Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

The famous exorcism in St. Louis

The movie “The Exorcist” has a factual basis—a case that occurred here in St. Louis. The directors took some liberties for dramatic effect. The Catholic Church, out of sensitivity for the family involved, does not release information about cases. Here’s what we know happened.

In 1949, a 13-year-old boy began displaying symptoms of possession. The boy’s name has never been released, but most accounts employ the name Robbie. Robbie’s aunt had recently died, and she had great curiosity in the occult. Allegedly, she encouraged Robbie’s interest in Ouija boards. Catholics consider belief in the veracity of Ouija boards as a form of the occult, and thus an avenue for possession. Robbie’s family was not Catholic, so they brought his case to the attention of several other ministers. Nothing worked. The first Catholic exorcism on Robbie took place in Georgetown, Washington, DC, the setting of the film. This rite was halted after Robbie injured the priest.

Eventually, the family arrived in St. Louis for aid from Saint Louis University. Robbie was admitted to a psychiatric unit of the Alexian Brothers Children’s Hospital, which no longer stands. Like in the movie, two priests performed the exorcism. William S. Bowdern, the older of the two, performed most of the rites, while Walter Hallorhan assisted him. Both were members of the Jesuits, a society of Catholic priests. The two performed several exorcisms over the course of at least two months. Unlike the movie, both priests lived well past the ordeal; Fr. Bowdern died in 1983, while Hallorhan died in 2005. Both were reluctant to discuss the case, though Hallorhan later expressed doubts that Robbie was actually possessed. Robbie went on to lead a “normal life,” according to Hallorhan.

Also see: Exorcism: undying worms and the divine

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Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878