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Late one night last spring, William Bradshaw sat nervously in his study in Chesterfield waiting to make his media debut as a demonologist. A radio host in either Maine or Oregon — he can't remember which — was scheduled to call to discuss Bradshaw's new book, Sinister Among Us, a novel about hunting demons on a college campus.
It had been 47 years since Bradshaw first began his research of evil spirits that shatter human lives. Then, as now, an entire wall of his home office was lined with neatly arranged books on biblical scholarship. There, too, were two leather-bound copies of his Ph.D. thesis from Scotland's University of St. Andrews titled Demonology in the Old Testament and Hebrew Scriptures.
Bradshaw had prepared for that night's interview by sitting at his desk, making careful notes about the role of demons in the Bible and the more practical aspects of demonic possession and exorcism.
The phone rang. It was the radio host. "Dr. Bradshaw," he began, "do you believe that demonic possession causes heads to spin?"
The question caught Bradshaw off-guard. Stunned, he replied, "That's not relevant to the subject."
The radio host was equally surprised. Bradshaw, after all, was an expert on demons, and surely he must have seen the movie The Exorcist or read the book.
The interview went downhill from there.
"He wanted scary and spooky stuff, not scholarship," Bradshaw remembers now. "Most people don't understand demonology. They think demons are like ghosts and equate them with haunted houses. That's not what demonology is about." Ghosts, he continues, are the spirits of people who have died. Demons are evil spirits that have never been human.
Such is the life of America's best-known — and perhaps only — demonologist. "People look at me," Bradshaw concedes, "and say, 'What kind of kook are you?'" As a graduate student, he learned to deflect interest in his work by saying only that he studied the Old Testament.
Now 75, Bradshaw still resembles the dignified pastor and college president he was for four decades, staring out sternly at the world through steel-rimmed spectacles. He is a formal man who grew up in Lebanon, Missouri, and still speaks with an Ozark twang. Though retired, he dresses most days in a suit and tie. He eats his doughnuts with a fork.
He gets up early every morning, goes to his study and gets straight to work. He is currently working on two books, one on English grammar — he is most annoyed when people use "I" when they should use "me" — and the other a biography of an Ozark man who fought on the Union side during the Civil War. When he still played golf, he regularly shot in the 70s but preferred the driving range to the fairway.
Bradshaw is no charlatan. To him, demons are quite real. "I can't prove spirits exist," he says. "I can't prove God exists, that demons exist, that angels exist. They're invisible. You can't touch them, feel them, smell them. But sometimes something so absolutely marvelous and wonderful happens, beyond what you believe is man's ability to make things happen. Likewise, there are things so awful, so hideous, so dumb, that you just can't believe man is responsible for that activity. So you look for evidence of Satan."
Over the years, Bradshaw has met a number of people he believes were possessed. "The number of demon-possessed people compared to the number of people in the world is minuscule," he says. "But it's not uncommon. Right now, I would say I know fifteen to twenty."
All the events in the fictional Sinister Among Us are based on real life: the president of the college board of trustees who stole money from the scholarship fund. The prostitution ring operating out of a college dorm. The man whose skin broke out in blisters whenever touched by holy water. The woman whose life was a frightful misery until a clergyman determined she was possessed and exorcised the demon.
"Every incident has happened. I've been there," Bradshaw affirms. "But not in the same institution. My publisher was concerned about a lawsuit."
In the autumn of 1961 Bradshaw reported for the first time to the book-strewn office of Matthew Black, his Ph.D. thesis advisor at St Andrews.
To this day, his memory of that initial encounter is crystal clear. "Mr. Bradshaw," Bradshaw remembers Black telling him, "I want you to study demonology."
"At first I thought he was joking," Bradshaw adds. "But Dr. Black was not a humorous man."
Bradshaw was surprised — and disappointed. He had just moved his wife Betty June and their two young children to Scotland, for this? At the time, Black was one of the world's preeminent scholars of the Old Testament. Bradshaw had hoped to help him with his research on the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were first discovered in 1947. He wasn't interested in demons.
"I was not convinced it was a topic of great integrity," Bradshaw says, gazing up at the print of Winston Churchill that adorns his office wall. "It was scoffed at, especially on this side of the ocean."