Wisconsin's real-life connections to The Exorcist

Exorcism in Wisconsin: 4 Strange Cases of Demonic Possession

Exorcism in Wisconsin? Well, the Badger State is no stranger to demonic forces. Among the ruins of the Maribel Caves Hotel, a fiery portal to Hell lies at the bottom of an old well, a rift said to have been opened by witches conducting black rituals to curse the hotel. In Rienzi Cemetery – the burial ground where Governor Tallmadge used to talk to the dead – the receiving vault where bodies would wait out the winter months until the ground thawed sufficiently for burial in spring, is said to contain a glowing infernal gateway.

Not to mention the unique connections to the true stories that inspired The Exorcist.

Let’s dig into some strange cases of demonic possession and the Wisconsin exorcists who were involved.

The Exorcism of Anna Ecklund

Wisconsin exorcist Theophilus Riesinger

Theophilus Riesinger, America’s “foremost exorcist” at St. Joseph’s Church in Appleton

A 1936 issue of Time magazine called Father Theophilus Riesinger a “potent and mystic exorcist of demons.” The Appleton monk earned that title after many years of grueling exorcisms. But his first case in 1912, that of a young girl from Marathon, WI would prove to be his most challenging, and most famous. In fact, the exorcism of this girl, known as either Anna Ecklund or Emma Schmidt, would go on for years.

“You cannot imagine the terrible symptoms and feelings that possessed persons have. Strange cats and dogs talk to them in the night. They cannot perform their religious duties, they are kept away from the sacraments, they are exceedingly unhappy.” – Fr. Riesinger, 1936

Her final, and most brutal, exorcism happened in 1928 and took place over the course of 23 days. The events were later published in a booklet called Begone Satan! By Rev. Carl Vogl. He describes the possessed as speaking in different voices and languages, making inhuman animal sounds, flying through the air to cling to the ceiling, and becoming horribly physically deformed by the power of Beelzebub and the many demons he commanded inside her at the order of Lucifer himself.

“The woman’s face became so distorted that no one could recognize her features,” Vogl wrote. “Then, too, her whole body became so horribly disfigured that the regular contour of her body vanished. Her pale, deathlike and emaciated head, often assuming the size of an inverted water pitcher, became as red as glowing embers. Her eyes protruded out of their sockets, her lips swelled up to proportions equaling the size of hands, and her thin emaciated body was bloated to such enormous size that the pastor and some of the Sisters drew back out of fright, thinking that the woman would be torn to pieces and burst asunder. At times her abdominal region and extremities became as hard as iron and stone. In such instances the weight of her body pressed into the iron bedstead so that the iron rods of the bed bent to the floor.”

Frank Anderson of Wisconsinology, whose office is actually in the Capuchin monastery in Appleton where Riesinger lived, does a great job telling this bizarre story in his podcast.

While never credited, it’s obvious that The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty borrowed details from Begone Satan! for the depiction of the possession and the rites of exorcism in his book.

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Satanic Murder of Fr. Kunz

Alfred Kunz, the priest who was murdered in Dane, WI

Father Alfred Kunz

A young woman came into Father Alfred Kunz’ office one day at St. Michael Church and school in Dane, WI. She sat down at his desk and uttered in an inhuman growl, “Where is he?”

When Kunz related this story to his parishioners, he said others in the building were so fearful they ran out.

But Kunz stayed, hoping to battle whatever evil was inside the woman.

His superiors, he said, weren’t interested. They just wanted her out of the building.

She contacted him later, saying she felt like she was being pulled into the darkness after dabbling in satanic rituals.

So Kunz secretly performed an exorcism on her to free her from this evil.

Father Kunz was found dead in a hallway of the school on March 4, 1998. His throat had been slashed, and he bled out on the floor. There were many potential suspects, including fellow priests Kunz had been investigating for sexual misconduct, as well as his friend Mora Smith, a local waitress who saw his murder in a psychic vision – and reported many of the details accurately to authorities.

But according to controversial priest Malachi Martin, who had mentored Kunz in the rites of exorcism, it was Kunz’ battle against the forces of evil that did him in.

Kunz was a traditionalist who didn’t like the new direction the Catholic church was taking at the time. He continued to say Mass in Latin, though it had been discontinued, and he was quietly performing unsanctioned exorcisms like the one above that the church hierarchy never would have given permission for him to do.

He wasn’t even approved by the church to perform exorcisms at all.

The night before Kunz was murdered, someone killed a calf in a pasture near the church, slitting its throat and removing its genitals in what many viewed as a satanic ritual.

Rumors that Father Kunz’ genitals had also been removed, though proven false by autopsy records, spurred theories that his murder was connected.

Martin proclaimed Kunz as “Christ’s Hero.”

He believed Kunz was murdered by satanists for his triumphs in battle against Lucifer.

More than 20 years later, Kunz’ murder remains unsolved.

The Exorcism of Roland Doe

Grave of Walter Halloran in Milwaukee

Grave of Walter Halloran in Calvary Cemetery, Milwaukee

Perhaps the most famous case of exorcism in the US – because it directly inspired story of The Exorcist – is that of a boy from St. Louis known only as Roland Doe. Like Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, Roland became demonically possessed after playing with a Ouija board. He was admitted into a St. Louis hospital operated by the Catholic order of the Alexian Brothers for exorcism in 1949.

The exorcist in this case was Father William Bowdern, with a young Jesuit priest named Walter Halloran assisting.

Halloran witnessed the boy’s hospital bed shaking, saw words appear in red lines on his body, and was almost hit in the head by an object flying through the air. At one point, Roland’s flailing arm broke his nose.

Despite these events, Halloran seemed to be skeptical of paranormal claims, especially in interviews later in his life. He would decline to give an official statement on the events he witnessed, as he didn’t feel he was qualified to pass judgment, but would say that he saw more evil during his service in the Vietnam war than he ever saw in Roland.

Halloran retired to a Jesuit community in Milwaukee, WI when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2003. He died on March 1, 2005, and was interred in the historic Calvary Cemetery. You can find his grave at the bottom of the hill where the chapel sits, on the southern side.

Exorcism in Watertown

St. Henry's Catholic Church in Watertown where the exorcism was carried out

St. Henry’s Catholic Church in Watertown, where the exorcism was carried out

The Seige family in Watertown were plagued for many years by the demons possessing their son Carl. He was known to have violent seizures, and often lash out at people throughout his life. The rest of the family suffered frequent headaches and dizziness, as well as nightly paranormal activity around their home in the vicinity of Clyman Street and South 5th Street, such as slamming doors, shaking windows, phantom fire balls, and unexplained noises and howling.

All this, they believed, was because of Carl’s demons.

When Carl’s sister had a child, and Carl began threatening to kill the baby, the family decided something had to be done.

They first brought in a Native American shaman to draw out the evil, but he wasn’t able to help.

Next, they hired a local spiritualist medium. On one visit, the medium said Carl’s face had turned black, and the impression of a snake’s head was clearly visible in his throat. The snake’s tail, the medium said, could be felt whipping around violently inside Carl’s ribcage.

Finally, in 1869, they turned to the church.

Over three days, seven priests wrenched the demons from Carl’s body at St. Henry’s Catholic Church. During the rites, Carl cursed the priests in various languages, spoke in tongues, and mocked the priests.

By the end of the ordeal, they had managed to flush a total of eight demons from Carl.

A month later, Carl was brought back to the church to remove another demon. As that one left, it told the priests that four other demons still remained inside Carl.

No further details were ever reported on the Seige case.

Carl’s ultimate fate remains unknown.

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