THE ORIGINAL STORY OF THE EXORCIST
To this day The Exorcist stands as one of the most horrifying movies ever made, a legendary cinematic venture that graphically portrays an epic struggle between human lives and demonic forces. Adapted from William Peter Blatty’s best-selling 1971 novel of the same name, the film was released by Warner Brothers on December 26, 1973 and immediately played to packed movie theaters across the country. The ensuing media blitz focused its attention on both the movie’s hard-to-stomach scenes that depicted a child possessed by the devil and the fact that author Blatty had based the story on a supposedly real event that took place in the Washington, D.C. area back in 1949. The film was nominated in 1974 for ten Academy Awards (including Best Picture) and was the recipient of two: “Best Screenplay Based On Material From Another Medium”—William Peter Blatty, and “Best Sound”—Robert Knudson and Chris Newman. The Exorcist has retained a faithful following since its debut and to date has grossed over $165 million (making it the thirteenth top grossing film of all time), with video sales and rentals still bringing home healthy sums.
Produced by William Peter Blatty himself and directed by William Friedkin (who received a 1971 academy award for Best Director for the movie The French Connection), the movie tells the harrowing tale of diabolically possessed 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (portrayed by Linda Blair) and the ensuing battle waged by her mother Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), Father Karras (Jason Miller) and the exorcist Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) to free her soul from the devil’s grasp. The movie, set in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., deservedly achieved its widespread notoriety for its gut-wrenching scenes of Regan’s colorful exhibitions. She vomits, curses, spins her head around and commits various grotesque acts of blasphemy. Mixed in with her ill-mannered behavior are healthy doses of sensational levitation and additional special effects designed to send the weak-at-heart heading for the exits. While critics acknowledged the film’s box-office power, reviews seemed equally divided between those who loved the movie and those who hated it. The Exorcist is a disturbing 121-minute film that leaves its audience pained, drained, and entertained.
Emphasis on Blatty’s inspiration for The Exorcist intensified after the novel was released in May 1971, went to the top of the best-seller lists, and began receiving movie offers from Hollywood. The first of many major publications to consider Blatty’s literary sources was The New York Times, which weighed in with an article by Chris Chase on August 27, 1972 titled “Everyone’s Reading It, Billy’s Filming It.” The article chronicles how director William Friedkin became involved in the project and touches upon the fact that Blatty based his novel on a local story of demonic possession that he learned of while attending college. Soon after the movie achieved worldwide success, Blatty released the book William Peter Blatty On The Exorcist From Novel To Film (New York: Bantam Books, 1974) and filled in the gaps on how he devised this literary project. He writes that as a 20-year-old English Literature major at Georgetown University he spied an article in the August 20, 1949 Washington Post (Bill Brinkley, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held In Devil’s Grip”), that told of a 14-year-old Mount Rainier, Maryland boy who had been freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil through the ancient ritual of exorcism. For years the notion of demonic possession stuck in his mind though he failed to incorporate the information into his work product.
Blatty went on to become a screenwriter-author, responsible for screenplays for several movies including A Shot In The Dark; John Goldfarb, Please Come Home; and What Did You Do In The War, Daddy? He began writing The Exorcist in 1969, drawing upon the material he had discovered some twenty years earlier, and finished his project during the summer of 1971. His creative process in researching and finishing both the novel and movie is detailed in his 1974 book. The most interesting aspect of this work is that Blatty tells of a letter he composed to the priest who conducted the actual 1949 exorcism. Blatty prints a censored version of the exorcist’s response, revealing for the first time the existence of a diary kept by an attending priest that recorded the daily events of the ongoing exorcism. Blatty writes that he requested to see the diary but the exorcist declined. Blatty decided to ease the exorcist’s anxiety and change the lead character from a 14-year-old boy to that of a 12-year-old girl. In this book Blatty goes on to mention that five copies of the diary were known to exist at that time: two were in the possession of people who watched over the boy; copies were in the archives of two separate archdioceses; and one was in the files of an unnamed public city hospital where the boy had stayed. (It has since been determined that there are several other copies floating around out there among private collectors.) Blatty maintains that he did indeed eventually read the diary and based much of his book and movie on that material, though he does not reveal how he came upon his copy.
The Exorcist is truly a modern-day cultural phenomenon. A best-selling novel, one of the highest grossing movies of all time, and today a household word that instantly generates dark images of uncontrollable horror, The Exorcist has fostered an underground cult following that continues to embrace—and attempts to trace—the story’s macabre origins. There have been dozens of newspaper and magazine articles that have tried to tell the “true” story. Books, television specials, and video documentaries on the subject have appeared, with the most recent offerings being the 1993 book Possessed: The True Story Of An Exorcism by Thomas B. Allen and the 1997 Henninger Media video In The Grip Of Evil. Most of the published works on this subject are poorly referenced and offer contradictory and even erroneous material. So much has been embellished and fabricated that it has become nearly impossible to differentiate fact and fiction. There is only one constant that seems to unite the biased writers who have tried to revise this story to suit their own agendas—none have ever actually talked with the possessed boy and none have ever interviewed anyone who grew up close to the family in question. I always felt the real story could only come from them.
Who Was This Possessed Kid and Where Did He Really Live?
Inquiring Minds Want to Know...
My interest in The Exorcist tale gradually escalated during the 1992 to 1996 time period. Most of my spare hours were spent during those years conducting research for my book Capitol Rock (Riverdale: Fort Center Books, 1997). Consequently, for a lengthy chapter on blues-rock guitar great Roy Buchanan, I spent a great deal of time canvassing the city of Mount Rainier, Maryland—a smallish working-class community of approximately 8,000 residents quietly tucked away in Victorian homes and bungalows on the D.C. line. The town was known for two things: the home of the great Roy Buchanan—and the alleged site of the story behind The Exorcist.
Indeed, ever since the early ’80s local high school teens had been flocking to what was then a vacant lot at the corner of Bunker Hill Road and 33rd Street right in the residential heart of Mount Rainier. Believing it to be the former site of the house where the possessed boy lived, these Prince George’s County teens delighted in roaming the lot at all hours of the night, drinking beer on the premises, erecting wooden crosses on the property, and yelling and screaming until local police had to come and chase them away. Several local newspaper accounts had set the tale in motion and an urban legend was born.
