Location: Watseka, Illinois, USA
Status: Open as tourist destination
In July, 1865, the Roff family purchased the property that would become most associated with the Watseka Wonder story. It was during that same month that Mary Roff (the daughter of Asa Roff) died. Years later in July, 1877, the Vennum family lived in the house next to the Roff’s, and the paranormal activity began.
Thirteen year-old Lurancy Vennum (born 1864) had began to suffer from epileptic fits, and she often fell into catatonic trances. After she would wake up, she would claim that she saw Heaven and angels, along with the spirits of her dead brother and sister.
During these occurrences, Lurancy would speak in foreign languages many times a day or talk about places she had no knowledge about. Whenever she woke up, she said she could not remember anything that happened while under the influence of this “possession”.
Quickly, the word of a girl being possessed spread through the town, and eventually into Chicago, and then around the state. Many visitors came to Watseka in hopes of seeing the young girl. Most of the case’s notoriety came from the Spiritualist movement, which reached is peak in popularity at the time.
However, the Vennum family wanted nothing to do with the mediums and Spiritualists that were flooding in, as they were only concerned about Lurancy’s health. Taking her to one physician after another, none of them were able to find anything physically wrong with their daughter. It was diagnosed that Lurancy Vennum was simply mentally ill.
The heartbroken Vennums decided that she be put into the Peoria State Hospital, and, at the end of the holiday season of 1877, they began to make arrangements to have their daughter committed. They knew that the likely hood that Lurancy would ever come home again was slim, as in the later 1800s, asylums were merely cages for the mentally ill with little treatment for the patients’ conditions.
However, in January, 1878, a man named Asa Roff, a resident in Watseka, came to the Vennum house and explained how his daughter, Mary, had been subject to the same condition that Lurancy was suffering from. He begged the family not to lock up their daughter, as he had made the mistake of doing so to his daughter, and she died in confinement.
Asa Roff was still convinced that his daughter’s spirit existed, and little did he know that Lurancy would soon “become” Mary Roff. The events are to this day considered a mystery of unsolved events tangled within one another.
Mary Roff was born in October, 1846 in Indiana, and began to suffer fits and seizures at the age of six months. Over the course of the next nineteen years, she became more and more violent in her fits. On July 5th, 1865, she passed away in the confinement of the Peoria State Hospital, having been hospitalized by her father.
During her childhood, Mary claimed to hear mysterious voices in her head that told her to do things that she knew she couldn’t. When she was older, she entered long trance-like states. Occasionally, she would awake and speak in voices that were not hers, seemingly being possessed by the spirits of other people.
Like Lurancy, Mary was able to speak about places she had never even been to, and she was also able to predict future events. In addition, she knew things about people that were seemingly impossible for her to know. As time went on, Mary’s mind began to deteriorate, becoming more violent and stranger. Eventually, she developed an obsession with blood, and became convinced that she needed to remove all of her blood from her body, utilizing pins, leeches, and a sharpened razor to do so.
Her parents discovered her unconscious in a pool of her own blood with a straight razor in her hands, and they had no choice but to send her to the state mental hospital. There, she suffered more than before since the treatments were so barbaric.
During the 1860s, one of the most popular “treatments” was the “Water Cure”, which involved a patient being immersed in icy water nude, then taken to a tub of scalding water. Female patients received a treatment known was a “cold water douche”, in which a patient was tightly wrapped in cold wet sheets in order to squeeze the blood vessels shut. The treatment was then followed by vigorous rubbing in order to restore circulation.
Each of the “treatments” were administered several times a week with no success. Mary’s condition did not improve, and she died on July 5th, 1865. When Mary Roff died, Lurancy Vennum was just a little more than a year old. The following decade, however, would become one of the strangest and most authentic cases of possession ever recorded.
Lurancy Vennum was born on April 16th, 1864. When she turned seven, she and her family moved into Watseka. The Vennums knew nothing about the Roffs, and the Roffs knew nothing of the Vennums. However, on July 11th, 1877, strange events began that no one could have expected.
On that morning, Lurancy got up feeling dizzy and nauseated, and she complained to her mother that she was feeling sick. She suddenly collapsed onto the floor unconscious, and remained in a deep, catatonic sleep for five hours. When she woke up, she said she felt fine.
She, on the following day, fell into a trance-like sleep again, this time with her laying perfectly still as she began to speak out loud. During this time, she spoke of visions, spirits, and had conversations with invisible people. She also spoke of seeing Heaven, and she could hear her younger sister and brother (who died in 1874).
The trances became more and more frequent, some of them lasting for more than eight hours at a time. The visions she spoke of were usually terrifying, and she claimed that spirits chased her through the house and shouted her name. Throughout the day, Lurancy suffered from as many as a dozen attacks.
She would also speak in nonsensical words and foreign languages. Each time she awoke, she had no recollection of what happened during her trance, and was completely ignorant of her strange ramblings. The story of Lurancy’s visions and attacks began to spread through Watseka, and the newspaper began to circulate stories about her.
The closest follower of the case was Asa Roff, who recognized the symptoms having had his daughter suffer the same illness. He was convinced that Lurancy was suffering the same problem as Mary, though he did not contact the Vennums. It was not until it was suggested that Lurancy be sent to the asylum did Asa Roff step in, determined to try and help prevent the fate of his daughter.
