This week, we have a story of a 19th Century spiritual possession, when 14 year old Lurancy Vennum began suffering from fits that eventually led her to visiting heaven, speaking with angels and finally, taking in the spirit of deceased 19 year old Mary Roff, the daughter of local spiritualists.
The demonism of the ages, spirit obsessions so common in spiritism, … Peebles, J. M. (James Martin), 1822-1922.
The Watseka wonder; a startling and instructive psychological …Stevens, E. Winchester, 1822-1885.
Iroquois County Genealogical Society – http://sites.rootsweb.com/~ilicgs/bio/bio.htm
Morning Post, Friday 2nd October, 1908.
New York Tribune, Sunday July 19th, H. Addington Bruce, 1908.
Iroquois County Times, October 17th, 2014
Reminiscences of my sister Mary Roff, Mrs H. H. Alter, September 1908
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“We are all in search of truth, let us not be so blinded with prejudice as to be disgusted with its wrappings and fail to find the fair treasure so snugly ensconced within”
The words of devour spiritualist preacher, Dr E. Winchester Stevens in his account of a spiritual possession that took place deep in the American Midwest in the spring of 1878. Spanning several weeks, it was a curiously prolonged and public possession that was witnessed by the entire town of Watseka, a small town of 1500 in Iroquois County. Amongst numerous strange occurrences, it is the tale of a young girl named Lurancy Vennum and the peculiar spiritual embodiment of Mary Roff. This is Dark Histories where the facts are worse than fiction.
Watseka lies a few miles east of centre of Iroquois County, Illinois. Founded in 1865, it had existed for several years prior as South Middleport, but was renamed in 1865 and built up as the counties seat. In previous years, the surrounding area had been home to Middleport, the counties earlier seat before the Peoria and Oquawka railroad had been built, and various other, disparate settlements. With the renaming in 1865 the majority, including the town of Middleport itself, had merged into Watseka which despite its relatively rapid growth, held only a modest, but affluent population of around 1,500 people. Of these 1,500, were the Vennum family, headed up by Thomas Jefferson Vennum and his wife Lurinda Vennum who had married in Fayette County in 1855. They were a devoutly Orthodox Christian family and had seven children between 1857 and 1874, Florence Isabel, Henry, Elmer, Mary Lurancy, Laura, Schuyler and Frank Vennum, though it appears that only four survived infancy, their fifth child and third daughter Laura died aged just one day old.
During the time of Watsekas renaming, the Vennum family lived in a small settlement 8 miles away, though the family name was well known in the area, Thomas’ grandparents had been some of the first settlers in the County, whilst his brother was the owner of the first bank set up in Middleport. Thomas and Lurinda eventually settled in Watseka in 1871, living in a large frame house on the Western side of the town. Aside from the difficult rate of infant mortality, they lived a fairly comfortable life. They were well liked and respected by the local townsfolk and enjoyed healthy relationships throughout the town including a brother who had been selected as mayor in 1872. Life was comfortable for The Vennum family. That was at least, until July of 1877, when things with their second daughter, Lurancy took something of an odd turn onto a difficult path that stretched the boundaries of their good local reputations.
Lurancy Vennum was aged 13 years old in 1877. She had been born on the 16th April, 1864 in the Milford township, just south of what would become Watseka. Known as Rancy, she was unassuming, if not a little bit of a handful, playing with her brothers, 15 year old Elmer, two years her senior and 8 year old Schuyler five years her junior. Aside from her youthful boisterousness, she was a girl of her time in every other way, diligent with helping her mother with the household chores and showing no signs of anything unusual. In the first week of July 1877, however, she took a sharp turn towards an illness that most young girls would find hard to explain even in modern times. She had been struggling to sleep and she explained to her parents that,
“There were persons in my room last night, and they called ‘Rancy! Rancy!!’ and I felt there breath on my face.”