As I logged hundreds of hours in Mount Rainier chatting with the town’s oldest residents, one unsettling aspect of the Exorcist tale continuously reared its head. Without exception, the old-timers insisted that although their beloved town was given credit for being the home of the Exorcist story, the boy in question never actually lived in Mount Rainier. I found this to be very strange, since all of the sensational material printed on the subject placed him in Mount Rainier. Having spoken with members of Mount Rainier’s largest, oldest, and most prominent families, I found it very odd that not one person knew either the boy’s name or the names of any of his family members. Several told me that they had heard rumors that the boy in question was really from Cottage City, a small semi-isolated community just a short distance away. I felt I had hit paydirt when one lifelong Mount Rainier resident, Dean Landolt (today 70 years old), candidly told me, “I was very good friends with Father Hughes, the priest involved in that case, as was my brother Herbert. Father Hughes told me two things—one was that the boy lived in Cottage City, and the other is that he went on to graduate from Gonzaga High and turned out fine.” If Mr. Landolt’s information was accurate it would explain why nobody in Mount Rainier knew the boy’s name. I felt that a serious, thorough investigation into this case was required to patch up the growing holes that were now so evident.
I went back and examined my files on this local subject. The various published writings on the 1949 possession case contained a great deal of conflicting and confusing information. Still, I felt it would be a tremendous personal challenge to conduct this investigation from an entirely different viewpoint and in October 1997 I began my pursuit. Unlike those who had tackled this case before me, I decided that I would present a completely objective and unbiased factual report on the case. In setting my investigative goals it was understood that proving whether or not the boy in this case was actually possessed was not on the agenda. I sought to explore new territories: I would examine the critical elements of the case and create a factual framework from which to work, determine who the boy was and where he actually grew up, attempt to talk with him about his experiences, and interview friends from his hometown who grew up with him or knew his family. None of this had ever been done before.
Breaking the Story of the Haunted Boy
The following articles represent a large cross section of published material on this case. A careful reading will reveal many glaring inconsistencies in the basic story-telling, but I feel all are important for the raw data they offer. In scanning this material from 1949 to the present day one can discern the most common and widely believed scenario for this case of possession. Reporters to date have claimed that the 13- or 14-year-old boy was allegedly from Mount Rainier, Maryland. (It was later revealed that his date of birth was June 1, 1935, meaning he was actually 13 when the rite of exorcism was finally completed). Later accounts declared his home address to have been 3210 Bunker Hill Road. It is said the boy underwent a first exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital conducted by local priest Father E. Albert Hughes (where the boy allegedly slashed Hughes’s arm with a bedspring), and then underwent a final and successful rite of exorcism by Father William Bowdern at Alexian Brothers Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri in the spring of 1949. The road linking this information together is a muddled trail indeed.
The media first became involved in this case when The Washington Post ran an article on August 10, 1949 titled “Pastor Tells Eerie Tale of ‘Haunted’ Boy.” Written in an almost tongue-in-cheek style by reporter Bill Brinkley, the piece tells an “out-of-this-world” story of a local 13-year-old boy. The story came to light when an unnamed minister gave a speech before a local meeting of the Society of Parapsychology at the Mount Pleasant Library in Washington, D.C. According to the minister the family had experienced many strange events in their suburban Maryland home beginning January 18th: scratching noises emanated from the house’s walls; the bed in which the boy slept would shake violently; and objects such as fruit and pictures would jump to the floor in the boy’s presence. The minister, described as being intensely skeptical, arranged for the boy to spend the night of February 17th in his home. With the boy sleeping nearby in a twin bed the minister reported that in the dark he heard vibrating sounds from the bed and scratching sounds on the wall. During the rest of the night he allegedly witnessed some strange events—a heavy armchair in which the boy sat seemingly tilted on its own and tipped over and a pallet of blankets on which the sleeping boy lay inexplicably moved around the room. Curiously, the article described the minister as laughing as he related these incidents to his audience. He admonished the boy by saying, “Now, look, this is enough of this....” The article ended by saying that the minister called in the family doctor, who prescribed phenobarbital for the whole family.
The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) followed up the Post’s scoop with an uncredited article later that evening on August 10, 1949 titled “Minister Tells Parapsychologists Noisy ‘Ghost’ Plagued Family.” The Evening Star’s account differed from the Post’s in that the family was referred to as “Mr. and Mrs. John Doe” and their 13-year-old son “Roland.” It also describes their house as a “one-and-one-half story home in a Washington suburb” and refers to the events as “the strange story of Roland and his Poltergeist.” The article tells of the talk given by the minister before the Society of Parapsychology, and recounts his experiences with the boy. The minister told the reporter that Roland had made two trips to a mental hygiene clinic and that during an earlier trip to the Midwest the boy had been subjected to three different rites of exorcism by three different faiths—Episcopal, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic. The article quoted Richard C. Darnell, president of the Society, as saying that Dr. J. B. Rhine, director of the Parapsychology Laboratory at Duke University, called the so-called haunting the “most impressive manifestation he has heard of in the poltergeist field.” The article ended with the minister saying that things had been calm in the household for about the last two months.
The Times-Herald (Washington, D.C.) joined the fray with an article by William Flythe, Jr. on August 11, 1949 titled “‘Haunted’ Boy’s Parents Tell Of Ghost Messages.” A basic rehash of the previous two accounts, this piece adds that the boy lived in the “Brentwood section northeast” and also tells that the family had found dermographic messages written in a rash on the boy’s body. The article states that when the messages were brought to the attention of the minister involved, “he could detect nothing more than an ordinary rash.” The family reported that the boy was taken to St. Louis, where he returned to normalcy after experiencing visions of St. Michael chasing away the devil.
On August 19, 1949 The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) featured the article “Priest Freed Boy of Possession By Devil, Church Sources Say.” As the first account to provide any exorcism details to the public, the article opens by saying, “A Catholic priest has successfully freed a 14-year-old Mount Rainier, Md., boy of reported possession by the devil here early this year, it was disclosed today.” While names are withheld, it is revealed that the ritual of exorcism was given after the boy’s affliction was studied at both Georgetown University Hospital and St. Louis University. The article went on to describe the exorcism process, but offered no other significant details. The next day the same paper ran a follow-up titled “New Details of Boy’s Exorcism In Catholic Ritual Disclosed,” though in reality few new details were revealed. It did cite church sources as saying that during the rite the boy had recited a stream of blasphemous curses, intermingled with Latin phrases. The article then recapped events that had earlier been printed regarding the minister at a meeting of the Society of Parapsychology.
The Washington Post chimed in on August 20, 1949 with another Bill Brinkley-authored piece, this one titled “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” At greater length than the previous published accounts, Brinkley recounts the family’s entire haunting episode and reveals that only after 20 to 30 performances of the ancient ritual of exorcism was the devil finally cast out of the boy. He also tells that during the rite the youngster would break into violent tantrums of screaming, cursing, and voicing of Latin phrases. The exorcism, which according to Brinkley was conducted by a St. Louis priest in his fifties who accompanied the boy for two months, was first initiated in St. Louis, continued in D.C., and was ultimately completed back in St. Louis. The article states that when the last performance of the ritual was given, the boy became quiet and later reported witnessing a vision of St. Michael casting the devil out. The exorcism ritual was completed only after the boy had been taken into the Catholic church. It was this article that inspired then-20-year-old Georgetown English major William Peter Blatty to later write his novel of demonic possession.
