This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the only documented exorcism in the United States of America.1 This is important because one of the biggest lies of the devil is to convince mankind that he does not exist. This perhaps explains the stunned reaction of audiences to the dramatized version of this exorcism in the 1973 movie The Exorcist.
The scenes in the film were so gruesome that they caused many theatre-goers to throw up while others fainted and had to be taken away by ambulance. One man leaving the theater said it best: “I believe, I believe!” This was the testimony of someone who once again believed in the devil.
While the vivid scenes of the movie showed the horror and repugnance of demonic possession, it left out the most important part of the true story of this possessed Maryland boy. He was freed from the devil’s clutches through the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima and the power of Saint Michael.
Ouija Board and Possession
The central figure in the story was a teenager known by the pseudonyms “Robbie Mannheim” or “Roland Doe.” While Robbie’s true identity and that of his relatives remains a secret the details of the extraordinary events of this 1949 exorcism were meticulously recorded in the book Possessed by Thomas Allen.
Robbie grew up in Mount Rainier, Maryland. As the only child of Karl and Phyllis Mannheim, (also pseudonyms) he would often play games with adults. One such person was his Aunt Harriet, a spiritualist, who lived St. Louis, Missouri and frequently visited the Mannheims. During a visit in January of 1949, she taught her thirteen-year old nephew how to use a Ouija board.
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Not long afterwards, the Mannheims noticed strange things happening around their son. They heard strange noises in his room such as the incessant sound of dripping water and later a scratching noise like claws scraping across wood. Around the same time, Aunt Harriet died and Robbie began using the Ouija board as a means to contact her. He would use the board for hours on end, until the game became for him a possession, both figuratively and literally.
Soon, his parents noticed alarming physical abnormalities on their son’s body such as scratch marks, welts and bruises, which appeared for no apparent reason. More disturbing still was the personality transformation. Their normally quiet, timid boy suddenly became aggressive with frequent outbursts of anger and violent temper tantrums directed at them. He began to speak in Latin, a language he had no means of knowing. That is when the parents decided they needed help.
They tried everything from a regular medical doctor, to psychologists, psychiatrists and even a psychic before finally turning to their minister, Rev. Luther Miles Schulze. While the parents already considered the possibility of diabolical possession, Pastor Schulze was skeptical. He looked upon possession “as a medieval relic, something that had been left to Catholics when the Luther-led Reformation split the Christian world.”2
“You Have to See a Catholic Priest”
Rev. Schulze decided to find out for himself what was going on by inviting Robbie to spend a night at his home. That night he watched with his own eyes as Robbie’s bed moved back and forth then jumped up and down. When he asked the boy to try to sleep in a chair, it moved across the room then fell on its side leaving Robbie sprawled on the floor. When Schulze could not stand the chair upright, he realized he was in the presence of a colossal force, and had a change of heart. He took Robbie home and told his parents, “You have to see a Catholic priest. The Catholics know about things like this.”3
The Mannheims then visited St. James Catholic Church not far from their home. Fr. E. Albert Hughes was chosen to assist the parents yet proved totally unsuited for the task. He saw Robbie’s potential for violence and ordered him to be put under restraint at a hospital.
As Father Hughes began the ritual prayers, the boy managed to free his arm from restraint, reach underneath the bed and remove one of the bedsprings. He then used it as a weapon and slashed opened the priest’s forearm from wrist to elbow. It took one hundred stitches to close the wound.
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Shortly afterwards, the Mannheims moved to St. Louis, Missouri to stay with Karl’s brother George and his wife Catherine. Terrifying things continued to happen to Robbie. Their daughter, Elizabeth, who was a student at St. Louis University, approached her professor, Fr. Raymond J. Bishop, to tell him about her cousin.
After an initial evaluation, the priest turned the case over to Fr. William S. Bowdern, S.J., pastor at Saint Francis Xavier Catholic Church, who was eventually assigned by then-St. Louis Archbishop Joseph Ritter to perform an exorcism. Fr. Bowdern, described by a fellow Jesuit as “totally fearless,” was assisted by Fr. Walter Halloran and Fr. William Van Roo.
The Fatima Story Leads to Conversion
From the very beginning of the exorcism Father Bowdern placed Our Lady of Fatima in the center of the fight. On his first visit to the home on March 11, 1949, he was speaking with the Mannheims when they heard terrible screams upstairs coming from Robbie’s room. When they entered, the boy was sitting up in his bed and was visibly frightened by what he sensed was as an evil presence in the room. Father Bowdern boldly placed his beads around the terrified boy’s neck and began to pray the rosary.
After he finished, Father Bowdern preached a “spontaneous homily,” in which he “told Robbie about three children around his age who had seen something that other people had not seen.”4 Father Bowdern then explained the Fatima apparitions and how those children received the special privilege of seeing the mother of God whose name is Mary. This helped explain the Hail Mary to the boy, who was not Catholic.
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The teenager was fascinated by the Fatima story, and Father Bowdern repeated it several times over the next thirty-eight days. This led Robbie to inquire more about the Catholic Faith and ultimately led to his conversion and later that of his parents.
