site logo

The Watseka Wonder

Scary Books: Historic Ghosts And Ghost Hunters

When the biography of the late Richard Hodgson is written one of its

most interesting chapters will be the story of his investigation into

the strange case of Lurancy Vennum. Archinquisitor of the Society for

Psychical Research, the Sherlock Holmes of professional detectives of

the supernatural, in this instance Hodgson was forced to confess himself

beaten and to acknowledge that in his belief the only satisfactory

tion of the problem before him was to be had through recourse to the

hypothesis that the dead can and do communicate with the living.

As is well known, subsequent inquiries, and notably his experiences with

the famous Mrs. Piper, led him to the enthusiastic indorsement of this

hypothesis; but at the time of the Vennum affair, with the recollection

of his triumphs in Europe and Asia fresh in his mind, he was still a

thoroughgoing if open minded skeptic; and to Lurancy Vennum must

accordingly be given the credit of having brought him, so to speak, to

the turning of the ways. Oddly enough too, scarce an effort has been

made to assemble evidence in disproof of his findings in that case and

to develop a purely naturalistic explanation of a mystery which his

verdict went far to establish in the minds of many as a classic

illustration of supernatural action. Yet, while it must be admitted that

until recently such a task would have been extremely difficult, it may

safely be declared that the phenomena manifested through Lurancy Vennum

were not a whit more other-worldly than the phenomena produced by the

tricksters whom Hodgson himself so skilfully and mercilessly exposed.

To refresh the reader's memory with regard to the facts in the case, it

will be recalled that Lurancy Vennum was a young girl, between thirteen

and fourteen years old, the daughter of respectable parents living at

Watseka, Illinois, a town about eighty-five miles south of Chicago and

boasting at the time a population of perhaps fifteen hundred. On the

afternoon of July 11, 1877, while sitting sewing with her mother, she

suddenly complained of feeling ill, and immediately afterward fell to

the floor unconscious, in which state she remained for five hours. The

next day the same thing happened; but now, while still apparently

insensible to all about her, she began to talk, affirming that she was

in heaven and in the company of numerous spirits, whom she described,

naming among others the spirit of her brother who had died when she was

only three years old. Her parents, deeply religious people of an

orthodox denomination, feared that she had become insane, and their

fears were increased when, with the passage of time, her "fits," as they

called her trances, became more frequent and of longer duration, lasting

from one to eight hours and occurring from three to twelve times a day.

Physicians could do nothing for her, and by January, 1878, it was

decided that she was beyond all hope of cure and that the proper place

for her was an insane asylum.

At this juncture her father was visited by Mr. Asa B. Roff, also a

resident of Watseka, but having no more than a casual acquaintanceship

with the Vennums. He had become interested in the case, he explained,

through hearing reports of the intercourse Lurancy claimed to have with

the world of the dead, the possibility of which, being a devout

spiritist, he did not in the slightest doubt. Moreover, he himself had

had a daughter, Mary, long dead, who had been subject to conditions

exactly like Lurancy's and had given incontrovertible evidence of

possessing supernatural powers of a clairvoyant nature. In her time she

too had been deemed insane, but Mr. Roff was confident that she had

really been of entirely sound mind, and equally confident that the

present victim of "spirit infestation," to use the singular term

employed by a later spiritistic eulogist of Lurancy, was also of sound

mind. He therefore begged Mr. Vennum not to immure his daughter in an

asylum; and Mrs. Roff adding her entreaties, it was finally resolved as

a last resort to call in a physician from Janesville, Wisconsin, who was

himself a spiritist and would, the Roffs felt sure, be able to treat the

case with great success.

This physician, Dr. E. Winchester Stevens, paid his first visit to

Lurancy in Mr. Roff's company on the afternoon of January 31. He found

the girl, as he afterward related, sitting "near a stove, in a common

chair, her elbows on her knees, her hands under her chin, feet curled

up on the chair, eyes staring, looking every way like an old hag." She

was evidently in an ugly mood, for she refused even to shake hands,

called her father "Old Black Dick" and her mother "Old Granny," and at

first kept an obstinate silence. But presently, brightening up, she

announced that she had discovered that Dr. Stevens was a "spiritual"