The Parapsychology Bulletin (August 1949, Number 14), a periodical of the New York-based Parapsychology Foundation, weighed in with the uncredited “Report Of A Poltergeist,” an article that finally published the name of the anonymous clergyman of the haunted boy’s family. He turned out to be Reverend Luther Miles Schulze and in this article his experiences with the boy were reported in detail. My own research revealed that Luther Miles Schulze was born on July 30, 1906 and at the time of this case served as the pastor of St. Stephen’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (1611 Brentwood Road NE, Washington, D.C.).
After the Novel
When The Exorcist was released in novel form in 1971 it went straight to the top of the best-seller lists. It didn’t take long for Hollywood to show interest, with Blatty quickly selling the film rights to Warner Brothers for $641,000.00. When filming began in August 1972, articles surfaced in newspapers and magazines around the country that explored the author-producer’s various reference sources. Of these writings, the most significant to appear was authored by Gwen Dobson in the November 3, 1972 edition of The Evening Star and The Washington Daily News (Washington, D.C.). Titled “Luncheon With Father John J. Nicola,” the article explains that Nicola, then 43-year-old assistant director of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. and regarded as one of the country’s leading authorities on exorcism, was called upon to serve as the movie’s technical consultant. Details of the entire case are recapped along with Nicola’s views on the subject as a whole. What makes the work intriguing, however, is that one unusual piece of information surfaces while Dobson is discussing aspects of the actual rite of exorcism that was performed on the boy. The article states, “The first priest who worked with him suffered a slashed arm when the boy wrenched a bed spring coil loose and cut the priest.” While the name of the priest who had his arm slashed is not divulged and no further information is offered, this marks the first time that such an event had ever been mentioned in print.
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.
The ’90s 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 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
Cottage City, Maryland, is a small working-class community of around 1,200 residents that quietly sits one mile from Washington, D.C.’s northeast border. Nestled between the towns of Colmar Manor and Brentwood, Cottage City is located about two miles due east across Rhode Island Avenue (Route One) from Mount Rainier. Originally laid out in 1904 as a town called Highlands, the gradual construction of over three hundred one-story cottages in the subdivision provided for a unique landscape and eventually led to its current name, with incorporation in 1924. Cottage City has traditionally been known as a tight-knit family-oriented community that has been home to blue collar and government workers for decades. Today, like all of surrounding Prince George’s County, Cottage City is a community in transition. Nevertheless, I had little trouble locating a number of older residents who had spent their lives there. I was also able to interview a large number of former Cottage City residents who had moved away, but still had ties to their old home. Many of these people from both camps remembered the Doe family. I was astonished to learn that no other investigator or journalist had ever questioned any of them about the story behind The Exorcist that had taken place just up the street in the heart of their hometown.
The bulk of my investigative time spent on this case was directed at interviewing present and former Cottage City residents who had personally known Rob Doe and his family. In all, I taped interviews with 102 individuals for this investigation. Specifically, I located and interviewed members of five of of the 17 families that resided in the 3800 block of 40th Avenue in 1949. All of them knew the Doe family. Many of the people I interviewed were friends of Rob Doe and many had gone to school with him at Cottage City Elementary and Bladensburg Junior High.
For the record, Rob Doe entered the seventh grade at Bladensburg Junior High in the fall of 1947, and was removed in the middle of his eighth grade year in January 1949. He re-enrolled in the eighth grade at Bladensburg Junior High for the 1949-50 school year, then spent the next four years—from the fall of 1950 until June 1954—at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C.
Of the dozens of persons I talked with who knew Doe, there seemed to be an even split between those who were aware that The Exorcist was based on events that happened to him and those who were not.
One of the first individuals I spoke with was T. Weston Scott Jr., a Cottage City resident since 1919 and a lifelong member of the Cottage City-Colmar Manor Fire Department. Having served as the local fire chief for over twenty years, there was little about his community Mr. Scott didn’t know. He offered his knowledge of the situation without hesitation.
“The boy involved was [Rob Doe] and he lived at 3807 40th Avenue,” he stated. “I knew the boy but I didn’t know too much about what was going on to be frank. They kept it quiet at the time and later on there was a lot of stuff about it. The [Does] lived there since the thirties and they stayed in that house for about 20 years. I think most of the older neighbors who were around at the time knew about it. Most of them are gone now, though.”
Cottage City’s current town chairman and police commissioner, William Hall Sr., moved into his home at 3810 40th Avenue in 1968. His house faces the former Doe residence and from the day he moved in he had known of the strange story that had supposedly transpired across the street. He told me:
I just know what people tell me. Years back I heard the name and it was [Doe], but I don’t personally know him or anything like that. It happened in the house directly across the street from me at 3807 and that was back in 1949. When I moved in here, the neighbors knew. When I first moved here it was still talked about, but now people don’t say too much about it. After the movie some of the older residents called it “The Exorcist House” but today it is vacant and no one really comes around talking about it or anything like that. Most people think it happened over in Mount Rainier.
Between interviews I sifted through the large pile of The Prince George’s Post references from the late forties and early fifties that I had collected and filed on the Doe family. I noticed that time and again this family had played cards with some neighbors named Kagey, obviously one of the few families they chose to socialize with. In my travels around town I was told that a son, Alvin Kagey, was now a dentist in Southern Virginia and had even been called on to testify as a state dental expert on the famed Marv Albert trial. In an interview with me, Mr. Kagey revealed some fascinating insights into this case:
Let me preface this by saying I have not seen [Rob Doe] for probably 45 years but I would still consider him a friend so I don’t really want to betray that. [Rob] is a year younger than me and was a year behind me at Cottage City Elementary and while I know he had friends, he was in a sense a little bit of a loner. I don’t know of any other word that I might use that would be more appropriate. He was somewhat sedentary, somewhat quiet, as his parents were. I don’t think he was interested in sports. The contact that I had with him was through his parents playing cards. In those days Canasta was the hot game and my parents, along with the [Does] and the Hodges and the Clarks, played Canasta almost every Saturday night on a rotating basis. The [Does] were very active members of this group and it went on for years and back then the parents would just bring their kids with them and I got to know [Rob] that way.