Lurancy did as most young children would in such a situation and woke her parents in a state of fear, but after her mother took her back to bed, she soon dozed off. The next night, a similar occurrence happened, once again Lurancy was startled awake by persons in her room calling her name and once again, she woke her mother, who took her back to bed, sleeping alongside her until she fell asleep. This series of poor night’s sleep was quite out of the ordinary, until now Lurancy had never had any strange illnesses or troubles, save a bout of measles when she was 9 years old. On the 11th July, her condition worsened severely. As she sat on the living room floor sewing, her mother asked her if she could start making the supper and as she stood, she stopped in her tracks, turned to her mother with a pale face, saying,
“Ma, I feel bad, I feel so queer”
Before she fell into a heap on the floor, apparently in a state of a person having a fit. After the initial fall, she lay rigid on the ground for almost five hours, before returning to consciousness, at which point she could only tell her mother that she felt “very strange and queer”. Her mother put her to bed and for the first time in several days, she slept well. Her parents might have thought that this was at least teh end to her troubled sleep, a theory which may well have been true, but it was just the start of a whole different series of troubles which would prove to be far more difficult to manage.
The following day, the 12th July, Lurancy once again fell into an apparent fit, but this time, whilst she lay rigid on the floor, her muscles stiff and taught, her limbs unbending, she began to speak to her parents who could only watch on in a state of confusion and concern. This became even more concerning when Lurancy began speaking of spirits that she could see in the room together with her parents.
“Lying as if dead, she spoke freely, telling the family what persons and spirits she could see, describing them and calling some of them by name. Among those she mentioned were her sister and brother, for she exclaimed, ‘Oh mother! Can’t you see little Laura and Bertie? They are so beautiful!”
Alarming as the talk no doubt would have been, it held a second shock for Mr and Mrs Vennum, the brother and sister Lurancy was speaking of had died when she was only three years old and had barely known them, Laura only surviving for a single day after her birth.
Eventually, after several hours had passed, Lurancy returned to normal again, her rigidity eased and her consciousness returned her to her normal self, but the fits continued. Throughout July they only appeared to escalate in intensity, and by the end of Summer, she was having regular fits, where she would lie, rigid and describe what she called “heaven”, as a strange far off spirit world, inhabited by spirits, which Lurancy had dubbed “angels”. The behaviour was naturally alarming to her parents, who were deeply religious and devoutly Orthodox. Thankfully, in September, the fits appeared to have passed and the Vennum household returned to a state of uneasy normalcy, if anyone harboured any anxiety that the fits would return, it would not have been unfounded, however.
In late November, on the night of the 27th, Lurancy fell painfully ill once again. She complained of stomach pains that would strike upwards of 5 or 6 times a day, every day for two weeks. During the attacks, she would contort her body in pain to such a degree that her head was said to have been able to touch her feet. During the attacks, she was said to return to her trance like state, and spoke of angels and spirits, and of the world in which they lived, that she called heaven. These bouts continued for a fortnight, with each passing day becoming a more and more difficult task for both Lurancy, through the pain, and her mother watching on helplessly, to endure. These painful fits came to abrupt end on the 11th December, however, though the pain seemed to have passed, the trances she fell into during, only intensified still.
Struggling with the difficult situation of watching their daughter suffer on a daily basis, their situation was becoming more and more bleak, as outsiders of the family, local neighbours and the town’s oldest families began to talk, making suggestions that Lurancy was insane and needed to be sent to an asylum. Lurancy was by the turn of the year, falling into these trances up to 12 times per day and each time for anything between one and eight hours. Whilst she sat conversing with angels, she appeared in a state of happiness and blissful unawareness as she told her concerned parents that she had travelled to heaven.
Throughout the entire period of her fits, Mr and Mrs Vennum had sought help for Lurancy and she had been under the care of two local doctors. Up until the winter of 1877, Dr L. N. Pittwood had tried, and failed to get to grips with the effects of the mysterious sickness that was plaguing Lurancy and by the new year, had handed her care over to a second local doctor named Dr Jewett. Both Doctors Jewett and Pittwood were modern practitioners of medicine with patients throughout Watseka, but after both had failed to achieve any results in her condition, calls came again to get Lurancy help from the local asylum. Despite her parents protestations, the Reverend B. M. Baker, Watseka Methodist Minister, wrote to the asylum, lodging an application for her to be sectioned. Their were, however, some locals that held little faith in the asylum and sympathised, chief amongst them were local Spiritualists Asa Berry Roff and his wife Ann, who saw in Lurancy a condition they thought they might just recognise.
