Ronald Edwin Hunkeler
a/k/a: Robbie Mannheim; John Hoffman
The truth behind the real inspiration for the world’s most famous fictional exorcism is known but to a handful of people.
And this “true story” of what should have been nothing more than an embarrassing footnote in Catholic Church history took on a life of its own thanks to the ingenuity and literary talents of author William Peter Blatty.
His controversial bestselling 1971 novel, The Exorcist, went on to become the basis for one of the world’s great cinematic efforts (regardless of genre): 1973’s iconic movie, The Exorcist.Credit: Washington Post Aug 20, 1949
Unfortunately, despite the hype (and the recognition today of the impact The Exorcist had on both popular culture and the collective human psyche), the exorcism case which formed the core of this cultural phenomena is almost certainly rooted in a sham.
It is the story of a spoiled mama’s boy who couldn’t get his way.
As with most cases involving people in unusual circumstances, names are changed, locales are altered, and circumstances are varied enough in detail to do two things: 1) lend an air of credibility to the tale; and 2) protect the privacy of the primary subject.
There is sensationalism in “true stories”—the more debauched, lurid, or explicit, the better. And The need for credibility is critical.
Recently, author James Frey wrote an “autobiography” of his descent into drug addiction and later recovery. The book was a lie: he had never been a drug addict, had never been in rehab, had never done the jail time he alleged in his book, and this fraud almost ruined his career.
Had Frey simply written a novel about a drug addict perhaps it would not have sold as well. His lie is what sold copy; he was a frequent guest on talk shows whose topics were addiction recovery. It was a complete sham and, when uncovered, Frey was belatedly apologetic and humbled.
Similarly, about the same year Frey’s fraud was exposed, a book about a boy prisoner in a World War II Nazi concentration camp was published. The story is of a little girl meeting this boy through the wire fence of the concentration camp, feeding him, befriending him, etc.. It is what the publishing industry usually calls “heartwarming” and “a triumph of the human spirit” or some such hyperbole. The book was made into a successful film a few years ago—it is a complete and calculated fraud. The author knew it was a fake, but played upon the contrived “based on a true story” angle so heavily the public believed the lie.
Finally, in the world of “truth” in art, there is the excellent 1996 Coen Brothers movie, Fargo. This murder story (set in North Dakota) states on-screen in its opening moments that the film’s events were based on a true story. On DVD, at the end of the movie, the Coen Brothers make it clear in discussing the film that the “true story” is a fake—they wrote the screen play themselves based solely upon their imaginations. It even says as much in the credits on the packaging: “Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen”. Authorship was also properly credited in the film’s end titles. The “based on a true story” part was both an inside joke of theirs and lent an air of credibility to the story.
Unlike Frey, the Coens did not pretend otherwise—they had their fun, and dropped the matter.
Exorcisms & Myth Makers
Knowing the motives for fraud, hoaxes, pranks, or shams—call them whatever—is relevant. In most cases, ego and money are on the line. Just as any rapper who gets shot by another rapper—regardless of the superficiality of the bullet wound—is somehow raised in status (as a “gangsta”), credibility is essential for any purveyor of entertainment.
For Georgetown University college student William Peter Blatty (born 1928), the story of a lifetime (for him, anyway) appeared surprisingly as a headline in the August 20, 1949, edition of The Washington Post:
Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy
Reported Held in Devil’s Grip
By Bill Brinkley
This headline gave a synopsis of the successful exorcism of a 14-year-old-boy from Mt. Rainier, Maryland, allegedly possessed by “the Devil”.
Mt. Rainier, Maryland, lies on the northeast border of Credit: Washington Post, Aug 20, 1949Maryland and Washington, DC. At the time of the 1949 Post exposé, Mt. Rainier was a bedroom community of DC with grand old Victorian-era three-story homes on quiet tree-lined streets.
The newspaper reported the Catholic Church had released the story only the day before on August 19, 1949.
From the publication of this article the urban myth of the “Mt. Rainier Exorcism” grew. In the article, the teenager is referred to as “the boy”. Later accounts, picking up the thread of this first burst, would call him “John Doe”, then “Roland Doe” (the first name very similar to his real first name), and then “John Hoffman” (the fake last name carrying a Germanic tone as did the boy’s real last name).
Finally, a more consistently used pseudonym was developed: “Robbie Mannheim”. This name retained the German flavor of the boy’s real surname while also using a first name similar to his true one.
The story of Robbie Mannheim’s background and exorcism contained kernels of truth. However, that truth was buried beneath layers of conflation, exaggerations, third-hand reports, rumors, and outright lies. In short, however, the canonical story of Robbie Mannheim begins in mid January 1949.
