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The St. Louis exorcism of 1949: the real-life inspiration for 'The Exorcist'

The St. Louis exorcism of 1949: the real-life inspiration for 'The Exorcist'

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Editors note: This story was originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 17, 1988. The incident that inspired the movie for the book and movie "The Exorcist" was reported to have ended in St. Louis on April 18, 1949.

 

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EXORCIZO, te, immundissime spiritus, omnis incursio adversarii, omne phantasma, omnis legio. (I cast thee out, thou unclean spirit, along with the least encroachment of the wicked enemy, and every phantom and diabolical legion.)

— From the Roman Ritual of the Catholic Church, its Rite of Exorcism

April 17, 1988 — One night in 1949, when Verhagen Hall at St. Louis University was a residence for Jesuits, a priest just back from a year of study at Harvard University heard a diabolical laugh that froze his blood.

That evening, the young Jesuit had been saying his office - a priest's daily prayers - as he sat in his small room directly across from the old rectory at the back of St. Francis Xavier (College) Church. He was not 20 feet away from a rear window in the rectory, he recalled.

The old priests' house - which has since been razed and replaced with a newer building - was nestled between the creaky, wood-and-brick splendor of DuBourg Hall and its nearby 19th-century cousin, Verhagen, now home to the university's theological studies department.

"I heard this wild, idiotic, diabolical laughter, '' said the Rev. Lucius F. Cervantes, whose late brother, Alfonso Juan, was mayor of St. Louis. ''I hadn't heard a thing about the exorcism at the time. So I tried to find out what it was about. I looked toward the window from where the light was coming, but saw nothing.''

What he had heard was a 14-year-old boy from Mount Rainier, Md., a Washington suburb, who many believe was possessed or obsessed by demons.

In these nocturnal episodes (the boy's bizarre behavior occurred mostly at night), he would supposedly become incredibly strong, his body distorting and transforming, heels touching the back of his head, the body forming a loop - all reported by priests who were witnesses.

Curiously, during these convulsions, the doctors attending him could find no change in his pulse rate or blood pressure. The bed would shake violently. Obscene words and images appeared on his skin, in raised red welts, like bas reliefs.

''These brandings on the boy's skin - it happened as many as 30 times each day - were unquestionably paranormal, '' says William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel ''The Exorcist, '' inspired by the incident. ''Some of the markings were on the back, and some were pictures, often lasting from three to four hours. All over the (official) diary were accounts of these brandings.''

Blatty claims to have a copy of the official report of the exorcism that was conducted here, the secret log or diarycompiled by the late Rev. William S. Bowdern, who conducted the exorcism. Blatty supposedly received it after he wrote the book.

(A sequel novel by Blatty called ''Legion'' will be made into a movie for release next summer, in time for the 40th anniversary of the event, which occurred mostly in St. Louis. After ''The Exorcist, '' Blatty sold the film sequel rights to Warner Bros. and a movie by a different writer, called ''The Heretic, '' with Richard Burton, was released. ''I wish they'd called it 'Son of Exorcist, ' so everybody would think they meant to be funny, '' Blatty said.)

Blatty and a Jesuit priest named John Walsh, a friend of Bowdern's, talked about the Roman numeral X that appeared on the boy's chest. It was believed that 10 demons were involved, Walsh said.

A voice coming from the boy supposedly told an attending Jesuit, who was assisting Bowdern, that he would die in 10 years and would burn in hell. The Jesuit had a fondness for strong drink, and the voice so unnerved him that he stopped drinking, for a time.

Blatty recalled one of the strangest incidents in the official diary.

''One night, sitting on the bed beside the boy, Bowdern watched a tiny, nearly invisible pitchfork, or lines, move from under the boy's upper thigh all the way to the ankle, '' Blatty said. ''Droplets of blood occurred. Bowdern was only a foot away, and there were the usual four or five witnesses.''

The boy supposedly spat a foul substance at the priests who attended him, all the way across the room and with incredible accuracy. According to this account, the pea-soup vomit shown in the movie version of ''The Exorcist'' was not too far-fetched.

Often, according to the priests, he had to be forcibly restrained. In one of these incidents, he broke the nose of a Jesuit seminarian named Walter Halloran, who was at St. Louis U. working on his master's degree in history. For three weeks, Halloran assisted Bowdern.

