The Watseka Wonder

“The case of Lurancy Vennum, a bright young girl of fourteen years, has been the subject of much discussion in Watseka during the past year, and there is a good deal in it beyond human comprehension.” – “Mesmeric Mysteries,” Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, OH), Jun. 22, 1878 [1]

            Ever since Regan MacNeil crawled backwards down the stairs in The Exorcist, possession has been a cornerstone of American horror movies. The very idea of losing control of ourselves to something otherworldly fills us with fear. The fear of possession, of course, has been around since long before the 1970s. Cases of possession have featured on the pages of newspapers across the country since the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. We don’t have to look far to find one such case.

Watseka, Illinois is a small town that lies around 63 miles north of Champaign. With a population of around 5,000, it isn’t necessarily a household name. However, that was not always the case. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Watseka became the subject of national attention, with newspapers across the country debating a series of strange occurrences. It all began with one young woman, Mary Lurancy Vennum.

Not a lot has been written about Lurancy’s birth and early childhood. She first appears in the historical record in July of 1887 when she was 13 years old. Lurancy, the story goes, suddenly began to feel ill and behave strangely, complaining to her mother that she was unable to sleep. Each night she was awakened by the sound of someone desperately calling her name, only to find that no one was there. Further complicating matters were severe stomach pains which were soon accompanied by trances in which she would claim to see spirits floating around her.[2]

It wasn’t long before the community caught wind of her symptoms, with everyone forming their own opinions on the matter. Many in town pushed for her to be sent to an asylum to undergo treatment. Others, however, pushed for the intervention of a different type of “expert,” someone who could address the spirits that allegedly haunted Lurancy. Desperate to help their daughter, and possibly put off by the horrific reputations of asylums, the Vennums put their faith in the spiritual. It was with this in mind that they brought in renowned spiritualist E. W. Stevens to examine the situation. (Stevens, you may notice from this post’s reference section, later wrote a book about his experience. This book serves as the most detailed account of these events.)[3]

As time wore on Lurancy’s symptoms became increasingly peculiar. One newspaper noted that

“She could also place her hand on a book and without seeing it would point to any letter that was named. These spells would last sometimes an hour or two, then she became quite rational and appeared as well as ever…This continued until sometime in January last, when, after one of those trances, she declared that she was an old German woman named Katrina, but this illusion soon vanished and she became Mary Roff, a young lady who died twelve years ago.”[4]

Mary was not as quick to relinquish control of Lurancy, stating that she would retain control of the body while Lurancy’s soul was healed. Mary, in the meantime, wished to visit with her family and friends. News of this occurrence eventually reached Mary’s parents who visited the Vennum home to see if the stories were true. Upon seeing the Roffs, Lurancy (or Mary) became frantic, demanding that she be allowed to stay with them. The Roffs, seeing the distress that the event was casing the Vennum family, agreed to watch her until Lurancy returned to normal. According to both Stevens and the Cincinnati Enquirer, Lurancy was capable of remembering numerous events and people from Mary’s life. Furthermore, she seemed to have lost all memory of much of the Vennum family and friends.[5]

For several months Lurancy lived as Mary, staying with Roffs and visiting with Mary’s friends and family. That is, until May 7th when she promptly announced that Lurancy’s soul was returning to her body on May 22nd at eleven o’clock. As promised, Lurancy soon returned to her body. By all accounts she returned to life as normal, happy and healthy.[6] There does not appear to have been any resurgence of strange behavior on Lurancy’s part.[7]

Stevens’ account of the “possession” is at turns fascinating and dubious. His writings show no indication that he had any real interest in finding non-supernatural causes for Lurancy’s behavior. Furthermore, he fills the account with grand stories over Mary’s ability to take and relinquish control of Lurancy’s body at will. Supposedly, she was even able to take over the bodies of others, possessing a Dr. Steel and making a show of her control over his body.[8]

Given the questionable nature of Steven’s account, we are left to wonder what caused the events in Watseka.  Was Lurancy the victim of a temporary psychological condition that, without our modern understanding of psychology, was left largely untreated? Were there supernatural elements at play?

The memory of the Watseka Wonder is very much alive today. If the story resonated with you, why not visit the Vennum House? It offers tours and ghost hunts. The story was also mentioned on the extremely popular historical horror podcast Lore. In 2009 the story also inspired a “documentary” called The Possessed.  Full disclosure: I haven’t seen it, so view at your own risk.

Suggested Readings:

Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey.
Possessed: Women, Witches, and Demons in Imperial Russia by Christine Worobec
Possessions: the History and Uses of Haunting in the Hudson Valley by Judith Richardson
Demon Possession in Elizabethan England by Kathleen Sands

Footnotes:

[1] “Mesmeric Mysteries,” Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, OH), Jun. 22, 1878.
[2] E. W. Stevens, The Watseka Wonder: A Startling and Instructive Chapter in the History of Spiritualism, (Chicago: Religio-Philospocial Publishing, 1878), 1-2.
[3] E. W. Stevens, The Watseka Wonder, 2-4.
[4] “Mesmeric Mysteries,” Cincinnati Enquirer.
[5] “Mesmeric Mysteries,” Cincinnati Enquirer; E. W. Stevents, The Watseka Wonder, 4-6.
[6] E. W. Stevens, The Watseka Wonder, 10, 13-16
[7] “The real thing,” Daily Illini (Champaign, IL) Mar. 30, 1974.
[8] E. W. Stevens, The Watseka Wonder, 12.

Other Sources Used:

Watseka, IL.Google Maps. Accessed October 26, 2018.
Annual Estimates of the Resident Population: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2017.United States Census Bureau. Accessed October 15, 2018.
Vennum House,” Watsekawonder.com. Accessed Oct. 15, 2018.
Mahnke, Aaron. “Mary, Mary,” Lore. Podcast audio. Dec. 23, 2016.
The Possessed (2009).IMDb. Accessed Oct. 15, 2018.

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