The Possession of Mary Lurancy Vennum

Updated on July 7, 2020
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

Lurancy Vennum.
Lurancy Vennum. | Source

At the height of the spiritualist movement of the late 19th century, an obscure and sickly teen in a small Midwest town became a celebrity. Whether it was the effects of mental illness, an undiagnosed sleep disorder, or an actual case of possession, Mary "Lurancy" Vennum was thrust onto a national stage by true believers who were convinced that she had special powers to talk to the dead.

Dubbed the Watseka Wonder, Vennum attracted spiritualists from her home state of Illinois and the surrounding Midwest United States. They came to see this girl, believing that she was possessed by the benevolent spirit of Mary Roff, a local teen who died in an asylum exactly 13 years before Vennum’s first episode of “possession.” Many hoped she’d be the proof they needed to confirm their belief in the afterlife. Yet, two people, her parents—Thomas and Lurinda Vennum—just hoped to keep her out of an asylum.

Clippings about Lurancy.
Clippings about Lurancy.

Rancy! Rancy!

The story of the Watseka Wonder (named after the town where this incident took place) began on the morning of July 6, 1877. Thirteen-year-old Lurancy had awakened, feeling ill and frightened. She told her parents about a disturbing incident that occurred to her the previous night in which mysterious people entered her room, yelling “Rancy! Rancy!”

A week went by with no other incident. Then, while helping her mother stitch a broken seam in a carpet, she stood up and told her mother that she didn’t feel well. Suddenly, she fainted, only to come to five hours later.

Obviously, this was a frightening moment for Mrs. Vennum. And when Lurancy emerged from this agonizing episode, the mother, as well as Lurancy, may have felt that the worst was behind them.

They were wrong; this was only the beginning. And things were going to take a turn for the bizarre.

Fainting Turns to Possession

It wouldn't be long before her condition worsened. Lurancy suffered from excruciating abdominal pains in addition to the fainting spells. However, the symptoms took on a new dimension. She began to murmur in her unconscious state about strange visions of beings she referred to as “angels.” Also, some reports—but not substantiated by other sources—claimed she was speaking in different voices. And when she awoke, she would not remember a thing that occurred to her during these hours long (sometimes eight hours) episodes.

Oddly, enough, there was one thing she claimed that she remembered from these episodes; she claimed she was talking to the dead.

Originally posted at
Originally posted at

Suspicion of Mental Illness

With what little they knew at the time, doctors who examined her were convinced that Lurancy was mentally ill. The only treatment for mental illness was confinement in the State Insane Asylum in Peoria, Illinois, a dire place by all accounts.

Basically, asylums of the 19th century were “dumping grounds." Patients at these places often faced treatments that were barbaric and far worse than the infliction that brought them to these institutions. Also, most who entered would never see the outside world again; they were confined to the hospital for the rest of their lives.

The Vennums' Dilemma

The Vennums were faced with this dilemma. Do they send their daughter to the State Insane Asylum, or do they keep her at home and away from the public (another option for parents at the time)?

Lurancy was to be spared the asylum. Word miraculously got out about her visions and supernatural talents. It wouldn't be long before bands of true believers within the spiritualist movement would pay her visits to seek her wisdom and guidance. The frail and sickly teen was becoming a popular—and some say powerful—medium between the living and the dead.

originally posted on
originally posted on | Source

Visions of Mary

This new chapter in Lurancy’s life started in January of 1878 when a resident of Watseka paid the family a visit. Asa Roff once had a daughter, Mary, who suffered from the same conditions that Lurancy had. Eventually, he had to make the same choice that the Vennums had made. It would be a mistake that would haunt his life, for Mary would eventually die in confinement at the asylum. Asa’s presence at the Vennum household that day was simple; he was begging them not to send Lurancy away.

As well-intentioned as Asa was, he also had other motives. Asa believed his daughter’s spirit still existed, and he was a firm believer in Spiritualism, the cult-like religious movement that centered around the belief that one can communicate with the dead. Asa was so convinced that Lurancy was a medium that he brought in fellow spiritualist Dr. E. Winchester Stevens to examine Lurancy on his behalf. If possible, Asa may have thought Lurancy could contact his daughter, Mary.