doctor and could help her, and that she was ready to answer any

questions he might put. Now followed a strange dialogue. In reply to his

queries she said that her name was not Lurancy Vennum but Katrina Hogan,

that she was sixty-three years old, and had come from Germany "through

the air" three days before. Changing her manner quickly, she confessed

that she had lied and was in reality a boy, Willie Canning, who had died

and "now is here because he wants to be." More than an hour passed in

this "insane talk," as her weeping parents accounted it, and then,

flinging up her hands, she fell headlong in a state of cataleptic


Dr. Stevens promptly renewed his questioning, at the same time taking

both her hands in his and endeavoring to "magnetize" her, to quote his

own expression. It soon developed, according to the replies she made,

that she was no longer on earth but in heaven and surrounded by spirits

of a far more beneficent character than the so-called Katrina and

Willie. With all the earnestness of an ardent spiritist, the doctor

immediately suggested that she allow herself to be controlled by a

spirit who would prevent those that were evil and insane from returning

to trouble her and her family, and would assist her to regain health. To

which she answered that she would gladly do so, and that among the

spirits around her was one that the angels strongly recommended for this

very purpose. It was, she said, the spirit of a young girl who on earth

had been named Mary Roff.

"Why," cried Mr. Roff, "that is my daughter, who has been in heaven

these twelve years. Yes, let her come. We'll be glad to have her come."

Come she did, as the greatly bewildered Mr. Vennum testified next

morning during a hasty visit to Mr. Roff's office.

"My girl," said he, "had a sound night's sleep after you and Dr. Stevens

left us; but to-day she asserts that she is Mary Roff, refuses to

recognize her mother or myself, and demands to be taken to your house."

At this amazing information, Mrs. Roff and her surviving daughter

Minerva, who since Mary's death had married a Mr. Alter, promptly went

to see Lurancy. From a seat at the window she beheld them approaching

down the street, and with an exultant cry exclaimed, "Here comes my ma,

and 'Nervie'!" the name by which Mary Roff had been accustomed to call

her sister in girlhood. Running to the door and throwing her arms about

them as they entered, she hugged and kissed them with expressions of

endearment and with whispering allusions to past events of which she as

Lurancy could in their opinion have had absolutely no knowledge.

Mr. Roff who came afterward, she greeted in the same affectionate way,

while treating the members of her own family as though they were entire

strangers. To her father and mother it seemed that this must be only a

new phase of her insanity, but to the Roffs there remained no doubt that

in her they beheld an actual reincarnation of the girl whom they had

buried twelve years before--that is to say, when Lurancy herself was a

puny, wailing infant. Eagerly they seconded her entreaties to be

allowed to return with them; and, Mrs. Vennum being completely

prostrated by this unexpected development, it was soon decided that the

little girl should for the time being take up her residence under the

Roff roof.

She removed there February 11, and on the way an event occurred that

vastly strengthened belief in the reality of her claims. The Vennums and

the Roffs lived at opposite ends of Watseka; but the latter family, at

the time of Mary's death in 1865, had been occupying a dwelling in a

central section of the town. Arrived at this house, Lurancy

unhesitatingly turned to enter it, and seemed much astonished when told

that her home was elsewhere. "Why," said she, in a positive tone, "I

know that I live here." It was indeed with some difficulty that she was

persuaded to continue her journey; but once at its end all signs of

disappointment vanished and she passed gaily from room to room,

identifying objects which she had never seen before but which had been

well-known to Mary Roff. Her pseudo-parents were in ecstacies of joy.

"Truly," they said to each other, "our daughter who was dead has been

restored to us," and anxiously they inquired of her how long they might

hope to have her with them. "The angels," was her response, "will let me

stay till some time in May--and oh how happy I am!"

Happy and contented she proved herself and, which was remarked by all

who saw her, entirely free from the maladies that had so sorely beset

both the living Lurancy and the dead Mary. For her life as Lurancy she

appeared to have no remembrance; but she readily and unfailingly

recollected everything connected with the career of Mary. She was well

aware also that she was masquerading, as it were, in a borrowed body.

"Do you remember," Dr. Stevens asked her one day, "the time that you cut

your arm?" "Yes, indeed. And," slipping up her sleeve, "I can show you

the scar. It was--" She paused, and quickly added, "Oh, this is not the

arm; that one is in the ground," and proceeded to describe the spot

where Mary had been buried and the circumstances attending her funeral.