On January 31st, 1878, Asa Roff visited the Vennums, who were skeptical about his story. However, he did convince them to have Dr. E. Winchester Stevens, a Spiritualist like Roff, to examine Lurancy. Upon examination, the doctor was certain that Lurancy Vennum was not insane.
He theorized that the girl was a vessel that the dead could communicate through, and Roff wished that he could have seen the same evidence with his daughter years before. Roff believed that since no one had been able to help Mary, she had been driven insane by the gifts and abilities she had. He begged Dr. Stevens to do everything possible for Lurancy in order to keep history from repeating itself.
Thomas and Lurinda Vennum (Lurancy’s parents) hesitantly agreed to have the doctor work further on their daughter. He hypnotised the girl and tried to contact the spirits through her, and, within moments, Lurancy began to speak in another voice. Allegedly, the voice came from Katrina Hogan, an elderly woman, followed by a different spirit named Willie Canning, a young man who had committed suicide.
For over an hour, she spoke in Willie’s voice, telling all kinds of things only he could know. It ended suddenly when she through her arms into the air and collapsed. When Dr. Stevens took her hands, the girl calmed down and regained control of herself again.
She said that she was now in Heaven, and she would take control of a gentler spirit, whom she said was named Mary Roff. The trance went on for the rest of the evening and the following day, all the while claiming to be Roff. During this time, she had no idea where she was, and was completely unable to recognize the house. She said she wanted to go back home to the Roff house.
The news of the events spread quickly. When Mrs. Roff heard of what was going on, she got her married daughter, Minerva Alter, to come to the Vennum house. Lurancy, who was sitting by the window, said “Here comes Ma and Nervie”, and she had ran out to hug the two women. Minerva hadn’t been called by her nickname of “Nervie” since Mary’s death in 1865.
Those who watched Lurancy were convinced that she had been possessed by Mary Roff, as she was exactly like the Roff girl with exception of her appearance. The Vennums were extremely disturbed by the events, as their daughter had become a stranger to them.
On February 11th, Lurancy was allowed to visit the Roff home, as Thomas and Lurinda agreed it was the best action they could take, even though they desperately hoped their daughter would return to normal. The Roffs saw Lurancy’s possession as a miracle, as they believed Mary had returned from the grave.
The Roffs took her for a ride in their buggy and passed by the former Roff home, the house they had been living in when Mary died. Lurancy wanted to know why they didn’t stop there, and they explained that they had moved. This gave further evidence that Lurancy was truly possessed by Mary.
Lurancy lived as Mary Roff for the next several months, apparently forgetting her former life. She told Mrs. Roff, however, that she would be with them until “some time in May”. As the days passed, she continued to prove that there was no way she could be faking the entire possession, as she knew so much about the Roffs.
Most of the incidents and stories she had referred to had taken place years before Lurancy was even born. While staying with the Roffs, her physical condition improved, as she no longer suffered from her terrible fits. She was quite content while living in the Roff home.
Lurancy recognized neighbors and friends by names, all of them known to Mary during her lifetime. However, she lacked all recognition to family, friends, and associates of the Vennums. Even despite being allowed to live with the Roffs, Lurancy was told to come back to the Vennums for visits as often as possible. She eventually made friends with the “strangers” that she claimed not to know.
However, there were many people in Watseka who doubted the legitimacy of Lurancy’s possession by Mary Roff. Both of the families were rejected by the community, but they proceeded to ignore their reactions as they believed something of a miracle was occurring.
As she had told the Roffs, Lurancy told the family it was almost time for her to leave, being that it was early May. Over the course of the next few days, she became sad and increasingly upset over the fact that she was having to leave her “real family”. At every opportunity she had, she hugged every member of the family.
For the next two weeks, she fought conflicting personalities: her trying to leave one moment and trying to stay near her “father” at the thought of leaving him the next. Mary was gone two days later. Lurancy returned home to the Vennums on May 21st.
Upon returning, she no longer had the same mysterious symptoms from her strange illness. Her parents believed that she had been cured by the the intervention of Mary Roff’s spirit. Lurancy Vennum gradually became healthier and happier with no effects from the illness whatsoever.
It was later noted by Stevens that Vennum got married, and Roff’s spirit possessed her, which resulted in a painless childbirth for her. Psychologist Frank Sargent Hoffman called Vennum a “typical case of hysterical impersonation”, and commented that there was no evidence that she had knowledge she could not have obtained by normal means.
He also said that the grieving Roff family “did everything in their power” in order to convince Vennum “that she was their Mary”. A journalist, Henry Addington Bruce, characterized Lurancy Vennum as being “unduly suggestible”, and was rather suggested to feel possessed. Bruce also wrote that possession of Mary Roff only occurred when the Roff’s came to visit, and that her possessions ended entirely when she married a man not interested in spiritualism.
In Popular Culture:
- The Possessed (2009), which was produced by The Booth Brothers (Christopher Saint Booth and Philip Adrian Booth), recounts the story of the Watseka Wonder case by Spooked Television to appear on the SyFy Channel. Since then, the movie has aired on The Chiller Channel, first appearing on June 10th, 2012.
- In 1986, a fictional play entitled Before I Wake was based on the case. It was written by William Wesbrooks.
- In 1878, Dr. Stevens’ accounts were published in The Religio-Philosophical Journal, the leading Spiritualist paper at the time.
- The doctor’s accounts were later published in The Watseka Wonder, his book in which he wrote in 1887.
- The story of the house was featured on an episode of Travel Channel’s Monumental Mysteries.