The Watseka Wonder

Back in November 2010, I wrote about the story of Patience Worth and her life as the “original” ghostwriter. Patience lived during the heyday of Spiritualism, as did the subject of a story I came across recently. Her name was Lurancy Vennon and hers is a story of spiritual possession.

The first character in our story is one Mary Roff, born 8 October 1846 in Warren County, Indiana. When Mary was 13 and in ill health from epileptic fits, her family moved to Watseka, Illinois, about 70 miles south of Chicago. In the Spring of 1865, Mary tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrists in an attempt to end her depression brought on by her ill health. Her parents discovered her unconscious and called the doctor. When Mary awoke, displayed extreme violence and had to be restrained by several adults. She was delirious for several days afterward, then fell in to a sleep that lasted 15 hours.

When she awoke, she found that her eyes had been covered with bandages to prevent her from scatching her own eyes while asleep. Rather than removing them, however, Mary found that she could see things as clearly as she had prior to her eyes being bandaged. Family friends A.J. Smith and Rev. J. H. Rhea witnessed a heavily blindfolded Mary read to them the contents of a letter which Mary had no prior knowledge of.

Sadly, though, Mary’s health continued to deteriorate and doctors recommended that she be put into a mental institution. Her parents refused and decided to care for her themselves. Mary’s life came to an end on 5 July 1865 while she and her parents were visiting friends for the 4th of July holiday.

The second character of this story – Lurancy Vennum – was born on 16 April 1864. Hers was a normal healthy childhood without incident. At the age of 13, that all changed on the morning of 6 July 1877 when she informed her parents that ‘There were people in my room last night and they kept calling ‘Rancy! Rancy!’ and I could feel their breath on my face.’ During the nights that followed, sleep proved ellusive again as the voices continued their calling and it wasn’t until her mother shared her room that she was able to sleep peacefully once again. A week after this began, she was helping her mother repair a broken stitch in the carpet when she sat up suddenly and said, “Ma, I feel bad; I feel so queer.” Seconds later, she collapsed to the floor in what seemed like a fit, every muscle in her body rigid, her pulse only a fleeting rhythym, her breath slow and weak. She remained like this for 5 hours and when she awoke, she had no memory of the incident and felt very strange. 

The next day, the rigidity returned, but this time, Lurancy was fully cognizant and was able to speak to her parents, telling them of the spirits she could see who were there with them. Among those mentioned were her sister and brother, for she exclaimed, “Oh, mother! Can’t you see little Laura and Bertie? They are so beautiful!” (Bertie had died when Lurancy was but three years old.) Sometimes the fits lasted for up to 8 hours a day, wherein Lurancy woud speak in different voices, yet recall nothing upon waking. These daily fits lasted until September of that year, when Lurancy seemed suddenly free of them.

On Nov. 27, 1877, she was attacked with a most violent pain in her stomach, some five or six times a day; for two weeks she had the most excruciating pains. in these painful paroxysms, she would double herself back until her head and feet actually touched. At the end of the two weeks, or about December 11, in these distressed attacks, she became unconscious and passed into a quiet trance, and, as at former times, would describe heaven and spirits, often calling them angels.

From this time on until February 1, 1878, she would have these trances and sometimes a seemingly real obsession, from three to eight and sometimes as many as twelve times a day, lasting from one to eight hours, occasionally passing into that state of ecstasy, when, as Lurancy, she claimed to be in heaven.

During the time recorded, up to about the middle of January 1878, she had been under the care of Dr. L. N. Pittwood in the summer and Dr. Jewett during the winter. These MD’s were both eminent allopathic practitioners, and residents of Watseka. Mrs. Allison, Mrs. Jolly and other relatives and friends believed her insane.

Doctors believed Lurancy to be mentally ill and suggested that she be put into the State Insane Asylum in Peoria, IL. The two accounts shared below disagree on the contact had between the families of Mary Roff and Lurancy Vennum. One site indicates that the Roffs were spiritualists and, reminded of their own experiences with their daughter Mary, visited the Vennums managed to convince them to contact a Dr. E. Winchester Stevens of Janesville, Wisconsin. Dr Stevens was not only a medical doctor, but a believer in the spiritualist movement of the time. Dr. Stevens was able to spend time with Lurancy, during which it was learned that Lurancy was taken over by several unpleasant entities or spirits. One of these spirits was that of Mary Roff who wished to be present. Mary’s father was present at the time and agreed to let her come forth and those present were astonished at the details Lurancy could give about the Roff home.

By contrast, the second source site indicates that the Roffs had no contact with the Vennum family other than a phone call that was never returned and a formal speaking aquaintance between the two men.

There is no further evidence of anything happening after this initial examination on the part of Dr. Stevens and it isn’t until February 1878 that the spiritual possession began in earnest. As depressed as Mary was near the time of her death, one would think that her spirit would be sullen and aggressive, but this was far from the case and while possessed with Mary’s spirit, Lurancy was very passive and polite, yet unable to recognize her parents and constantly asked to be taken home. When Mrs. Roff and her second daughter Minerva visited the Vennum home, Lurancy greeted them exhuberantly and cried for joy. After that visit, Lurancy became more homesick and asked to be taken home more frequently.

With the agreement of the Vennum family, Lurancy was allowed to stay with the Roffs for 15 weeks in the hopes that it would help her. During her stay with the Roffs, everything Lurancy did, convinced them that she was indeed possessed by their deceased daughter’s spirit. She knew where everything was in the family home and even identified several of Mary’s favourites. Lurancy was even able to provide information about the family’s move to Texas for a while and how Mary often played with the other children in the travel party.

When questioned by Dr. Stevens regarding the whereabouts of Lurancy’s spirit while Mary was occupying the body, she stated that “Lurancy was away, being treated, and would come back when she was restored to health, both mentally and physically. When Lurancy was ready to return, ‘Mary’ must leave. ”

On 21 May 1878, that statement came to pass when Mary tearfully bid her family good bye and left. When Lurancy ‘returned’ she promptly requested to go home. Once again the familial reunion was joyful and full of hugs and kisses. “She told her family that the past fifteen weeks seemed like a dream to her. Back in her own house Lurancy became, in the words of her mother ‘perfectly and entirely well and natural . . . Lurancy has been smarter, more intelligent, more industrious, more womanly, and more polite than before.’”

The Vennum family credited Dr. Stevens and the Roffs for curing Lurancy.

The 2009 SyFy movie The Possessed, by acclaimed paranormal film-makers Christopher and Philip Booth (also known simply as the Booth Brothers) is about this story. It is available on DVD.


One thought on “The Watseka Wonder

  1. This story has always fascinated me. This blog has me wanting to look for more, especially after reading the two separate accounts. This is going to sound so strange, but I got this overwhelming feeling of sadness when I read that she was homesick. Sometimes I wonder if in the quest for answers, some people haven’t paid too high of a price.

    Nice job, Skatha! =)


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