Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on October 13, 2016:
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 from Indiana, USA on October 11, 2016:
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 09, 2016:
Dean, this was quite enthralling. There are a lot of things that are difficult to explain. Thanks for sharing.