I asked Mr. Kagey if he was aware of Rob Doe’s alleged possession. It sure must have put a damper on the card games. He responded:
It was never really discussed. I know that [Rob] somehow, I’m going to use the term became “sick” and if I remember the facts he and his mother went out to St. Louis for “treatment.” They were Lutheran and at some point there was a conversion to Catholicism. I remember during that time his father telling my father something about how [Rob] was acting funny or strange or something and there were some other things they talked about as well. “Possession” was not used at all. I heard about that when it was going on and the next time I heard about it was probably 1974 when the movie came out and I was down here in Virginia and this friend of mine, I told him where I was from and he said “Oh have you seen the movie Exorcist?,” and he said that it happened in The Mount Rainier and started telling me about the movie and I thought “Uh-oh, I know where that happened—and it was not Mount Rainier!” I knew it had really happened in Cottage City and not Mount Rainier so I went to my father who had neither seen the movie nor read the book and I talked to him and went through the whole thing about the movie and he said, “That’s [Rob Doe].” My father absolutely had no knowledge of the movie or the book or anything. It was just what he knew from the [Doe] family. The [Doe] family had lived in Cottage City for as long as I can remember—they never lived in Mount Rainier, but I don’t think people really knew anything about what had happened. We lived differently then. It was as though it never happened in Cottage City and I don’t think it was covered up. I just don’t think it was general knowledge. I never heard it discussed in town. My parents were the only source and that came right from [Mr. Doe].
As I tapped into a growing pool of valuable Cottage City sources, the name of one family in particular surfaced repeatedly. Three brothers from this household had grown up in the town and were well-known for their community involvement. One of the brothers in particular was said to have been Rob Doe’s best friend and constant companion for a number of years. The two boys were born just days apart and developed a unique relationship at a very early age that lasted throughout their teens. Two of the brothers from this family agreed to speak to me, but only on the condition that they be granted anonymity. Their testimony puts them right at the heart of the Rob Doe saga. The older brother, “J. C.,” was born in 1926. He recounted his memories of what happened just up the street from his home in 1949:
I’m aware of the story and I know a lot of people who followed the story and, well, yes I knew him. There were very few people that knew about it at the time. We have kept very quiet about it over the years deliberately because it didn’t happen in Mount Rainier. He and my younger brother were very close friends and they were very precocious, if you know what I’m saying. In every neighborhood kids pair up and this is the kind of thing that happened, these two paired up and were virtually inseparable. They were loners who found each other and they caused a lot of mischief. There was a close relationship there, a very close relationship.
I asked J. C. if he knew any specifics about the possession that was allegedly taking place to their friend up the street. He responded:
I knew something was going on before the first article ever came out. It was developing over a period of time and you could see this condition building up. You could say I was in the house and witnessed these things. I attended the local premier of that video [In the Grip Of Evil] and they exaggerated so many things that happened. One of the things that they tried to emphasize in that show was the thing about the boy spitting. Well, with this pair, I noticed that one of the common bonds between them, they found this very clever way of doing it, they could spit with great accuracy up to ten feet. It was a common thing. They’d keep their mouths closed and raise their lips and spit through their teeth and they somehow developed a way to do that. I saw them do that all the time. Another thing was with the bed moving about. In those days the beds had wire springs and were on wheels and it was not too hard at all to make the bed bounce and move about—it was harder to keep it in one place and his bed was like that. A lot of these things can be exaggerated to make a story and that is exactly what happened.
Since J. C. was one of the very few who actually knew that Rob was going through this phase at the time and was able to observe the situation firsthand, I asked him if he thought the boy was actually possessed by the devil, and he responded:
No, I don’t think he was ever possessed. I think it was psychological. As far as any real possession or anything like that, I don’t think so. There are some interesting psychological aspects to it. They were German Lutherans and he was an only child and I think the grandmother is actually the central figure. She played a very influential role in all of this. You had this old world religion superstition and the mother got caught up in it and the father just kind of stayed in the background—I think he could see what was going on which is why he is never mentioned. The true story is much more intriguing from a psychological point of view. The basis of the real thing could be a damn good story, no doubt about it in my mind. The rest of it I can run a parallel. You had these two mischief makers that had a strong tendency to take advantage of people who were weaker than themselves. They were a pair of connivers and they had their act down. In pairs like that they compete with each other and they don’t get along well and they have to keep doing something to retain their relationship and all the time this is mischief in one form or another. They were trying to outdo each other.
J. C.’s brother “B. C.” was said to be Rob Doe’s best friend throughout childhood. I was warned by several that talking with him would be difficult due to his close relationship with the subject of this article. I obtained his address and—without forewarning—I knocked on his front door at 1:00 p.m. on the afternoon of January 20, 1998. Warily he invited me in and proceeded with an intense and detailed description of his childhood relationship with Rob Doe in Cottage City. Because of the sensitive nature of the subject, I cannot reveal much of what was discussed that day. I can say that B. C. provided a detailed profile of an only child who went through anything but a normal childhood: smothered by his obsessively religious mother and grandmother who held deep interests in spiritualism and Ouija Boards; shunned by his classmates at school; prone to tantrums and even violent outbursts towards his family and his few friends; exhibiting cruel and at times even sadistic behavior towards other children and even animals. It was evident that elements of the alleged possession had always been there, going back years and years. “Dysfunctional” would be the word modern-era psychiatrists would use to describe the boy’s home life and upbringing.
B. C. was frank with me right from the beginning:
Since the movie came out I’ve never said his name in front of anyone, not even my wife. We were playmates and classmates. We were playing together from the time we first moved in here when I was three years old and we went all the way through school together—Cottage City Elementary throughout the ’40s into Bladensburg Junior High. They always lived at 3807 40th Avenue so I don’t know where that Mount Rainier crap came from. People ask what he was like back then and I can tell you that he was never what you would call a normal child. He was an only child and kind of spoiled and he was a mean bastard. We were together all the time and we used to fight all the time.
Overcoming an initial reluctance to directly discuss the details of the case, B. C. eventually opened up and offered some interesting accounts:
One thing happened regarding all of this and I have a hard time clearing it in my mind. We were in eighth grade, it was the ’48-’49 school year and we were in a 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 it and I remember he kind of yelled “I’m not doing it” and they took him out of class and that was the last I ever saw of him in school. The desk certainly did not move around the room like that book [Possessed] said, it was just shaking. I don’t know if he was doing it or what was doing it because I just can’t clear it in my mind. I put everything together. It was very closed-mouth in the neighborhood at first—no one knew anything. I hadn’t seen him for 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 he would be there for a while. 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 that was him. No one else around Cottage City knew that it was him, then, a year or so later his mother told one of the ladies at a local ladies club meeting and that was like broadcasting it over a loudspeaker. The story went out in Cottage City but then it died out shortly after that.
