Watseka Wonder

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Watseka Wonder is the name given to the alleged spiritual possession of fourteen-year-old Lurancy Vennum of Watseka, Illinois in the late 19th century.

Watseka, Illinois City in Illinois, United States

Watseka is a city in and the county seat of Iroquois County, Illinois, United States. It is located approximately 15 miles (24 km) west of the Illinois-Indiana state line on U.S. Route 24.


Lurancy Vennum

Lurancy Vennum Lurancy.jpg
Lurancy Vennum

Mary Lurancy Vennum was born in 1864 near Watseka, Illinois. In the summer of 1877 she suffered a series of epileptic fits, often lapsing into unconsciousness. After awakening, she told her family that she had been to heaven, had seen angels, and had visited her younger brother and sister who had died before her. As Vennum's fits became more frequent, physicians advised there was nothing more they could do, and by January 1878 it was decided she should be placed in an insane asylum. A neighbor and devout Spiritist Asa B. Roff convinced Vennum's parents not to commit her, and instead to call in a physician who was himself a Spiritist, E. Winchester Stevens. [1]

Heaven Place where beings such as gods, angels, spirits, saints, or venerated ancestors are said to originate, be enthroned, or live.

Heaven, or the heavens, is a common religious, cosmological, or transcendent place where beings such as gods, angels, spirits, saints, or venerated ancestors are said to originate, be enthroned, or live. According to the beliefs of some religions, heavenly beings can descend to earth or incarnate, and earthly beings can ascend to heaven in the afterlife, or in exceptional cases enter heaven alive.

Spiritist investigation

In 1878, physician and Spiritist E. Winchester Stevens examined Vennum. Stevens accounts were published in the leading Spiritist journal of the time, The Religio-Philosophical Journal, and later in an 1887 book entitled "The Watseka Wonder" in which he described Vennum as "the most remarkable case of spirit return and manifestation ever recorded in history." According to Stevens, Vennum's character would change suddenly, from morose and sullen, to "mystic and imaginary trances" in which she described joyous trips to heaven and visits with angels. According to Stevens, Vennum often spoke in different voices and became several different people, including an old woman named Katrina Hogan and a young man named Willie Canning. Stevens claims she remembered the names of several people who had died and had possessed her body, and later chose to be possessed by the soul of Asa Roff's deceased daughter, Mary Roff. Psychical researcher Richard Hodgson of the American Society for Psychical Research was also convinced that Vennum was possessed by Roff's spirit. [1] [2] [3]

A spirit is a supernatural being, often, but not exclusively, a non-physical entity; such as a ghost, fairy, or angel. In English Bibles, "the Spirit", specifically denotes the Holy Spirit.

Richard Hodgson (parapsychologist) Australian-born psychical researcher

Richard Hodgson (1855–1905) was an Australian-born psychical researcher.

Society for Psychical Research organization

The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) is a nonprofit organisation in the United Kingdom. Its stated purpose is to understand events and abilities commonly described as psychic or paranormal. It describes itself as the "first society to conduct organised scholarly research into human experiences that challenge contemporary scientific models." It does not, however, since its inception in 1882, hold any corporate opinions: SPR members assert a variety of beliefs with regard to the nature of the phenomena studied.

William James briefly mentioned the case in his book The Principles of Psychology (1890). James commented that it is "perhaps as extreme a case of 'possession' of the modern sort as one can find." [4]

William James American philosopher, psychologist, and pragmatist

William James was an American philosopher and psychologist, and the first educator to offer a psychology course in the United States. James was a leading thinker of the late nineteenth century, one of the most influential U.S. philosophers, and has been labeled the "Father of American psychology".

<i>The Principles of Psychology</i>

The Principles of Psychology is an 1890 book about psychology by William James, an American philosopher and psychologist who trained to be a physician before going into psychology. There are four methods from James' book: stream of consciousness ; emotion ; habit ; and will.