Asa Berry & Ann Roff
The Roff family had been longtime residents of Watseka, living for a period just 200 metres from the Vennum family home. In more recent years, they had moved into a large, two story, red-brick house on the far side of the town. Asa had apprenticed as a shoemaker before leaving town, aged 19 to seek his fortune. In 1841, he met and married Ann Fenton in Independence, Indiana, a town he had travelled to by canoe whilst travelling from town to town. The pair moved to Iroquois County in September of 1847, where he set up a shoe shop in Middleport and bought shares in a local sawmill in 1852, where he worked cutting timber for 18 months before becoming elected as Iroquois County Sheriff in 1854, begun reading law and was appointed to the bar in 1857. The couple had 10 children, though 6 had died either in infancy or at young ages. William, Frances, Gaylord and George did not survive infancy, whilst Fenton, Joseph and Frank had grown up and moved outside of Iroquois County to pursue their own careers. Their eldest daughter, Mary had died in Watseka in 1865, aged 19 years old, whilst their surviving daughter, Minerva, lived in Watseka, running a local book and stationary store. The red-brick house they built was the first brick house in town. The reputation of the Roff family in the community was first class and despite suffering the death of so many children and huge financial losses on property and land through nationwide financial crashes of the mid 1870s, Asa Roff was always said to have maintained a cheerful exterior.
“Probably no man today is more highly esteemed in the community or enjoys the confidence amid respect of his fellow-citizens in a fuller degree than the subject of this sketch. He is generous to a fault, just, considerate and independent. He practices what he teaches, as his neighbors know, and lets the broad mantle of charity cover a multitude of faults, rather than condemn too severely the erring.”
Surprisingly, considering their social position in the town, the Roffs were active spiritualists. Although Spiritualism in 1870s America was difficult to keep precise records of due to the nature of the followers aversion to organised groups, the belief had an estimated number of practitioners somewhere in the hundreds of thousands, with some estimates counting into the millions. This rise in the spiritualist movement had begun in the first half of the 19th Century and could be attributed most easily to industrialisation and globalisation, as people moved more, so too did they come into contact with new ideas. Hand in hand with large movements of people, however, also came new disease, and the mortality rate, especially that of children and infants was still painfully high. With the invention of new technologies such as the telegraph, anything began to seem possible, people entertained new, out there ideas more readily and this, paired with the failings of Orthodox Christianity to nurture the solace of an eternal afterlife, people bagan seeking new, more comforting philosophies that could alleviate their anxieties and reduce the grief they often felt for their lost family members.
In essence, spiritualists believed in the existence of an eternal afterlife, where spirits of the dead lived on in perpetuity and hence, could be contacted and conversed with freely through the practices of mediumship, trances and seances. Spirits all had the innate ability to communicate with the living, however, a spirit medium was often needed on the side of the living to allow the communications to be received, though anyone could become a medium through study and practice of the art.
Despite it’s large and growing following, Spiritualism was still a relatively unpopular belief system in generally Orthodox towns and although the public narrative towards spiritualism was one of “believe if you must, but don’t preach it”, heavy prejudices fell on both sides of the fence, with spiritualists considering Orthodox believers to be unenlightened bigots, whilst the opposing view was that the spiritualists were blasphemous heathens mixing heaven and earth in such a blase manner.
Despite these divisions, the Roffs appeared to live a fairly peaceful life and Watseka, whilst being far from a spiritualist stronghold, seemed to turn a blind eye towards their religion. At least, all the time they weren’t making a scene of it.
Asa and Ann Roff took it upon themselves to intervene with the committal of Lurancy to the insane asylum. They had been watching the developments with the young Vennum girl with great interest. Not least because they believed she may have been channeling spirits when she spoke of heaven and of angels, but because they too had had a daughter that had suffered from symptoms that they thought seemed similar, though she had died 12 years previously. This time, they hoped they might be able to offer some help and so they suggested to Thomas Vennum to try their particular brand of alternative therapy instead. Tey believed that rather than insanity, Lurancy may have been suffering from a form of possession, or an invasion of “foreign minds” as they put it to Mr Vennum. Lurancys family initially had their doubts, though after much persuasion, and very possibly given their own orthodox leanings, a heavy dose of desperation, they permitted the Roffs to enlist help and see what they could do. At the very least, it might delay Lurancys committal to the asylum a little longer.
The Roffs contacted a spiritualist acquaintance named Dr E Winchester Stevens, a doctor and spiritualist from Janesville, Wisconsin and on January 31st, 1878, Asa Roff and Dr Stevens visited the Vennum’s house to meet with Lurancy. Upon their first metting, they were introduced to Lurancy already in the midst of one of her trances.
