The True Story of the St. Louis House That Inspired The Exorcist

For sale: three-bedroom Colonial in charming neighborhood. Hardwood floors. Lots of personality. And, oh yeah: Satan slept here.

Oct 26, 2005 at 4:00 am
The True Story of the St. Louis House That Inspired The Exorcist
RFT Archives/ Oct. 26, 2005
For the residents of this tidy, tree-lined Bel-Nor neighborhood, the haunting story that surrounds the home at 8435 Roanoke Drive may be their worst-kept secret.

"Oh yeah, that's the house," confirms neighbor Cris Coy when asked if he's aware of the occult history of the two-story brick colonial next door.

"That's what they say," acknowledges Jean Kustura, a 72-year-old widow who for twenty years has kept watch over the north St. Louis County neighborhood from her bungalow on the other side of the infamous house. "But all of that happened back in the 1940s. I'm told the victim is still alive. He won't talk about it."

Other neighbors, including the couple across the street and several families living on adjacent blocks, are also quick to share the mysterious story of the house. Indeed, it seems the only people who aren't eager to recount the sordid tale are the home's current owner, Gary Stafford, and the real-estate agent trying to sell the house.

"I don't want to talk about it," bristles realtor Patrick McLaughlin before quickly hanging up the phone. "It's not going to help me sell the home."

Stafford, a real-estate investor who has never lived in the three-bedroom house, says he became aware of the "rumors" only after he purchased it out of bankruptcy this summer. The last person to occupy the residence, a man named Elvis Fantroy, left the building in June and hasn't been heard from since.

"I don't think publicizing it is a good thing," says Stafford, who's asking $169,900 for the sturdy 63-year-old domicile that has been on the market more than two months. "It's certainly not something we'd need to disclose to the future buyer — that, some 50 years ago, a boy who stayed in the house may or may not have been possessed."

"Besides," adds Stafford, attempting to further distance his investment from the events purported to have occurred there, "the exorcism didn't happen there. It happened at [Saint Louis University]."

But the fact remains that the real-life story behind author William Peter Blatty's best-selling novel The Exorcist had its origins in St. Louis.

Legend tells of an ill thirteen-year-old boy who, in the late winter of 1949, traveled to St. Louis from suburban Washington, D.C. Convinced the child was possessed by the Devil, Jesuit priests from Saint Louis University performed a grueling month-long exorcism on the boy, at last freeing the teen from Satan's grasp in the psych ward at Alexian Brothers Hospital.

Whether the child was actually possessed is still a matter of debate, but the fact that priests did perform the archaic ritual of the exorcism is not.

Blatty used a diary kept by one of the exorcists as the basis of his 1971 book, which rode atop best-seller lists for 54 weeks. When Blatty's seminal shocker hit theaters two years later, filmgoers across the nation threw up in the aisles and ran screaming from movie houses. There were also reports of people conducting their own gothic exorcisms, killing several "possessed" victims in the process.

Reacting to the hysteria, several priests with intimate knowledge of the St. Louis exorcism came forward to angrily deny some of the more outrageous claims made in the movie, such as the possessed child masturbating with a bloody crucifix and spewing pea-soup-like vomit.

But the priests did not deny that the exorcism took place in St. Louis. Follow-up news articles, some based on excerpts from the diary Blatty used to pen his book, placed the exorcism at the rectory of St. Francis Xavier College Church on the Saint Louis University campus and in the Alexian Brothers Hospital.

But missing from almost all accounts is mention of the St. Louis residence where the boy stayed prior to being moved to the rectory and, finally, the hospital.

But that house was almost certainly the property Stafford recently purchased at 8435 Roanoke Drive. With both the church rectory and the Alexian Brothers Hospital having been razed decades ago, the home remains the last surviving landmark associated with the ghastly story.

It is within that nondescript brick home that some of the most spellbinding tales of the exorcism occurred.

