The Possession of Lurancy Vennum
The small town of Watseka, located in the northeastern corner of the state and just a few miles from the Indiana border, was just like any other midwestern farm town in the late 1800's. Little out of the ordinary occurred here --- until July 1877. It was in this month that what became known as the "Watseka Wonder" first came to prominence here.
It was at this time that a 13 year-old girl name Lurancy Vennum first began to fall into mysterious, catatonic trances during which she claimed that she was able to speak to angels and the spirits of the dead. The strange spells would often occur many times each day and some of them would last for hours. During the trances, Lurancy would speak in different voices and tell of places far away that she had no real knowledge about. When she woke up, she wouldn't remember anything that she said or did while she was under the influence of these spells.
Word quickly spread around town that odd things were happening at the home of Thomas and Lurinda Vennum and soon the news began to spread out of town, to Chicago and around the state. Soon, many visitors began to arrive in Watseka, all hoping to see the young girl.
The news of the girl's weird trances gained so much attention due to the fact that the Spiritualist movement was in the height of its popularity at this time. Spiritualism is a movement that is based on the idea that the dead can, and do, communicate with the living.
Those who are able to make contact with the dead were referred to as "mediums" and it was believed that Lurancy Vennum was manifesting mediumistic abilities during her trances. For this reason, Spiritualists from all over Illinois, and from around the country, came to Watseka to see if the stories they heard were true.
The Vennum family was not interested in mediums and Spiritualists however. They were only concerned with the health and welfare of their daughter and they took her to one physician after another in hopes that someone would be able to help her. The doctors could find nothing physically wrong with Lurancy and they eventually diagnosed her as being mentally ill. It was recommended that she be sent to the State Insane Asylum in Peoria. Heartbroken, the Vennum's felt they had no other choice and after the holiday season of 1877, they began to make arrangements to have their daughter committed. They knew there was little chance that Lurancy would ever come home again. In those days, mental hospitals were merely cages to store the insane and offered little in the way of treatment for their conditions.
But before Lurancy could be sent away, in January 1878, a man named Asa Roff, who also resided in Watseka, arrived at the home of the Vennum family. He explained to them that his own daughter, Mary, had been afflicted with the same condition that Lurancy was suffering from. He begged the Vennum's not to send Lurancy to the asylum. He had mistakenly sent his own daughter there years before and she had died in confinement. Despite her death though, he was convinced that his daughter's spirit still existed. And little did he know but it would soon become apparent to many that his daughter's spirit was now inside of the body of Lurancy Vennum
This was the beginning of a series of strange and fantastic events that rocked the town of Watseka and created a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. To understand the events, we must first start at the beginning of the story and try to put together the pieces of the puzzle that has disturbed researchers, historians and the general public for years.
Asa Roff's daughter, Mary, was born in Indiana in October 1846. Starting at the age of six months, Mary began to suffer from strange fits and seizures, which over the course of the next 19 years gradually increased in violence. Her life finally ended on the afternoon of July 5, 1865 while hospitalized at the State Mental Asylum in Peoria. Her father had been forced to have her committed after a bizarre incident when she began slashing her arms with a straight razor. It was the final tragedy that brought an end to Mary's descent into madness and insanity.
Mary's childhood had never been normal. Her seizures began when she was an infant and as a young child, began to complain of mysterious voices that she heard in her head. The voices, she said, came from nowhere and told her to do things that she knew she shouldn't. As she grew older, she began to experience long periods when she stayed in a trance-like state. Then came her moments of awakening, when she spoke in other voices and seemed to be possessed by the spirits of other people. During these trances, she was said to have manifested clairvoyant powers that were carefully investigated by "all of the prominent citizens of Watseka, including newspaper editors and clergymen." Mary was able to speak of places that she had never been to, often with uncanny accuracy, was reportedly able to predict future events and knew things about people that she should have had no way of knowing. Shortly after, her mind began to deteriorate and she became violent with stranger and soon, with her own family as well. Mary developed an obsession with blood and became convinced that she needed to remove the blood from her body, using pins, leeches and at last, a sharpened razor.