Background on Mary Roff

Mary Roff, the girl who’d eventually be equated with Lurancy’s life, had been a sick girl her entire short life. She suffered from epilepsy and other mental illnesses, including hearing mysterious voices in her head and falling into trance-like states of consciousness. Throughout the years, Mary grew violent as the illness took hold of her. Finally, when she was a teen, Asa was forced to have her committed after she slashed her arm with a straight razor. On July 5, 1865, Mary’s troubled life came to an end at the State Mental Asylum in Peoria.

Whether it was the similarities that existed between these two girls in the same town or something else, Asa was convinced that Lurancy was the person who could reach Mary from the beyond. As time went by, Asa became more convinced that Lurancy wasn't just able to communicate with Mary, she was conjuring Mary and allowing her to speak through her.

she claimed she was in heaven and was allowing a gentler spirit to control her: that particular spirit was Mary Roff

— Taylor, 2007

Was It Just Hypnosis?

Still, one story suggests that the connection between the two girls came about after Dr. Stevens “mesmerized (hypnotized)” her and began to talk to the spirits believed to be within Lurancy. Within moments of the hypnosis, 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. After an hour of speaking in “Willie’s” voice, she suddenly threw her arms into the air and collapsed.

Dr. Stevens managed to calm Lurancy down. Once this happened, Lurancy changed her voice. This time, she claimed she was in heaven and was allowing a gentler spirit to control her: that particular spirit was Mary Roff (Taylor, 2007).

Eventually, after the "mesmerized" session, the spirit of Mary revisited. The effects were positive on both the Vennum and Roff families. For Lurancy’s parents, they didn’t have to send their child to an insane asylum. For Asa, he had a perceived connection to his long-lost daughter.

The Spiritualists Were Convinced

For the spiritualists, this was the all the convincing they needed. To them this was proof that spirits of the dead were trying to contact the living.

Yet, a closer look at the evidence of Lurancy’s possession does bring about some questions. Hypnotism is a therapy that has been thrown out of criminal courts for its unreliability. Also, studies have shown that people under this condition can be persuaded or manipulated into giving answers that the person conducting the hypnosis wanted.

Also, another justification needs to be closely examined for its authenticity. Many websites touting Lurancy’s ability as a medium pointed to the personal details that she seems to know about Mary when she was in a trance. Many supporters on one these sites make arguments that the two girls never met or that they grew up in different times. But they did have something in common: Asa Roff, the man who started the possession story.

What Would a Modern Diagnosis Reveal?

The symptoms that Lurancy exhibited is similar to a rare sleeping disorder called Kleine-Levin Syndrome (also known as Sleeping Beauty Syndrome). Although it strikes adolescent males, it does—although rare—strike teenage girls as well. In fact, the most recent case to shed light on this condition occurred to 15-year-old Louisa Ball of the United Kingdom. However, this condition was never diagnosed in the 19th century, and it was a huge mystery of the time.

Lurancy's visions eventually stopped.
Lurancy's visions eventually stopped. | Source

The Visions End, But the Story Persists

Much has been said about this case. Many who still believe in spiritualism or New Age thinking have pointed to this case as the most important evidence to their beliefs. However, evidence also suggests that paranormal researchers of the time, the parents’ vulnerability and gullibility, and the possibility that Lurancy may have had a rare sleep disorder may prove that this incident was not what it seemed to be.

Either way, the visions that Lurancy had would eventually vanish. By age 21, they were gone, and she lived a relatively normal life, without the help of Mary’s spirit.

© 2016 Dean Traylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • MizBejabbers profile image

      Doris James MizBejabbers 

      3 years ago from Beautiful South

      Very strange story, Dean. It's good that Lurancy wasn't sent to the insane asylum. However, medicine was just as barbaric in the 20th Century. My sister needed synthroid very badly, but instead she was sent to a couple of mental wards, one in which she was given shock treatments. She committed suicide a month before her second round of shock treatments was to have taken place (1980). How do I know that she needed synthroid? Because the doctors found mine before it was too late.

    • James Slaven profile image

      James Slaven 

      3 years ago from Indiana, USA

      Excellent stuff!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Dean, this was quite enthralling. There are a lot of things that are difficult to explain. Thanks for sharing.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)