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
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
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.
Vennum House, where Lurancy was possessed, as it
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
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.
The Roff House, where Lurancy stayed as "Mary" during
the weeks of the possession, as it looks today.
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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
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
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?
This brief account
only scratches the surface of what occurred in Watseka that fateful
spring! Be sure to check back to the website for more details about
Troy Taylor's upcoming book --- The Possessed!
� Copyright 2007 by Troy Taylor.
All Rights Reserved.