The True Story of the St. Louis House That Inspired The Exorcist
RFT Archives/ Oct. 26, 2005
Priests report arriving at the house on March 9, 1949, to witness the boy's bed shaking uncontrollably. At the mention of the scriptures, the boy screamed out in pain. Scrapes and welts — some forming letters and words — rose up inexplicably on his skin. A bottle of holy water flew through the air.

For two weeks the priests waged night-long battles with the demon inside the lone lit bedroom on Roanoke Drive.

That these scenes in the home are not addressed in the retelling of the exorcism is not surprising, given the extraordinary care the Jesuits took to conceal the identity of the possessed boy.

In fact, few of the St. Louis priests involved in the exorcism ever spoke of it. Father William Bowdern, who carried out the majority of the exorcism rituals, died in 1983 at the age of 85, never having disclosed what he knew of the case.

Father Raymond Bishop, who kept the diary of the exorcism, and Father William Van Roo, an attending priest, also remained tight-lipped, believing media attention violated the confidentiality of the possessed boy.

This past March, Father Walter Halloran, the last surviving Jesuit to take part in the exorcisms, died at 83.

Halloran was a 27-year-old history student at SLU when Bowdern recruited him for the exorcism. A handsome, athletic man who excelled in both football and track, Halloran provided much of the needed brawn, holding the flailing child while the priests read to him the rites of exorcism. During one episode the boy broke free of Halloran's grasp and punched him in the face, breaking his nose.

Unlike nearly all the other Jesuits with privileged information of the exorcism, Halloran shared what he knew of the case but always stopped short of saying anything that might identify the child. His most detailed recollections were told more than a decade ago to Washington, D.C.-based author Thomas B. Allen, who in 1993 published the book Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism.

The book relied heavily on Halloran's account of the exorcism and, most important, an unedited copy of the exorcism diary he provided. The result is an enthralling day-by-day chronicle of the possession, beginning on January 15, 1949, when the boy's family first heard odd noises in their suburban D.C. abode, and ending April 19, when Bowdern is said to have finally cast Satan from the boy.

In one account, Allen describes the night the exorcism began in the Bel-Nor home's second-floor bedroom.

"Something now rippled on Robbie's right leg," writes Allen, using a pseudonym to identify the boy. "As Bowdern again commanded the demon to identify himself, red welts formed an image on the leg. It was, the witnesses later said, an image of the Devil."

The true identity of the boy and his family has never before been publicized. A dozen years following the release of his book, Allen still declines to disclose the name made available to him in Halloran's unedited diary.

"Soon after the book came out, a television show offered me $15,000 if I'd identify the kid," says Allen when contacted by phone at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. "I passed on it. During the research for my book I sent the kid — then in his mid- to late 50s — two letters to the address where I believed he lived. I never heard back from him, and I have to respect his privacy."

In the book, Allen identifies the St. Louis home as belonging to the boy's paternal uncle and depicts it simply as "a two-story brick house set back behind a front-yard lawn on a quiet street in a suburb a few miles northwest of St. Louis."

How, then, can we be sure the house on Roanoke was indeed the site of the exorcism? The answer comes circuitously, by way of Allen's report. While the author provides scant detail of the house, he does provide the address of the residence in Mt. Rainier, Maryland (just north of Washington, D.C.), where the boy is said to have lived at the time of the possession. That home, listed as 3210 Bunker Hill Road, received far greater notoriety than its counterpart in St. Louis.

Allen writes that the family moved away a short time after the exorcism. The property sat vacant for years. The home was known by locals as the "Devil's House"; teenagers dared each other to enter. Vagrants squatted in it, often setting parts of the house ablaze with their cooking fires.

By the early 1960s, the ramshackle structure — believed by many to be cursed — became such a nuisance that the local fire department used it as a training exercise, systematically burning the house room by room. Today all that's left is an empty lot, but that doesn't stop thrill-seekers from congregating on the very spot where they believe the Devil possessed a little boy.

