By M.P. Pellicer (Eerie.News)
Many people keep secrets, especially from childhood, but Ronald Edwin Hunkeler's was unique. He was the boy that inspired the novel The Exorcist, written by William Peter Blatty, and released as a film in 1973.
In order to protect his identity the teenage boy was referred to as "Robbie Mannheim" or "Roland Doe" by the Jesuit priests who exorcised him. A handful of lay people knew the real name of the boy who endured a series of exorcisms in 1949.
In 1973, The Exorcist movie filled up Catholic churches and confessionals with parishioners who had not set foot inside one for years. All of it driven by the fear their soul would be stolen by satan.
However by the time the film was released Ronald Edwin Hunkeler, worked as an engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He patented technology to help protect the space shuttle from extreme heat.
In 2001, he retired after 40 years at the agency, guarding the secret of his experiences as a teenager. He died on May 10, 2020, just 3 weeks shy of his 86th birthday.
The following is an excerpt from the 1949 article that inspired William Peter Blatty to write The Exorcist He was 20 years old, and an English major at Georgetown University.
Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil's Grip (By Bill Brinkley, Washington Post)
Hunkeler was born June 1, 1935 to a Lutheran mother and a non-practicing Catholic father. His father was 35 years old, and his mother 32. Their names were Edwin Hunkeler (1900-1976) and Odell Coppage (1903-1956). He lived with his parents, and a paternal, German-speaker grandmother at a house located at 41 Central Ave., Cottage City, Maryland. (The address was changed to 3807 40th Ave in the early 1940s). The Hunkelers lived there from 1949 to 1958.
On January 26, 1949, Mathilda Hendricks née Hunkeler, 54, referred to as "Aunt Tillie", died of multiple sclerosis. She was deeply immersed in spiritualism and used a Ouija Board with her nephew. Mrs. Hunkeler thought her sister-in-law's spirit was behind the manifestations.
Mark Opsasnick, who wrote The Real Story Behind the Exorcist (1999) interviewed one of Ronald Hunkeler's neighborhood friends, who discussed the matter only if he his name was withheld. He was referred to as "JC". He stated:
No, I don’t think he was ever possessed. I think it was psychological. As far as any real possession or anything like that, I don’t think so. There are some interesting psychological aspects to it. They were German Lutherans and he was an only child and I think the grandmother is actually the central figure. She played a very influential role in all of this. You had this old world religion superstition and the mother got caught up in it and the father just kind of stayed in the background—I think he could see what was going on which is why he is never mentioned. The true story is much more intriguing from a psychological point of view. The basis of the real thing could be a damn good story, no doubt about it in my mind. The rest of it I can run a parallel. You had these two mischief makers that had a strong tendency to take advantage of people who were weaker than themselves. They were a pair of connivers and they had their act down. In pairs like that they compete with each other and they don’t get along well and they have to keep doing something to retain their relationship and all the time this is mischief in one form or another. They were trying to outdo each other.
Opsasnick, also interviewed "BC", "JC's" brother who was Hunkeler's best friend for many years. He described Ronald as living with a fanatically religious mother, and a grandmother who believed in spiritualism. Ronald was disliked by his classmates, and was known to throw tantrums. He displayed violent tendencies, and exhibited sadistic behavior towards animals and people. These were personality traits the predated his so called possession. BC said, "People ask what he was like back then and I can tell you that he was never what you would call a normal child. He was an only child and kind of spoiled and he was a mean bastard. We were together all the time and we used to fight all the time."
According to Dr. Alvin Kagey, who attended school with Hunkeler, he described him as withdrawn, unpopular and not very athletic.
JC described Hunkeler's last day at school in 1949:
We were in a class together at Bladensburg Junior High. He was sitting in a chair and it was one of those deals with one arm attached and it looked like he was shaking the desk—the desk was shaking and vibrating extremely fast and I remember the teacher yelling at him to stop it and I remember he kind of yelled “I’m not doing it” and they took him out of class and that was the last I ever saw of him in school. The desk certainly did not move around the room like that book [Possessed] said, it was just shaking. I don’t know if he was doing it or what was doing it because I just can’t clear it in my mind.
