Bruner (Burner), Theobald and Joseph (19th century) was a French case considered a classic example of Demonic Possession and Exorcism. Two brothers, Theobald and Joseph Bruner of Illfurt (Illfurth), Alsace, exhibited all the accepted signs of diabolic interference—contortions, blasphemies, Levitation, speaking in unknown languages, revulsion toward holy objects, and clairvoyance—while the Devil was successfully driven out through organized rituals.
Theobald (Thiebaut), born in 1855, and Joseph, born in 1857, first began displaying unusual and frightening behavior in September 1865. Confined mostly to their beds for the next two years, the boys would entwine their legs, sometimes every two or three hours, in knots so tight that no human pressure could unentangle them. They would stand on their heads for hours, bend completely backward; become rigid; and undergo attacks of vomiting, expelling great quantities of yellow foam, seaweed, and foul-smelling feathers.
The boys levitated as well, rising upward while remaining seated or in bed. Sometimes their mother, seated on the bed while it rose off the floor, would be thrown into the corner. Their room was unbearably hot, although no stove was lit; only by sprinkling holy water on the bed did the room’s temperature return to normal. Furniture flew about the room, the drapes would fall down by themselves, and the windows would burst open. The entire house shook, as if from an earthquake.
More disturbing were the boys’ increasing fascination with the Devil and hatred of holy objects. They would draw devilish faces on the walls by their bed and talk to them. Rosaries or sacred relics placed on or under their bed would send the boys into hysterical fits, hiding under the covers and screaming blasphemies. The blessed host was particularly loathsome, and pictures of the Virgin Mary, or even the mention of her name, drove the boys crazy. According to the records kept by the local priest, Father Karl (Charles) Brey, if a “clergyman or pious Catholic visited the house, the possessed children crawled hastily under a table or bed, or jumped out the window.” But when someone of less fervent faith entered, the boys were delighted, proclaiming, “That one is one of ours. They should all be like that!”
The final proof of their possession was the boys’ ability to speak in foreign languages—English, Latin, and various Spanish dialects—unknown to them and to display paranormal, or clairvoyant, knowledge of outside events. Father Brey told that two hours before one woman died, Theobald knelt in his bed and acted as if he were ringing a mourning bell. On another occasion, Theobald rang his imaginary mourning bell for an entire hour, claiming it was for the death of Gregor Kunegel. Kunegel’s daughter happened to be in the house and angrily denied her father’s death, protesting that he was not even ill but working as a mason on a new seminary building. Theobald answered that the man had fallen, as indeed he had, and broken his neck.
It was about four years until the Bruners and Father Brey agreed on a diagnosis of Demonic possession and convinced Father Brey’s bishop to approve an exorcism. Finally, Theobald was sent to the St. Charles Orphanage at Schiltigheim, near Strasbourg, on October 3, 1869. Held by three strong men and forced to stand before the altar, Theobald remained silent for three days (other accounts say two), only drooling a thick yellow froth. On the fourth day, he roared in a horrible voice that he had arrived and was furious. When the nun asked who had come, the Devil in Theobald answered, “I am the Lord of Darkness!” At that point, Theobald was placed in a straitjacket, as he began tearing his clothes and breaking everything in reach. Finally, after the exorcist, Father Stumpf, again called upon the Virgin, Theobald screamed in agony and pitched forward in a deep sleep. When he became conscious, he was himself again and had no memory of the previous three days.
Father Brey himself exorcized Joseph, also in the orphanage, on October 27. After only three hours of frantic struggling and screaming, the Devil released him. As was Theobald, Joseph was surprised to find himself in church and did not remember his ordeal. Unfortunately, the boys did not live long, peaceful lives. Theobald died two years later, at age 16, while Joseph died in 1882 at age 25.
- Oesterreich, Traugott K. Possession and Exorcism. Secaucus, N.J: University Books, 1966.