“The girl sat near the stove, in a common chair, her elbows on her knees, her hands under her chin, feet curled up on the chair, eyes staring, looking every way like an old hag. She sat for a time in silence until Dr Stevens moved his chair, when she savagely warned him not to come nearer. She appeared sullen and crabbed, calling her father “old black Dick” and her mother “Old Granny”. She refused to be touched, even to shake hands and was reticent and sullen to all save the doctor, with whom she entered freely into conversation.”
When Dr Stevens asked Lurancy her name, she replied that she was called Katrina Hogan, a 63 year old woman from Germany, though after further questioning, she changed tact and admitted she had been lying. Her name was in fact, Willie Ganning, a young man who had run away from his father, Peter ganning. She gave a short biographical overview of Willies life and explained that after running away, he had gotten into many difficult situations and gone by several names before his eventual death. Stevens asked her why he was back possessing Lurancy to which he replied simply, “Because I want to be”. Lurancy then switched the questions on to the doctor, asking,
“What is your name? Where do you live? Are you married? Have children? How many boys? How many girls? What is your occupation? What kind of doctor? What did you come to Watseka for? Have you ever been to the South Pole? North Pole? Europe? Australia? Egypt? Ceylon? Benares? Sandwich Islands? Do you lie? Get drunk? Steal? Swear? Use tobacco? Tea? Coffee? Do you go to church? Pray?”
Stevens dutifully answered the questions and so to put them to Mr Roff on behalf of Lurancy, who refused to ask him directly. Being asked the questions bore little significance to Stevens, though he did take note that Lurancy was displaying a remarkable geographical knowledge. After an hour and a half of this questioning back and forth between the doctor and the spirit supposedly possessing Lurancy, the Doctor and Mr Roff made to leave the house, as they did so however, Lurancy collapsed onto the floor, falling again into her familiar unresponsive trance, stiff and rigid. Stevens sat down and held Lurancys arms outstretched, asking questions this time directly to Lurancy herself. Lurancy replied to the doctor “With the grace and sweetness of an angel” and explained to the doctor that she was currently “in heaven”. Stevens asked her about the “evil ones”, Katrina and Willie, which she allowed to possess her body and Lurancy replied that she knew of them and that she much regretted having them control her. Here, Stevens who saw a pathway to a potential cure, suggested to Lurancy that she instead focused her time whilst she was currently in heaven, on finding a better, more positive spirit with which she could allow to possess her.
“Then on being advised, she looked about and inquired of those she saw, and described, and named, to find someone who would prevent the cruel and insane ones from returning to annoy her and the family. She soon said: “there are a great many spirits here who would be glad to come,” and she again proceeded to give names and descriptions of persons long since deceased; some that she had never known, but were known by older persons present.”
Of all the names she spoke of, Lurancy said that there was one which the angels desired to come and that she was a spirit who would, herself, like to come into Lurancys body.
“Her name is Mary Roff”
Mary Roff was a name familiar to those in teh room with Lurancy, she was in fact, the eldest of the Roffs daughters, born on the 8th October 1846 in Warren County, Indiana. At age 1, her parents moved to Middleport. In the spring of 1847, when Mary had been around 6 months old, she had been taken ill, suffering from an apparent fit. Her parents had little hope for her survival, however, after several days she recovered and by the end of two weeks rest, she was, to all who looked on, well and healthy once more. It was, however, a short period of calm, as three weeks later, she once again suffered a similar fit. These fits continued throughout her childhood at intervals of 3 to 5 weeks, until she reached the age of 10, when they intensified. Mary would at times suffer clusters fo fits that would last for several days, before phasing out and leaving her a brief period of respite, but always returning. Naturally, these constant periods of fis were taking their toll on Mary. She would become unhappy and despondent after a bout of fitting. Outside of the fits, Mary was otherwise a perfectly normal child, she studied music and was considered bright and well advanced in her education for her age. Her parents were taking note of her mental stability however and had been taking note of the heavy toll the fits were taking on Mary. When she was 15 years old, they decided to make serious medical attempts to cure her. She was seen by several specialists and even underwent 18 months of Hydrotherapy treatment in peoria, Illinois, a form of natural therapy that had seen a sharp comeback throughout the 19th Century when patients were feeling more detached from traditional medical practices that were becoming more and more scientific and difficult to understand for the layman. It encompassed a broad range of practices, all involving water such as hot and cold baths, or hosing patients with water of varying temperatures in an effort to stimulate blood circulation and utilise various water pressures. Despite all of their efforts, however, Mary showed few signs of any improvement and she often complained of a “lump of pain” inside her head. She took to employing bloodletting by Leeches, attaching them to her temples to relieve the pressure she felt on her skull. Mary enjoyed it so much so, that she would utilize the leeches on her own time, making pets of the various leeches. Despite her taking kindly to bloodletting however, it failed to prove effective enough, and on Saturday, July 16th 1864, whilst Mary was 19 years old, she took a knife into the garden and hacked away at her arm until passing out from blood loss. Upon her regaining consciousness, in a state of utter despair, she became violent and it took five men to hold her down to her bed. She had lost a considerable amount of weight over the previous months and now, after losing so much blood, she lay in bed in a state of shock and was unable to recall any of the people around her. She had however, in her clash with near death, gained a curious new sense.