B. C. had some odd theories on what may have happened regarding the “possession”:
The reason behind it, you’re going to laugh but I don’t care. There was this dog that ran around the neighborhood at that time…. It was half-red cocker spaniel and it looked like it was half-chow. This dog was mean and nobody ever knew who owned it. It just came out of nowhere. Well, [Rob] basically adopted that dog. That dog was really his best friend, not me. That dog hated everyone and everything and would bite anyone in sight but he loved [Rob]. [Rob] would feed it and bring it in the house with him. One time he called me up and told me to come over and I never really trusted him because he was sneaky and a real mean little bastard. I was going over there and he was looking out from the basement window and when I got to his house I heard the back porch door slam and I knew right away what he’d done. He’d done this sort of thing many times before to different kids. I started running like hell because he’d sicked that dog on me. When I got home he called me up and was laughing like hell. That’s what kind of person he was. He did that all the time. He’d always sic that dog on anyone who came around…. I could tell you many, many other stories like that.
B. C. has been thankful all of these years that the true story had never been revealed by anyone. Prior to the release of the video In The Grip Of Evil he had always been protective of Rob Doe’s real identity. With a sarcastic laugh he continued:
A friend of mine drives me by the spot where the house stood on Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier and tells me ‘That’s where The Exorcist story happened’ and I just play dumb and look at him and act surprised and say ‘Oh is it really? How interesting.’ And to myself I’m saying, “Thank God nobody knows the real story.” They’re all looking in the wrong place. They’re all looking at Mount Rainier and St. James and Father Hughes and it’s not there. It’s always been in Cottage City and you are right on the money and everyone else is wrong.
I left B. C.’s home at 4:45 p.m., my head reeling from the character reference given by the best childhood friend the haunted boy ever had.
Truth and Consequences
After talking with so many people who had personally known Rob Doe it was disheartening to review the published material on the case from a new perspective and observe the various discrepancies between what has been written by others and what was told to me by individuals close to the family in question.
In Possessed Thomas Allen bases much of his investigation on a series of alleged events culled from the mysterious diary kept by Father Bishop during the St. Louis exorcism.
This diary, which also inspired William Peter Blatty’s novel and movie, began chronicling events on January 15, 1949 and ended on April 19, 1949, and was designed to act as a guide for future exorcisms. As a surviving case artifact it is shrouded in mystery. No one really knows for sure how many copies are circulating or even its actual page count (as previously mentioned, Steve Erdmann says 16 pages, Thomas Allen puts the number at 26). Passages from this case study have been published by both of the aforementioned writers and from their examples one discovers: the keeper of the diary, Father Bishop, did not arrive on the scene or meet any family members until Wednesday, March 9, 1949—almost two months after the initial symptoms occurred—rendering much of his reported background information as hearsay; Bishop does not always make it clear who actually witnessed the events being described—he often fails to mention when the priests are in the room, when they are absent, and when the information comes secondhand from the boy’s mother; the possibility of fraudulent activity is neither considered nor investigated (for example, no control experiment was set up where an individual could observe the boy’s actions when no one else was in the room); no mention is made whatsoever of the alleged first exorcism attempt by Father Hughes at Georgetown University Hospital; nothing is written of the boy’s father’s feelings or level of involvement (sources close to the family told me he did not believe the boy was possessed); and the possible presence of psychosomatic illness within the boy is never discussed.
In addition to the diary, an array of places and persons play critical roles in his story told by author Thomas Allen: the family’s alleged Mount Rainier homesite; the plight of the first exorcist, Father Hughes; information supplied by local expert Father Bober; and interviews with eyewitness Father Halloran. With so much questionable material being culled from the diary, I felt it was imperative to study these miscellaneous factors and sources with a critical eye.
I called Thomas Allen. After identifying myself and explaining what I was doing, he declined to comment for this article. I had planned to offer help in correcting the errors in Possessed (free of charge) for any revised edition he might be planning. I also planned to ask him a number of questions. Why, for example, does he have a mindset about the boy having lived in Mount Rainier? Did he ever consider the possibility that the priests involved in the case could have used Mount Rainier as a front to discourage the discovery of the boy’s true identity? How come he never checked the Cottage City address that Father Bishop’s diary listed with phone directory listings for the family in question from 1939 to 1958? Why had he never looked for former friends of Rob Doe in Cottage City (or talked with long-standing community members like the town chairman, fire chief, or residents of 40th Avenue—all of whom could have provided him with valuable facts)? Why did he never verify any of the information he wrote regarding Father Hughes’s involvement with the family and post-exorcism-attempt activities? And, finally, if he was really so concerned about keeping Rob Doe’s identity a secret, then why was he a writer of the video production In The Grip Of Evil in which the boy’s home at 3807 40th Avenue in Cottage City was shown, knowing full well that it would then be possible for anybody to locate the house and identify its occupants in local city directories from that period? Only Thomas Allen knows the answers.
Possessed is based on the widespread misconception that the family had resided in Mount Rainier. The book’s first four chapters are filled with references to this erroneous location: Allen claims neighbors knew something odd was happening at 3210 Bunker Hill Road; he claims neighbors heard maniacal cries and saw lights radiating around the house; and he claims the family moved to a similar house about a half-mile away. In reality, none of these things happened, as I have demonstrated. In fact, sources close to this case have verified that the diary kept by Father Bishop never once mentions 3210 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier as the family’s home—but it does identify the site as 3807 40th Avenue. Allen does not mention this in Possessed.
Regarding the first exorcism attempt at Georgetown University Hospital by Father Hughes, Allen makes several bold presumptions: Hughes “apparently” visited the boy at his house, further claiming that there is some question about this action stemming from the priest’s own “confusion”; Hughes decided the boy belonged in a hospital, under restraints, and that “on Hughes’s orders” the boy was strapped down; when Hughes’s arm was allegedly slashed by the boy, the priest “screamed” and struggled to his feet while his arm hung limp; Hughes subsequently “disappeared” from St. James, suffered a nervous breakdown, and during later masses could only hold the consecrated host aloft with one hand.
The suppositions regarding Father Hughes seemed so absurd I decided to do some in-depth research into the actions of this mysterious priest from St. James Church in Mount Rainier, Maryland. Born Edward Albert Hughes on August 28, 1918, he was assigned as assistant pastor of St. James (the pastor at the time was Rev. William M. Canning) on Wednesday, June 16, 1948 and served without a break until Saturday, June 18, 1960. Despite what is written in Possessed, there is absolutely no written record of the alleged exorcism attempt by Father Hughes at Georgetown University Hospital. A source close to the case verified for me that Rob Doe was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital under his real name on the morning of Monday, February 28, 1949 and released at 12 noon on Thursday, March 3, 1949. The facts surrounding this Georgetown stay are: Father Hughes never initially visited the boy at his Cottage City home (Mrs. Doe took her son to the St. James parish for their one and only consultation); there is no evidence that Father Hughes was ever confused at all about this entire situation; there is no evidence whatsoever that Father Hughes had the boy admitted to Georgetown University Hospital or held under restraints—Thomas Allen himself gives no reference in Possessed regarding these alleged actions; there is no evidence that while hospitalized Rob Doe ever slashed Father Hughes’s arm or what the priest’s reaction to the attack may have been—Allen even mentions that while Father Hughes mentioned this exorcism attempt during a lecture at Georgetown University, he made no reference to the alleged attack at all. Of further significance is that the St. Louis contingency, Father Bowdern and Father Bishop, were never informed of the alleged first exorcism attempt and their diary makes no mention of the event.