Mary Roff MaryRoff.jpg
Mary Roff

According to Stevens and Hodgson, Vennum allowed Mary Roff to possess her body for about fifteen weeks during which time she could allegedly recognize all Roff's friends and relatives, was familiar with all of the objects in the Roff home, and could retell incidents and stories from Roff's childhood and her past life. Convinced that Vennum was a reincarnation of their daughter, the Roff family allowed the girl to live with them for several weeks. Stevens wrote that when Vennum later married, Roff's spirit supposedly inhabited Vennum, resulting in a painless childbirth for her. [1] [2]


Upon reviewing the case, psychologist Frank Sargent Hoffman regarded Vennum as "a typical case of hysterical impersonation" and wrote that there was no evidence Vennum had knowledge she could not have obtained by normal means. Hoffman wrote that the grieving Roff family "did everything in their power" to encourage Vennum "that she was their Mary." [5] Journalist Henry Addington Bruce characterized Vennum as "unduly suggestible", saying that "it may safely be declared that the phenomena manifested through Lurancy Vennum were not a whit more other-worldly than the phenomena produced by tricksters whom Hodgson himself so skillfully and mercifully exposed." Bruce wrote that recurrences of the "Mary personality" appeared "only when the Roff's paid her visits, and that they ceased entirely upon her marriage to a man not interested in spiritism and her removal to a distant part of the country." [1]

Frank Sargent Hoffman

Frank Sargent Hoffman was an American philosopher who wrote on psychology and religion.

Addington Bruce Canadian journalist

Henry Addington Bayley Bruce, best known as H. Addington Bruce was an American journalist and author of psychology books.


An obscure syndicated radio program, Out of the Night, dramatized the case as "The Girl With the Dual Personality" sometime around 1949, [6] a recording of which survives.

A fictionalized play based on the case, "Before I Wake", was produced and staged in 1986. It was written by William Wesbrooks, focusing on the Roffs who are mentioned as being the writer's great-great-grandparents. The play was reviewed as a thriller by The New York Times. [7]

A 2009 film, The Possessed , recounting the story of the Watseka case, was produced by the Booth Brothers, Christopher Saint Booth and Philip Adrian Booth, for the SyFy Channel's "Spooked Television". [8] Since then, the film has aired on The Chiller Channel on June 10, 2012, [9] owned by the same network of channels as SyFy.

The 1996 Lifetime Movie Network "Buried Secrets" is an adaption of the story.

DC Comics' horror anthology, House of Mystery (#5, August 1952), had a half page filler titled, "Double Mourning!" that briefly recounted the alleged facts of the Lurancy Vennum case.

Daniel Quinn used the story as the basis for the story of Mary Anne Dorson in his novel After Dachau.

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  1. 1 2 3 4 Henry Addington Bruce (1908). Historic ghosts and ghost hunters. Moffat, Yard. pp. 171–. Retrieved March 28, 2011.
  2. 1 2 E. Winchester Stevens (1887). The Watseka wonder: A narrative of startling phenomena occurring in the case of Mary Lurancy Vennum. Religio-philpsophical Pub. House. Retrieved March 28, 2011.
  3. Stevens, E. Winchester (1928). The Watseka Wonder (PDF) (reissue ed.). The Austin Publishing Company.
  4. James, William. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Holt. pp. 396-398
  5. Frank Sargent Hoffman (1903). Psychology and common life: a survey of the present results of psychical research with special reference to their bearings upon the interests of every day life. G. P. Putnam's sons. pp. 276–. Retrieved March 28, 2011.
  6. "Out Of The Night". RadioGOLDINdex. July 22, 2015. Retrieved September 26, 2015.
  7. Leah, Frank D. (April 13, 1986). THEATER REVIEW; NEW THRILLER ISN'T ALL FICTION. The New York Times. Retrieved June 11, 2012
  8. Carla Waters (October 1, 2009). "'Watseka Wonder' story to air on television". Iroquois County Times-Republic . Retrieved March 21, 2011.
  9. The Booth Brothers Blog News item dated June 5, 2012: THE POSSESSED BOOTH BROTHERS JUNE 1Oth CHILLER CHANNEL

Further reading