City Paper is not for tourists
Cottage City makes you think you’ve rolled into some quaint crabbing town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Most of the houses are one-story bungalows, often distinguishable only by the shade of paint and type of porch chime. Seagulls swirl around “Port Town” banners that hang from street lights along the main drag. The town’s most prominent building is the two-story brick firehouse, built back in 1939. For generations, most Cottage City males have served as volunteers, while the females have loyally belonged to the Ladies Auxiliary. The tiny place has its share of churches: There are a storefront Pentecostal building, a Presbyterian chapel, and a former apartment building that houses the Overcoming Power Bible Way Church. The newest flock is based in somebody’s residence: A marquee on wheels parked in the front yard announces to passers-by, “GOD’S FINAL CALL AND WARNING, INC.”
Despite appearances, Cottage City lies just across the District line in Prince George’s County. Shaped by the Anacostia River, Bladensburg Road, Eastern Avenue, and the Baltimore and Ohio (CSX) Railroad, the town’s peculiar geography has allowed it to quietly hide from development and the forces that shape the world beyond its confines. It is the sort of insular backwater town that seldom grabs headlines or makes the evening news. Its biggest claim to history is a rank embarrassment: Here in 1814 occurred the only defeat of American troops by foreign invaders on U.S. soil, the Battle of Bladensburg, in which the British whipped a band of Yanks into full retreat, then marched into Washington to capture and burn the capitol. Not exactly the sort of heroism that snags a town a monument.
From the ’20s through the ’50s, when the notorious Bladensburg Strip roared with nightclubs and beer joints, Cottage City kept to itself. On its far southern boundary, along Eastern Avenue, there was a casino run by Jimmy LaFontaine. Operating out of a mansion, Jimmy’s Place was one of the East Coast’s hottest illegal gambling operations, but it was kept very discreetall that round-the-clock deviltry held in check behind a tall green fence that lined the property.
The only gambling around here now happens on bingo nights (Tuesdays and Thursdays) at the firehouse. Cottage City has managed to retain its small-town façade even as its population of nearly 1,300 has radically changed. The few left who were born and raised here are mostly elderly shut-ins, venturing outside their homes only when their children come by to take them on weekly trips to the grocery store. So a generation of newcomers now resides in the town that time forgot.
Cottage City: A nice place to raise your kids, where the houses are small but the shade trees are big, where nothing ever happens, because everybody’s too tired to do anything after work. But there is another side to sleepy Cottage City that’s long been kept in the dark. For a half-century, this quaint little town has been harboring a big secret.
“There it is; it happened at the house right over there.” William Hall Sr. points through the drapes of his front window to a bungalow across the street. Retired from a three-decade stint with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the 62-year-old wears a white T-shirt and a small silver cross around his neck. “That’s the Exorcist house.”
It is a butterscotch-and-brown cottage, a comfy sofa on the front porch. Like its immediate neighbors, it is one-and-a-half stories, a barely noticeable aberration from the majority of squat one-story houses in Cottage City. A couple of large, floppy dogs lounge in the front yard, vying for space with a pile of toys. It’s a cute place: In fact, it’s adorable, more like a home for a hobbit with kids than the stomping grounds for the devil.
The house stood empty for more than a year, until a few months ago, when a new family settled in. Lots of young’uns, nice folks. As the chair of the Cottage City Commission, Hall greets new residents, including the newcomers who move into that house. “See, I’m like the mayor of the town,” he says. “When somebody moves in, I go over and introduce myself and let them know what kind of people we are, what kind of town we are, what the regulations are, when trash pickup is. So I went over there, but I didn’t tell them this was the Exorcist house. It’s just a house, and it’s been years since that happened, so they don’t need to know anything about it.”
The trouble that Hall obliquely acknowledges happened in that cozy little bungalow way back in 1949. That was when neighbors started hearing stories about the 13-year-old only child who lived there. Beds moving, dishes levitating, all sorts of strange things. On advice from her Lutheran minister, the boy’s distraught mother finally took him to a priest at a Catholic church in nearby Mount Rainier, in hopes of cleansing the boy of what church officials believed was demonic possession. The series of exorcisms (it took several attempts) eventually did the trick, according to media reports like the one in the Washington Post, which announced in its Aug. 20, 1949, edition: “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” That headline caught the eye of a Georgetown University student, William Peter Blatty, whose best-selling novel The Exorcist changed the setting to Georgetown and made the protagonist a girl. In the following years, and especially after the wildly popular 1973 film version, rumors persisted that the events had actually taken place in Mount Rainier, along Rhode Island Avenue just north of the District line.
But the tale really took off after a 1981 article in a local newspaper (“Demonic Possession Still Haunts Mt. Rainier Residents”) and later a 1993 Doubleday book, Possessed: The True Story of an Exorcism and a 1997 film documentary, In the Grip of Evil. These reports claimed to identify the Mount Rainier home where Satan had supposedly paid his visit back in 1949. By then, the site of the long-since-demolished three-story house had become a haunted hangout for local teensthe “devil’s house,” they called itand the stuff of local folklore.
But an article in the current issue (#20) of Rockville-based Strange Magazine argues convincingly that the legend is just that. “The belief that the haunted boy had lived in that house was nothing more than an urban myth,” writes local author Mark Opsasnick in his exhaustively researched, 26-page exposé, titled “The Haunted Boy of Cottage City: The Cold Hard Facts Behind the Story that Inspired The Exorcist.”
