The Haunted Boy: The Facts Behind The Exorcist

serialized from Strange Magazine Issue 20

Debunking the Myth of
3210 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier

Rumors that the haunted boy had actually lived at 3210 Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier have been around since the early ’80s and have mostly been spread by neighborhood teens and newcomers to the area, who have raised the aura surrounding this location to urban legend proportions.

I went back to the literature and determined that the first printed references to this address appeared in The Prince George’s Sentinel articles of February 4, 1981 and October 28, 1983. No definitive source for that address information was given. The next article to highlight this location, The Washington Post of May 6, 1985, quoted Father Bober as saying that Father Hughes never told him exactly where the boy lived. In fact, there is no printed reference to Father Hughes ever having identified 3210 Bunker Hill Road as the boy’s home. These articles set the rumors in motion, but none could positively confirm that address as the boy’s home. Furthermore, if the “diary” kept by the Jesuit priests had mentioned 3210 Bunker Hill Road, then Thomas B. Allen certainly would have cited that in his book. He doesn’t, but instead cites The Prince George’s Sentinel article of February 4, 1981 as his source. He goes on to say that the diary gives another address for the family, about a half mile away, leading him to infer that the family moved from Mount Rainier.

I realized, however, that there was no evidence demonstrating that the family ever lived in Mount Rainier in the first place. Something was amiss.

The first stop on my mission to determine who it was that really lived at the Mount Rainier address of 3210 Bunker Hill Road was the Hyattsville Branch Public Library in Prince George’s County, a facility that would become my base of operations for the duration of my search. It was there that I found an extremely rare copy of the Prince George’s County Metropolitan Directory of the Mt. Rainier-Hyattsville-College Park Area, published in 1950 by C. E. Wooten. This directory listed the families and their phone numbers according to their street address—an unusual and highly effective method of tracking the local population. Looking at the entries for Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier, I scanned down the listings until I found “3210” and discovered the listed occupants as being Joseph Haas and Grace Miller.

Now that I had a name to work with I next went to the Prince George’s County Historical Society Library at the Marietta Mansion in Glenn Dale, Maryland and checked out information pertaining to the last name of “Haas.” While searching the index of a book titled Gleanings From The Records Of The Francis Gasch’s Sons Funeral Home, Prince George’s County, Maryland 1860-1940 (published in 1996 by the Prince George’s Genealogical Society Inc. of Bowie, Maryland) I found a highly significant entry on page 313 regarding the Haas family. It read:

Miller, Martina Gregory—3226 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier, Maryland. 08 Jun 1926. (Note Evening Star 07 Jun 1926 p. 9 reports died on 06 Jun 1926 at the residence of her daughter Mrs. Joe S. Haas, 3226 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier, Maryland.) Wife of the late Lemuel E. Miller (Morristown, NJ papers).

This entry clearly states that Joseph Haas and his wife were in a house on Bunker Hill Road in 1926. While at the Historical Society Library, I next checked the Atlas Of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Volume 1, a large bound collection of maps published by the Franklin Survey Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1940. Indeed, the map listed in detail all of the houses and their respective address numbers in Mount Rainier and the home at 3226 Bunker Hill Road sat right on the corner of 33rd Street. It was in the exact location of the vacant lot where 3210 was said to have stood. I was later told by Susan G. Pearl of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Historic Preservation Division that all of Mount Rainier’s house numbers, along with many street names, were changed in 1942, a move that was also enacted in many neighboring communities including Cottage City.

There was no question that 3226 Bunker Hill Road and 3210 had been one and the same house. My research, then, has revealed beyond any doubt that Joseph Haas lived in the house at 3210 Bunker Hill Road from at least 1926 through at least 1950.

Common sense would then dictate that the possessed boy was a son of Mr. Joseph Haas. That is, if this were the actual site, as was almost universally accepted. I began scouring the microfilm newspaper holdings at the Hyattsville Branch Public Library and found that they had a complete run of The Prince George’s Post newspaper, a weekly that was published in Hyattsville, Maryland and dated back to 1932. I read every copy from 1932 to 1984 and discovered to my amazement that every issue had, without fail, a large number of neighborhood reports written by local residents that focused on the county’s individual towns and included all the local gossip and newsworthy tidbits. Columns on Mount Rainier, Brentwood, Cottage City, and Hyattsville (along with numerous others) were in every issue and I began intensely searching these columns for information on Joseph Haas and the possession case in general.

