Of what is known, two things are clearly true: In 1949, Father William Bowdern, a Catholic priest in St. Louis, was called to assess the spiritual needs of a young boy. The events that followed formed the basis of William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST.
Like most horror film devotees, I’ve seen “The Exorcist” and was scared senseless. (This may be, at least in part, because I was about ten years old at the time.) Thirteen years ago, I was newly married and found myself living in St. Louis, and I learned the events that inspired William Peter Blatty to pen THE EXORCIST had taken place in the city I now called home. Maybe it’s all the water from the convergence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, but there’s a lot of talk of haunted places in St. Louis, of strange things happening. Whatever happened that in 1949 counts among the strange.
It began with diabolical laughter heard in the Jesuits’ quarters of St. Louis University’s Verhagen Hall. It came from the rectory of St. Francis Xavier (College) Church and belonged to a fourteen-year-old boy from Maryland brought to St. Louis by his aunt and uncle. The house where they lived was in Bel-Nor, a suburb of St. Louis. Numerous were the accounts of the boy’s body distorting, manic laughter, and even raised symbols on his flesh as if he’d been branded—symbols that would disappear when the “seizure” ended. Medical doctors couldn’t explain his condition. Though the family was Lutheran, they were sought help from the Catholic Church.
Father William Bowdern was the Jesuit who requested to exorcise the boy. He was granted permission with the caveat that he keep a detailed journal of the events. Two other Jesuits, Fathers Walter Halloran and William Van Roo assisted the exorcism, which was held in the psychiatric wing of the Alexian Brothers Hospital. Halloran’s nose was broken. Bowdern’s arm was slashed. Over several weeks, the exorcism rite was performed over thirty times.
Skeptics claim the boy was mentally disturbed. Which he undoubtedly was. But was there something more? Had something demonic gotten inside the boy from Maryland? Some accounts claimed the disturbances began after the boy played with an Ouija board and that perhaps something evil had gotten inside him. Father Bowdern certainly seemed to think so, and his notes indicated as much. The priest passed away in 1983, long before I arrived in St. Louis, though I have met a number of people who were patrons of his parish. They all said the same thing: Father Bowdern never discussed what happened in 1949. Halloran did though. He talked about the exorcism on many programs about the events. While he indicated that he believed there was something spiritual going on, he also didn’t rule out a co-morbidity of mental illness. Halloran passed away in 2005, and I remember the local news coverage.
Alexian Brothers Hospital still stands, but the wing where the exorcism took place was closed for many years before it was finally demolished in 1978. And the house in Bel-Nor where the boy lived with his aunt? It’s been up for sale several times. Everyone on the street knows about its history, but the owners don’t particularly enjoy the gawkers. The aunt who brought the boy to St. Louis was a relative of my daughter’s Girl Scout troop leader, and according to the family lore, what happened was very real. But of course they would think so; they’re the ones who sought the help of the church.
We all have our demons, personal or otherwise, and many people believe that in 1949, the devil did indeed come to St. Louis.