roland and three knocks were heard on the floor. Mrs. Doe again queried, “If you are Tillie, tell me positively by knocking four times.” Four knocks were heard, followed by claw scratchings on Roland’s mattress. (At various points throughout this ordeal Mrs. Doe would attempt to verbally communicate with Aunt Tillie, apparently alternating her beliefs that the problems with her son were either the work of the devil or their departed relative.)

February 17, 1949—On this night a local Lutheran minister named Reverend Shultz [sic] arranged to have the boy spend the night at his parsonage. Roland arrived at 9:20 p.m. and stayed until 9:20 a.m. the next morning. The Reverend reportedly heard scratching noises, and witnessed the following: bed vibrations; a chair in which Roland sat tipping over; and the movement of a pallet of blankets upon which Roland sat.

February 26, 1949—Beginning on this night scratches or markings appeared on the boy’s body for four consecutive nights. After the fourth night words began to appear and seemed to be scratched on by claws. (The diary indicates that at this point only Mrs. Doe was present when the markings occurred.) Erdmann mentions that Father Albert Hughes of St. James Catholic Church in Mount Rainier was consulted. Hughes suggested the family use blessed candles, holy water, and special prayers. (Erdmann’s source for this information is not given.)

The chronology now becomes confusing. Between the diary writer (with information supplied by Mrs. Doe) and Erdmann’s unnamed sources a number of details are alleged. Mrs. Doe claims that she was using the blessed candles when a comb flew across the room and extinguished them. At different times fruit flew across the room, a kitchen table turned over, milk and food moved off a table, a coat and its hanger flew across the room, a Bible landed at Roland’s feet, and a rocker in which Roland sat spun around. Roland was removed from school because his desk moved around on the schoolroom floor.

The diary is quoted as saying that at one point Mrs. Doe took a bottle of holy water and sprinkled it throughout the house. When she placed the bottle on a shelf it flew across the room on its own but did not break. One night she held a lighted candle alongside Roland and the whole bed, Mrs. Doe, and Roland all began moving back and forth in unison. Attempts were made to baptize Roland Doe—it is said he responded with rage—and a three-and-a-half day stay at Georgetown University Hospital is mentioned. The events continued when the boy was taken to Normandy, Missouri, during the first week of March 1949. Various relatives in Missouri were said to have witnessed the skin brandings.

March 9, 1949—Father Raymond J. Bishop, S.J., of St. Louis University was called in (for the first time) and witnessed the scratching of the boy’s body and the motion of the mattress.

March 11, 1949—Father Bowdern (described as being pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church) arrived on the scene. After Roland retired at 11 p.m., Father Bowdern read the Novena prayer of St. Francis Xavier, blessed the boy with a relic (a piece of bone from the forearm of St. Francis Xavier), and fixed a relic-encrusted crucifix under the boy’s pillow. The relatives left and Father Bowdern and Father Bishop departed. Soon afterward, a loud noise was heard in Roland’s room and five relatives rushed to the scene. They reportedly found that a large book case had moved about, a bench had been turned over, and the crucifix had been moved to the edge of the bed. The shaking of Roland’s mattress came to a halt only after the relatives yelled, “Aunt Tillie, stop!”

March 16, 1949—Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter gave Father Bowdern permission to begin the formal rite of exorcism. That night, accompanied by Father Bishop and a Jesuit scholastic (later revealed to be Walter Halloran), Father Bowdern began reciting the ritual prayers of exorcism.

Throughout March and into April, Roland was confusingly moved back and forth between the home of his aunt in Normandy, Missouri, a nearby rectory, and Alexian Brothers Hospital in South St. Louis. The rite was an ongoing process. Instructions in the ritual command the exorcist to “pronounce the exorcism in a commanding and authoritative voice.” The Roman Ritual of Christian Exorcism reads: “I cast thee out, thou unclean spirit, along with the least encroachment of the wicked enemy and every phantom and diabolical legion. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, depart and vanish from this creature of God….”

