In a rural farming town of Watseka, approximately 85 miles south of Chicago, Illinois, something otherworldly was going down between 1877 and 1878.
It was here that the very first American possession was documented.
When we think of possessions, we think of demonic spirits taking over a human body by force and most often, the results are terrifying. This case, however, is quite different than your average so-called possession.
On the afternoon of 11 July, 1877, 13-year-old Lurancy Vennum complained to her mother that she felt ill. Moments later, she fell to the ground where she remained for the next five hours, unconscious. The following morning, exactly the same thing happened once again. However, this time, Lurancy started claiming that she had visited heaven where she would speak to angels and spirits of the deceased. 1
“I saw heaven and angels and a lot of other ghosts who talked to me,” she said.2
A couple of years beforehand, Lurancy’s brother and sister perished. She saw them in heaven too, she reported. Sometimes these trances would last for hours and Lurancy would speak in a different voice than her regular voice and speak of places that were far away – places she certainly hadn’t visited.
At a time when the spiritualism movement was widely popular, many people believed that Lurancy was manifesting mediumistic abilities during these trances. She was able to contact spirits and angels, many believed. While many physicians diagnosed her as being mentally ill and attempted to encourage her parents to send her to the State Insane Asylum in Peoria, they refused.
Asylums in that day and age were rife with abuse and offered zero treatment. In fact, many patients would be lucky to make it out alive never mind make it out “cured.” The idea was to lock those who were deemed mentally ill away from the outside world and those who were deemed as “normal.”
As the trances became more frequent and more detailed, a man called Asa Roff, who also lived in Watseka, showed up at the Vennum family residence. Asa told the Vennum family about his own daughter, Mary Roff, who had suffered from something eerily similar to Lurancy and wanted to inspect Lurancy first-hand.
The Vennum family invited him into their home; he had brought along spiritualist Dr. Winchester Stevens, who documented this very first meeting. He said Lurancy was “curled up on the chair, eyes staring, looking in every way like an old hag.” He detailed how she called her father “Old Black Dick,” and her mother “Old Granny.” During this initial meeting, Lurancy didn’t introduce herself as Lurancy but as Katrina Hogan, a 63-year-old woman from Germany.
Moments later, she claimed she was actually a young boy called Willie Canning, who had recently perished and was “now here because he wants to me.”3 Before they left, Lurancy snapped out of the trance and was able to communicate with the “sane and happy mind of Lurancy Vennum.”
Asa told the Vennum family that Mary would often enter similar trance like states in which she would take on the character of somebody else. She was possessed, they believed and could recollect information about places she had never been and people she had never known. As she got older, the trances increased in intensity and violence. For 18 months, she was kept in a “water cure” but to no avail. 4
She soon developed a bizarre obsession with blood and took to applying leeches to her forehead. One morning, her father found her slicing open her arms with a knife from the kitchen. She needed to rid her body of blood, she told him before passing out. Her father had agreed with the physicians and sent Mary to the insane asylum. One morning, she awoke, sat up in her bed and screamed uncontrollably before falling back down, dead at just 19-years-old.
Despite her death, Asa was adamant that Mary’s spirit was still alive. Now this is where the story becomes even more obscure. Following this meeting, another spirit came through Lurancy: Mary Roff.
While in one of her trances, Lurancy introduced herself as Mary, adding that she didn’t recognise the name Lurancy. Her name was Mary, she contended. Furthermore, she didn’t recognize the home she lived in or her family members. She wanted to go home, she said.
The Vennum family contacted the Roff family once again to tell them that Lurancy was possessed by Mary. They immediately made their way to the Vennum household. Although Luranacy had never met the rest of the family, she was able to identity each one, even identifying them by childhood nicknames. “Here comes Ma and Nervie” she exclaimed with excitement. 5
The Roff family continued to visit and interact with Lurancy, who they believed was genuinely Mary, just in another body. A couple of months later, the Vennum family allowed the Roff family to take Lurancy to their home, to see how she would behave and to see if she would regain her real identity. As the months had passed, they had hoped Lurancy would snap out of it and transform back into her true identity but to no avail. While they didn’t want her to leave, Lurancy had been treating her own family like strangers and they were desperate to get her back.
As Lurancy and the Roff family jumped into the buggy, they passed by what was their old house: the house that Mary had grown up in and the house the Roff family moved out of following her death. Lurancy immediately became confused and asked why they weren’t stopping there.
Miraculously, the longer Lurancy stayed with the Roff family, the less frequent her trances were.
She was able to recollect fond Roff family memories and recognised items inside the home as her own. She took much delight in playing the piano – something that Mary could do but Lurancy couldn’t. “Truly, our daughter who was dead has been restored to us” exclaimed the Roff family.
After a couple of month’s bliss, Lurancy told the Roff family it was time for her to leave. Kissing them all goodbye, she was increasingly upset. When she arrived back home at the Vennum household, she recognized everybody straight away. Within days, Mary was gone for good and Lurancy never fell into another trance again. The Vennum family believed that the spirit of Mary had completely healed Lurancy’s ailments.
What happened in Watseka? Was Lurancy really possessed by the spirit of Mary or was it some kind of elaborate hoax? Nobody can say for sure but the Roff and Vennum family certainly believed the possession to be genuine, as did those who witnessed it first-hand.
- Malvern Daily Record – 21 October, 2016 – “Possessed? Perhaps”
- Augusta Chronicle – 5 April, 1992 – “Child’s Spirit Returns”
- The Sunday Star – 19 July, 1908 – “The Watseka Wonder”
- Quincy Examiner – 3 April, 2015 – “Documented Possession in Watseka, Illinois”
- Toledo Examiner – 8 July, 2009 – “The Watseka Wonder”