The Watseka Wonder
The small town of Watseka, Illinois is located about 50 miles south of Chicago and on the eastern side of the state, just a few miles from the Indiana border. The sensation that would come to be known as the “Watseka Wonder” would first make it’s appearance here in July of 1877.
‘It was at this time that a 13-year-old girl named Lurancy Vennum first fell into a strange, catatonic sleep during which she claimed to speak with spirits. The attacks occurred many times each day and sometimes lasted as long as eight hours. During her trance, Lurancy would speak in different voices although when she awoke, she would remember nothing. News of the strange girl traveled about the state and during this time of popularity for the Spiritualist movement, many visitors came to see her.
‘Finally, doctors diagnosed Lurancy as being mentally ill and they recommended that she be sent to the State Insane Asylum in Peoria, Illinois. In January of 1878, a man named Asa Roff, also from Watseka, came to visit the Vennum family. He claimed that his own daughter, Mary, had been afflicted with the same condition as Lurancy…and he was convinced that his daughter had actually spoken to spirits.
‘He was also convinced that his daughter’s spirit still existed….but little did he know, that she was right now inside the body of Lurancy Vennum!
To understand the strange and fantastic events that took place in Watseka, we must first start at the beginning of the tale and try to piece together a puzzle that has disturbed investigators for years. Is spirit possession really possible? If you explore the strange case of the “Watseka Wonder”, you just might believe that it is!
‘Mary Roff died on the afternoon of July 5, 1865 while hospitalized at the State Mental Asylum in Peoria. She had been committed there after a bizarre incident when she began slashing at her arms with a straight razor. It was the final tragedy in Mary’s descent into madness and insanity. In the beginning, it had only been the strange voices that seemed to come from nowhere; next were the 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; then finally, came her obsession with blood. Mary was 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, no longer conscious and lying in a pool of blood. Broken-hearted, they took her to the asylum and here, Mary endured more tragedy as the “cures” for insanity in those days were hardly up to the standards of psychiatric hospitals of today. A favored treatment in the 1860′s was the Water Cure, where a patient would be immersed naked in a tub of icy water and then taken to a tub of scalding water.
And there was more…. female patients, like Mary, received a cold water douche, administered with a hose and then wet sheets were wrapped tightly around them to squeeze the blood vessels shut. This was followed by vigorous rubbing to restore circulation. These treatments were administered several times each week.
‘Not surprisingly, such techniques brought little success and most patients never improved. Mental hospitals at that time were merely cages to store the insane and it would be some years to come before any real progress was made in mental health care.
‘Like most others, Mary showed no improvement and soon died.
At the time of Mary Roff’s death, Lurancy Vennum was a little more than one year old…. but in just over a decade, their lives would be forever connected in a case that remains today as one of the strangest, and most authentic, cases of possession ever recorded.
Lurancy Vennum had been born on April 16, 1864 and she and her family had moved to Watseka when she was seven years old. Since they arrived long after Mary Roff’s death, the Vennum family knew nothing of her strange illness, nor did they know the Roff family, other than to speak to them on the streets of the small town.
‘Then on July 11, 1877, a series of strange events would begin.
On that morning, Lurancy complained to her mother about feeling sick and then collapsed onto the floor, passed out cold. She stayed in a deep, catatonic sleep for the next five hours but when she awoke, she seemed fine. But this was only the beginning….
‘The next day, Lurancy once again slipped off into the trance-like sleep but this time was different, as she began speaking aloud of visions and spirits. In her trance, she told her family that she was in heaven and that she could see and hear spirits, including the spirit of her brother, whom had died in 1874.
From that day on, the trances began to occur more and more frequently and would sometimes last for up to eight hours. While she was asleep, Lurancy continued to speak about her visions, which were sometimes terrifying. She claimed that spirits were chasing her through the house and shouting her name. The attacks occurred up to a dozen times each day and as they continued, Lurancy began to speak in other languages, or at least in nonsense words that no one could understand. When she awoke, she would remember nothing of her trance nor of her strange ramblings.
‘The stories and rumors about Lurancy and her visions began to circulate in Watseka. People were certainly talking and even the local newspaper printed stories about her. No one followed the case more closely than Asa Roff, the father of Mary Roff. In the early stages of Mary’s illness, she too had claimed to communicate with spirits and would fall into long trances without warning. He was sure that Lurancy Vennum was suffering from the same illness as his poor daughter. But Roff said nothing until the Vennum family exhausted every known cure for Lurancy. It was not until the local doctor and a minister suggested that the girl be sent to the State Mental Hospital that Roff got involved. He refused to see another young woman end up as his Mary did in the hands of the doctors.