The family lived in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, and Robbie (an only child) apparently had displayed nothing other than stellar behavior in his past. A favored aunt of his died recently, however; this devastated the teenager, and he sulked over her death. In this story, the aunt’s name was Dorothy (a diary refers to her as Tillie, and another source gives her name as Harriet). Robbie had lived with her for a time for unknown reasons. It was Aunt Dorothy who bought him a Ouija board and taught him how to use it.
On the night of January 15, 1949, the home became subjected to poltergeist activity centered on Robbie. The family heard skittering and scratching in the walls, mysterious spectral footsteps, objects hurled about indiscriminately, and finally Robbie’s bed shook uncontrollably while he was in it. Through his Ouija board, Robbie “spoke” with the spirit in the home, and it allegedly identified itself as his dead Aunt Dorothy.
The family was devoutly Lutheran. In February 1949, instead of taking the boy to a psychiatrist or to a medical doctor they invited a Lutheran minister to their home. [Another source records this as a single consultation at Saint James Church in Mount Ranier.] The cleric allegedly observed some of the poltergeist activity, and offered to take the boy to his home for further observation and safer keeping. In this clergyman’s home, the poltergeist activity continued with Robbie.Credit: public domain Strange marks formed on his abdomen, looking like scratches, but interpreted as being words (such as “Hell”).
This Lutheran minister knew he was out of his element but he tried an exorcism on Robbie nonetheless. It did not work. A Catholic priest was called in and after working with Robbie also concluded he was possessed. He, too, did not have any experience with exorcism, but he tried, using guidelines handed down by the Catholic Church over the past 1500 years. This failed. The boy was then taken to the University Hospital in Georgetown for a medical exam in late February 1949. Doctors there could find nothing wrong with him, so Robbie went home with his parents in early March. The poltergeist activity worsened as did Robbie’s foul cursing.
Finally, he was removed from the Maryland home and taken to St. Louis where it was felt the Jesuits there were more qualified to handle his believed demonic possession. The Archbishop of the St. Louis diocese authorized an exorcism upon petition on March 16, 1949.
Sequestered for the duration, on the first night of the ritual the superficial scratches appeared on his abdomen again. There were reportedly 30 instances of these eruptions. Interpreters thought they saw the word “Hell” and a portrait of a Satanic image in the scratches. Exorcism involves repetition, and during the first night the 45-minute ritual was repeated multiple times.
This was done many times during the night for the next week. As with the 1928 Earling, Iowa, exorcism of Emma Schmidt, the subject here, too, was violent. He thrashed about, screamed profanities, shook with seizures, and allegedly urinated uncontrollably. In the midst of the exorcism the boy was converted to Catholicism (with parental permission). His condition worsened, however, but suddenly stopped on March 26. The priest conducting the exorcism felt Robbie was cured.
Robbie relapsed back into his state of demonic possession on March 31, however. His behavior grew more violent. Devilish voices also began speaking through him. As with Emma Schmidt, the voices came from behind the boy’s closed lips. A demon reportedly rasped, “I am always in him.” No progress was made over the next several days. The exorcist researched an obscure, late 19th Century case that offered a possible solution.
For the next round of invocations on April 18 the priest forced the boy to wear a chain of religious medallions and to hold a crucifix during the ritual. The proximity of the religious objects enraged Robbie whose physical response was so great five men had to hold him down while the priest continued. Finally, at about 11:00 PM in a moment of grand hysteria Robbie interrupted the proceedings, and shouted, “Satan! I am St. Michael. I command you, Satan, to leave his body now!” He then went into a spasmodic flailing, the worst yet, but then quieted. He muttered, “He is gone.” Smiling, he returned to normal.
The balance of the story is anti-climactic. Robbie returned to Maryland, graduated from high school, and ostensibly went on to lead a normal life without further supernatural incident. The story would have remained there, a flash-in-the-pan, sinking into obscurity if not for the keen eye of college student William Peter Blatty.
The Robbie Mannheim exorcism story right from its very first public exposure in 1949 got the minutiae wrong.
The first newspaper report that had intrigued Blatty has a falsehood in its headline, either by design or bad reporting. The town of Mt. Rainier, Maryland, was not the starting point for the saga. Investigators later combed that community for the “exorcist” house where Robbie Mannheim first showed signs of alleged demonic possession. All that was uncovered was a vacant lot (at 3210 Bunker Hill Road) where local urban myth claimed the house “once stood” but it burned down.Credit: American People's Encyclopedia map, 1963
Sadly, the term “so close, yet so far away” applied here—a bit further, about four miles (a bit over 6 km) to the southeast of Mt. Rainier, is the working-class community of Cottage City, Maryland.