Father Edward Hughes (1910-1980), was an assistant pastor at St. James Church in Mount Rainier, Maryland in 1949. It's believed Mrs. Hunkeler took her son in February to see him. It's claimed that after an initial session, Father Hughes sent the boy to Georgetown University Hospital where three days of exorcisms were performed. There is controversy as to whether it's true that Hughes was injured during one of the exorcisms.
Ronald Edwin Hunkeler was admitted to Georgetown University Hospital under his real name on the morning of Monday, February 28, 1949 and released at 12 noon on Thursday, March 3, 1949.
By then Reverend Luther Schulze, a Protestant minister had been sought out by the family, however when things grew worse he referred them to the Jesuit priests in St. Louis. Doctors had already been consulted regarding Ronald's condition, but it seems they could offer no explanation or remedy either.
According to Frank Bober, Father Hughes' assistant pastor, it was Mrs. Hunkeler who sought out the clergy for help. He said, "Father Hughes never went to the boy’s home… Basically it was the mother that brought the kid to the rectory and the thing is she’s the one who gave Father Hughes all the information. Everything that I know of that he shared with me took place in the rectory, not at the house."
Father Hughes told him that the Hunkeler boy had a "dark stare, almost as if there was nothing behind the eyes." Bober said that Hughes felt an unseen force pressing him against the wall.
Father William Bowdern, was brought in to perform more than twenty exorcisms on Roland over a period of two months. He was assisted by Father Hughes, Father Walter Halloran and Father Raymond Bishop. Bishop kept a diary that Blatty would use when writing his novel, and that would be reprinted in Thomas Allen's book, Possessed.
The following is Father's Bishop's diary entry for Easter Sunday, April 17 ("R" refers to Ronald Hunkeler):
Easter Sunday, April 17
In 1949, Brother Rector Cornelius sealed the fifth floor corridor of which hosted the exorcism after having the statue of St. Michael removed. The room and the existence of a copy of the diary (along with a note from Cornelius date 29 April 1949) remained locked away until the demolition of the old wing of the hospital. In October 1978, workmen clearing out furniture stored in the “old” wing of the Alexian Brothers Hospital that hosted the exorcism in St. Louis allegedly discovered the official record of the events which confirmed that Father Bowdern and Halloran had performed the exorcism over four nights in 1949.
Father Walter Halloran was willing to discuss what happened in 1949. He said, "I can’t go on record… I never made an absolute statement about the things because I didn’t feel I was qualified. I hadn’t studied the phenomena and that sort of thing. All I did was report the things that I saw and whether I would make a statement one way or another wouldn’t make any difference…"
As to whether Hunkeler spoke in other languages he said, "Just Latin… I think he mimicked us." He went on to clarify there were no demonic changes in the boy's voice, and that when Hunkeler struck him it was with normal strength.
However unexplained events did occur. He said, "I saw a bottle slide from a dresser across the room—there was no one near it. The bed moving… It was on rollers like any bed, but I was leaning on it when it moved one time."
But contrary to the movie, Hunkeler did not vomit or urinate, and there were no markings on his skin.
The Alexian Brothers Hospital where Ronald was taken to served as an insane asylum as well. It received its first patient in 1870. In 1909, it became affiliated with St. Louis University, and it admitted only male patients, however men, women and children were seen on an outpatient basis. They operated a training school for male nurses from 1928 until 1952.
In 1902, a priest who was taking treatment at the hospital hung himself on the premises.
Hunkeler’s female companion told the NYPost that he died after suffering a stroke at his home in Marriottsville, Maryland. He was cremated, but none of his children attended his funeral. His two daughters and a son had been estranged from him for a long time. She said that he never believed that he had been possessed, and shunned religion as an adult. He lived in fear that his identity would be discovered, and she said, "he had a terrible life from worry, worry, worry". They would leave the house on Halloween in case someone had discovered he was the "haunted boy" and his anonymity would be over.
She said, “He said he wasn’t possessed, it was all concocted. He said, ‘I was just a bad boy.'”
However there was an unusual event that occurred not long before Hunkeler died. A Catholic priest came to his to administer last rites. She had not contacted any church. “I have no idea how the Father knew to come,” she said, “but he got Ron to heaven. Ron’s in heaven and he’s with God now.”
Information gathered from NYPost.com, LastGasps.com, Skepticalinquirer.org
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