Sadly for the thrill-seekers, the property is most likely not the true site of the possession. Prompted in part by Allen's book, Washington, D.C., writer Mark Opsasnick began researching the owners of the property on Bunker Hill Road. He discovered that the couple who lived there in 1949 did not have children. Working with clues gathered from Allen's book as well as dozens of news articles telling the "real-life" story behind The Exorcist, Opsasnick determined the boy grew up in nearby Cottage City, Maryland.

In 1998 Opsasnick published his findings in Strange Magazine, a publication dedicated to the unearthly and paranormal. In what is undoubtedly the most comprehensive investigation into the boy's identity, Opsasnick chronicles how his research led him to a home at 3807 40th Avenue in Cottage City. Dozens of interviews with people who knew the family living there at the time confirmed the author's hunch that the Cottage City address was in fact home to a family whose child became "sick" in the winter of 1949 and went to St. Louis for treatment.

Although Opsasnick never identifies the child or the family by name (he uses the pseudonym "John Doe" throughout the article), he leaves valuable clues for anyone wanting to out the family, including which census books, municipal directories and libraries he used to verify the family's name and address.

When reached by phone earlier this month, the periodicals clerk at the Hyattsville Library in suburban Washington, D.C., reported that the 1949 directory Opsasnick cited in his article had been stolen but proudly noted the library did have the same directory for 1954.

In his article Opsasnick writes that Maryland land records show the family lived at the same Cottage City address from the years 1939 to 1958, meaning the 1954 address should have the same name for the family living at the address in 1949. That name: Hunkeler. Mr. Edwin E. Hunkeler and his wife, Odell.

The same last name is listed for the home on Roanoke Drive, according to the St. Louis County municipal directory for 1949. Leonard C. Hunkeler — the paternal uncle of the possessed boy — and his wife, Doris, occupied the home from 1942 (the year the house was built) until sometime in the early 1950s.

As to the identity of the possessed boy: His last name was most certainly that of his father, Hunkeler. No verifiable media report has ever given his full name (or, for that matter, the last name of Hunkeler), but at least two Web sites, one claiming to have obtained the unedited exorcism diary and another that ostensibly retraced the clues given in Opsasnick's article, give the name as Ronald Hunkeler.

The True Story of the St. Louis House That Inspired The Exorcist
RFT Archives/ Oct. 26, 2005

But just what occurred in the Hunkeler residence in the early morning hours of 1949? For that we turn to the diary of the exorcism, a copy of which Thomas Allen furnished the Riverfront Times.

Written in stark and stilted prose, the 26-page document begins at the home in Cottage City. It is there that the family reported hearing strange noises in the walls and beneath the floorboards. The scratching sounds continued for several days before becoming silent to everyone but the thirteen-year-old boy, who also complained of hearing "squeaking shoes" circling his bed at night.

In his book Possessed, Allen writes that the boy's favorite aunt, a spiritualist from St. Louis, introduced the child to the Ouija board during one of her earlier visits and suggests the boy may have channeled the possession through the board game. The diary, however, makes no mention of the Ouija board but does refer to the aunt. It was her ghost that the family first believed to be behind the noises.

But soon the spirit transformed from poltergeist to sinister specter. The boy's bed shook wildly throughout the night. Bibles and holy relics flew through the air. Claw-like scratches raked the child as he slept. When the word "Louis" rose up on his ribs, the family decided a trip to visit relatives in St. Louis might rid them of the haunting.

On Wednesday, March 9, 1949, Father Bishop visited the family at their relative's home on Roanoke Drive. Bishop, a professor at Saint Louis University and the author of the exorcism diary, blessed the entire dwelling before entering the bedroom, where he found the boy lying perfectly still on a bed that was rattling violently.