In the Mount Rainier column I found numerous references to Joseph Haas, including mention of his being hospitalized after a heart attack in the December 28, 1950 and February 8, 1951 editions. On March 8, 1951 Mrs. M. E. Davis writes that “Mr. Joseph Haas 3210 Bunker Hill Road is still in the hospital.” They include updates on his condition in the March 22nd, March 29th, April 12th, July 26th, and August 9th editions. In the August 23, 1951 issue they announce that Joe Haas died on Thursday August 16, 1951 at his home. I felt it was odd that no other family members were mentioned, unless of course he had no survivors. Checking his obituary in the August 20, 1951 Washington Post confirmed my suspicions. In part, it read: “Joseph Stroup Haas….On Thursday, August 16, 1951, at his residence 3210 Bunker Hill Road, Mt. Rainier, Md. JOSEPH STROUP HAAS, beloved husband of the late Emily G. Haas (nee Miller)…. A special communication was also published by the Mount Hermoa Lodge No. 179 for the purpose of conducting the last masonic rites for our late brother and past master, Joseph Stroup Haas at the Masonic Temple in Hyattsville.”

No survivors to Joseph Haas were listed. It was clear that he never had any children, hence the haunted boy could never have lived at 3210 Bunker Hill Road.

I needed corroboration and instinctively checked the 1950 directory to see who else had lived on Bunker Hill Road at that point in time. There were ten homes listed in the 3200 block and, given the tremendous demographic change that had transformed Prince George’s County over the last thirty years, I realized that the chance of locating someone who remembered the Haas household was slim. I noted that Richard and Irene Ashton were listed as living at 3208 Bunker Hill Road in 1950 and after a little legwork in the community I located their daughter Peggy Lanahan.

The Ashtons, it turned out, had lived at 3208 from 1947 until 1959, with Peggy spending most of her childhood in the home. She recalls visiting the house next door at 3210 many times: “It was an older couple and a woman named Grace Miller who lived there. Grace Miller was an elderly gray-haired lady and she was my piano teacher. I was going over to their house and taking lessons from her every day during the late ’40s. I never thought it (the possession) happened there because I was in that house almost every day and I never knew of anything like that happening and I never saw any kids in that house. I asked my mother about that too and she remembered a man and his wife and Grace Miller living in that house and she didn’t remember there being any children there.”

As one of the few who can actually remember visiting 3210 Bunker Hill Road, Mrs. Lanahan continued with her vivid memories:

It was a big, old, three-story house. [Note how this description drastically differs from the “one-and-one-half story home” description given by the August 10, 1949 The Evening Star, Washington, D.C. newspaper account.] It was gray and drab—didn’t have a coat of paint on it—and looked like a haunted house. There was never any talk of a possessed boy living there. The first story I ever saw about it was the movie itself. I went to a class reunion and my girlfriend at the time, who used to live in Mount Rainier also, said to me,“Did you see the article in the newspaper? That exorcism took place in the house next to you.” I said, “No, it couldn’t have been there because how could something like this happen next door and none of us know anything about it?” Especially since I was taking piano lessons in there every day. None of the neighbors ever mentioned it. I told her it couldn’t have been there. She showed me the article and there was a picture of the lot on the corner and our old house in the background and I couldn’t believe it. They are wrong!

Many Mount Rainier residents spoke warmly of Herbert and Mary Landolt and their family, who had moved in at 4002 33rd Street in 1945 and remained until they passed away in the ’80s. They had a large, well-known, and highly respected Catholic family of nine children and it was recommended that I talk with them about 3210 Bunker Hill Road, a house that their backyard happened to border. Having already spoken with Herbert’s brother Dean Landolt, who was instrumental in my pursuing this case, I called Robert Landolt (a son of Herbert and today a very successful Howard County attorney) to see if he remembered anything about the story. “The people in the neighborhood—they never said anything about that house,” Mr. Landolt affirmed. “You know, that was just a strange house and we called it ‘the haunted house’ because in the ’50s it would be empty for long periods of time and it was the only house in the neighborhood that was like that. My brothers and I all served The Washington Star and The Washington Post and I probably served that house for a while. I don’t remember there being kids in that house until later on in the ’50s, well after that case was said to have taken place.”

Mr. Landolt went on to state that he had heard about the case shortly after the rite of exorcism was completed, despite the fact it simply was not talked about in Mount Rainier. “My dad and Uncle Dean were very good friends with Father Hughes and I gained my knowledge of the incident through them,” he told me. “Honestly, I had always heard he (the haunted boy) was from Cottage City and he was a Lutheran who later converted to Catholicism. That’s what I was told and that’s what I believed.”

Other longtime Mount Rainier residents told similar tales about 3210 Bunker Hill Road. Joan Flanagan, who grew up in the town and worked in City Hall for several years said, “My mother knew everyone in this town and she said someone named Haas lived in that house and that they didn’t have children. All of the other old-timers said the same thing. It couldn’t have been that house.”

