“Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite.”—The Catholic Encyclopedia
On my recent appearance on Coast to Coast AM, I got the definite impression that George Noory wanted me to admit the possibility of demonic possession, and I don’t think that I ever did – at least not to his satisfaction. So with a doff of my cap to George and to show my appreciation for their having had me as a guest, I will now proceed to write up the most convincing case of possible demonic possession that I’ve ever encountered.
Also, until recently, I didn’t have enough information about the case to even come close to being able to do an entire article about it. I first heard of the Illfurth boys over a decade ago, but all that I could ever find were bits and pieces which were nowhere near enough to write more than a few of paragraphs about. Case in point: if you do an internet search for “Illfurth boys,” one of the first results listed is an article that I wrote where I just mentioned them. (The very first one was a dating site, by the way.) When just mentioning something once puts you on the first page of a Google search, you can be sure that there’s precious little information out there on the subject. But the fifth thing on the list was an excerpt from a book originally published in France in 1959 which goes into much more detail than any other source that I’ve seen. Much of what follows (although by no means all of it) was taken from this source, so I guess that you could skip this and just read what he wrote for yourself. However, the author wrote this from a purely religious point of view and left out several interesting details. I’m far more open-minded and entertaining. Besides, you’re already here.*
It all started near the end of 1864 in the village of Illfurth in the Alsace region of northeastern France on the German border. Thiebaud Burner (9) and his brother Joseph (7) began exhibiting bizarre symptoms that baffled local doctors, although no one seems to know exactly what these were. By September of 1865, things had gotten much worse, and it was then that word started spreading about the boys’ unusual condition. At times, their abdomens would swell to an alarming size, and they would claim that there was some sort of ball in their stomachs and that they had an animal running around inside of them. When they were sleeping, they would flip over repeatedly from their backs to their stomachs and then back again. They did this with such speed and rigidity that it appeared as if some unknown force was spinning them in their bed.
At some point during what would turn out to be a five year ordeal, this flipping stopped and the boys began sleeping with their arms and legs intertwined with each other in such a way that made it appear as if their limbs were made of rubber. When they were like this, no amount of force applied was strong enough to pry them apart. They were also said to be able to scamper up trees as effortlessly as squirrels and perch themselves on branches that never should have been able to support their weight. Additionally, witnesses claimed that the boys could bend over backwards to the point where they were practically folded in half, all of which is fascinating, but seemingly impossible physical abilities, including the ability to perform contortions that defy rational explanation, are nothing new in the world of the metaphysical. So what evidence exists to support a conclusion of demonic possession?
The flimsiest evidence was their ability to answer questions put to them in French, German, Latin, English, and according to some sources, Spanish. There is some ambiguity about whether the boys answered these questions in the language in which they were posed or if they only seemed to understand these languages but were unable to speak them. Cynics would be quick to point out that both French and German were and still are commonly spoken languages in the region. (Alsace has bounced back and forth between French and German control many times over the centuries.) The Burner family was Catholic (and apparently so were the possessing demons, but I’ll get to that later†), so Latin would not have been a language with which the boys would be unfamiliar, and English and Spanish aren’t exactly exotic languages in Europe. Ultimately, it would have been more convincing if they had been able to understand and answer questions in Mandarin or Aramaic, but it’s doubtful that anyone in the area spoke a language like that.
The better evidence is that the boys were reported to frequently levitate and allegedly did so in front of multiple witnesses. There was also some typical poltergeist-type activity with furniture moving around, objects flying across the room and windows popping open on their own. The boys were also said to be able to tell those present of events which they had no conventional way of knowing about. The most impressive of these were the two times that Thiebaud informed witnesses that someone in the village had just died. One was an old woman, so I guess that you could say that he just got lucky on that one, but the other was a construction worker who fell from a building on which he was working. In both instances, he mocked their deaths by falling to his knees and pretending to ring the mourning bell to mark their passing.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence that demons were involved is that the boys were said to know when holy water had been surreptitiously sprinkled on their food and refused to eat it. According to one source, they said that they couldn’t eat it because “Jesus pissed on it.” They also reacted with hostility toward religious symbols and members of the clergy, which some also take as proof of their possession, but any psychology major worth their weight in inkblots could tell you that this is exactly how people who are faking or are convinced that they’re possessed by demons would react to such things.