Writing in third-person and referring to the possessed boy by his first initial of R, the author reports: "Bishop sprinkled St. Ignatius Holy Water on the bed in the form of a cross. The movement ceased quite abruptly. During the course of fifteen minutes of activity a sharp pain seemed to have struck R on his stomach and he cried out. The mother quickly pulled back the bed covers and lifted the boy's pajama top enough to show zig-zag scratches in bold red lines."

Friday, March 11: Bishop returned with Father Bowdern, the pastor of St. Francis Xavier College Church. "The boy was dozing when the bottle of St. Ignatius Holy Water was thrown from a table two feet from R's bed into a nearby corner, a distance of approximately six feet." Five minutes later: "A bookcase was moved from alongside the bed and turned completely around facing the entrance of the room."

Wednesday, March 16: The priests obtained approval from St. Louis archbishop Joseph E. Ritter to administer the rites of exorcism as spelled out in the centuries-old Catholic prayer book, the Roman Ritual.

That night, the diary reports, "Father Bowdern in surplice and stole began the prayers of exorcism. On the first 'Praecipio' there was immediate action. Three large parallel bars were scratched on the boy's stomach. From then on at the names of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother and St. Michael scratches appeared on the boy's legs, thighs, stomach, back, chest, face and throat. The most distinct marking on the body were the pictures of the Devil on R's right leg and the word 'HELL' imprinted on R's chest."

The nightly interventions at 8435 Roanoke Drive would continue for the next week, the child's reaction to the exorcism growing more extreme by the day.

From the Friday, March 18, entry: "The prayers of the exorcism were continued and R was seized violently so that he began to struggle with his pillow and the bed clothing. The arms, legs, and head of R had to be held by three men. The contortions revealed physical strength beyond the natural power. R spit at the faces of those who held him and at those who prayed over him. He spit at the relics and at the priests' hands. He writhed under the sprinkling of Holy Water. He fought and screamed in a diabolical, high-pitched voice."

The night of Sunday, March 20, Bishop reports, the boy reacted with more violence than on any previous occasion: "The high point of the evening were urinations which really burned R, breaking wind through rectum three different times, and cursing the exorcists. Some of the vulgarity follows: 'Go to hell, you dirty sons of bitches. You dirty assholes.'"

Monday, March 21, the family, having had little sleep since the exorcism began, agreed to move the boy to Alexian Brothers Hospital for the night. For the next several weeks, the boy would move from the hospital to the College Church rectory and back to the home on Roanoke Drive, even returning to Cottage City for a few days when the priests erroneously thought the boy was cured.

The climax came the day after Easter — Monday, April 18 — when the boy awoke in a furor inside the psych ward of the Alexian Brothers Hospital. His seizures and spells continued through the morning, with the priests placing medals, rosaries and relics around his neck. In his hand they placed a crucifix.

The boy mocked the priests, saying, "He has to say one more word, one little word, I mean one BIG word. He'll never say it. I am always in him. I may not have much power always, but I am in him. He will never say that word."

Still, the priests endured, holding council over the boy in one final push to exorcise the demon. At 10:45 p.m. the boy lay still. In clear, commanding tones he shouted out: "Satan! Satan! I am St. Michael, and I command you Satan, and the other evil spirits to leave the body in the name of Dominus, immediately. Now! NOW! N-O-W!"

Seven minutes later the boy awoke to announce, "He's gone."

During his final spell, the diary reports, the boy saw a vision of the Devil and "ten of his helpers" engaged in a fiery battle with St. Michael the Archangel. At one point during the dream, the angel smiled at the boy and said "Dominus" (Latin for Lord), the word the boy vowed he'd never say that morning.

The True Story of the St. Louis House That Inspired The Exorcist
RFT Archives/ Oct. 26, 2005

The exorcised boy, presumably Ronald Hunkeler, is reported to be living somewhere on the East Coast. He is now 70 years old. Rumor has it he named his first son Michael, after the archangel who rescued him from Satan's clutches. He supposedly has never spoken about the exorcism.