Meet John Doe
At 3807 40th Avenue in Cottage City, Maryland, stands an unassuming bungalow now used as a rental property. In the 1940s it was the home of a family named Hunkeler, who had moved into it in 1939 and who lived there until at 1958 when they sold it.
The devoutly Lutheran family consisted of a father, Edwin E. Hunkeler, and his wife, Odell. They had one child, an overindulged, overly protected, extremely spoiled boy born June 1, 1935. His name was Ronald Edwin Hunkeler.
This Maryland branch of Hunkelers had relatives in St. Louis, Missouri. These relatives lived at 8435 Roanoke Drive in an upper middle-class St. Louis neighborhood. The Missouri house was built by its occupants, Leonard C. Hunkeler and his wife Doris, in 1942. Leonard was the paternal uncle of Ronald Edwin Hunkeler, the 13-year-old who would be immortalized as a teen girl in The Exorcist in the early 1970s.
Ronald, the boy, apparently had been living with an aunt at some point in his life. He did not like Cottage City, Maryland. He particularly hated his school, Bladensburg Junior High School, for unknown reasons. A classmate of his, who had been run to ground and interviewed, reported the following about the “angelic” Ronald Hunkeler:
“. . . We were playmates and classmates. We were playing together from the time we first moved in here when I was three years old and we went all the way through school together . . . 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 . . . ”
This same source recalled only one bizarre incident (hearing nothing of what allegedly happened later in the Hunkeler home):
“. . . We were in eighth grade, it was the ’48-’49 school year and we were in a class together . . . 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 . . . 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 . . . ”
Thus, a picture of a malcontent, a mean-spirited prankster begins to emerge. Combined with his spoiled nature, what happened next may have started as a lark, but like many hoaxes in history, it soon spiraled out of control.
Ronald Hunkeler was used to getting his way. His Aunt Doris (not Dorothy) and his Uncle Leonard lived in a very nice two-story Colonial house in an affluent neighborhood in St. Louis. He wanted to move in with them and live well. Ronald’s father, like many of that era, was an absentee dad. He was also emotionally distant. His mother doted on the boy and mollycoddled him. All others interviewed reported the same—he was spoiled, indulged, and the word “no” was not to his liking.
He was pulled from the Bladensburg school as his classmate reported, but not for “demonic possession”. His histrionics at home had grown worse, and the parents simply felt it might be better to pack him off to St. Louis. For these highly religious people, Ronald knew the proper buttons to push; suddenly, the house was under attack from a “poltergeist”.
By this time the senior Hunkelers had already consulted their Lutheran minister who, in turn, felt it would be better to call on a Catholic priest (as the Catholic Church had extensive experience in such matters). He was taken to the University Hospital in Georgetown for an exam on February 28, 1949. Nothing organic could be found wrong with him, and after an observation period Ronald was released and went home with his parents on March 3, 1949.
Unfortunately, the priests assigned to the case were young, impressionable, and with almost no experience with exorcism (unlike Emma Schmidt’s exorcist who not only had much experience in the field but also had exorcised her once before more than a decade earlier). Ronald, in effect, played them like violins.
The Jesuit priests rounded up in St. Louis went to the Leonard and Doris Hunkeler home where Ronald was staying awaiting “treatment”. Their charge went into action upon their arrival on March 9, 1949. Ronald’s bed was shaking and at the mere mention of Scripture he shrieked like a wounded animal. Allegedly, a bottle of holy water flew through the air.
Scratches manifested on his abdomen; the Satanic image (referenced in the popular account) scratched into his skin appeared on his calf. The exorcism ritual was conducted in the Leonard and Doris Hunkeler home in the guest bedroom Ronald had been assigned. He was later removed from the house and taken to the Alexian Brothers Hospital (a Catholic-managed institution with a psych ward, since demolished).
There, he continued the screaming and acting out until the exorcism was successfully completed on April 19, 1949 (per the Church record).
William Peter Blatty was a New York City boy (of Lebanese parents). His parents came to America from Lebanon on a cattle boat—when William was three his father abandoned the family. Blatty described his upbringing as “comfortable destitution”; they did whatever they could to survive, and Blatty lived at 28 different addresses as a child since the fatherless family was constantly evicted for non-payment of rent.
He attended a Jesuit prep school (on scholarship) in the City. He made his way to Georgetown University on scholarship. It was there he read the 1949 headline about the Mt. Rainier boy that would change his life. Before that happened, though, he went on to The George Washington University, getting his Master’s in English Literature.