Even if Rob Doe had slashed the arm of Father Hughes, would it really cause the priest to have a breakdown and disappear from St. James Parish? I easily located several individuals who were in daily contact with Father Hughes throughout the spring of 1949, the time period that immediately followed his alleged exorcism attempt on Rob Doe. I wondered if the priest showed any signs of injury, any change in behavior, or if any evidence existed of a breakdown or personal hiatus from his busy job. I found just the opposite.
Thomas Kearney, an eighth-grader at St. James during the 1948-49 school year revealed that Father Hughes was the parish’s CYO junior boys baseball coach that spring: “I saw Father Hughes every day at St. James that school year and I don’t remember him being missed and I don’t remember him being beat up or hurt or anything like that. He coached baseball that spring and would pitch us the ball and there was nothing wrong with him.”
Another eighth-grade classmate that year was Joan Flanagan, who recalled: “The recent story going around now was that Father Hughes’s arm was slashed back then. I never heard that at the time. I never noticed a slash or an injury and he was the P. E. teacher for our class. He never missed a class and I remember him pitching us softballs in the spring. Something like that would have been a big story at the time. I just don’t believe it happened.”
The prefect for the Ladies Sodality of St. James for all of 1949 and 1950 was Gloria Nowak, who today is 74 years old and is still a Mount Rainier resident. She told me, “I knew Father Hughes very well because he was director of the Sodality and would come to each meeting and start it off with a prayer. I never knew that he had any kind of arm wound. I had heard about the possessed boy but it was something we didn’t ask about. Father Hughes was a very nice person, very outgoing and friendly and a very holy priest. I never noticed any change in behavior or any absence while I was prefect. He was always there and always in a good mood.”
Furthermore, the neighborhood columns for Brentwood and Mount Rainier in The Prince George’s Post throughout the spring of 1949 seemed to go out of their way to document the activities of the very popular young priest. In their pages they document that Father Hughes, among other activities: attended a dinner given for Father William E. Kelly of St. Martin’s Church on Sunday, February 27, 1949; missed a social given by the Mother’s Club of St. James on Tuesday, March 1, 1949 (possibly the night he was visiting Rob Doe at Georgetown University Hospital); spoke at the “Communism in Religion” seminar sponsored by the Washington General Assembly Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus held at the Hyattsville Town Hall on Monday, March 7, 1949; said mass at the “KCs To Inaugurate Day Of Recollection,” an annual Day of Recollection inaugurated by the Prince George’s Council of the Knights of Columbus on Sunday, March 20, 1949 at St. John de Matha Monastery in Hyattsville; presided over a wedding between Mildred O’Dea and Edward A. Williams on Saturday, April 30, 1949 at St. Jerome’s Church; performed a wedding on Saturday, June 4, 1949 for Francis Wersick and Sam Morina at St. James Church; addressed Commencement Exercises for St. Jerome’s first graduating class on Sunday, June 12, 1949; and according to the June 16, 1949 Brentwood column, hosted an outing and picnic for the St. James graduating class at Chapel Point. Coverage of the dynamic Father Hughes in the pages of The Prince George’s Post continued throughout 1949, all the way up to his departure in 1960 without any noticeable break in the action. In the June 16, 1960 edition of The Prince George’s Post, Joseph Bianchini writes in the Mount Rainier column that Father Hughes had performed 2,712 baptisms, 486 marriages, 251 baptisms of converts, and 247 burial masses during his assignment. Not bad for a priest who “disappeared.” (Hughes was later reassigned to St. James in 1973 and remained there until his death in October 1980.)
The one local clergyman that Father Hughes confided in before his death was his assistant pastor Frank Bober, who has since figured prominently in this scenario, mainly because of his accessibility to journalists and general congeniality. Bober has appeared in literally dozens of television specials, news broadcasts, and printed articles on the subject. In Possessed Allen cites him as one of his “extremely reliable” sources for the first exorcism attempt that Hughes was involved in. However, despite the accolades, it was my opinion that over time the comments that these journalists attributed to Bober began to take on a more dramatic tone with each retelling.
At this point in my investigation I felt that it was Bober who had been responsible during the early ’80s for the implication that 3210 Bunker Hill Road had been the actual home of the possessed boy. I harbored these feelings despite the fact that he told The Washington Post of May 6, 1985 that “Father Hughes never told me the exact spot (of the residence).” In the same article he later told the reporter, “I think it was common knowledge in Mount Rainier.” At first Father Bober claims Father Hughes did not reveal where the boy lived, but in later interviews he maintains that Father Hughes told him the boy was from Mount Rainier. This conflict over something as simple as where the boy resided calls into question everything that Father Bober alleges was told to him by Father Hughes.
Hoping Father Bober would straighten his stories out, I located him in Washington, D.C., where he was enjoying an extended sabbatical. He was extremely friendly and cooperative and told of what Father Hughes reportedly experienced during his time with the boy: coldness in the room, the movement of a phone, the speaking of archaic languages and of course the slashing of his arm by the possessed boy during the aborted exorcism attempt. He claimed that he thought Father Hughes told him the boy had lived in Mount Rainier on Bunker Hill Road. All of this was interesting, but when I presented to him my evidence that the boy never lived in Mount Rainier and attempted to clarify Bober’s original statements to the newspapers he became a bit defensive. “I never did any in-depth investigating, I just accepted his word and that’s what he said,” Bober insisted. “All I know is Father Hughes gave me certain information which I communicated to the press and the Archdiocese and so on and that was his information. You know I was not around in 1949. I was ordained much later in 1969 and was at St. James from 1980 to 1985. When people interview me I just tell what I know and that’s all I can do.”
We discussed certain aspects of the case which curiously had never been printed in any previously published accounts. My investigation led me to conclude that the mother initiated contact with the church and that Father Hughes never actually visited the family. Bober confirmed this. “Father Hughes never went to the boy’s home,” he said. “Basically it was the mother that brought the kid to the rectory and the thing is she’s the one who gave Father Hughes all the information. Everything that I know of that he shared with me took place in the rectory, not at the house.”
Bober continued, “I cannot affirm where the family lived because I was not there at that point in time. Maybe the guy did live in Cottage City, I don’t know. If the mother wanted to shield the identity she might have said it was Mount Rainier, I don’t know. It could be the church’s approach. The church likes to keep it all secret. They might suggest this is where it is to keep the person’s identity secret and leave it at that. I just don’t know.”