But even with all of this evidence and the parish priest being convinced that the boys were under the control of demonic forces, it took five years for the bishop of the diocese to approve their exorcisms. It wasn’t until October of 1869 that the first of the two separate rituals to rid them of their diabolic influence was undertaken, and Thiebaud was up first.
At this point, I feel that I should say a few words about the criteria which must be met before the Catholic Church will sanction an exorcism, just to make it clear that the Catholic hierarchy isn’t a bunch of superstitious dupes who still live in the Dark Ages and see the Devil everywhere they look. By the 16th century, medical science had advanced to the point where it was understood that many who had been considered possessed in the past were actually suffering from a medical condition or mental illness. With this in mind, the Rituale Romanum (1614), which contains the guidelines for performing an exorcism, requires that a medical examination be performed by a qualified doctor in order to rule out any illness or condition which could be mistaken for demonic influence. It also states that before any exorcism can be performed, it must be approved by the bishop of the diocese and also grants him the authority of deciding who will perform the rite.
Signs which were taken as indicators of demonic possession almost completely fell outside of the realm of what any physical or mental illness could account for, such as the ability to understand previously unknown languages, knowledge of distant events for which there is no logical explanation, an aversion to holy names, places and symbols, superhuman strength, accurate knowledge of future events, unnatural bodily changes or abilities and, the real clincher, levitation. As you can see, the Illfurth boys had most of these, and even so it still took five years to get their exorcisms approved. The Catholic Church is extremely wary of being deemed superstitious and antiquated when it comes to these things.
Meanwhile, back in Alsace, permission for the exorcisms of the Burner boys had been approved, and Thiebaud was taken to the St. Charles Orphanage in Schiltigheim in late September of 1869. He was reportedly in good spirits during his first few days there, unless they tried to take him into the chapel, at which point he would become rigid and refused to budge. On October 3, the exorcism began, and he was carried into the chapel by three men and bound to a chair while fighting and squirming like a worm on a hot rock. As the prescribed litanies and prayers were being performed at the beginning of the ritual, Thiebaud began screaming insults at the priest (who I’ll call Father S.‡) and complaining that he didn’t want this. When the possessing demon was ordered to give its name, it refused. The exorcism continued for several hours at a stalemate. After this, the boy was removed from the chapel and taken back to his room, at which point he calmed down and became amiable once again.
That night, Thiebaud mentioned to another cleric that he knew who Father S. was because he had cast out a demon once before. As it turns out, Father S. had performed an exorcism on a house several years earlier. The odds that Thiebaud would have known this are pretty slim.
The next afternoon, the exorcism resumed with Thiebaud now in a straitjacket and tied to the chair. This time, the antics began before the ritual even commenced. The chair levitated off the ground despite the three men trying to hold it down. They were tossed about like ragdolls while Thiebaud screamed and howled. The boy settled down (literally) after a few minutes of this and the ritual began.
When the demon was again ordered to give its name, it replied that there were two of them and that their names were Oripas and Ypes. Then there was a lot of arguing and name-calling and the demons refusing to go until Father S. invoked the name of Mary and those present began reciting the Memorare (a prayer for help to Mary), at which point the demons were overcome and they agreed to leave.
Thiebaud then lost consciousness for an hour, and when he awakened he displayed no aversion to the cross or being sprinkled with holy water. He also had no memory of what had happened or how he had come to be in this place. Exactly how far back in time his amnesia extended isn’t entirely clear (yet again, sources vary). If it went all the way back to the very beginning of the ordeal, which most say it did, he must have been quite surprised to suddenly find himself to be 14 and see some of the changes that had taken place, if you know what I mean and I think you do.
