Preposterous People

The Watseka Wonder

The idea that the spirit of a dead person could take over the body of a living person, and replace that living person’s personality and memories with the spirit’s own personality and memories, is completely alien to Western philosophy.

But that is precisely what is said to have happened in a case involving a young girl called Lurancy Vennum. This tale was featured in the recent film ‘Children of the Grave 2: The Possessed’. From the title alone, with its spooky overtones, you can almost hear the dramatic music; see the fiendish film sets; and imagine the film direction intended to shock - as in any typical Hollywood horror film. But the yarn’s difference, compared to other horror films, is that the factual issues underlying it, were explored by the Society for Psychical Research in 1890 - by a renowned sceptical researcher, Richard Hodgson - and given qualified credence.

Born in 1864, Lurancy lived in Watseka, a town of 1,700 people, located about eighty miles south of Chicago. It was not until January 1878, when she was thirteen years old, that the possession took place, following six months of dramatic mental illness. During this period Lurancy had cataleptic fits, inexplicable pains in the breast and stomach, and catatonic trances. During thesetrances, she claimed to speak with angels and spirits, and because of the publicity, she attracted curious folk from across Illinois, wantingto know if it was true.

But the Vennum family were not spiritualists, they were Methodists. All they wanted was for their girl to get well again. They did not want a medium in the family. But since the doctors could find nothing wrong with her physically, the verdict was that she be sent to the State Asylum for the Insane. And the Methodist minister agreed. So sadly, in late 1877, the family began arrangements to have her committed.

But before this happened, another Watseka resident turned up on the Vennum’s doorstep begging them not to do it. After all, an asylum in those days was more a warehouse for the unwanted, than a hospital hoping to cure. This visitor was Mr Asa Roff, a respected member of the community although the Vennums did not know him personally.

With guilt and anguish, Mr Roff told Mr and Mrs Vennum about the similar trouble he had had with his own daughter, Mary. Many of the symptoms were similar, though possibly more extreme in Mary’s case, and they began when she was only 6 months old. Like Lurancy, she too had had fits. She too had developed amazing clairvoyant abilities which gained her widespread attention. For example, Mary could still read books even when she was blindfolded, and do everything as though she could still see. In one attempt at a cure, she was subjected to blood-letting using leeches, and sadly, after that she fell into harming herself with an open razor.

In the end, after a year and a half taking a water-cure, Mary had still not returned to sanity, so the Roff family concluded that sending her to an asylum was the only option. And not long after her commital she died, in July 1865, at the age of eighteen. In his remorse, Mr Roff wanted no stone unturned to save this other young girl, Lurancy, and he recommended the services of a Dr Stevens of Wisconsin, like himself a supporter of Spiritualism. He might be able to help, argued Mr Roff. Better this than the asylum; and so the Vennums agreed.

When the possession of Lurancy began, at first two other spirits tried to take her over. One was Katrina Hogan, aged sixty three, who said she had flown in the sky to Watseka from Germany. And the other was a young man called Willie Canning. Both spirits, Lurancy reported, were evil and forced her to say horrible things. She was afraid of them.

Dr Stevens was a major participant in this drama, and having hypnotised Lurancy to put her into a calmer state, he suggested that if she was to be controlled by other spirits, maybe she could get help from a happier, more intelligent one than either of these two. Lurancy seemed to look around the room at the other spirits available to her. She mentioned the names of several deceased persons, adding that there was one who wanted to come named Mary Roff. Mr Roff who was present at the time declared, “Mary Roff is my girl, Why, she has been in heaven twelve years”. And thus the door was opened for Mr Roff’s own dead daughter to possess the body of Lurancy Vennum.

As soon as Lurancy was taken over by Mary, she failed to recognise the Vennum family, or to know anything about her own home. However she not only recognised Mr and Mrs Roff, she called them ‘Ma and Pa’. This must have been very upsetting for the Vennums, who seemed to have lost their daughter. Nevertheless, they agreed for Lurancy, or perhaps she should now be calling her ‘the New Mary’, to go and live at the Roff’s house for a while. The New Mary announced in advance that she would be staying in Lurancy’s body for only fourteen weeks, during which time Lurancy herself would retire to the spirit world to get better.

The remarkable thing about this case is that the New Mary was aware of details not only about the original Mary who had died twelve years previously, but also about the Roff family, and their intimate circle of friends. These details Lurancy herself could not possibly have discovered prior to the possession, since Mary Roff had died aged 18 in an asylum, when Lurancy was still a one-year-old toddler in Watseka. There was no way that the little domestic details that the ‘New Mary’ had access to, could have been uncovered by normal research methods. In any case, the thirteen year old Lurancy never knew of the Roff family. So what about some examples of this ‘special’ knowledge?

