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Heard Of 'The Exorcist'? This St. Louis Event Inspired It

The mattress began to shake.  Arms and legs flailing.  For hours he fluctuated between frenzy and calm.

The following phrases describe an exorcism that took place in March and April of 1949.  A cadre of Jesuit priests affiliated with Saint Louis University, led by Father William S. Bowdern, the pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church, undertook the exorcism of a 14-year-old boy. They took turns praying over the boy, working to cast out the demon believed to have possessed him.

This real life exorcism was the inspiration for a 1971 novel called "The Exorcist" and a 1973 horror film by the same name. But the novel and film were mostly the product of William Peter Blatty's imagination, who changed the setting of the exorcism to D.C. and made the possessed child a twelve -year-old girl.

In contrast to these works of fiction, author Thomas Allen wrote a history of the St. Louis exorcism called Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism.  Based on a meticulous 26-page diary kept by Rev. Raymond J. Bishop, the book was first published in 1993 but is now of interest to a new generation not familiar with the events.

How It Began

In January 1949, strange events at the Maryland home of the young boy took place.  Author Thomas Allen writes mysterious things began to happen when the child was present, “A coat on a hanger seemed to fly out of a closet…a Bible seemed to rise from a bookcase…one day the kitchen table tipped over.”

After some other events, an exorcism was sought for the child and a local priest agreed to perform it at Georgetown University Hospital. What happened next went terribly wrong.  After strapping the kid down and commencing the prayers of exorcism, the boy got ahold of a spring from the bed, broke it off and slashed the priest's arm from shoulder to wrist, requiring one hundred stitches.

Soon after, the boy’s family, which had strong ties to St. Louis, came to the city after finding bloody scratches on the child’s chest spelling “Louis.”

In St. Louis

In St. Louis, the exorcism, which occurred over a two month span, began in a private home.  Later, the exorcism would take place on the campus of Saint Louis University and the Alexian Brothers Hospital, in a wing that was demolished in 1978.

Thomas Allen came to St. Louis to talk about the exorcism at an event held Tuesday at Saint Louis University. While he acknowledges the strange occurrences documented by the priests, he personally remains skeptical that the child was possessed by a demon.

"I feel he was possessed by something that was inside himself," said Allen. "I don't have the faith to say devils and diabolical possession. But then you look at Father Bowdern, who day after day for weeks is saying exorcism prayers over this boy, and when Blatty writes to him and says tell me about it...Father Bowdern writes back and says I can't tell you anything about it. I'm pledged to secrecy. But I'll tell you one thing. This was the real thing."

Thomas Allen talks about the varying beliefs he and two priests involved with the exorcism had with regards to demon possession.

Jesuit priests declared the exorcism a success.  The young boy, now in his seventies was married, had children and a career.  Allen preserves the anonymity of the boy by using pseudonyms in the book.

In the end, said Allen, a lot is still unknown despite the well-documented events. In 2005, the last of the priests involved in the exorcism, Rev. Walter Halloran died.

The full St. Louis on the Air discussion with historian and author Thomas Allen about the events surrounding the St. Louis Exorcism of 1949 on which the novel and film "The Exorcist" are based.

St. Louis on the Air provides discussion about issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh.

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Alex is the executive producer of "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.