The St. Louis Exorcism Case was a complex and unusual case that inspired the novel and movie The Exorcist, variously interpreted as one of Demonic Possession, Poltergeist activity, and delusion. Many of the details of the case remain secret. Only what was recorded in an exorcist’s diary and what has been gleaned in subsequent research is known.
In William Peter Blatty’s 1971 bestseller and the movie based on it, a young girl possessed by the devil is subjected to an Exorcism by Roman Catholic priests. In the 1949 case that inspired this story, however, the subject was a 13-year-old boy who was the subject of some classic Poltergeist manifestations and may also have exhibited dermography or “skin writing”—writing and designs produced on the skin. His case was identified as one of Demonic possession by Jesuits in Saint Louis who performed exorcisms on him. Others have contended that the boy suffered from mental illness or Tourette’s syndrome or started a joke that took a serious, bad turn.
The boy’s identity has never been revealed, and he is known by the pseudonyms Roland Doe and Rob or Robbie Doe. Troy Taylor learned his identity and interviewed him for his book The Devil Came to St. Louis (2006), on the condition that his name remain a secret.
Robbie Doe was born in 1935 and grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Cottage City, Maryland. His father was a lapsed Catholic and his mother was a Lutheran born in St. Louis. He was baptized in the Lutheran Church. He was an only child of a dysfunctional family and had a troublesome childhood.
In January 1949, when he was 13, Robbie’s family began to be disturbed by scratching sounds coming from the ceilings and walls of their house. Thinking that they had mice, his parents called an exterminator. This man could find no signs of rodents and his efforts failed to end the scratching, which only became louder. Noises that sounded like someone walking about in squeaky shoes began to be heard in the hall. At times, dishes and furniture moved for no evident reason.
The noises and movements were frightening enough, but then Robbie began to be attacked. His bed shook so hard that he could not sleep. His bedclothes were repeatedly pulled off the bed, and once, when he tried to hold on to them, he was pulled onto the floor after them.
Robbie’s parents made a connection to the recent death on January 26, 1949, of Robbie’s Aunt Tillie in St. Louis, news that had devastated the young Robbie. Tillie, a spiritualist, had interested Robbie in the paranormal, and they had used a TALKING BOARD together. It is likely that Robbie used the board to try to communicate with his dead aunt.
After a few weeks, Robbie’s parents were convinced that an evil spirit was behind the disturbances and appealed to their Lutheran minister, Luther Schulze, for help. Schulze tried praying with Robbie and his parents in their home, and then with Robbie alone in his home. He led prayers for Robbie in church. Reverend Schulze ordered whatever was possessing the boy to leave him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but the affl iction continued.
The boy was tormented by the weird noises and movements of objects day and night, with the result that he was unable to sleep. In February, Schulze offered to let Robbie spend a night in his house, to which his parents agreed. That night, Mrs. Schulze went to a guest room, while Robbie and the Reverend retired to twin four-poster beds in the master bedroom. Sometime after they had said good night, Schulze heard Robbie’s bed creaking. He grasped the bed and felt it vibrating rapidly. Robbie himself was wide awake, but lying absolutely still.
Schulze suggested that Robbie try to sleep in an armchair, while he kept an eye on him from his bed. Before long, the heavy chair began to move. First it scooted backward several inches. Schulze suggested that Robbie raise his legs, to add his full weight to the chair, but that was not enough to stop it from continuing until it had slammed into the wall. The chair then began to turn, as if in slow motion, until it had deposited the boy, unhurt, on the floor. Schulze noticed that Robbie appeared to be in a trance and made no effort to move out of the chair, even though it had been moving slowly enough for him to have done so.
After this night, Schulze was able to persuade Robbie’s parents to have him tested in a mental health clinic. From February 28 to March 3, he was in Georgetown Medical Hospital, where he underwent medical and psychological evaluation.
He began to act wildly, and according to some reports, the message “Go to St. Louis!” appeared scratched on his skin in blood-red letters. Robbie’s mother thought he would benefit from a trip. He and his parents took a train to St. Louis, where they stayed with relatives. Family feelings about how to address Robbie’s problems were divided along religious lines: Lutheran and Catholic.
The Jesuits were consulted. Father Raymond J. Bishop came to the house to bless Robbie, but quickly saw that the situation was far worse than diabolical infestation— the troubling presence of Demons. Bishop consulted Father William Bowdern. Bowdern also saw the gravity of Robbie’s condition. With Bishop, he went to Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter and requested an Exorcism. The request was granted.
Robbie’s exorcism began on March 16 at the home of his relatives on Roanoke Drive. More and more, Robbie acted like someone suffering from full Demonic possession. He began to cough up phlegm and to drool in a steady stream, and more painful, bloody welts and scratches mysteriously appeared on his body. He cursed, vomited, spit, urinated, and made physical attacks on the exorcists, exhibiting amazing strength. He appeared to be cured and then relapsed into vile and violent behavior. When the episodes were over, he had no recall of them.
On March 21, Bowdern had Robbie taken to the Alexian Brothers Hospital and placed in a room in the security ward. The exorcism resumed in tight secrecy over the course of several weeks. It is not known how many people participated. Among the witnesses were Father William Van Roo and Father Charles O’Hara. Also present at various times were hospital staff and seminarians, among them Walter Halloran, whose help Bowdern had requested.