On March 23, he began his study of the catechism and was baptized on April 1. The following day Robbie received his First Communion. Father Bowdern wisely suggested that because it was the first Saturday of the month, they pray the rosary in honor of Our Lady of Fatima.
On April 10, Palm Sunday, Robbie was taken to nearby Alexian Brothers Hospital and admitted to the psychiatric wing. This provided the exorcist more privacy but also means to deal with the boy. After his baptism, the devils which possessed Robbie became more violent. Upon his arrival, “Brother [Rector] Cornelius brought a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and placed it in the main ground floor corridor.”5
“I Will Not Go Until a Certain Word Is Pronounced”
Over the next weeks, Father Bowdern and his assistant priest endured unspeakable insults, blasphemies, filthy language and even violence from the devils who possessed the boy. At one point, Father Holloran had his nose broken when Robbie hit him with a precise blow with his eyes closed.
Through the whole process, Father Bowdern pondered something the devil had uttered in the beginning. “I will not go,” the guttural voice said, “until a certain word is pronounced, and I will not allow this boy to say it.”
During Holy Week, Father Bowdern had great hopes that Our Lord might free Robbie on the day of His Glorious Resurrection. On Holy Saturday, Brother Cornelius had a statue of Saint Michael brought to Robbie’s room and placed in the corner.
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However, Easter Sunday came and went, but the next morning something truly extraordinary occurred. Robbie awoke in a fury and the same foul voice taunted the priests. “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.”6
Whenever the evil spirit manifested himself in Robbie, he would always go into what appeared like a seizure. The boy’s voice on these occasions was distinguishable by its cynical, harsh and diabolical tone. Throughout the day, Father Bowdern and his assistance heard this voice. That night however something changed. An entirely different voice come forth from Robbie.
“I Am Saint Michael and I Command You”
At 10:45 p.m., Robbie became very calm and entered a trance-like state, as was usual. However, those in the room were surprised when they heard a completely different voice come from the boy. The voice did not provoke fear and disgust but rather confidence and hope. In clear and commanding tones an august personage said:
“Satan! Satan! I am Saint Michael, and I command you, Satan and the other evil spirits, to leave the body in the name of Dominus, immediately. Now, NOW, NOW!”7
Robbie then went into the most violent convulsions of the entire exorcism. Finally, he became calm again and said to those surrounding his bed: “He is gone.”
Robbie explained what he saw. Saint Michael appeared as a very beautiful man with flowing wavy hair that blew in the breeze as he stood in the midst of a brilliant white light. “In his right hand he held a wavy and fiery sword in front of him. With his left hand he pointed down to a pit.”8 The boy described how he felt heat come forth, but also he saw the devil laughingly resist Saint Michael.
What happened next clearly showed that the devil was outmatched by the abrupt appearance of his angelic nemesis on this spiritual battlefield. Saint Michael turned towards Robbie, smiled and then spoke. However, the only word that Robbie heard while in the trance was the one which his tormentor had sworn he would not allow him to say, Dominus. With that one word, Robbie was free at last.
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After these horrific events, Robbie went on to lead a normal life. He eventually married and named his first son Michael after the warrior angel who came to his rescue in time of urgent need.
Fr. William Bowdern remained the pastor of Saint Francis Xavier until 1956. While it might have seemed that his life also went on as usual, the opposite is true. Relatives say that, until his death in 1983 at the age of 86, this heroic priest suffered mentally and physically from what he endured during the exorcism.
“I Believe, I Believe!”
This stunning victory of Saint Michael over the devil in the case of Robbie Mannheim is merely the continuation of a war that started in the beginning of creation. The fact that this particular episode between this Angel of Light and his eternal enemy centered on one word, Dominus, is not surprising. It is actually linked to the Fatima message.
In one of her apparitions to the three children, Our Lady said that if mankind did not convert Russia would spread her errors throughout the world. One of the errors, actually the principle one, is egalitarianism, a philosophy which rejects any superiority. To refer to someone, actually anyone, as Dominus—Latin for Lord—is an outright affront to the egalitarian spirit. This explains the almost child-like joy shown by Saint Michael when he smiled at Robbie before categorically pronouncing that “detestable” word. He thus reaffirmed God’s superiority but also his power over the enemy of man.
In the seventy years since this exorcism, the belief in Satan—even if a Hollywoodian version—has actually increased. Very lamentably, belief in Saint Michael and the angels who are waiting to come to aid the faithful has decreased. One should therefore meditate on the extraordinary story of this warrior angel’s intercession in the life of a defenseless boy and repeat the words of the man leaving the theater in 1973: “I believe, I believe!”
- While there have been many exorcisms, this reference is to the only one that was meticulously documented by the Jesuits who performed it.
- Thomas B. Allen, Possessed: The True Story of An Exorcism, (iUniverse, 1994) p. 17.
- Ibid., p. 24.
- Ibid., p. 70.
- Ibid., p. 201.
- Chad Garrison, The True Story of the St. Louis House That Inspired The Exorcist https://m.riverfronttimes.com/stlouis/hell-of-a-house/Content?oid=2491650.
- Chad Garrison, The True Story of the St. Louis House That Inspired The Exorcist.
- Possessed, p. 290.