After that final incident, her parents discovered her on the floor of her room, unconscious and lying in a pool of her own blood. They had no choice but to commit her to the state asylum and here, Mary endured more agony as the "cures" for insanity in those days were just short of barbaric. One of the favored treatments of the 1860's was the Water Cure, in which a patient would be immersed naked into a tub of icy water and then taken to a tub of scalding water after their body temperature had sufficiently lowered. In addition, female patients, like Mary, received a cold water douche, administered with a hose and then they were wrapped tightly in wet sheets to squeeze the blood vessels shut. This was followed by vigorous rubbing to restore circulation. The "treatments" were administered several times each week but not surprisingly, such techniques brought little success and most of the patients never got better. Mary, like so many others, showed no improvement and she soon died.
At the time of Mary Roff's death, Lurancy Vennum was a little more than one year old. In just over a decade though, the two girls' lives would be forever connected in a case that still remains one of the strangest, and most authentic, cases of possession ever recorded.
Lurancy Vennum was born on April 16, 1864 and she and her family moved to Watseka when she was seven years-old, long after Mary Roff's brief moments of notoriety in town and her tragic death. The Vennum family knew nothing of the girl, her strange illness or anything about the Roff family at all. But on July 11, 1877, the strange events began.
On that otherwise ordinary morning, Lurancy got out of bed feeling very dizzy and nauseated. She complained to her mother about feeling sick and then suddenly collapsed onto the floor, passed out cold. She stayed in a deep, catatonic sleep for the next five hours but when she woke up, she said that she felt fine. But this was just the beginning. The following day, Lurancy again slipped into a trance-like sleep but this time was different. This time, as she lay perfectly still, she began to speak out loud, talking of visions and spirits and carrying on conversations with people that no one else could see. She told her family that she was in heaven and that she could see and hear spirits, including the spirit of her brother, who had died in 1874.
After that day, the trances that Lurancy suffered came more and more frequently and sometimes they lasted for more than eight hours at a time.
While she was under the spells, she continued to speak about her visions, which were often terrifying. She claimed that some of the spirits chased her through the house and shouted her name. The attacks occurred as many as a dozen times each day and as they continued, Lurancy started to speak in other languages, or at least spouted nonsense words that no one could understand. When she awoke each time, she would remember nothing of what happened during the trance and was ignorant of her strange ramblings.
Stories and rumors about Lurancy and her visions began to circulate in Watseka. People were talking about the weird happenings and the local newspaper printed stories about her . No one followed the case more closely than Asa Roff did. In the early stages of his own daughter's illness, she had also claimed to communicate with spirits and she often fell into long, sometimes violent, trances. He became convinced that Lurancy Vennum was suffering with the same affliction that Mary had. In spite of this, Roff said nothing until the Vennum family had exhausted every known cure for Lurancy and after the local doctor and a minister suggested that the girl be sent away to the state asylum. At this point, he became determined to try and help. He refused to see another young woman end up in the hands of the doctors who had tortured his Mary.
Asa Roff called on the Vennum family on January 31, 1878. They were naturally skeptical of his story but he did persuade them to let him bring a Dr. E. Winchester Stevens to the house to examine Lurancy. Stevens, like Roff, was a dedicated Spiritualist and the two men became convinced that Lurancy was not insane. They believed that the girl was a vessel through which the dead were communicating. Roff only wished that he had seen the same evidence in his own daughter years before. He believed that because no one had been able to help Mary, she had been driven insane by the gifts and abilities that she possessed. He didn't want that to happen to another young woman and so he begged the Vennum's to let he and Dr. Stevens do everything they could for Lurancy.
Thomas and Lurinda reluctantly agreed and Dr. Stevens "mesmerized" the girl and tried to contact the spirits through her. Within moments, Lurancy began speaking in another voice, which allegedly came from a spirit named Katrina Hogan. A few moments later, the spirit changed and now claimed to be that of Willie Canning, a young man who had committed suicide. She spoke with Willie's voice for over an hour and then suddenly, she threw her arms into the air and collapsed. Dr. Stevens took her hands and soon, Lurancy calmed down and gained control over her body again. She was now in heaven, she said, and would allow a gentler spirit to control her.
