Safe as Houses: Vollmer farm, Antwerp, Victoria
The road to death is paved with good intentions on a remote Victorian farm.
- WARNING: The following articles contain descriptions of violent crimes some may find disturbing
Isolation can have an odd effect on people. Cut someone off from human contact long enough and the mind begins to play tricks. A study cited in Scientific American found extreme isolation could cause emotional instability, deteriorating reasoning skills and even hallucinations.
Sometimes, counterintuitively, isolation is not an individual proposition. It can affect an entire community, causing it to become insular, suspicious and prone to strange ideas that remain unchallenged by the outside world.
To say that the tiny community of Antwerp in regional Victoria is isolated would be an understatement. Situated about 350 kilometres north of Melbourne, the town doesn’t have a pub, shops or any other central civilisation to speak of. Even within this already remote community, Ralph and Joan Vollmer had further isolated themselves.
The Vollmers had moved to Antwerp in 1987 and had taken up pig farming. Some of their sole social contact came in their involvement, mostly driven by Ralph, with a tiny fundamentalist church. The church’s leader, Leah Clugston, had been expelled from a Lutheran congregation for her extreme beliefs, most notably in the ubiquity of demon possession.
The entrance to the Vollmer farm. Google Maps.
And so it was that in January 1993, Ralph Vollmer became convinced his wife was possessed by demons. At the couple’s home, a property so remote Google Maps does not ascribe it a street address, 49-year-old Joan had started acting strangely. Ralph told friends his wife had begun using foul language, behaving erratically and sometimes bizarrely sexually. A trip to Ballarat Hospital saw Joan diagnosed with schizophrenia, but she was released and sent home.
For the devout Ralph, the problem seemed purely a spiritual one. He tied his wife in the basement, but her screams kept him awake at night. Desperate, Ralph contacted two other members of the couple’s church, amateur exorcists Leanne Reichenbach and David Klingner. Together, the trio diagnosed Joan as being under the thrall of 10 demons, and set about trying to exorcise them.
The process was harrowing, with Reichenbach, Klingner and Ralph Vollmer binding Joan with her own stockings and denying her food and water so as to starve out the demons. As the sweltering outback heat began to take its toll, Joan screamed and begged for water. For Reichenbach, Klingner and Vollmer, this was a sure sign they were making progress.
But the trio decided the problem was too big for them to handle by themselves. They needed someone more skilled, and called upon 23-year-old Matthew Nuske. Nuske was the assistant greenskeeper at a local golf course and had never actually performed an exorcism, but the young man’s mother had assured the trio that young Matthew had special powers.
Upon his arrival at the property, the first thing Matthew did was direct the group to wrap the house in Glad wrap, which he told them would serve as a barrier to evil spirits. He also had the group of exorcists douse themselves in olive oil. To chase away any lurking demons, he told the group to smash some of her treasured possessions with a hammer and pull up her garden. This done, they then set to work on Joan herself.
The exorcism became increasingly violent, as the group slapped Joan, bashed her head against a wall, sat on her and pummeled her neck and head, which they believed would squeeze the demons out of her body. Somewhere around the evening of January 30, 1993, the exorcists finally claimed victory when the life ebbed from Joan’s eyes and she fell silent. They reasoned that this was merely part of the process, that it was entirely logical that Joan’s body would die as the demons fled. God, they believed, would resurrect her with haste.
The property where Joan Vollmer met her end. Source: Google Maps.
After 48 hours and with no resurrection in sight, the group finally called a local Baptist minister for help. He found them calmly eating lunch as Joan’s body decomposed on the kitchen table. As calmly as he could, he suggested they call the authorities.
Ralph’s faith remained unshaken, even at Joan’s funeral. Smiling and laughing, he told the media who had descended upon the tiny town that all this had been foreordained; that God had assembled them there to witness the miracle of Joan rising anew from the grave. As the dirt rained down on Joan’s coffin, reality seemed to take root in Ralph’s mind and he began to weep.
For their part in Joan’s death, the group got off lightly. They swore they had had her best interests at heart, and thoroughly believed they were working to save her rather than cause her harm. Reichenbach and Klingner were found guilty of manslaughter and false imprisonment, Nuske only of false imprisonment and, for his role in his wife’s demise, Ralph Vollmer was found guilty of false imprisonment and recklessly causing injury. Reichenbach would serve four months in prison, Klingner three and both Nuske and Vollmer were handed suspended sentences.
The house where Joan Vollmer was imprisoned and tortured by her trusted husband and friends still stands, though it hasn’t been inhabited since. There is a dearth of information on the Vollmer farm, including its address, and CoreLogic doesn’t even have enough data to ascribe a median house price to the area.
Nevertheless, the Vollmer farm remains a testament to the horror that can be wrought by ostensibly well-meaning people. Today, it is a rite of passage for teenagers in the region to sneak onto the property, confronting its terrifying past.
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