“She had no sense whatever of sight, feeling or hearing in a natural way, as was proved by every test that could be applied. She could read blindfolded and do everything as readily as when in health by her natural sight. She would dress, stand before the glass, open and search in drawers, pick up loose pins, or do any and all things readily, and without annoyance under heavy blindfolding.”
Among the behaviours and tasks she demonstrated whilst under blindfold, apparently unable to see with any natural sight, she took up an encyclopedia, looked up the entry for “blood” and read aloud the entire entry and on another occasion, took a box of letters written to her from friends and family and read each one out to the room. When Mr Roff and others, including the local Reverend attempted to trick her, by placing their own letters amongst Mary’s own, she would notice the deception immediately and toss the letters not addressed to her across the room violently.
“With the physicians her peculiar state or condition was called catalepsy. With the cergy it was one of the mysteries of God’s providence, with which we should have little to do. With editors, who are obliged to be wide, or silent, it was fits or some unaccountable phenomenon. All, wth untiring effort, tried to solve the mystery, and learn what it was that produced such strange and wonderful manifestations.”
This brief period earnt Mary a small degree of local fame, as many of the citizens of Watseka came to witness her powers of unnatural sight and her story was written of in the local newspaper. Her fits still continued however, and there were definite pushes on the family to place Mary into the asylum. On July 5th, whilst taking a three day visit to Peoria, she woke, ate breakfast and then retired to bed to lay down. A short time after, her parents heard her scream and took to er bedroom, finding her in a fit on the bed, however, this time, she was not to regain consciousness. Mary died that morning, July 5th after a difficult and turbulent life, aged just 19 years old.
It was these fits in Lurancy that so inspired the Roffs to enquire with Mr and Mrs Vennum, they had seen similar troubles with their own child and so too had they seen how little help an asylum could be. Their intervention into the situation of Lurancy Vennum can almost be seen as an act of retribution for any perceived failings they might have lingering from the death of their own child. It was a curious development that when Dr Stevens suggested to Lurancy to find a more positive spirit to possess her, she happened across Mary Roff, deceased 12 years prior when Lurancy was just three years old. Naturally, as a dedicated spiritualist, Mr Roff was more than happy with the possibility now presented to him to speak with his deceased daughter once again and so, when Lurancy suggested to Dr Stevens that the spirit of Mary Roff was willing to help her, he immediately interjected.
“Yes, let her come, we’ll be glad to have her come.”
The Roff house
The next day, on the morning of 1st February, Mr Vennum stopped into the office of Mr Roff, explaining that it appeared Mary had come as promised and he requested Mr Roff to stop by,
“She seems like a child real homesick, wanting to see her ma and pa and brothers.”
As it turned out, Lurancy had been acting more than just a little homesick. It appeared that she had been entirely consumed by the spirit of Mary Roff as she failed to recognise any of the Vennum family, not the house in which she had spent the previous 14 years living. She had become, mild, polite and timid and at times wept as she insisted that she wanted to return home. This behaviour continued for the next week, until finally, Mrs Roff and her daughter, Minerva went to visit the Vennum house to see for themselves the porported change in Lurancys behaviour. As they approached the house, Lurancy leant from the window and upon seeing their arrival, turned to her own mother and father, who she still was failing to recognise, and yelled,
“There comes my Ma and sister Nervie!”