While Father Bober became entangled in the Exorcist saga by simply lending an ear to his weary pastor, Father Walter Halloran emerged as a central figure for his role in the actual St. Louis exorcism conducted by Father Bowdern. In 1949 Halloran was a 26-year-old scholar at St. Louis University studying for a master’s degree and preparing for priesthood. He was called upon by Bowdern to assist the priests in different aspects of the exorcism and today is the one living eyewitness to those events who is still willing to discuss his experiences. In August 1997 Halloran was reassigned from San Rafael Church in San Diego, California to Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, where today he works as the hospital chaplain.
When I contacted Halloran by phone, he sounded tired and clearly was not interested in discussing the incident with me. Still, to his credit, he thoughtfully answered every one of my questions. I first asked Halloran if he would go on record as saying whether he thought the boy was possessed or not. “No, I can’t go on record,” he told me. “I never made an absolute statement about the things because I didn’t feel I was qualified. I hadn’t studied the phenomena and that sort of thing. All I did was report the things that I saw and whether I would make a statement one way or another wouldn’t make any difference because I just don’t think I was qualified to do so.”
My questions to Halloran a were met with brief, direct responses.
“Did the boy speak in any languages other than English?”
“Did it appear he understood the Latin he was speaking?”
“I think he mimicked us.”
“Was there any change in the boy’s voice?”
“When the boy struck you in the nose, did he exhibit extraordinary strength?”
“I don’t know, I never even thought very much about it. It certainly wasn’t [former world boxing champion Mike] Tyson hitting me in the nose or something like that (laughs).”
I asked Halloran to elaborate and describe to me some of the things he witnessed that he could not explain. He paused and slowly said, “I saw a bottle slide from a dresser across the room—there was no one near it. The bed moving....” I interrupted and asked if the bed was stationary or on rollers. He said, “It was on rollers like any bed, but I was leaning on it when it moved one time.”
I inquired about the boy’s spitting, urinating and vomiting, all activities that he was said to have indulged in with great vigor during various points of the exorcism. Halloran responded, “Well, spitting was frequent...it wasn’t significant...there wasn’t any vomiting or urinating that I recall.”
I wanted to know about the boy’s father’s level of involvement. Had Halloran even met the father? Had the father been present during all of this? “I met him once, I think. I think that he was back home in Maryland working most of the time. He wasn’t really a part of this.”
I asked about the markings or brandings that were said to have appeared on the boy’s body out of nowhere. Did Halloran actually see them materialize on his skin? Did he feel the boy or someone else was responsible? “I saw them...well, right on the skin...yeah, I did. It wasn’t the boy doing it himself, you know, as far as I could see.” I wanted to know if the markings ever formed numbers or letters or words, as other writers had reported. “It was kind of hard to really tell.” Was there blood dripping from the marks? “It looked more like lipstick. There were just some very clear marks like that.” Continuing on this subject I asked if the priests had ever bothered to check the boy’s fingernails for flesh or blood deposits. Halloran was taken aback. After a long pause he said, “When I was there his hands were nowhere near the markings. No, we didn’t check.”
And of course, I inquired about the famous diary of Father Bishop. “I don’t have it any more,” Father Halloran reported. “I burned it.”
It is a fact that no journalist has ever identified and spoken with the subject of this alleged exorcism, Rob Doe. While I felt it was imperative that I establish some type of contact with him, I realized that in all likelihood an interview with him would prove anticlimactic. If Rob Doe had actually been the victim of demonic possession, he very well may not have any memory of the events. If his behavior had been staged and there had never been a possession, he would probably not admit to the sham. With that in mind I waited until my investigation drew to a close to contact him. I believe that the strength of this investigation lies within the factual framework that has been constructed. Several key issues have been defined and verified—where the boy actually lived, where he went to school, what his friends had to say, and what he was like prior to the questionable events that engulfed his family in the winter and spring of 1949. I wondered if Rob Doe would have anything significant to say even if he was willing to discuss his life experiences.
From a Cottage City source I obtained an East Coast address where the Haunted Boy now resides and his current phone number. I called and Rob Doe himself answered. Our conversation was brief and direct and he gruffly spoke to me in a very deep, gravelly voice. He admitted to me that he had grown up in Cottage City and had never lived in Mount Rainier. He stated that he had seen the movie The Exorcist but did not offer his take on the film. He seemed very alarmed that I had contacted him and told me there would be no cooperation on his part whatsoever. He would not confirm that he was the subject of this investigation and firmly stated he did not want me to ever call him back again. His response was typical of someone who did not want to be reminded of some distant embarrassing event from his past.
While Rob Doe was unaware of it at the time, the events that centered around the troublesome teenage boy from Cottage City between January and April 1949 would later have a profound effect on people all over the globe. As the inspiration for The Exorcist, this case emerged as one of the most significant examples of paranormal phenomena in history. It spawned movies, books, and videos, and influenced hundreds of “copycat” cases around the world that led to exorcism-styled assaults, mutilations, and even deaths.
Despite the widespread popularity of this story in the aftermath of William Peter Blatty’s novel and movie, no one had ever actually investigated this case prior to my involvement. Rob Doe had never been interviewed, nor identified. No investigator had ever talked with his childhood friends or people from the neighborhood in which he grew up. In fact, no journalist ever got the location right in the first place. All previous accounts had placed the boy at 3210 Bunker Hill Road in Mount Rainier, an inexcusable error.
With the completion of this adventure we now know who the boy was, where he really lived, where he attended school, who his friends were, what his family life was like, and what behavior and personality traits he exhibited before his alleged “possession.” The credibility of the mysterious diary has now been called into question. I have shown that Father Walter Halloran—the one living, talking eyewitness to the St. Louis exorcism attempts, maintains that he did not witness any supernatural behavior by Rob Doe—no strange foreign languages (other than mimicked Latin), no changes in tone of voice, no prodigious strength, no excessive vomiting or urinating, and—to top it off—he is uncertain about the nature of the markings or skin brandings on the boy’s body. Perhaps most important of all, this case illustrates the need in paranormal investigation for close scrutiny of both initial newspaper accounts and highly touted individuals as providers of information. In this instance, both sources muddled the picture by embellishing the story when facts were uncertain.
Personally, I do not believe Rob Doe was possessed. There is simply too much evidence that indicates that as a boy he had serious emotional problems stemming from his home life. There is not one shred of hard evidence to support the notion of demonic possession. The facts show that he was a spoiled and disturbed only child with a very overprotective mother and a non-responsive father. To me his behavior was indicative of an outcast youth who desperately wanted out of Bladensburg Junior High School at any cost. He wanted attention and he wanted to leave the area and go to St. Louis. Throwing tantrums was the answer. He began to play his concocted game. For his efforts he got a collection of priests (who had no previous exorcism experience) who doted over him as he lay strapped to a bed. His response was that of any normal child—he reacted with rage, he wanted out. Without delving into the dynamics of psychosomatic illness, there is no question there was something wrong with Rob Doe prior to January 1949, something that modern-era psychiatry might have best addressed. Rob Doe was not just another normal teenage boy.