Erdmann tells of markings appearing on Roland’s body as these proceedings continued and of the boy’s usual bad habits: outbursts featuring excessive cursing, vomiting, urinating and the use of Latin phrases. Erdmann also mentions that on one occasion Roland got his hand on a bedspring, broke it, and jabbed it into a priest’s arm. (He mentions he is not sure if this event took place in his Maryland home or during the exorcism ritual.) Another time during a round of prayers after Roland had been instructed into the Catholic faith and had received his first holy communion, a six-inch portrait of the devil with its hands held above its head, webs stretching from its hands, and horns protruding from its head appeared in deep red on the boy’s calf. (It is not stated who actually witnessed this.) Later, Roland was transported back to Maryland for a short-lived visit and on one of the train rides he became maniacal, striking Father Bowdern in the testicles and yelling, “That’s a nutcracker for you, isn’t it?”

April 18, 1949—As the nighttime ritual continued, Father Bowdern forced Roland to wear a chain of medals and hold a crucifix in his hands. Roland’s demeanor changed and he calmly asked questions about the meanings of certain Latin prayers. Bowdern continued the ritual, demanding to know who the demon was and when he would depart. Roland responded with a tantrum and screamed that he was one of the fallen angels. Bowdern kept reciting until 11:00 p.m. when Roland interrupted. In a new masculine voice Roland said, “Satan! Satan! I am St. Michael! I command you, Satan, and the other evil spirits to leave this body, in the name of Dominus, immediately! Now! Now! Now!” Roland had one last spasm before falling quiet. “He is gone,” Roland pronounced, later telling Bowdern he had had a vision of St. Michael holding a flaming sword. Twelve days later he left Missouri and returned to Maryland.

Two of the more influential articles to appear on this subject (at least as far as local lore goes) can be found within the pages of The Prince George’s Sentinel, a weekly published in Hyattsville, Maryland. Both articles were hastily written by novice writers who apparently weren’t too concerned with factual content and wrote down anything that was told to them. Both pieces should be approached with caution as some valuable information is present, though obscured at times by nagging inaccuracies.

The first, “The Exorcist: The real incident involved a Mt. Rainier priest in 1949,” was written by Spencer Gordon, and appeared in the February 4, 1981 edition. The article reveals for the first time that Father E. Albert Hughes of St. James Church in Mount Rainier was the priest who conducted the mysterious, much-rumored first exorcism attempt on the boy at Georgetown University Hospital. This great revelation was made when Hughes engaged in a two-hour talk over dinner on the night of Wednesday, October 8, 1980, with his then-assistant pastor, Father Frank Bober. It marked the first and only time Hughes ever spoke with Bober (who would go on to become a key figure in this case for his high-profile media presence) about the incident. The article states, “He mentioned few details but as they rose from the table, they planned to resume their discussion the next week.” However, as Gordon points out, the second discussion never took place as Hughes died of a heart attack on October 12, 1980.

The article tells that after psychiatrists failed to help the boy at Georgetown University Hospital, Father Hughes was called in to perform the exorcism. At one point the boy ripped out a bedspring and slashed the priest’s arm (this incident was first referred to by Rev. John J. Nicola in The Evening Star and the Washington Daily News article by Gwen Dobson of November 3, 1972). Gordon states that the incident allegedly had a traumatic effect on Father Hughes and that the event had been “shrouded in mystery.” He also states that Father Hughes went into a long seclusion after the aborted rite of exorcism. In this article the alleged site of the family’s home is revealed for the first time. Displayed is a photo of an empty field on a street corner, highlighted with the caption, “Vacant lot on Bunker Hill Road in Mt. Rainier, exorcism site.” Gordon concludes his work by writing, “The only physical remains of the exorcism in Mt. Rainier are the steps and wall surrounding the house where the boy lived. The house burned down years ago and the lot is vacant.” Gordon does not reveal the full address of the site and does not reveal who told him that that particular vacant lot was the site. (It is noteworthy that Father Bober is not credited in this article as the source of that information.)

Understandably, the article kicked off a local furor as the teen population made this location the area’s number one twilight attraction.