Halloran now works in the alumni office at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. Recently, he recalled his involvement in this strange case. Halloran used to drive the boy from the St. Louis home of his aunt and uncle, who were instrumental in bringing the boy here, to the College Church rectory and the old 19th-century wings of Alexian Brothers Hospital on South Broadway, where most of the exorcism was conducted. Those wings of the hospital were torn down in 1976.

''I was a real goodfriend of Billy Bowdern's, '' he said. ''I got in on the business with the prayers of exorcism, and the little boy would go into a seizure and get quite violent. So Father Bowdern asked me to hold him.'' (Halloran is a former high school football player.) ''Yes, he did break my nose.''

Halloran said he observed the streaks and arrows and words like ''hell'' that would rise on the child's skin. ''That happened a number of times. And it wasn't a case of taking a pin and scratching himself. It just appeared, and with quite a bit of pain.

''On Holy Thursday that year, this phenomenon started occurring as I was reading the prayers. 'Don't talk about it anymore, this hurts too much, ' the kid said. The markings were most visible, and there were many obscenities. He was a nice little kid.''

''It all tallied after I read the script by Father Bowdern, '' John Walsh said of the Bowdern diary. He is certain, these many years later, that the wails and laughter that Cervantes heard were those of the boy, possessed or obsessed with the devil, or with something. Walsh, also a Jesuit, was away for most of 1949, studying drama at Yale University.

In 1949, Bowdern was the pastor of College Church. Because he was there, Bowdern would, reluctantly, become the man to lead a team of Jesuits in the famous St. Louis exorcism.

Bowdern died five years ago this month, never publicly acknowledging that he was the exorcist.

But he was.

Over the years, Bowdern and others who know have kept the identity of the victim secret. Those who are living are very upset that the story leaked to a Washington newspaper in 1949. That was the beginning of the whisper campaign that has surrounded the event.

''It should have been kept a secret, '' said the Rev. William Van Roo, one of two Jesuits known to be alive who officially assisted in the exorcism. ''The whole chronicle was leaked to the Washington Post. The young man has had to suffer so much; it caused severe pain and resentment, because the confidentiality was violated.''

Bowdern would never talk about it, not even to family members, said his nephew, Ned Bowdern of St. Louis. ''He was a Barry Fitzgerald type, '' said his nephew. ''A wonderful sermonizer, a dear man.''

''I can't imagine a more totally fearless man than Billy Bowdern, '' Walsh said. ''He came to me apparently on the day that (Archbishop Joseph) Ritter told him that he would be the exorcist and said, 'John, John, John, I don't know a thing about exorcism.' And then he went off to the library looking for books. He always repeated things 20,000 times.

Exorcism guide

A book from the St. Louis university library covering exorcisms. 1988 photo by Jerry Naunheim

''It sure messed up a lot of people's lives for a year. (Bowdern) was such a tough baby. It would have destroyed most people.''

Throughout the ordeal, Bowdern fasted on bread and water. ''He looked terrible, '' said his brother, Dr. Edward H. Bowdern of St. Louis. He looked thin and wasted, and developed styes and boils, Dr. Bowdern said.

Under the church's Rite of Exorcism, a priest who performs an exorcism does so only after the approval of a local bishop or archbishop. In the St. Louis case, Bowdern was so designated by the late Cardinal Ritter.

The archbishop is required to select someone of proven virtue, according to Roman Ritual. The exact wording is that the priest ''must be properly distinguished for his piety, prudence and integrity of life. Especially, he should not believe too readily that a person is possessed by an evil spirit.'' All medical means of treatment must be exhausted before any exorcism is approved.

''When the archbishop named him, Billy said, 'Nothing doing, ' '' Halloran said. ''And Ritter said, 'You got it.' ''

It all supposedly began at the boy's home in suburban Washington in January 1949. In what exorcists call the infestation phase, the child's grandmother, who lived in a room above her grandson's bedroom, heard sounds like marching feet.

Then there were scratching noises, falling pictures and flying fruit, according to Walsh and Blatty. Later, as his condition worsened, the child's voice and behavior pattern changed, Walsh said.

‘’He had been a nice, well-behaved boy. They called in the family's minister; they were Lutheran. They just thought it was something weird; there's no mention of possession, '' Walsh said.

The minister thought a change of scenery would help the boy, and he took him to the parsonage. But his condition got worse. It was the Lutheran minister who suggested that the family consult a Catholic priest.