Mrs. Flanagan directed me to Mary Prosperi, who had also grown up in the area. These two women had attended eighth grade at St. James School together during the 1948-49 school year (the same year the haunted boy was in the eighth grade—though he didn’t attend St. James) and had maintained a friendship ever since. Mrs. Prosperi frankly related to me, “My husband John said that he served newspapers to that house at 3210 throughout that whole time—the late ’40s and into the ’50s—and no children ever lived in that house. It wasn’t until after the movie came out that people started saying that house was the location but to us it was always the big joke. There were never any kids in that house.”

From published information in The Prince George’s Post and documents on file at the University of Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute I was able to determine that the house at 3210 Bunker Hill Road was burned down in March 1962 (which differs from the date of April 1964 given by Thomas Allen in his book Possessed) as the final training class exercise of the Section II Advanced Training Course in Firemanship, a program for firefighters offered through what was then called the Fire Extension Service of the University of Maryland. The burning of the house was completed under the supervision of University of Maryland senior instructors Matthew Dillon and Robert Smith, with the cooperation of the Mount Rainier Fire Department. Representing Mount Rainier were Chief Francis Xander, Deputy Chief John Fisher, and Captain Karl Young. Firefighters from neighboring departments such as Brentwood, Cottage City-Colmar Manor, and Hyattsville were also invited to participate, with about four-dozen men eventually taking part in the festivities (including the 18 training class students). While the top three 1962 fire officials from Mount Rainier have all passed away and no one on Mount Rainier’s current force was an active member, I had little difficulty locating firemen who did participate in the burning of that house. All of them echoed the same sentiments—there was never any talk among any of the firefighters that 3210 Bunker Hill Road had ever been the site of any type of demonic possession.

Dave Manning, age 71, served on the Mount Rainier Fire Department for twenty-five years (1950-1975) and vividly recalls the corner house going down: “We burned it down in 1962 and it was just a big old house that they wanted to get rid of. I never heard anything like that from any fireman or anyone else in Mount Rainier. It was just a way of getting practice. We’d light a room and put it out and do that over and over and finally the whole thing went down. I know that the whole time I was a fireman nobody ever talked about that house as being a part of The Exorcist or there ever being an exorcism down there or anything at all like that.”

Another longtime Mount Rainier resident who remembers the burning of the old house is 82-year-old Ralph Collins, who was an active member of the Brentwood Fire Department from 1935 to 1976 (including a stint as chief from 1944 to 1949) and served as president of the Fireman’s Association for all of 1950 and 1951. Collins frequently hung around and rode with his friends on the Mount Rainier force. He told me, “As I remember that house was all boarded up and in bad shape and looked kind of spooky and the city of Mount Rainier was disgusted with it. It was set up through the University of Maryland Fire School. No one ever said anything about it being the house where The Exorcist happened. That was never talked about. It was just an old house that had to go.”

At this point I realized that my work on 3210 Bunker Hill Road was over. I had conclusively proven not only that the people who had lived in the house never had any children, but that there were absolutely no stories (not even any rumors) circulating among Mount Rainier residents prior to the release of those Prince George’s Sentinel articles in the early ’80s that anything like a case of demonic possession had ever affected anyone living at 3210 Bunker Hill Road. The belief that the haunted boy had lived in that house was nothing more than an urban myth, classically spurred on by some irresponsible journalists. I was the first investigator to debunk this mystery. (The house still has a history, as at least two people, Martina Miller and Joseph Haas, had died there, possibly spurring on tales among the local youth of the house being haunted.) Still the nagging question remained: who was the boy and where did he really grow up?

Identifying the Haunted Boy

The haunted boy never lived in Mount Rainier, then, which meant I had to start from scratch and go back and study the notes and taped interviews I had accumulated. The information given to me by Dean Landolt continued to stick in my mind. He had related to me that Father Hughes told him that the boy had gone on to graduate from Gonzaga High School, a private Catholic school located in Washington, D.C.

I rechecked Steve Erdmann’s Fate article from January 1975 and noted that the boy was born on June 1, 1935. I figured that if the boy missed the 1948-49 school year, he probably graduated in 1954.

Obtaining a 1954 Gonzaga High School yearbook proved to be no easy feat, but I located a copy nonetheless. I was surprised to discover that when a student graduated from Gonzaga, they would enter under his senior picture his full name, current home address, and the name of the parish in which he was a member. For the 1954 school year, there were five graduates who were members of St. James Church in Mount Rainier, Maryland: two from Mount Rainier, one from D.C. and two from Cottage City. I took those five names and checked their birth dates through Maryland’s various systems of vital records—all public information. I knew that the individual who came up with a birth date of June 1, 1935 would prove to be the mysterious haunted boy. The first name I randomly selected matched up with that date of birth. For reasons that will later become obvious I will from now on refer to this individual as “Rob Doe” (a combination of previously used pseudonyms). Rob’s home address was listed in the yearbook as being 3807 40th Avenue, Cottage City, Maryland.