Each of the parties involved in this case approached it from its own frame of reference. To psychiatrists, Rob Doe suffered from mental illness. To priests this was a case of demonic possession. To writers and film/video producers this was a great story to exploit for profit. Those involved saw what they were trained to see. Each purported to look at the facts but just the opposite was true—in actuality they manipulated the facts and emphasized information that fit their own agendas.
While my efforts in this investigation were not meant to be all-inclusive, we now have a wealth of previously uncovered information about the alleged possession of Rob Doe. Future investigative work into this case will hopefully begin at the heart of the matter, rather than weave its way through a confusing maze of myths, false leads, and self-serving propaganda.
Thomas B. Allen, Possessed: The True Story Of An Exorcism (New York: Doubleday July 1993, Bantam Books, April 1994). (Discussed in this article.)
William Peter Blatty, William Peter Blatty On The Exorcist From Novel To Film (New York: Bantam Books, 1974). (The 41-page introduction provides some valuable information on how Blatty became aware of the story and how he developed his novel. The rest of the book deals with the movie’s screenplay.)
Denis Brian, The Enchanted Voyager: The Life Of J. B. Rhine (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1982). (Chapter 29 consists of six pages on the case. J. B. Rhine learned of the case from Reverend Luther Miles Schulze, the first clergyman called in by the family. It is revealed that Rhine never witnessed any of the phenomena himself and actually wondered if Reverend Schulze “unconsciously exaggerated” some of the facts. Rhine’s feelings have been conveniently ignored by other journalists.)
Martin Ebon, Exorcism: Fact Not Fiction (New York: Signet Books, January 1974). (This pocket paperback reprints the April 1951 Fate article and mainly summarizes the early newspaper accounts of the case.)
Rosemary Ellen Guiley, The Encyclopedia Of Ghosts And Spirits (New York: Facts On File, 1992), pp. 226-227.
Dennis William Hauck, The National Directory Of Haunted Places (Sacramento: Athanor Press, 1994), page 184.
Rev. John J. Nicola, Diabolical Possession and Exorcism (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1974), chapter 10. (Nicola poorly reconstructs the case that inspired The Exorcist, providing no documented sources for his sensational version of the alleged possession.)
Peter Travers and Stephanie Reiff, The Story Behind The Exorcist (New York: Signet Books, 1974). (A rather disappointing treatment of how the movie was filmed. There is very little here on the actual background of the 1949 possession.)
Periodicals (in chronological order):
Bill Brinkley, “Pastor Tells Eerie Tale of ‘Haunted’ Boy,” The Washington Post, 10 August 1949.
“Minister Tells Parapsychologists Noisy ‘Ghost’ Plagued Family,” The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 10 August 1949.
William Flythe Jr., “‘Haunted’ Boy’s Parents Tell Of Ghost Messages,” The Times-Herald (Washington, D.C.), 11 August 1949.
“Priest Freed Boy of Possession By Devil, Church Sources Say,” The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 19 August 1949.
“New Details of Boy’s Exorcism In Catholic Ritual Disclosed,” The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 20 August 1949.
Bill Brinkley, “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip,” The Washington Post, 20 August 1949.
“Report Of A Poltergeist,” Parapsychology Bulletin, Number 14, August 1949.
D.R. Linson, “Washington’s Haunted Boy,” Fate, April 1951.
Chris Chase, “Everyone’s Reading It, Billy’s Filming It,” The New York Times, 27 August 1972.
Gwen Dobson, “Luncheon With Father John J. Nicola,” The Evening Star and the Washington Daily News (Washington, D.C.), 3 November, 1972.
Sally Quinn, “Exorcism: Beating The Devil,” The Washington Post, 6 November 1972.
Curtis Fuller, “I See by The Papers: Exorcism And Possession,” Fate, March 1973.
Gary Arnold, “Exorcist: The Word Made Flesh,” The Washington Post, 23 December 1973.
Jeremiah O’Leary, “The Exorcist: Story That Almost Wasn’t,” Washington Star-News, 29 December 1973.
Ronald V. Borst, “The Exorcist,” Photon, Number 25, 1974.
Tom Shales, “‘Exorcist’: No One Under 17 Admitted,” The Washington Post, 3 January 1974.
Pauline Kael, “The Current Cinema: Back To the Ouija Board,” The New Yorker, 7 January 1974.
Cathe Wolhowe, “Bedeviled By Film, Curious Go To GU,” The Washington Post, 10 January 1974.
“Movies: The Ghoul Next Door,” Newsweek, 21 January 1974.
James L. Foye, M.D. “A Psychiatrist On Rites Of Exorcism,” The Washington Post, 22 January 1974.
William Gildea, “Confronting Satan’s Wrongs With Rites,” The Washington Post, 29 January 1974.
Elizabeth Peer, “The Exorcism Frenzy,” Newsweek, 11 February 1974.
Steve Erdmann, “The Truth Behind The Exorcist,” Fate, January 1975.
Lynda Hoover, “The Devil In Prince George’s County?” The Prince George’s Journal, 19 June 1975.
Sharon Page, “Q And A: Father Nicola Pursues Trail Of The Devil,” The Washington Star, 19 August 1975.
Spencer Gordon, “The Exorcist: The real incident involved a Mt. Rainier priest in 1949,” The Prince George’s Sentinel, 4 February, 1981.
Brenda Caggiano, “Exorcism: Demonic possession still haunts Mt. Rainier residents,” The Prince George’s Sentinel, 28 October 1983.
Arthur S. Brisbane, “Youth’s Bizarre Symptoms Led To 1949 Exorcism,” The Washington Post, 6 May 1985.
Arthur S. Brisbane, “Violent Deaths Plague Old ‘Exorcist’ Haunts,” The Washington Post, 6 May 1985.
Vincent F.A. Golphin, “Is Town Viewing Live Rerun Of The Exorcist? Some Say Demons Have Come Back,” National Catholic Reporter, 24 May 1985.
Vincent F.A. Golphin, “Priest Says Not Devil, But Force Of Evil,” National Catholic Reporter, 24 May 1985.
Marybeth Burke, “‘Exorcist’ Based On 1949 Event,” The Prince George’s Journal, 22 July 1986.
John M. McGuire, “The Exorcist Revisited,” The Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO), 17 April 1988.
Mary Mann, “Setting The Exorcism Record Straight,” South Side Journal (St. Louis, MO), 14 March 1990.
Thomas B. Allen, “Possessed,” Washingtonian, June 1993.
Susan Adeletti, “The Exorcist: The Real Story,” The Prince George’s Journal, 11 July 1997.