A brief addendum to the diary reports that the boy and his family returned to visit the Alexian Brothers in August 1951. The entry describes the boy, then sixteen, as a "fine young man" and tells that his father and mother converted to Catholicism shortly after the exorcism.

Little else has been officially reported on the event by SLU or the Alexian Brothers. Neither institution claims to keep extensive records of what is arguably the most famous, if not sensational, event in their history.

"Oh yeah, we get this question every year around Halloween," says SLU archivist John Wade, barely suppressing a yawn. "We have a file on the exorcism, but it's mostly just newspaper clippings."

In suburban Chicago, at the national offices of the Alexian Brothers, archivist Donna Dahl keeps a tight rein on any information regarding the case.

"This person was a patient and covered under the clause of confidentiality," says Dahl. "We don't release any information on our patients, no matter how bizarre the circumstances under which they were admitted."

Within the chancellery, Fathers William Faherty, 90, and Frank Cleary, 76, are two of the handful of people still living with any institutional memory of the exorcism, and both men knew several of the SLU priests involved.

"I was an undergraduate at SLU in 1949 when this was going on," recalls Cleary, who retired from teaching theology at the university a few years ago. "There were plenty of rumors about it at the time."

Cleary says it was only after the release of the film The Exorcist — 24 years after the St. Louis exorcism — that anyone made a big deal out of the case. "I tell students that it was probably not a bona fide case of possession," says Cleary.

As for the welts and scrapes that rose up on the boy during the rites of the exorcism?

"I'm told," says Cleary, "that is something people can do psychologically. It's like blushing."

Father Faherty, professor emeritus of history at SLU, isn't so sure. He knows his friend Father Halloran continued to believe in the possession up to his death earlier this year.

"You see from the gospel evidence of evil's influence on the individual, and the gospel took those to be possessions," reflects Faherty. "I'll leave it up to the experts."

Regardless of the veracity of the possession, the exorcism clearly put an emotional and physical strain on all involved, especially Father William Bowdern, who fasted throughout the duration of the lengthy ordeal.

"He must have lost thirty to forty pounds," recalls 80-year-old Betty LaBarge, a relative of Bowdern who had the priest over for dinner late into the exorcism. "He looked terrible, just fatigued. When we asked him what was wrong, he simply turned the conversation. It wasn't until years later we learned he played the leading role in the exorcism. Still he never did talk about it. The word came from others involved."

The only person still living in St. Louis with first-hand knowledge of the exorcism may be 86-year-old Brother John Grider. He was one of dozens of Alexian Brothers working in the hospital in 1949.

"I've never talked to the media about it, and I prefer to keep it that way," says the frail voice over the phone. "It's not something that should be publicized."

But try telling that to the residents on Roanoke Drive, where rumors persist that the "Exorcist house" remains a portal to the netherworld.

Next-door neighbor Jean Kustura tells how the young couple living in the house years earlier complained of the northwest bedroom — where the exorcism is said to have occurred — being eerily cold and drafty.

Greg LaFontain, a Bel-Nor neighbor on nearby Bellerive Drive, recalls the time he and his wife, Elizabeth, toured the house years ago when it was up for sale. Upon ascending the stairs an illness swept over Elizabeth, who ran from the house. When her husband joined her on the front lawn, Elizabeth was adamant that they not purchase the home.

Mark Willingham has heard all the tales and laughs them off.

From 1991 to 1999 he and his wife, Diane, lived at the home before moving to the Central West End and later to a house in mid-county. A no-nonsense insurance adjuster, Willingham says he learned of the home's occult past only after he purchased it.

"Sure, it came as quite a shock," he recalls. But Willingham maintains that nothing out of the ordinary ever occurred in the house while he lived there, and he assures future homeowners that they, too, have nothing to fear.

"We loved that house," he adds wistfully. "Way I see it, the place was blessed so many times during the exorcism, it's probably the safest home in all St. Louis."