Nervie was the name that mary had called Minerva in childhood, long before the birth of Lurancy herself. She hugged them upon their arrival, however, after they left that afternoon, Mr and Mrs Vennum noted that Lurancy had become only more homesick. She often fell to fits of tears, begging to be allowed to return home. Eventually, Mr and Mrs Vennum, somewhat reluctantly broached Mr Roff with the idea that Lurancy should go and stay in the Roff house to see if it might bring about a more positive effect. The Roffs agreed and on the 11th February, Lurancy went with Mrs Roff to stay longer with the family. As they walked across town, Lurancy headed into an entirely different house, claiming that it was her home and it took some persuasion on the part of Mrs Vennum to convince Lurancy that she was mistaken. As it turned out, the house that she had taken for her home was in fact the house the Roffs had initially occupied during the lifetime of Mary, though they had since moved after her death. When they reached the house where the Roff family now resided, Lurancy greeted the family as if they were her own, recognizing them all and hugging them dearly. Mr Roff asked her how long the spirit of Mary intended to stay and Lurancy replied that she would stay until “some time in mAy”, and so it was that Lurancy would spend the three months and ten days living in the Roff household, under the care of the Roffs, with Lurancy playing every bit the part of their dead daughter Mary.
Not everyone in the town of Watseka was so ready to believe this state of affairs however. As already mentioned, the majority of the town were Orthodox Christians and Spiritualism, despite its large and ever expanding following, had its fair share of critics. The local minister, Reverend Baker told Mr Roff that,
“I think you will see a time when you will wish you had sent her to the asylum.”
Some of their closer relatives were even more scathing in their opinions.
“I would sooner follow a girl of mine to the grave than have her go to the Roffs and be made a spiritualist.”
Meanwhile Dr Jewett stuck to his guns, convinced that his diagnosis of Catalepsy had been the correct one. All the while the sceptics raed and the doctor held fast to his diagnosis, Lurancy was showing far more unusual symptoms whilst at the Roff house.
She recognised everyone that lived in the house, continued to call Minerva by her childhood nickname of Nervie, recognised neighbours, family friends and greeted them all as if they were long lost friends. At the same time, whenever members of her own family visited, she still failed to recognise them beyond that which she only recently knew. In a letter to Dr Stevens written by Asa Roff, he stated,
“Mary is perfectly happy; She recognizes everybody and everything that she knew when in her body 12 or more years ago. She knows nobody nor anything whatever that is known by Lurancy… Mr Vennum has been to see her, and also her brother Henry, at different times, but she don’t know anything about them. Mrs Vennum is still unable to come and see her daughter. She has been nothing but Mary ever since she has been here, and knows nothing but what Mary knew. She has entered the trance once every other day for some days. She is perfectly happy.”
Aside from people, she also recognised many of Mary’s old possessions, including an old box of letters and an old hat that Mary once wore. When she entered the Roff household, she instantly recognised the piano and even attempted to play it, though the attempt was not entirely successful.
“She attempted to play and sing as of yore. The songs were the ones of her youth; As we stood listening, the familiar notes were hers, although emanating from another’s lips. The effect, however, was only partially successful. Tuning with a smile to the family present, she remarked, “I can not make my fingers work just right.”
Mary didn’t stay in Lurancys body exclusively however, and there were times when other spirits made their way in, a woman from Tennessee and the grandmother of the Roffs servant, Charlotte, complete with arched back, hobbling gait and talent for knitting. When asked about her Lurancys body, she appeared to understand that it was not her own, but that of Lurancys and that she was merely controlling it as a spirit and when asked about the arm that she had cut before in life, she pulled up her sleeve to show her scars. “Oh, this is not the arm”, she said, “That one is in the ground.”
She also displayed acts of clairvoyance, when one evening she told Frank Roff to be careful and that he needed to be watch, for she believed he would soon fall ill. That same night, at 2am, he woke in a fever and drifted in and out of consciousness. The Roffs sent for Dr Stevens who they believed to be across town. Stevens had been at the Roffs house earlier that night and told them that that was where he would be going next, however, as the evening unraveled, the doctor had been called back to the neighbours house and had ended up stopping over for the night. Mary repeated the information and so sure enough, when Mr Roff called next door to check, there was Dr Stevens, just as Mary had predicted. She also spoke of houses she had not visited in person, describing family members, furnishings and layouts in detail, all that were deemed correct by witnesses.
