In the late 1880s, few residents of the small farming town of Watseka, Illinois, would have guessed that they were about to witness one of the era’s most famous cases of possession. At the time, the movement called Spiritualism was at its height. Even a few Watseka residents believed that the dead could communicate with the living through mediums and other means. Still, none were prepared for the strange events of 1877-78 – when a possessed young girl named Lurancy Vennum would be dubbed “The Watseka Wonder.”
Mary Lurancy Vennum was born in 1864 to parents Thomas and Lurinda. Her family moved to Watseka in 1873, but by July of 1877, the 13-year-old had begun behaving strangely. At first, she merely felt dizzy and nauseous, but Lurancy eventually collapsed and fell into a catatonic sleep.
Although she awoke feeling refreshed, the fainting spells continued and became more intense. Lurancy also began to speak while sleeping – of angels, demons, and the spirits of the dead, including her late brother and sister. At times, the dreams were darker, including several where she ran from spirits chasing her through the house. Soon, she was experiencing these spells for up to 8 hours each day. Lurancy also began speaking in other peoples’ voices, describing faraway places and peoples in striking detail. Upon waking, though, the girl had no memory of the experiences she had described.
As word spread, spiritualists recognized the early symptoms of mediumistic abilities and came from all over to witness the girl’s wondrous powers. Meanwhile, the Vennums watched helplessly as their daughter’s symptoms worsened. She began speaking in foreign languages or garbled speech, and her personality began changing, as if possessed by other beings. Thomas and Lurinda called in multiple physicians, none of whom could find anything wrong with Lurancy. Eventually, one diagnosed her with mental illness and recommended that she be sent to the State Insane Asylum in Peoria, Illinois.
A History of Spirits
Over the holiday season of 1877, Vennums prepared to send their precious daughter to the Asylum. However, in January 1878, local spiritualist and town founder Asa Roff intervened. He explained that the Asylum would only make Lurancy’s problems worse, as Roff had learned as much himself, from his own daughter’s death in confinement.
Asa Roff then detailed the suffering of Mary Roff, born in 1846. At just six months old, she’d begun suffering fits much like those that troubled Lurancy. As she’d grown, they had increased in severity, with Mary hearing voices that told her to do impossible things. Soon, his daughter was falling into long trances, during which she would awaken as if possessed and speak in another person’s voice. At the same time, she seemed to develop clairvoyant abilities, speaking of far-off lands and future events with uncanny accuracy.
However, the weight of her powers soon took its toll, and Mary became violent, with an obsession with blood that led to her cutting herself with a razor. At 19, she was found in a pool of blood from self-inflicted arm wounds and taken to the State Asylum. This was no mercy, as ‘therapy’ involved torture like the Water Cure, during which a patient was dunked in icy and scalding water. Soon enough, Mary passed away on July 5th, 1865, and the Roffs became spiritualists intent on communicating with their daughter. So it was that Lurancy came to their attention, and Asa paid a visit to his neighbors to beg them not to send her to Peoria.
Once the Vennums agreed to his help, the elder Roff called in Dr. E. Winchester Stevens. Both Roff and Winchester became utterly convinced that Lurancy was a medium possessed by the spirits of the dead. Her parents begrudgingly allowed the girl to be mesmerized, and she began speaking as two spirits – an older woman named Katrina Hogan and recent Watseka suicide Willie Canning. After an hour, though, the girl tossed her arms up and collapsed, allowing in a gentler spirit – Mary Roff.
Mary then explained to the Vennums, Asa Roff, and Dr. Stevens that Lurancy was very ill and required some time away with the angels in heaven. There, she could be cured, while Mary spent time with her family. To the Roff’s obvious joy, Lurancy’s trance continued, and their daughter was returned to them. Although the Vennums had had little to no interaction with the Roffs, Lurancy seemed to know everything that Mary had. She immediately treated them as her beloved family, calling out as Mrs. Roff and Mary’s sister, Minerva, approached the Vennums’ house, “Here comes Ma and Nervie.”
Thomas and Lurinda, meanwhile, kept their distance. When Mary eventually asked whether she might spend around 3 months with the Roff family, they hesitantly agreed. From February 10th to May 21st of 1878, the Vennums would regularly visit, though their daughter barely knew them, and watch in wonder as her health improved.
A Daughter Reincarnated
For the Roffs, Mary’s return was a miracle. The girl demonstrated an uncanny knowledge of Mary’s life and of the afterlife. On the way to the Roffs’ home, she asked why they did not stop at the family’s original house, which they had left after Mary’s death. Upon entering their new house, she pointed out and played her favorite songs on her old piano. Mary recognized friends and neighbors from her previous life, and she spoke about the previous occasions when the Roffs had summoned her through mediums, as well as her own burial. The returned Roff girl even spoke of the wounds she’d cut on her arm, touching the same place on Lurancy’s limb and noting “This is not the arm; that one is in the ground.”
During that time, the Roff’s parlor was host to constant visitors as spiritualists came from all around to hear Mary’s accounts of the afterlife. In séances, she channeled deceased family and friends and once insisted upon the name of an unknown child from the family of Reverend Rhea – that questioning the family would reveal to be true. On another occasion, Mary left Lurancy to inhabit a visiting man, laugh, and then return to her host. Throughout, Lurancy’s physical condition continued to improve under the care of Dr. Stevens, despite rumors spread by other doctors and even the Vennums’ pastor.
When May came around, Mary became despondent and spoke privately with Mrs. Roff about having to leave soon. In the following days, she spent time with each family member, holding them as she wept with grief. However, one day, Lurancy briefly broke free and then allowed Mary to return for another two weeks, at which the doubly reincarnated Roff girl announced the need to sing her favorite tune, “We Are Coming, Sister Mary.”
A Life Renewed
On May 21st, Mary left, and Lurancy returned – both to life and to the Vennum family home. With her health restored, she soon wed an eligible young man George Binning and moved to another town to live out her new life thanks to the intervention of Mary Roff. In the years that followed, Lurancy would occasionally visit the Roffs for séances and allow Mary to visit through her.
For their part, the Roff family never stopped believing in the spirit of Mary. Dr. Stevens, meanwhile, wrote accounts of Mary’s return for The Religio-Philosophical Journal and his 1887 book, The Watseka Wonder. On the other hand, psychologist Frank Sargent Hoffman called it a clear case of hysterical impersonation. Since then, it has been retold again and again – including the 1977 novel Watseka and the Booth Brothers’ documentary, The Possessed. Whatever you believe, the Watseka Wonder is America’s first documented case of spiritual possession – and a true tale of one young woman’s transformation from a troubled teen to a healthy adult.
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