Blatty offers this version of why the boy came to St. Louis:

‘’Billy Friedkin (the movie's director) tracked down an aunt of the boy's. And she said that in phase one, the obsession phase - there's obsession, poltergeist and possession - the boy was washing or shaving in the bathroom and red welts appeared on his back.

''One formed a word, 'Go.' And then someone asked where, and the words 'St. Louis' appeared. I first heard about the case in theology class at Georgetown from Father Eugene Gallagher.''

(Blatty was a student at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, from 1946 to 1950. His roommate was Charles ''Stormy'' Bidwill, who, with his brother Bill, once owned the football Cardinals.)

Despite his silence about exorcism, Bowdern, to the astonishment of his Jesuit colleague, showed Walsh the 25-page, typewritten exorcist's diary that he kept through the three months of the ritual. The two men were on retreat at Liberty, Mo., in the late 1960s, almost 20 years after the event, when Bowdern handed Walsh the report.

We met up with Walsh recently at Jesuit Hall, a building across Lindell Boulevard from where the old rectory used to be, the place where some of this occurred. Walsh showed the way through the security door, a white-haired imp of a man in a dazzling green, Irish-knit sweater.

A cold rain pelted the awning of Jesuit Hall. ''A good day for the devil, '' Walsh said with a sly grin. Walsh became an important link to this strange event because he is one of the few people still alive who read Bowdern's secret report. And he did not take an oath that would keep him from divulging any of the document's contents.

Included, he said, are all the grotesque, unbelievable and fantastic things that purportedly happened to the boy during the 12 weeks of the exorcism.

And at the end of each day, Bowdern met with the witnesses and participants in the room; at times there were as many as six or seven Jesuits, not to mention members of the boy's family and members of the Alexian Brothers order. Together, they would ''go over what he had written and verify that this was exactly what happened, '' according to Blatty.

''I can assure you of one thing: The case I was involved with was the real thing, '' Bowdern once wrote to Blatty. ''I had no doubts about it then, and I have no doubts about it now.'' But he would tell nothing beyond that.

By some accounts, the exorcism that took place here in 1949 was considered by church officials to be the most significant reported and documented case in 300 years.

However, Jesuits being Jesuits, there are many skeptics among members of the Society of Jesus about just what it was that tormented the boy. There are those who doubt that it was a case of demonic possession. A prominent Jesuit psychologist at Georgetown, Juan B. Cortes, suggested that calling the devil produces ''a manifestation of the victim's ideas of him. The boy began acting as a possessed person is supposed to act.''

There are reports that a Washington University physicist was called in to see the things that were happening.

''The name I had was Professor Bubb (the university has no record of such a person), who reportedly said he witnessed a hospital bedside table levitate slowly to the ceiling, '' Blatty said. '' 'Well, ' he supposedly said, 'there's much about electromagnetism that we don't know.' ''

''This guy was a complete skeptic, '' Walsh said. ''After this, he just beat it out the door and tried to pretend the thing never happened.''

Van Roo, who was there, is guarded about whether he believes this was a case of demonic possession.

''I'd rather not commit myself on that, '' he said, speaking by telephone from his apartment at Marquette University. Not long ago, he was on the faculty of Gregorian University in Rome.

Walter Halloran expressed similar sentiments when interviewed by Jennifer Baker of Ladue, a student at Georgetown University who wrote an article for the school paper, the Voice.

''I wouldn't be able to say whether it was valid or not, '' . I've withheld judgment. I'm not saying Father Bowdern's wrong. I was just more comfortable not coming to a decision.

''A lot of incidents are (individually) explainable'' by reasons of psychosomatic illness. ''But I don't know if the reasons can explain everything when taken together.''

Van Roo is a renowned Jesuit theologian who spent 38 years in Rome teaching and writing. He was caught up in the exorcism because he was assigned to St. Francis Xavier Church in 1949 as part of his tertianship, the third period of a Jesuit's novitiate, which is undertaken after ordination. In those days, a tertianship came in the 15th year of study to be a full-fledged Jesuit.

''Billy Bowdern grabbed Bill Van Roo by the arm and said, 'I've got just the project for you, ' '' John Walsh said.

''Bowdern definitely believed it was a demonic possession. I'm not so sure about Van Roo.''

