"In what is perhaps one of the most remarkable experiences of its kind in recent religious history, a 14-year-old Mount Rainier boy has been freed by a Catholic priest of possession by the devil, Catholic sources reported yesterday," a front page story in the Aug. 20, 1949, editions of The Washington Post said.
The story, which caught the attention of Georgetown University student William Peter Blatty, later became the basis for his best-selling novel, "The Exorcist," and the movie that followed.
Some of the facts were changed but, according to the Rev. John J. Nicola, a priest who served as technical adviser to the film and who still resides in this area, the Mount Rainier youth showed many of the bizarre symptoms seen in the possessed girl Regan, who was played in the movie by Linda Blair.
In the presence of the Mount Rainier youth, furniture moved without apparent cause, objects flew across the room and strange scratching sounds came from the walls of his home at 3210 Bunker Hill Rd., witnesses reported.
The haunted youth so frightened his neighbors that, according to newspaper accounts, they were seen sprinkling water around the family's house to ward off the devil.
The boy, a Protestant, was first attended by his minister and then referred to the Rev. Albert Hughes, assistant pastor at the nearby St. James Catholic Church.
Although inexperienced, Hughes was permitted to proceed with the ancient exorcism ritual, which is infrequently practiced in North America but is still common in Third World and Mediterranean countries, Nicola said.
"Cardinal O'Boyle is a good old country Irishman who doesn't like to mess around with that stuff," Nicola said, referring to Cardinal Patrick A. O'Boyle, who headed the Washington Archdiocese at the time. "He said, 'You investigate, and if you think it needs to be done, go ahead and do it.' So he went ahead."
Hughes performed the first exorcism at Georgetown University Hospital and, in the middle of it, a number of the presumed satanic manifestations occurred.
The youth burst into curses in a strange language -- later said to be Aramaic, a Semitic tongue spoken in biblical times -- and then inflicted a serious wound on Hughes with a bedspring wire.
Hughes, according to Nicola and others, was traumatized by the experience. Winfield Kelly, later Prince George's County executive, was an altar boy at St. James at the time and recalled that the exorcism transformed the priest.
"My recollection of Hughes as a young man was that he was strikingly changed after that," Kelly said. "A very dark, very thin, very attractive man, he was considerably aged afterwards."
After Hughes' misadventure, William Bowdern, a Jesuit from St. Louis, was called in to perform the subsequent exorcisms, Nicola said.
The ritual was conducted repeatedly over the next three months until Bowdern believed the devil had been cast out.
The story of the exorcisms was not widely known in Washington during those months. Jeremiah O'Leary, a Washington Times reporter who broke the story for the old Washington Star, said, "It was just . . . that strange boy that lived up the street."
Kelly recalled, however, that the rites created a "buzz" within the Mount Rainier Catholic community.
For Hughes, the Mount Rainier youth apparently remained a bad memory. Lillian Maher, one of Hughes' parishioners, recalled that the youth, whose name was never publicized, was a taboo subject with the Catholic priest in the years that followed. "Father Hughes never wanted to mention that name," she said. "The devil was in him."
A few days before Hughes' death in October 1980, however, he broke his silence in a conversation with his young assistant pastor, the Rev. Frank Bober.
Bober later told a reporter for the Prince George's Sentinel about the conversation. An article published Feb. 4, 1981, identified the site of the haunted youth's residence as 3210 Bunker Hill Rd.
"Father Hughes never told me the exact spot of the residence but people who were familiar with the case who are still living in Mount Rainier identified it," Bober said in a recent interview. "I think it was common knowledge in Mount Rainier. Many of the older people are familiar with that story, and they thought it was the place. After that article was published . . . there was no questioning of the authenticity of it."
Bober, who is now at the St. Stephen-Martyr Church in the District, said he was fascinated by Mount Rainier and that he and Hughes would sometimes ruminate on the personality of the place.
"Sometimes it just makes you wonder why certain areas are more prone to certain heinous crimes," he said. "I know when I was at St. James, there were some unfortunate crimes that occurred in the area . . . . The police found the skeleton of a mother which had been kept up in the closet by the son. It wasn't until he died, apparently, that they found that."
The priest was referring to a mummy -- still dressed in the waitress uniform she had apparently worn on the last day of her life -- found in the Mount Rainier residence of Charles Coffman Jr. in 1981. Described in one account as a "leather-skinned, henna-haired, partially mummified corpse," the body of Alma Ella Coffman had evidently been in the closet for 18 years.
Despite the passing of more than three decades, the story of the exorcism remains sensitive for some. Several residents of Bunker Hill Road refused to discuss with a reporter what happened in the house at 3210. And Bober recalled that there were those who expressed displeasure when the story appeared in the Sentinel newspaper.
"Some mentioned that they kind of wished that it wasn't talked about," he said, "because it was sinful to reflect upon it."