On April 1, Robbie was taken to the St. Francis Xavier Church (now no longer in existence) to be baptized into the Catholic Church, a move that Bowdern thought would help the progress. However, Robbie went berserk on the way to the church and Bowdern decided not to let him enter, lest he desecrate the premises. The boy was taken to the rectory instead. Despite his vomiting of blood and mucous, and his struggling and shouting of obscenities, the baptism proceeded, followed eventually by a successful communion.
After several weeks of progress and relapse, Robbie’s behavior finally changed for the better. The turning point was a DREAM Robbie had of a fierce, sword-bearing Angel who made snarling Demons vanish. In April, the exorcism was declared a success.
Robbie returned to Maryland with his parents and resumed a normal life with no further episodes of any paranormal or supernatural phenomena. His father rededicated himself to Catholicism, and his mother converted. Robbie lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Bishop recorded details of the exorcism in a diary. Although the church never intended for the case to be made public, word soon got out. Schulze leaked details of a “poltergeist” disturbance, using the Does’ real names. Soon the exorcism made its way into the media. William Peter Blatty was a student at Georgetown University in Washington in August 1949, when he read an Associated Press account of the case in the Washington Post. He began to look into the story and soon made himself as thoroughly familiar with it as current sources (many now known to be in error) would allow. When Blatty turned to writing his best-selling novel 20 years later, moreover, he changed so many details and added so much new material that the actual case was doubly obscured.
The Exorcist was published in 1971 and was made into a film directed by William Friedkin and released in 1973. Blatty wrote the screenplay. During the filming, most of the cast and crew had strange experiences and misfortunes, including the news of nine deaths of people they knew. The movie terrified audiences, some of whom consulted medical and spiritual help out of fears over possession. Critics said the film itself was evil.
In 1993, Thomas B. Allen wrote a book about the case, Possessed: The True Story for an Exorcism. The book came under criticism for including events that may have not happened. Allen self-published a revision of Possessed in 2000 and included “sanitized” portions of Bishop’s diary. Showtime made the book into a cable television movie.
In 2000, a new film version of The Exorcist was released, written and directed again by Blatty and Friedkin. Friedkin decided to show the face of the possessing Demon, an effect which ruined the horror for many viewers.
Numerous inaccurate stories and legends have arisen around the case, and opinions still are divided as to what really happened.
On November 3, 2000, Mark Chorvinksy, publisher of Strange magazine, announced that research done by Mark Opsasnick and himself revealed that Robbie had never been possessed and that his exorcism was unnecessary. They contended that the paranormal phenomena may have been real, but the phenomena were not proof of Demonic possession. Furthermore, Chorvinsky said, Robbie failed to meet three criteria of possession set by the Catholic Church: prophecy, speaking in foreign languages, and supernormal strength. Halloran told them that the Latin Robbie spoke merely mimicked the priests and that his physical assaults were not extraordinary.
Opsasnick, who had researched the case earlier and published a lengthy report in Strange magazine in 1999, provides a more complete portrait of Robbie as a child and a more accurate outline of the case. But Opsasnick opined that it was no more than the story of a naughty boy who managed to delude the adults around him into believing that he was possessed by the devil. Several of the people he interviewed (and whose words he quotes) recall strange happenings, suggestive of poltergeist phenomena and dermography. However, interviews conducted in the 1970s by Dennis Brian with Schulze and J.B. Rhine supported a poltergeist explanation.
Schulze contacted Rhine while the phenomena were underway and he and LOUISA RHINE drove from Durham to Washington, where they discussed the case with Schulze. Unfortunately for Rhine, the phenomena had ceased by the time they arrived. Nevertheless, he felt he recognized the case as that of a classic poltergeist, which he interpreted in line with the experimental results he was obtaining. In the bulletin of his Parapsychology Laboratory, he suggested that the phenomena were expressions of Robbie’s own unconscious ability to influence objects in his environment and his own body through the power of his mind (see Psychokinesis). This latter view was later elaborated by J. G. PRATT and William G. Roll in their investigation of the SEAFORD Poltergeist.
Bowdern never spoke about the case except to acknowledge that he believed it to be a true case of Demonic possession. He died in 1983 at age 86. Bishop died in 1978 at age 72. Halloran, who burned his copy of Bishop’s diary, told Opsasnick he did not believe that Robbie was possessed, but later told Taylor he was not enough of an expert to know. At the end of his life, he told Taylor that mental illness probably could not explain all of the phenomena put together. He died in 2005 at age 83.
Perhaps the most compelling testimony is that of Bowdern—a first-hand witness through the worst part of the event who believed the possession was real. However, Bowdern and all the Jesuit principals in the case are dead, and Robbie has made no public statement. Taylor concludes that the case remains “unsolved.”
Further Reading :
- Allen, Thomas B. Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism. New York: Doubleday, 1993. Revised edition iUniverse, 2000.
- Blatty, William Peter. William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist. New York: Bantam, 1974.
- Brian, Dennis. The Enchanted Voyager: The Life of J. B. Rhine. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1983.
- Chorvinsky, Mark. “Return to The Haunted Boy: The Exorcist Case Update.” Strange magazine 21. Available online by subscription only. URL: https://www.strangemag.com/. Downloaded October 7, 2006.
- Opsasnick, Mark. “The Haunted Boy of Cottage City.” Strange magazine 20 (1999): 4–27. “Report of a Poltergeist.” Parapsychology Bulletin 15 (1949): 2–3.
- Taylor, Troy. The Devil Came to St. Louis: The True Story of the 1949 Exorcism. Alton, Ill.: Whitechapel Productions Press, 2006.