He worked a series of menial jobs before joining the US Air Force where he was attached to its Psychological Warfare division (that branch responsible for things like dropping propaganda leaflets into villages from airplanes). He did his hitch, and joined the United States Information Agency. He was posted as an editor, stationed in Beirut, Lebanon.
On a three-month leave from this job he decided to pursue a writing career instead. He found work in the late 1950s as a public relations director for Loyola University in Los Angeles. In a strange and humorous twist, he appeared on the television game show emcee’d by Groucho Marx called You Bet Your Life. Blatty won $10,000 (more than $75,000 US today) on the show; he was able to quit his job in 1960 and devote himself to writing full-time.
Blatty’s novels in the early years contained a wry humor and were critically well received. He was feted as a rising literary star. His works, however, did not sell well. By 1964 he was a screen-play writer working on several of filmmaker Blake Edwards’ best known movies (one of which was in the Pink Panther series of films).
But he really wanted to be a successful novelist; having that one breakthrough was all he needed.Credit: New York Post
The story about the demon-possessed Maryland boy sprang to mind. Blatty began digging; his research led him to one of the primary priests who had also kept a diary of the events (about 26 pages of notes).
Based upon his own efforts and using some passages from the priest’s diary for color and background Blatty created a sensation. With some changes in setting and gender, 14-year-old Ronald Edwin Hunkeler of Cottage City, Maryland, earned an undeserved immortality as a pop culture icon in the guise of the fictional 12-year-old demon-possessed girl named Regan MacNeil. And in 1971, The Exorcist was a controversial bestseller, spending 54 weeks on the New York Times “Bestseller List”, 17 of those weeks in the Number One spot.Credit: Warner Bros, 1973
Readers are a different breed than movie goers. The book was successful, but was not the blockbuster it was to become.
Film director William Friedkin attached himself to the idea of a movie, and Blatty was hired to write the screenplay. Discussions about the “truth” of the “Robbie Mannheim Exorcism of Mt. Rainier, Maryland” (as it was still considered then) did not arise until later. Blatty simply quoted the 1949 case as his catalyst. People erroneously believed those events happened first in Mt. Rainier. They also erroneously believed the events were true.
The resulting movie was a smash hit, though, which spurred renewed interest and sales in his book. It also spurred renewed interest in the Robbie Mannheim case once Blatty let it be known that was the source for his inspiration.
To their credit (and to the public’s great distress) the parties associated with the case were extremely tight-lipped and refused to give up Robbie Mannheim’s real name to preserve his privacy. The Mt. Rainier locale fallacy was never corrected by those who knew the truth; people continued to stalk that town looking for the house that not only wasn’t there anymore, but was never a part of the story to begin with.
The clergy who had been involved in the exorcism were affronted by the film. They claimed the behaviors (the vomiting, urinating, etc.) had never happened. The boy’s bed shook, that was about it. Scratches appeared on his skin, but one of the eyewitnesses said the marks “looked like lipstick”; these marks did not (contrary to later accounts) resemble either words or clear images of Satan.
When asked if anyone had bothered to examine the boy’s hands in the wake of the scratches’ appearance, the answer was “no”. A good, objective, skeptical investigator would have done just that—Ronald could have had a lipstick fragment under a fingernail or he could have simply raked his own skin. In that case he would have skin detritus and/or blood serum under his nails, both easily detectable to the naked eye if not through chemical testing.
The hurled objects always happened when backs were turned. One priest related that Ronald had spoken but not in the dramatically different, and demonic, voices of the film. In the end, the priests only supported what indeed was the only truth: this boy was presented to them for an exorcism, it was conducted over a period of non-consecutive days in St. Louis, and it was successful.
Ronald and his family later visited the Alexian Brothers in August 1951 on a family trip to St. Louis. He was noted to be a “fine young man” of 16 by then, and he told the Brothers his mother and father had both converted to Catholicism shortly after his exorcism.
All the exaggerations incorporated into the film had built up over the two decades since 1949. The movie sparked its own rumor mill, and the old case took on an epic quality, a legendary greatness that it never had.
In the late 1990s a brilliant bit of investigative journalism led finally to clearing the mists of mystery away from The Exorcist and the Robbie Mannheim case.
In one of those serendipitous moments all investigators have experienced, an inquisitive researcher found a contemporary St. Louis newspaper clipping from when Robbie Mannheim was exorcised in St. Louis. This newspaper article gave the correct names of his St. Louis relatives (Leonard and Doris Hunkeler), where they lived, and Robbie’s year of birth. It also named his home town: Cottage City, Maryland (how this information got twisted into Mt. Rainier for The Washington Post coverage remains a mystery).