On January 31, 1878, he contacted the Vennum family. They were naturally skeptical of his story but he did persuade them to let him bring a Dr. E. Winchester Stevens to the house. Stevens, like Asa Roff, was a dedicated Spiritualist and the two men had become convinced that Lurancy was not insane. They believed that Lurancy was actually a vessel through which the dead were communicating. Roff only wished that he had seen the same evidence in his own daughter years before.
‘The Vennum’s allowed Dr. Stevens to “mesmerize” the girl and try to contact the spirits through her. Within moments, Lurancy was speaking in another voice, which allegedly came from a spirit named Katrina Hogan. Then, the spirit changed and claimed to be that of Willie Canning, a young man who had committed suicide. She spoke as Willie for over an hour and then suddenly, she threw her arms into the air and fell over backward. Dr. Stevens took her hands and soon, Lurancy calmed and gained control of her body again. She was now in heaven and would allow a gentler spirit to control her.
She said the spirit’s name was Mary Roff.
‘The trance continued on into the next day and by this time, Lurancy apparently was Mary Roff. She said that she wanted to leave the Vennum house, which was unfamiliar to her, and go home to the Roff house. When Mrs. Roff heard the news, she hurried to the Vennum house in the company of her married daughter, Minerva Alter.
The two women came up the sidewalk 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 name “Nervie” since Mary’s death in 1865.
‘t now seemed evident to everyone involved that Mary had taken control of Lurancy Vennum. Although she looked the same, she knew everything about the Roff family and treated them as her loved ones. The Vennum’s, on the other hand, although treated very courteously, were seen with a distant politeness. It was as if their own daughter only knew them as friendly strangers.
‘On February 11, Lurancy, or rather “Mary”, was allowed to go home with the Roff’s. Mr. and Mrs. Vennum agreed that it would be for the best, although they desperately hoped that Lurancy would regain her true identity. The Roff’s however, saw this as a miracle, as though Mary had returned from the grave.
Lurancy was taken across town and as they traveled, 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 a few years back. Further evidence that Lurancy was now Mary Roff?
For the next several months, Lurancy lived as Mary and seemed to have completely forgotten her former life. She did however, tell her mother that she would only be with them until “some time in May”. As time passed, Lurancy continued to show that she knew more about the Roff family, their possessions and habits, than she could have possibly known if she had been faking the whole thing. Many of the incidents and remembrances that she referred to had taken place years before Lurancy had even been born.
‘Of course, not everyone in Watseka believed that Mary had taken possession of Lurancy’s body and ridiculed the very idea of it. 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.
In early May, Lurancy told the Roff family that it was time for her to leave. She became very sad and despondent and would spend the day going from one family member to the next, hugging them and touching them at every opportunity. She wept often at the thought of leaving her “real family” and over the next couple of weeks, a battle raged for control of Lurancy’s physical body. At one moment, Lurancy would announce that she had to leave and at the next moment, Mary would cling to her father and cry over the idea of leaving him.
Finally, on May 21, Lurancy returned home to the Vennum’s. She displayed none of the strange symptoms of her earlier illness and her parents were convinced that somehow she had been cured, thanks to intervention by the spirit of Mary Roff. She soon became a happy and healthy young woman, suffering no ill effects from her strange experience.
‘She also remained in touch with the Roff family for the rest of her life. Although she had no memories of her time as Mary, she still felt a curious closeness to them that she could never really explain. During occasional visits to their home, Lurancy would sometimes allow Mary to take control of her so that she could communicate with her family.
‘Eight years later, when Lurancy turned 18, she married a local farmer named George Binning and two years later, they moved to Rawlins County, Kansas. They bought a farm there and had 11 children. Lurancy died in the late 1940′s while she was in California visiting one of her daughters.
‘Asa Roff and his wife received hundreds of letters, from believers and skeptics alike, after the story of the possession was printed on the front page of the Watseka newspaper. After a year of constant hounding and scorn from neighbors, they left Watseka and moved to Emporia, Kansas. Seven years later, they returned to Watseka to live with Minerva and her husband. They died of old age and are buried in Watseka.
‘The Vennum’s stayed on in Watseka for many years but after the death of her husband, Lucinda Vennum moved to Kansas with Lurancy and her children.
Dr. Stevens lectured on the “Watseka Wonder” for eight years before dying in Chicago in 1886.
Mary Roff was never heard from again.