The exorcism of Joseph began later that month on October 27. After his brother’s exorcism, one of Joseph’s demons bragged that Thiebaud’s demons were weak but that they would never get rid of him. As it turned out, this was all bravado and the second exorcism took only a few hours.
This time the ritual was performed by their local parish priest, Father Brey. The ceremony took place at the chapel inside of the Burnkirch Cemetery just outside of Illfurth, which seems an eerily appropriate place for an exorcism. Like his brother, Joseph screamed and complained and squirmed as he was being taken into the chapel. Unlike his brother, who had to be straitjacketed and tied to a chair and held down by three men, once they were inside, Joseph was restrained by only one man who managed to hold the boy in place with just his arms. Perhaps he’d had CPI training.
Joseph also remained calm throughout the opening formalities of the ritual. He only became combative when Father Brey confronted him directly. When asked how many demons were present and what their names were, Joseph replied that there was no need for him to know. When Father Brey turned up the heat by reading from the Gospel of St. John, Joseph responded by shouting insults and refusing to leave. This continued for about three hours, during which time one of the demons identified himself as being called Zolalethiel, but none of this brought them any closer to evicting the unwanted guests.
At this point, Father Brey decided to take a page from the playbook of Father S. and invoked the name of Mary. This again took all of the fight out of the demons and they announced that they were leaving to go into a herd of swine. Father Brey would have none of this and ordered them to return to Hell. They replied that they didn’t know the way, and their counteroffer was to go into a flock of geese. Father Brey rejected this proposal and again ordered them back to Hell. They then suggested that they would infest a flock of sheep, but Father Brey was in no mood to haggle.˚ He again ordered them to Hell, and this time they must have known that he meant business. They replied that they would go, and Joseph then convulsed a little, exhaled a deep breath and fell unconscious for a few moments. He then opened his eyes and stretched as if awakening from a long nap.
Sources once again vary as to how much of this Joseph was able to remember. What is known is that Thiebaud died only two years later at the age of 16, while Joseph only did a little better and passed away in 1882 at the age of 25. It would seem that all of this had taken quite a toll on them, although in many stories of demonic possession and exorcism, it’s the exorcist who doesn’t live long afterward.
So how much of this story with its varying discrepancies among different sources should we believe? I guess that depends on you. What is a fact is that there is a statue of the Virgin Mary dedicated to these events in the town square of Illfurth that was commissioned by Father Brey and still stands to this day. On the other hand, some further inconsistencies are that some sources mention the boys’ father, while others make it clear that Mrs. Burner was on her own. One also mentions three other siblings, while the rest don’t mention this at all. It could be argued that these details have no direct bearing at all on the accuracy of the events, but all of these inconsistencies should make the more scrupulous inquirer wonder how many, if any, of these reports come from people with direct knowledge of the events and how many are just repeating a story that they heard and filled in the details as they saw fit, which is pretty much what I’m doing as well. The difference is that I’m willing to admit it.
Maybe the most convincing thing for me that something beyond the ordinary took place is that statue, which includes a plaque inscribed, in Latin, with “In perpetual remembrance of the deliverance of the two possessed Thibaut and Joseph Burner obtained through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary Immaculate, in the year of the Lord 1869.” Clearly Father Brey thought that these events were worth commemorating, and we know that he was there.
*And just before I posted this, I stumbled upon yet another fairly detailed source and had to do some last minute revisions to include elements of their version of the story. This really is just a “whole general mish-mash” recounting of this tale, so take it for what you think it’s worth.
†Of course, those of the Catholic faith will say that this is because theirs is the One True Religion, but I’ll leave it to them to battle that out with the Protestants and adherents of other religions. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that successful exorcisms of evil spirits have been recorded by numerous Western observers in many parts of the world and in vastly different cultures. Demons seem to believe whatever the locals believe.
‡Sources disagree (once again) as to what his name was.
˚Obviously Father Brey drives a much harder bargain than Jesus.