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Documented Possession in Watseka, Illinois
The Watseka Wonder is the fascinating story of two young girls who lived in Watseka, Illinois in the late 1800s. Mary Roff and Mary Lurancy Vennum didn’t know each other or form a connection until after Mary Roff’s death in 1865.
Mary Roff was born on October 8, 1846. At the age of six months, she became ill with a “fit” for several hours. She was sick for several days after this, but recovered fully in a few weeks. She continued to experience these fits every three to five weeks for years. The spells increased in intensity each time.
When she was 10 years old, she began to experience these episodes almost daily for a period of a few days. She would then have a few days peace, but appeared to be depressed at these times. She “would sing and play the most solemn music” including her favorite “We Are Coming, Sister Mary.”
The fits increased in intensity and violence until her 15th year, at which time Mary’s parents felt they needed to do something to help their daughter because “they could see her mind was affected.”
Several prominent physicians were engaged to examine the young girl. For 18 months, she was kept in a “water cure” to no avail.
In the year 1864, Mary began to bleed herself. She said it was for relief of a pain in her head. She would apply leeches to her temples, “treating them like little pets.”
She seemed to become obsessed with blood. One mid-summer morning, she took a knife from the kitchen and went into the backyard. She cut her arm so deeply that it bled profusely and she passed out for five hours. When she awakened, she acted like a violent maniac for five days and nights.
She developed odd powers such as knowing information she had no way of knowing, reading books and letters while blindfolded and other clairvoyant acts.
The fits continued to increase in violence; and, eventually, the Roffs took the advice of the experts and had their daughter committed to an insane asylum in Peoria, Illinois. On the morning of July 5, 1865, while her parents were visiting and after she enjoyed a large breakfast, Mary Roff fell asleep on her bed. She awakened a few minutes later, screamed and died.
Six years later, in 1871, the Vennum family moved to the other side of Watseka from the Roff house. In early July of 1877, Mary Lurancy Vennum aged 13 years, told her mother that she had heard people in her room the previous night. They called her name and she felt “their breath” on her face.
One evening a few days after this, Lurancy’s mother asked her to “commence getting supper.” Lurancy told her mother that she felt “so queer.” She immediately fell to the floor in a fit with all of her muscles rigid. She remained in this state for five hours.
These “fits” continued to occur. Lurancy felt as if she was in “two states of being at the same time.” She was able to see dead family members and describe them to her living family members. These trances occurred frequently; and, Lurancy felt she was in heaven and she described heaven and angels. This went on for several months until the autumn of that year.
Around Thanksgiving of that year, she began to experience horrific pains in her stomach. She began to experience trances again, often “as many as twelve times a day, lasting from one to eight hours.” Lurancy “claimed to be in heaven” during these times.
At the beginning of the following year, 1878, The Vennums placed their daughter under doctors’ care. Family members and friends believed the girl to be insane and that she should be committed to an asylum.
Interestingly, a group of spiritualists approached the family to advise treatment other than commitment. The Roff family were members of this spiritualist movement. They regretted having had their daughter committed previously and felt this decision had led to her demise.
The Vennums finally agreed to let Mr. Roff visit their daughter along with Dr. Winchester Stevens of Janesville, Wisconsin. Dr. Stevens’ detailed documentation of the event is invaluable in showing the validity of this case.
Upon first encountering Lurancy, they found her to be “curled up on the chair, eyes staring, looking in every way like an “old hag.” She was vicious and glowering, calling her father “Old Black Dick,” and her mother “Old Granny.” She said her name was Katrina Hogan from Germany and that she was 63 years old. As the conversation progressed, she said her name was Willie Canning and that she was a young man.
Several hours later when the visitors were about to leave, Lurancy went into a trance. Roff and Dr. Stevens “by magnetic action” and “through the laws of Spiritual science” were able to communicate with the “sane and happy mind of Lurancy Vennum herself, who conversed with the grace and sweetness of an angel, declaring herself to be in heaven.”
Lurancy told the visitors that many spirits wanted to come for a visit, but one especially by the name of Mary Roff. Mr. Roff told her that Mary was his daughter. It was then decided that Lurancy would stay with the angels in heaven and be restored to health. Meanwhile, Mary Roff’s spirit would come and reside in the body of Lurancy Vennum.
The next day, Mr. Vennum found Mr. Roff at his office and told him that “the girl claimed to be Mary Roff and wanted to go home.”
During the first part of February, Lurancy went to stay with the Roffs for several months. During this time, the Vennums appeared as strangers to the girl; yet, she knew all the details about the friends and family of Mary Roff. She was very happy spending time with the Roff family and to all intents and purposes seemed to the Roffs to be their daughter.
Three months later, in early May, Mary told the Roffs that Lurancy would be coming back soon. She told her friends, family and neighbors goodbye. She told them that she felt sad to leave them, but that when she went to heaven “all tears will be wiped away,” and she would be happy.
Lurancy returned to her body soon thereafter and lived a normal and healthy life. She married George James Binning on January 1, 1881 in Illinois. They had a daughter, Ellen Kaziah Binning, in 1883. Lurancy died in Long Beach, California in 1952.
References and Additional Information:
Stevens, E. Winchester. The Watseka Wonder. Chicago: Religio-Philosophical Publishing House, 1887
The Possessed. Dir. Booth Brothers. Syfy/Chiller, 2009.
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