Well, when Mr Roff took the ‘New Mary’ to his home for the first time, at the beginning of February 1878, they drove straight past the home that the original Mary Roff had known as home. Instead they continued on to the new Roff family home. But Mary wanted to know why had they driven straight by. She did not realise that the Roffs had moved house since she had died. In other words, she had recognised a house she could not have known about if, as Lurancy, she had only been pretending to be possessed.

Another example. When Lurancy arrived at the Roff’s house for the first time, Mrs Roff and her other daughter Minerva were out, but as they came up the front path Mary cried out “Here come Ma and Nervie”. Nobody had called Minerva by the nickname ‘Nervie’ in the thirteen years since Mary had died, but the new Mary used it, just as usual.

This ‘New Mary’ was happy, industrious, helpful and loving, and knew everything about the Roff family. With the Vennums, on the other hand, she was courteous but distant, as though she was dealing with strangers.

Many of the incidents the ‘New Mary’ recalled had actually happened before Lurancy was born. For example, she met a friend of the family who had been widowed and who had then remarried after Mary’s death. But the ‘New Mary’ did not know this and called her by her previous married surname. She said, “Oh, Mary Lord! You look so very natural and have changed the least of anyone I have seen since I came back.” But her surname was no longer Lord. Mary Roff had died in 1865, and Mrs Lord had remarried to become Mrs Wagner in 1866.

Again, two former neighbours to Mary in 1860 called on the Roffs at their new address in 1878 and Mary instantly recognised them as “Auntie Parker and Nellie”, and in conversation asked “Do you remember how Nervie and I used to come to your house and sing?”

On another occasion, with the intention of testing her memory, the Roffs placed a velvet head-dress belonging to their deceased daughter on a hat stand to see what would happen. When the ‘New Mary’ came into the room, she recognised it immediately. She said “Oh, there is my head-dress that I wore when my hair was short!”

All this, of course, is preposterous. But more was to follow. She asked for her box of letters from her former existence. And since Mrs Roff had kept this box in remembrance of her daughter, she was able to dig it out for her. In the box were some mementoes. And the ‘New Mary’ exclaimed “Oh Ma, here is the collar I tatted! Why did you not show me my letters and things before?”

In a letter to Dr Stevens who was following the case with interest, Asa Roff expressed his mixed feelings about the reception his family was receiving for taking the ‘New Mary’ into their home. For you can reckon that in a small town like Watseka, there were few secrets, and indeed some information had leaked into the local press about this case. “Some appreciate our motives”, he declared. “But many, without investigation and without knowledge of the facts, cry out against us and against that angel girl. Some say she pretends; others that she is crazy, and we hear that some say it is the devil”.

Having forewarned at the very beginning of the possession that the Angels would let Mary stay in Lurancy’s body only until May 1878, there was bound to be sorrow in the Roff household when it was time for Mary to go. However Mary had promised to release Lurancy’s body, and she did, as she had predicted, at 11 o’clock on 21st May. But not before emotional good-byes were said to her family. Assurances from her that she would still be close to them ‘on the other side’ were hardly sufficient. In fact, there was an alternating of personalities for a few days, as though a struggle was taking place between two spirits as to who should occupy the body.

When Lurancy finally reappeared for good, she told Mr Roff and his daughter Minerva that it was as though she had been asleep for a very long time, even though she knew she hadn’t. So, referring to Mr Roff as ‘Mr Roff’, and not as ‘Pa’ - as Mary would have done - Lurancy asked to go home to the Vennum household, across town. When she arrived there, she hugged and kissed her family, and her cure from mental illness was complete and did not return. She had little knowledge of the possession, as if the three and half months she spent as the ‘dead’ Mary Roff had simply never happened. However on occasion, when she visited the Roffs, to whom she remained close long after these events, she would let the dead Mary borrow her body so that Mary could spend some time with her family.

In 1879, Dr Stevens published the story of Lurancy Vennum in the Religio-Philosophical Journal, and subsequently he published a pamphlet entitled ‘The Watseka Wonder’; touring the United States for several years giving lectures about it until his death in 1885. “The Watseka Wonder” is how this story is still known.

There’s every possibility that psychologists or psychiatrists, looking into the particulars today, would announce that here is a classic case of multiple personality. Indeed, back in 1901, when Frederick Myers, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research published his classic book entitled “Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death” - which by the way is still in print today - he said the Watseka Wonder must be plainly presented, and I quote, “as a pseudo-possession, if you will, determined in a hysterical child by the suggestion of friends.”

But there is a problem with this interpretation. If this was not a case of full possession by one spirit of another’s body, how did the Lurancy Vennum have access to so many of those little details of the Roff family’s domestic circumstances, which took place before she, Lurancy, was even born?


© Copyright 2011 Keith Parsons