The second Sentinel article, “Exorcism: Demonic possession still haunts Mt. Rainier residents,” was authored by Brenda Caggiano and appeared in the October 28, 1983 edition, just in time for the Halloween season. This rambling article includes rough interviews conducted with local residents and tavern occupants, none of whom knew the possessed boy’s name. The article did, however, name the address of 3210 Bunker Hill Road—the vacant lot where the family’s alleged house once stood. This article also shows a picture of the lot (with the caption “Where it happened?”) and includes a reference to Father Bober, who “acknowledged that a boy with demonic possession lived in the vicinity of the vacant lot at 33rd Street and Bunker Hill Road….”

The last of the significant newspaper articles that treated this event was also the most widely read, appearing in The Washington Post of May 6, 1985. In an article titled “Youth’s Bizarre Symptoms Led to 1949 Exorcism,” author Arthur S. Brisbane provided a quick overview of the whole story, with a special emphasis on Father Hughes’s role in the local exorcism attempt. The article identifies the location of the boy’s home as 3210 Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier, citing The Prince George’s Sentinel article of February 4, 1981 as its source. The real significance of this article lies in the quotes attributed to Father Frank Bober. Discussing where the boy lived, Bober tells the reporter, “Father Hughes never told me the exact spot (of the residence) but people who were familiar with the case who are still living in Mt. Rainier identified it.” Curiously, Bober does not identify the people who identified that location. I would discover the reason later in my investigation: no such individuals existed.

The90s Resurgence

The recent release of two Exorcist-related projects and the 25th anniversary of the film this year have rejuvenated public interest in this case. The first to appear was the book Possessed: The True Story Of An Exorcism which was authored by Thomas B. Allen. Two editions appeared, a hardback published by Doubleday in July 1993 and a more accessible paperback version issued by Bantam in April 1994. The second item is a video titled In The Grip Of Evil, which was produced in 1997 by Henninger Media Development Inc. of Arlington, Virginia, in conjunction with the Discovery Channel. Thomas B. Allen also served as story consultant and writer for this video.

Possessed is the only book to focus entirely on the exorcism of the possessed boy (who Allen refers to as “Robbie”) and is essentially based on two sources: the 26-page diary (Steve Erdmann claims the diary was 16 pages long in his January 1975 Fate article) that Allen reveals was kept by Father Raymond Bishop; and interviews with Father Walter H. Halloran, a then-Jesuit scholastic who assisted in the St. Louis exorcism and is one of the few eyewitnesses still alive who is willing to discuss his experiences. The author puts great stock in the belief that the family always resided at 3210 Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier and includes sketchy information about Father Hughes and the first exorcism performed on the boy at Georgetown University Hospital. Heavy emphasis is placed on the St. Louis exorcism, where we learn that 52-year-old Father William S. Bowdern, pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church in St. Louis conducted the final rite, assisted by 43-year-old Father Raymond Bishop, director of the St. Louis University Department of Education. Much of the material mirrors what Steve Erdmann printed in his January 1975 Fate article.

However, the book suffers many shortcomings: the possessed boy’s identity is not revealed; the schools he attended are not mentioned; no interviews are conducted with any of the boy’s childhood friends or classmates; no interviews are conducted with any friends or neighbors of the boy’s family (once again raising suspicion as to the dubious Mount Rainier location); and the possessed boy himself is not interviewed.

The 50-minute video In The Grip Of Evil simply reflects the material Thomas Allen presented in his book Possessed. It combines theatrical reenactments with Unsolved Mysteries-styled cameo commentaries by a host of characters including Allen himself, Father Walter Halloran and Father Frank Bober. Curiously, Allen opens the video explaining that the family was from Mount Rainier (which I felt from the beginning was a critical error), though clips shown in two different parts of the video depicting the boy’s home reveal a still-intact house that is clearly not at the famed corner of 33rd Street and Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier. Where is this house? Locating that house and determining the name of the family that once lived there would be my next investigative objective.

Debunking the Myth of 3210 Bunker Hill Rd., Mount Rainier

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