Continuing the search for truth in the Cottage City environs led to learning that a family named Hunkeler had occupied a little bungalow in Cottage City, Maryland. As records showed them in residence until the late 1950s at that address it was safe to presume the boy had gone to high school nearby.
A search of the yearbooks for Gonzaga High School (extrapolating forward in time from Robbie’s 1936 birth year) revealed a rather interesting entrant. The senior class section for 1954 had a picture of a graduating senior named Ronald Edwin Hunkeler. His home address (the same as the Hunkelers in Cottage City, the only ones) and his parish affiliation (St. James, the Catholic Church where he was first seen by a priest) are also noted on his photo by-line. In addition to that, he apparently was sociable enough to be actively engaged in several school clubs (also noted on his by-line).
The last “too-good-to-be-true” part is that the student in the book pictured next to Ronald Hunkeler in the year book is named John Thomas Hoffman (the surname of one of the pseudonyms assigned to “the boy”).
Credit: Gonzaga HS yearbook, 1954 Credit: NASA, Goddard News, July 27, 1964
Hunkeler was also photographed working ceramics in a magazine NASA printed, Goddard News, in 1964.
All that investigative work ended the mystery of “Who was Robbie Mannheim?” except to finally bring Ronald into the harsh light of day to make an accounting of himself. Why the charade? Why not tell the truth now? Telephonic contact with him led to disappointment: he refused to talk, said to never call him again, and he hung up.
Thanks to the curiosity of another intrepid skeptic, Hunkeler’s continued presence on the planet was established as late as 2006 when he was cited for a seatbelt violation. He appeared in court in Ellicott City, Maryland, and paid a small fine. Hunkeler will be 81 years old this year (2016) if he is still among the breathing.
In March 2005, Father Walter Halloran, the last surviving Jesuit to participate in Ronald’s exorcism sessions, died at the age of 83.
Halloran had debunked much of what had been exaggerated about the case. A prime example (among many) is this statement:
When questioned about reports of the boy speaking other languages, Halloran stated, “Just Latin . . . I think he mimicked us.” Halloran said there were no demonic changes in the boy’s voice and that when the boy struck him it wasn’t with extraordinary strength.
He noted only two odd occurrences for which he had no ready explanation:
“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.”
Hunkeler may have been spitting (to enhance his “possession” ruse/performance) but, according to the priest, it was not overly unusual. There was none of the allegedly reported projectile vomiting or uncontrolled urination, either. While Fr. Halloran saw markings on Ronald’s skin, these were not discernible as letters, symbols, or anything else dechiperable.
In his defense, William Peter Blatty is a novelist, not the perpetrator of a fraud. He was neither required to nor expected to run down the “truth” of the Hunkeler possession story when he decided to use it as a story idea. His fictional book borrows heavily from that case, but it also borrows more (in terms of Regan’s possessed behaviors) from the Emma Schmidt case (the expectorating, blasphemies and lewdness, defecation, projectile vomiting, etc.). And Blatty is no hack writer, either—The Exorcist is an engaging read, not just because of its sensational subject. It is a unique work. It is perhaps the quintessential novel of its genre, just as there is no other horror movie that had the social impact of its screen adaptation. Blatty went on to write more novels (as recently as 2010). He is 87 years old (in 2015).
Finally, another interviewed denizen of Cottage City who was in school with, but a few years older than, Ronald Edwin Hunkeler 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.”
In other words, he was a spoiled boy throwing a temper tantrum, albeit an elaborate one. Ronald Edwin Hunkeler was no more possessed by demons than William Peter Blatty was. He did, however (through his petulant infantilism), unintentionally fire the creative kiln that gave the world a great novel and a great film.Credit: Warner Bros, 1973
Mike Oldfield’s instrumental suite, Tubular Bells, was recorded in Autumn 1972 and Spring 1973. The original material, released on 33-1/3-rpm vinyl LP, was expansive—the disc clocks in at just under 49 minutes and consists of only two tracks, one on each album side (LPs generally ran about 36 minutes long on average).
The movement “Tubular Bells—Part One” was licensed as the film’s theme. The repetitious, celestial piano melody in the piece’s introduction gained a life of its own. That opening segment of the track became the basis for horror-movie soundtrack music in countless films later in the 1970s (give a close listen to John Carpenter’s soundtrack to the original Halloween movie with Jamie Lee Curtis—the influence is clearly there, as it is in many other “slasher” movies).
Also, special thanks to Mike Madonna for contacting me personally in early November 2012, and providing some very greatly appreciated, updated information on Ronald Hunkeler.
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