There was now no doubt that I had successfully identified the boy in question, something no other investigator had ever accomplished.

Everything quickly fell into place as I searched for corroborating evidence. The first thing I did was check the family name and 40th Avenue address in the 1950 Prince George’s County Metropolitan Directory of the Mt. Rainier-Hyattsville-College Park Area at the Hyattsville Library. Indeed, the family was listed at that address. The investigation immediately picked up tremendous momentum as soon as I focused my efforts on the town of Cottage City, Maryland, the real home of the haunted boy.

Entering a new phase of the investigation, I sought to determine how long the Doe family had lived at 3807 40th Avenue, Cottage City. I trekked down to the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., whose third-floor Washingtoniana Division contains a complete collection of Washington, D. C. and Suburban Maryland phone directories dating back to the 19th century. I conducted a thorough search of these directories (which are stored on microfilm) and discovered that the very first publication of the family name in question appeared in the Boyd’s District of Columbia Directory-1935 (D. C.: R. L. Polk & Company) under a Brentwood listing. The family was listed at that location through 1939. According to the Boyd’s District of Columbia Directory: Vol. 1940, the family was listed as residing at 41 Central Ave., Cottage City, Maryland. Running back to the Prince George’s Historical Society, a check with the Franklin Survey Company’s 1940 Atlas Of Prince George’s County, Maryland, Volume 1, revealed that at that point in time, what would soon become 40th Avenue in Cottage City was still called Central Avenue. This verifies that the Doe family had been in the house at 3807 40th Avenue since at least 1940 (I later verified that they moved into this house in 1939). Subsequent checks revealed that the street name did indeed change to 40th Avenue in 1942 and the family was at that address until 1958. Immediately I realized that the priests involved had most likely identified the town of Mount Rainier as the boy’s home to act as a smokescreen so that he could not be readily identified.

So much additional evidence of the family’s involvement in Cottage City community life surfaced that I felt certain that residents in that tiny community would still remember the family. It was obvious that no other investigator had ever thought to look there for evidence. I went back to The Prince George’s Post and searched the neighborhood columns on Cottage City, which appeared in every issue. There were many references to the Doe family contained within. The first that illustrates that the family never moved from Cottage City to Mount Rainier during the time in question appears in the June 24, 1948 edition. In the column “Cottage City,” Mrs. Cletis E. Luther writes: “Mrs. (Doe) of 3807 40th ave [sic]…has not been well for some time. She is in hopes of avoiding an operation.” (I have been told that one local author stubbornly believes that the Doe family moved from their Cottage City home and rented the house at 3210 Bunker Hill Road, for a short while, then moved back to Cottage City. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever for this pointless move. There is no connection between Joseph Haas and the Doe family and when I later interviewed dozens of Cottage City residents, they all confirmed that the family in question had always lived in Cottage City in the 40th Avenue house—and never moved until Mr. Doe sold it in 1958).

Other references to the Doe family are made in the Cottage City columns of May 30, 1950 (which details a bridge game that involved Mr. and Mrs. [Doe], Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Kagey, and Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Hodges of Berwyn Heights); June 8, 1950 (Mr. Doe was operated on at Sibley Hospital); June 29, 1950 (Relatives from St. Louis—further corroboration—visited the family and took Rob on a two-week trip to St. Petersburg, Florida), September 14, 1950 (visiting the Does and Anna Coppage were Mr. and Mrs. John Schwab and Mr. and Mrs. Jess Zengel and daughter Janis Ann of St. Louis), and numerous other similar announcements throughout the early ’50s. In 1955 Mrs. Doe fell ill and The Prince George’s Post frequently published notices on her condition. In the June 14, 1956 edition they reported, “Sympathy is also extended to the family of Mrs. [Doe], who passed away on June 7th. Mrs. [Doe], who lived at 3807 40th Avenue, is survived by her husband, [Mr. Doe]; a son [Rob Doe]; her mother and sister of St. Louis, Missouri. Funeral services were held from Nalley’s Funeral Home with Requiem Mass at St. James Catholic Church on June 9. Interment was in St. Louis, Missouri.”

Continuing on this Cottage City theme, the 1997 video release In the Grip of Evil shows a house in two separate sequences that they purport to be the home of the haunted boy. They don’t identify its address, though representatives from Henninger Media Development, the producers of the video, revealed to me that it was the only address given for the family in the diary of the exorcism kept by Father Raymond Bishop (which was supplied to them by Thomas Allen). When I began my investigative work in Cottage City and visited 3807 40th Avenue, I immediately recognized it as the house in the video.

Friends and Neighbors Speak Out For the First Time

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