In the article, Opsasnick argues that the priest at St. James Catholic Church misled the press into believing the boy was from Mt. Rainier in order to protect his identity. It was an easy story to swallow, since the mostly Victorian-style neighborhood of Mount Rainier seemed a more suitably spooky setting for evil to show up. Why would the devil go into bland little Cottage City?
What Opsasnick discovered is that the residents of Cottage City have been more than willing to let Mount Rainier take the credit. As the old-timers who knew the truth moved out or died off, those few who remained simply kept their mouths shut.
When Hall moved to Cottage City in the late ’60s, he heard talk that the bungalow across the street was the “Exorcist house,” but the tale was already viewed as ancient history, and, besides, the family hadn’t lived there since 1958. Hall has raised six children who care little for the movie or the book based on the house, and he says nothing out of the ordinary has happened there in all those years.
There has been only one minor bit of gory bad luck since then. In the ’60s and ’70s, the house was occupied by a family of Germans, headed up by a former Olympic running star. One day, Hall heard the neighbor’s wife let out a horrific scream, so he rushed over: “What happened was this guy was mowing the lawn and he slipped and he got caught in the lawn mower, and it chopped his toes off. I put some bandages on until the fire department got there. They could only save his big toe, [and] he had to get special shoes so he could walk.”
As the town’s highest elected official, Hall isn’t all that excited about Cottage City’s getting its proper due after all these years; he’s more concerned with his ongoing sidewalk renovation project: “I didn’t get into politics for the money,” he says. “I get $50 a month$27.16 after taxesto do my job. This is a fabulous community, and I don’t want people to shy away from the town because something like that happened,” he says. “That’s what I’m worried about.”
On the other hand, he is worried that publicity could attract the curious, and that’s an equally dour prospect. The new tenants are renters, and so far they’ve made good neighbors. “You might get everybody comin’ in, saying, ‘Now, where is that house?’ and then we’d be infringing on those people’s privacy.”
Ultimately, the story of the Exorcist house holds little interest for Hall, mostly because he wasn’t here when “it” happened. “I’m just going on heresay myself,” he admits. “I didn’t know ’em. You oughta talk to Scottyhe knew ’em.”
A Cottage City resident since 1919, T. Weston Scott Jr. lives just down the street from Hall’s place in a cottage he bought back in the late 1930s. A few blocks the other way stands the house of his late father, and his sons also live in Cottage City. Outside Scott’s tidy bungalow sits a small plaster statue of the Virgin Mary, whose cloak is a brilliant blue thanks to a recent restoration and paint job, courtesy of his daughter.
The 82-year-old Scott recalls the gossip he heard about the so-called Exorcist house, and he always thought it was a lot of bunk spread by busybodies: “I knew all about it from the neighbors talkingmoving beds and someone screaming and all that stuff. I never paid that much attention to it.”
A retired D.C. firefighter, Scott also served as a volunteer (and chief) for the Cottage City Fire Department. Back in 1949, he made several official visits to the house after neighbors reported some sort of “commotion,” as Scott puts it. Each time turned out to be a false alarm: Whatever had been going on to spur the calls had always ended by the time the fire truck made it down the street. The boy supposedly causing all this ruckus struck Scott as nothing special, no different from any of the other neighborhood kids, including his own sons, who knew him. “People said he did things out in the woods and chased animals and such, but I never knew anything against him,” says Scott. “They claimed he could do odd things. But I didn’t really believe in that stuff. The priest who was involved in thisFather HughesI knew him well. My wife was a member of his church. He visited with us all the time, but he never talked about it.”
Scott has never bothered with the book or the movie, both of which he regards as foolishness piled on top of foolishness. Still, he admits that it wasn’t your typical goings-on at the house down the street, that’s for sure: “I do know that something happened up at the house and they had to get out of there.”
There are only a few families left in Cottage City who would remember any of this, he says, but they probably don’t want to talk about it. Then he pauses: “It was mostly all the women gossiping. You oughta talk to the lady up the streetshe knows all about it. She knew the family.”
The old woman sits precariously in a chair, propped in front of the remains of a lunch prepared by her daughter visiting from Laurel. She’s been feeling rather poorly of late, and she’s in no mood to try to remember things from 50 years ago. “Everybody says it happened in Mount Rainier,” she says. “The only thing I’ve ever heard is Mount Rainier.”
Pregnant at the time, she had more to worry about than whatever wild rumors were making the rounds. Even though it was just a few doors down, the house might as well have been in another world for all she cared. “I wasn’t interested, because I was raising a family and I had enough to do minding my own business. We had just moved here, and we didn’t know anybody. Being new in the neighborhood, I wasn’t familiar with anybody.”
Eventually, she was accepted into the bosom of the community, which has changed for the worse, in her opinion. “It’s not what it used to be,” she says. “You could depend on your neighbors. If you were sick, you knew your neighbor would come by. Now, you could die and they wouldn’t come.”
One thing that’s always been the same: She’s always been kept out of the loop, Ladies Auxiliary member or no. “The people around here are very secretive,” she grouses. “I don’t know what’s going onI’m the last one to hear anything anyhow. I believe they should put it to rest. I mean, most of the people are dead. The priests are dead. I knew Father Hugheshe was a very good friend of oursbut he never spoke of it. That was a dead subject.”
Her daughter stands nearby, nodding her head in assent to her mother’s declarations.
“All I ever heard was that it happened in Mount Rainier,” says the old woman with grim finality. “I’m convinced that it was over in Mount Rainier.”CP