We’ve all probably read and seen movies about possession. I doubt very many missed The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, or the Amityville Horror. These tales follow the familiar saga of demonic possession. But what happened in Watseka, IL in 1877 was different. In this wild tale in a small town, the possession was helpful and healing. Did it really happen?
Thirteen year old, Mary Lurancy Vennum began to suffer fits and fell into trances in which she saw heaven, angels, and the spirits of the dead. People around her believed Lurancy was going insane and needed to be confined to an asylum. Back in 1864, the town of Watseka had had a previous case of an eighteen year old, Mary Roff, who had manifested similar symptoms to Lurancy’s. Unfortunately, Mary Roff turned violent, cutting herself and lapsing into unconsciousness. When she came to, she existed in a state of raving mania with various extra-sensory abilities. She expired in a mental hospital after five days. Mary Roff’s father, Asa, learned about his neighbor’s predicament and pleaded with the Vennum’s to bring in consulting physician, Dr. E.W. Stevens.
Dr. Stevens diagnosed Lurancy with spirit obsession and hypnotized the teen. In this state, Lurancy claimed to be possessed by evil spirits. Interestingly, Dr. Stevens was a spiritist, someone who believed in spirits and reincarnation (which distinguishes him from spiritualists who don’t necessarily believe in reincarnation). Dr. Stevens suggested that one of the spirits might be able to help Lurancy and Lurancy named Mary Roff as an entity willing to do just that. In this way, Mary Roff took over Lurancy’s body in February 1878. Lurancy moved in with the Roff family for several months during which time she acted like Mary Roff picking up her former life and recognizing old friends. She recognized distant relatives and used nicknames Mary Roff had used. The Roff family and many in the small town believed Lurancy was Mary Roff. Also during this time, Mary Roff- in the body of Lurancy, exhibited clairvoyant abilities, traveled out- of- body, and visited astral planes. She also shared information about Dr. Steven’s dead children in heaven. In May, Mary Roff announced that Lurancy was ready to come back. She fell into a trance, and awoke as Lurancy fully healed. This was the same girl for which medical authorities had no treatment other than confinement in a state hospital.
In 1882 Lurancy married and moved to Kansas. Mary Roff continued to watch over Lurancy occasionally possessing her for her protection. Over the years, Lurancy was protected from pain during childbirth (she had 11 children) and given information clairvoyantly from Mary Roff. Lurancy died in the 1952.
The case is an oddity standing apart from the traditional demonic possession story. It also happened in a time when spirit contact was all the rage in spiritualism circles. Some people regard this as a reincarnation case, but Lurancy was two when Mary Roff died. The timing doesn’t seem plausible and generally, in reincarnation cases, a child will recount previous life stories as soon as language develops. A walk-in case? A hoax? Some think it might have been since Asa Roff played such a large role in Mary’s arrival. Others believe it was Asa’s guilt which drew Mary’s spirit back to help another teen destined for the asylum.
For more information on the Watseka Wonder:
THE WATSEKA WONDER- A Narrative of Startling Phenomena Occurring in the Case of Mary Lurancy Vennum by E. Winchester Stevens
THE POSSESSED- movie of events at Watseka
The Roff Home- still standing in Watseka (so is the Vennum’s but a family lives there).