St. Louis Exorcism (1949)
Complex Possession 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, and all of the principal EXORCISTs involved in it have died. Some experts believe that there was no Demonic possession and that the events could be explained by poltergeist activity, Tourette’s syndrome, or even mental illness.
The DemonIAC was a 13-year-old boy, pseudonymously known as Robbie Doe. He was born in 1935 to a family in Cottage City, Maryland, a suburban community near Washington, D.C. He had a troubled childhood. His mother was Lutheran, and his father was a lapsed Catholic. In January 1949 the family began to be disturbed by scratching sounds coming from the ceilings and walls of their house. Thinking that they had mice, the Does 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. Dishes and furniture moved for no evident reason. 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 off onto the floor after them. The Does made a connection to the recent death on January 26, 1949, of Robbie’s Aunt Tillie in St. Louis, which had devastated the boy. Tillie, a Spiritualist, had interested Robbie in the paranormal, and they had used the Ouija™ board together. Robbie may have used the Ouija™ to try to communicate with his dead aunt. Convinced that an evil spirit was behind the disturbances, the Does consulted their Lutheran minister, Luther Schulze. Schulze prayed with Robbie and his parents in their home and then with Robbie alone in his home. He led prayers for Robbie in church. Schulze ordered whatever was possessing the boy to leave him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but the affliction continued.
Robbie’s torments increased. He could not sleep because of the weird noises and movements of objects day and night. 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. Some time in the night, Schulze heard Robbie’s bed creaking. He grasped the bed and felt it vibrating rapidly. Robbie himself was wide awake but was lying absolutely still.
Schulze put Robbie to sleep in an armchair, and before long, the heavy chair began to move. It scooted backward several inches and then slammed into a wall. It turned in slow motion and sent Robbie to the floor. Schulze noticed that Robbie appeared to be in a trance and made no effort to move out of the chair.
Schulze persuaded Robbie’s parents to send him to Georgetown Medical Hospital, where he underwent medical and psychological evaluation from February 28 to March 3. Robbie acted wildly and, according to some reports, the message “Go to St. Louis!” appeared scratched on his skin in blood-red letters.
Robbie’s parents took him by train to St. Louis, where they stayed with relatives. There they consulted Jesuits. Father Raymond J. Bishop came to the house to bless Robbie but quickly saw that the situation was far worse than Infestation. Bishop consulted Father William Bowdern, and the two went to Archbishop Joseph E. Ritter and requested an Exorcism. The request was granted.
Robbie’s exorcisms 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 coughed up phlegm and drooled. Painful, bloody welts and scratches mysteriously appeared on his body. He cursed, vomited, spit, urinated, and made physical attacks on the exorcists, exhibiting unusual 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 (no longer in existence) to be baptized into the Catholic faith, 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 repeated progress and relapse, Robbie’s behavior 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 exorcisms in a diary. The church never intended for the case to be made public, but it was leaked to the media by Schulze. 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. Intrigued, he compiled as much information as he could about it. Twenty years later, he used it as the basis for his best-selling novel The Exorcist, changing many details and adding fictional ones.
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 fear of possession. Critics said the film itself was evil. The movie led to two sequels, the second of which was directed by Blatty.
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. Critics have said that Robbie failed to meet criteria of possession set by the Catholic Church: prophecy and speaking in foreign languages. In addition, his feats of unusual strength were not thought to be characteristic of the supernormal strength usually exhibited by Demoniacs.
During his involvement, Schulze had contacted parapsychologists J. B. and Louisa Rhine of Durham, North Carolina. The Rhines drove to St. Louis, but the phenomena had ceased by the time they arrived. Nonetheless, Rhine thought the case was one of “recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis,” a type of poltergeist activity caused by unwitting psychokinetic outbursts from a living person. Rhine 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.
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, stated that he did not believe that Robbie was possessed, but later said he was not enough of an expert to know. Toward the end of his life, he said mental illness probably could not explain all of the phenomena put together. Halloran died in 2005 at age 83.
Robbie himself has remained quiet about his experiences. With the principal exorcists dead and no further testimony from Doe himself, the case remains controversial.
– 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.
– 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.
The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – Copyright © 2009 by Visionary Living, Inc.