She said that the spirit's name was Mary Roff.
The trance continued for the rest of the evening and into the next day. During this time, Lurancy claimed to be Mary Roff. She claimed that she had no idea where she was, unable to recognize the Vennum house, which was a place that "Mary Roff" had never been. She wanted to go home, she said, back to the Roff house. The news of this new development quickly spread and when Mrs. Roff heard what had happened, she hurried to the Vennum house in the company of her married daughter, Minerva Alter. The two women hurried up the sidewalk of the Vennum house and saw Lurancy sitting by the window. "Here comes Ma and Nervie", she reportedly said and ran up to hug the two surprised women. No one had called Minerva by the nickname "Nervie" since Mary's death in 1865.
It seemed entirely possible to everyone involved that Mary Roff had taken control of Lurancy. Even though the girl still looked like Lurancy Vennum, she knew everything about the Roff family and she treated them as her loved ones. The Vennum's, on the other hand, were treated very courteously but she was distantly polite with them, as though living and speaking with strangers. The Vennum's were understandably shocked and unnerved by the turn of events. Their daughter had become someone completely unknown to them.
On February 11, Lurancy --- or rather "Mary" --- was allowed to go to the Roff home. Tom and Lurinda agreed that this arrangement would be for the best for now, although they desperately hoped that Lurancy would regain her true identity. The Roff's, however, saw the "possession" as a miracle, as though Mary had returned from the grave. They took Lurancy across town and as they were taking the buggy ride, they passed by the former Roff home, where they had been living when Mary died. She demanded to know why they were not returning there and they had to explain that they had moved several years before. This was, as far as Asa Roff and his supporters were concerned, further proof that Lurancy had been possessed by the dead girl.
For the next several months, Lurancy lived as Mary and seemed to have forgotten her former life. She did, however, tell Mrs. Roff that she would only be with them until "some time in May". But as the days passed, Lurancy continued to show that she knew more about the Roff family, their possessions and their habits than she could have possibly known if she had been merely faking the whole thing. Many of the incidents and stories that she referred to had taken place years before Lurancy had even been born. Her physical condition began to improve while staying with the Roff's and she no longer suffered from the fits that had plagued her.
She was happy and quite contented while living in the Roff home and she recognized and called by name many of the neighbors and family friends known to Mary during her lifetime. In contrast, she claimed not to recognize any family members, friends or associates of the Vennum's. Even though the Vennum's allowed their daughter to live with the Roff family, they did ask her to visit them as often as possible. Lurancy, while living as Mary, came often in the company of Mrs. Roff and she soon learned to love these "strangers" as friends.
Of course, not everyone in Watseka believed that Lurancy had been possessed by the spirit of Mary Roff. Several of the doctors who had attempted to treat Lurancy started scathing rumors about Dr. Stevens and the Vennum's pastor pleaded with them to have Lurancy committed. He predicted a time when they would wish that they had followed his advice. Both families were ridiculed by many in the community but they ignored the laughter and disdain, believing that something truly miraculous was taking place.
Finally, in early May, Lurancy told the Roff family that it was nearly time for her to leave. She became very sad and despondent and spent the entire day going from one family member to another, hugging them and touching them at every opportunity. She became increasingly upset over the next few days, weeping at the thought of leaving her "real family". Over the next two weeks, a battle raged for the control of Lurancy's physical body. At one moment, Lurancy would announce that she had to leave and at the next would cling to her father and cry at the idea of leaving him.
Two days later, Mary was gone.
On May 21, Lurancy returned home to the Vennum house. She displayed none of the strange symptoms of her earlier illness and her parents were convinced that she had somehow been cured, thanks to the intervention of the spirit of Mary Roff. She soon became a healthy and happy young woman, suffering no ill effects from her strange experience.
What really happened in Watseka? Did the spirit of Mary Roff really possess the body of Lurancy Vennum? The families of both young women, as well as hundreds of friends and supporters, certainly thought so. What other explanation exists for what happened? And what happened in the years that followed?