As time went on, Mary’s reputation in the town continued to climb. Accusations of insanity fell by the wayside and many agreed that she was now acting and behaving “like a well mannered child”.
Time was running out for Mary however, Lurancy had predicted that she would return some time in May and so it was that on May 19th, Mary left the body of Lurancy for a short period when she was reunited with her mother, who was delighted to see her daughter so well. It was short lived and soon Lurancy was once again possessed by Mary, however on May 21st, as she had earlier predicted to Mr Roff, she prepared to leave for good. She walked across town with her sister Minerva, where she seemed to jump back and forth between Mary and Lurancy in quick succession, before finally, as she approached the Vennum house, she came to herself and Mary was gone from the body of Lurancy. The only remark from Lurancy, that she had felt something as though she had been asleep. The Watseka republican, the editor of which had witnessed many of the strange interactions between Dr Stevens, the Roffs and Lurancy, wrote the following article regarding her return,
“The meeting with her parents at the home was very affecting and now she seems to be a healthy, hapy little girl, going about noting things she saw before she was stricken, and recognizes changes that have since taken place. This is a remarkable case, and the fact that we cannot understand such things, does not do away with the existence of these unaccountable manifestations.”
After Lurancy returned to her home with her family, she continued to live happily, with little return to the world of spirits, though she did channel Mary on several occasions when the Roffs came to visit. In 1882 she married a man named George Binning, a farmer living 3 miles outside of Watseka, where she moved for 2 years until in 1884 moving to kansas. She went on to have 11 children before eventually passing away in 1952, aged 87 years old.
Theories and Criticisms
When considering the possibilities of what happened to Lurancy Vennum during her time at the Roff house, we can either accept the narrative as told by Dr Stevens, or we can chose to read between the lines to develop another theory. The most common explanation is that Lurancy really was cured of her bouts of depression, however, it was not by any spirit means, rather a simple series of suggestion. When Dr Stevens invited Lurancy to choose a different more positive spirit, he was inviting Lurancy to continue with her second personality, whether that was brought about by any psychological or physiological reasons, or purely out of a childlike jest, but instead to channel it in a more positive manner. In essence, Stevens had removed the negative and damaging influences from the situation and replaced them instead with one which could be seen as positive and healing. He also stated that this spirit would heal Lurancy and in asking Lurancy herself when she would return, he placed a finality to the affair. All of this embedded in the form of suggestion that the current situation was simply an aid to recovery for Lurancy and that she would be well by the date that she herself set. This theory concludes that whether or not he knew what he was doing, he had in effect, cured Lurancy through quite earthly means. This theory however, can only be accepted if one is to dismiss the many testimonies and volumes of circumstantial evidence of the more unusual aspects of the case, the clairvoyance, knowledge of things unseen or unknown and the sheer amount of foresight needed to play a role as someone else’s daughter for several months.
Latter investigations & Publications
The case of Lurancy Vennum has been studied several times since its inception and revisited at least twice by eminent researchers of the paranormal. In April of 1890, Dr Hodgson from the Society for Psychical Research visited Watseka to interview many of the original witnesses. Though Dr Stevens had been long since dead, having passed away less than ten years after the publication of the events at Watseka, and Lurancy herself had moved from the area, he did manage to interview the Roff family and much of the local townsfolk who put their names as witnesses in Dr Stevens original account, concluding that he,
“Could find no satisfactory explanation, except the spiritualistic.”
Worthy of note here, is that whilst the Society for Psychical Research has had a spotty past, it has at least attempted to remain on the side of science and Dr Hodgson himself had undertaken his trip to Watseka fresh off the back of exposing two of the largest Spiritualist fraudsters in the game and had earned the title of “the Sherlock Holmes of Professional detectives of the supernatural”. He was described by those that knew him as “no spiritualist” and in less formal conversation, a “doubting Thomas”.
So what did happen to Lurancy Vennum during those few months in 1878? Was she really possessed by the deceased daughter of the Roffs or were they simply stories made up by an over zealous preacher of spiritualism? Whether or not one is to believe the original account or not, it seems fair to assume that this is a case where spiritualism triumphed, one way or another. In the words of H. Addington Bruce, writing in the New York Tribune in 1908,
“If the responsibility for the creation rests on Dr Stevens and the Roffs, to them likewise belongs the credit for the cure.”