For reasons unknown, perfectly normal people sometimes suddenly exhibit a dramatic change of being. Their actions become violent and seemingly inhuman. They may expel foul substances, utter shocking profanities, make strange animal sounds, and distort their bodies in extraordinary ways. In some circles such actions are considered to be evidence of possession by the Devil, for which the only antidote is the ritual of exorcism.
In 1865 something ghastly entered the lives of two young boys in the small town of Illfurth, in Alsace, France. They were Joseph and Theobald Bruner, nearly 8 and 10 years old respectively, the sons of a farmer. According to records kept by Father Karl Brey, the parish priest, the first signs that something was seriously wrong with the children were their fascination with diabolic things and their aversion to anything of a religious nature:
While lying in their bed, the children used to turn to the wall, paint horrible Devil faces on it, and then speak to the faces and play with them. If, while one of the possessed was asleep, a rosary was placed on his bed, he would immediately hide under the covers and refuse to come out of hiding until the rosary was removed.
More extraordinary were the physical contortions the boys underwent.
They entangled their legs every two or three hours in an unnatural way. They knotted them so intricately that it was impossible to pull them apart. And yet, suddenly, they could untangle them with lightning speed. At times the boys stood simultaneously on their heads and legs, bent backwards, their bodies arched high. No amount of outside pressure could bring their bodies into a normal position—until the Devil saw fit to give these objects of his torture some temporary peace.
By these and other bizarre manifestations Father Brey was persuaded that the brothers were the victims of demonic possession.
At times, their bodies became bloated as if about to burst; when this happened, the boy would vomit, whereby yellow foam, feathers, and seaweed would come out of his mouth. Often, their clothes were covered with evil smelling feathers....
No matter how often their shirts and outer clothing were changed, new feathers and seaweed would appear. These feathers, which covered their bodies in some inexplicable way, filled the air with such a stench that they had to be burned. …
If further evidence that the boys were in the grip of a supernatural power had been needed, it was given in their frequent displays of clairvoyance.
Theobald several times predicted the death of a person correctly. Two hours before the death of a Frau Muller, the boy knelt by his bed and acted as if he were ringing a mourning bell. Another time he did the same thing for a whole hour. When he was asked for whom he was ringing, the boy answered, “For Gregor Kunegel.” As it happened, Kunegel's daughter was visiting in the house. Shocked and angry, she told Theobald, “You liar, my father is not even ill. He is working on the new boys’ seminary building as a mason.” Theobald answered, “That may be, but he just had a fall. Go ahead and check on it!” The facts bore him out. The man had fallen from a scaffold, breaking his neck. This happened at the very moment that Theobald made the bell-ringing motions. No one in Illfurth had been aware of the accident.
When their parents and Father Karl Brey decided that exorcism was the only effective way of helping the boys, Theobald was sent to the St. Charles Orphanage at Schiltigheim near Strasbourg. The orphanage was run by nuns, and its superior was one Father Stumpf. For the first three days after his arrival, Theobald—or the diabolic entity was silent, but on the fourth day he said, “I have come, and I am in a rage.” One of the nuns asked, “And who are you?” A nonhuman voice answered: “I am the Lord of Darkness!” Later on Joseph was also sent to the orphanage.
Throughout the prolonged period of exorcism, performed by Father Stumpf, the demonic possession of the two brothers was manifested in many ways. Both boys, for instance, became infested with red head lice, which multiplied so quickly that three or four people with brushes and combs were not able to keep pace with them. Eventually, the priest poured holy water on the vermin, and they disappeared.
In all, the possession of Theobald and Joseph Bruner lasted four years before they were freed by the rites of exorcism. Theobald died two years later, on April 3, 1871, when he was 16. Joseph, in whom the symptoms had been less severe, died in 1882.