‘’I went into that thing without any previous knowledge, '' Van Roo said. ''And this thing was draining my nights. After it was over, I never made that one of my interests. What I don't know (about exorcism) is almost everything.

''I was sort of a monitor, '' he said. ''I would sit at his bedside. I watched his eyes.

''I didn't get involved in this immediately, but they soon needed help with the boy. It was all unpredictable; I can't recall a pattern.

''I didn't read Blatty's book; I didn't want to. I personally felt that the movie was utterly disgusting, utterly false and quite dangerous because of the affect it might have on emotionally disturbed persons. The movie has been melodramatized, especially the ending, which was utterly absurd.''

Bowdern's brother, Edward, has said that his late brother did not like Blatty's book.

Like other Jesuits, Walsh is aware of the fact that much mythology has grown around the St. Louis exorcism.

''You never know, it's so easy to fabricate things, to make them mythical, '' he said. ''That's why I'll never know why he broke down and let me read it.''

And indeed, in a letter that Blatty said Bowdern sent to him, the priest made the following remark: ''Some of the Jesuits living with me at St. Louis University at the time were conversant with some of the events of the case and, as often happens, as the sto ry was passed on, it became more fanciful and inaccurate.''

After his book but before the movie, Blatty said he came in possession of the secret exorcism diary when one of the documents was sent to him by an Alexian Brother, who found it in a drawer in the room of a religious colleague who had died. There have been rumors of a Jesuit who participated in the exorcism having lost a copy of the report.

''I, in fact, did not base my book on either of the publicized North American cases, '' said Blatty, referring to both the St. Louis event and a 1929 exorcism involving a woman, which reportedly occured in Earling, Iowa. Blatty could find no living witnesses to the latter exorcism, so he abandoned his research of that case.

''The '49 case inspired me, '' Blatty said from his home in Connecticut. ''It was notoriously publicized in the Washington area. I believe this one was the real thing.

''The three-month exorcism that took place in St. Louis gave me the conviction to go on, '' he continued. ''Had I not heard from (Bowdern), I don't think I would have written the book. I was a comedic writer then - 'A Shot in the Dark, ' that sort of thing.''

In deference to Bowdern's concerns, he changed the possessed character in ''The Exorcist'' from a boy named Jamie to a 12-year-old girl.

From his wallet, Walsh pulled out a small newspaper clipping. It contained three quotations about the devil from diverse sources - Mark Twain, an English priest and a Bible translator named Ronald Knox, who died in 1957. He passed the clipping over.

''It is so stupid of modern civilization to have given up believing in the devil, when he is the only explanation of it, '' Knox wrote.

And Twain, in usual droll fashion, had this to say about the case of Lucifer: ''Satan hasn't a single salaried helper; the Opposition employs millions.'' Walsh grinned.

According to Walsh, the boy who was the object of the exorcism is now married and living in Omaha, and has been fine since the exorcism. He named his first child Michael, for the archangel, the scourge of demons. He works for an airline.

Is he a pilot? Walsh was asked. ''No, my word! I wouldn't want to fly with him.'' And he chuckled.

However, Halloran said he was under the impression that the boy became a doctor. There are other reports that the man changed his name and is still living in the Washington area. Walsh said the man reportedly recalled little or nothing of his ordeal.

According to these reports, the man is 54 and has converted to Catholicism, as did his entire family, save the grandmother who first reported her grandson's odd behavior. She remained a Lutheran until her death.

Cervantes and Cleary

From 1988: Jesuit priests from Saint Louis University Lucius Cervantes and Francis Cleary in front of a room that popularly - and incorrectly - is considered the site of the 1949 exorcism. Photo by Jerry Naunheim, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

 

We were referred to Walsh by a St. Louis U. theologian named Francis X. Cleary, who was a student at the school when all of this was occurring.

Cleary, also a Jesuit, claims expertise in only one area of the exorcism business, the tall tales and mythology that have arisen among the students and faculty, particularly after Blatty's book and the movie that followed.

His office in Verhagen Hall is not far from a spooky stairwell and little room at the top, which generations of students have believed is the room. Although it isn't, seance tables and horror-story messages have been found in the pigeon-littered room. Repeated attempts to board it up and make it impossible to gain entry have failed.

''The kids gather outside on Halloween and look up at the window, '' he said.

''I suppose every school has its ghost stories, '' Cleary said. ''Ours just happened to become a best-selling book and movie.''

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