Old acquaintances of Mary's were greeted as though they had been seen

only the day before, although in one or two cases there was lack of

recognition, due, it was inferred, to physical changes in the visitor's

appearance since Mary had known her on earth.

Tests, suggested and carried out by Dr. Stevens and Mr. Roff, only

reinforced the view that they were really dealing with a visitant from

the unseen world. For instance, while the little girl was playing

outdoors one afternoon, Mr. Roff suggested to his wife that she bring

down-stairs a velvet hat that their daughter had worn the last year of

her life, place it on the hat stand, and see if Lurancy would recognize

it. This was done, and the recognition was instant. With a smile of

delight Lurancy picked up the hat, mentioned an incident connected with

it, and asked, "Have you my box of letters also?" The box was found, and

rummaging through it the child presently cried, "Oh, ma, here is a

collar I tatted! Ma, why did you not show me my letters and things

before?" One by one she picked out and identified relics dating back to

Mary's girlhood, long before Lurancy Vennum had come into the world.

She displayed, too, not a little of the clairvoyant ability ascribed to

Mary. The story is told that on one occasion she affirmed that her

supposed brother, Frank Roff, would be taken seriously ill during the

night; and when, about two o'clock in the morning, he was actually

stricken with what is vaguely said to have been "something like a spasm

and congestive chill," she directed Mr. Roff to hurry next door where he

would find Dr. Stevens.

"But," protested Mr. Roff, "Dr. Stevens is in quite another part of the

city to-night."

"No," she calmly said, "he has come back, and you will find him where I


Quite incredulous, Mr. Roff gave his neighbor's door-bell a lusty pull,

and the next moment was talking to the doctor, who, unknown to the

Roffs, was spending the night there. With his aid, it is perhaps worth

adding, brother Frank was soon relieved of the "spasm and congestive


In this way, continually surprising but constantly delighting the happy

Roffs, Lurancy Vennum remained with them for more than three months,

professing complete ignorance of her identity and enacting with the

greatest fidelity the role of the spirit who was supposed to have taken

possession of her. Early in May, however, she called Mrs. Roff to one

side and informed her in a voice broken by sobs that Lurancy was "coming

back" and that they would soon have to take another farewell of their

Mary. This said, a change became apparent in her. She glared wildly

around, and in an agitated tone demanded, "Where am I? I was never here

before. I want to go home." Mrs. Roff, heartbroken, explained that she

had been under the control of Mary's spirit for the purpose of "curing

her body," and told her that her parents would be sent for. But within

five minutes she had again lost all knowledge of her true identity, and

seemingly was Mary Roff once more, overjoyed that she had been permitted

to return.

For some days she continued in this state, with only occasional lapses

into her original self; then, on the morning of May 21, she announced

that the time for definite leave-taking had at last arrived, and with

evident grief went about among the neighbors bidding them good-by. It

was arranged that "sister Nervie" should take her to Mr. Roff's office,

and that Mr. Roff should thence escort her home. En route there were

sharp interchanges of personality, with the spirit control dominant; but

when the office was reached it became evident that she had fully come

into her own again. The night before she had wept bitterly at the

thought of leaving her "father." Now she addressed him calmly as "Mr.

Roff," called herself Lurancy, and said that her one wish was to see her

parents as soon as possible. Nor, as the Vennums were quickly to

discover, did she return to torment and alarm them by the weird actions

of the preceding months. On the contrary, they found her healthy and

normal in mind and body, completely cured, as a result, the Roffs

emphatically declared, of the intervention of the spirit of their

beloved daughter.

Needless to say, the people of Watseka and the surrounding country had

watched with breathless interest the progress of this curious affair;

but it was not until three months after the "possession" had ended that

the public at large obtained any knowledge of it. The first intimation,

outside of unnoticed reports in local newspapers, came through the

medium of two articles contributed by Dr. Stevens to the August 3 and

10, 1878, issues of The Religio-Philosophical Journal, one of the

leading spiritist organs of the United States. Traversing the case in

the fullest detail, and emphasizing the fact that up to the moment of

writing the principal actor had had no return of the ills from which she

had previously suffered, Dr. Stevens gave it as his unqualified

conviction that the spirit of Mary Roff had actually revisited earth in

the person of Lurancy Vennum, and had been the instrument of her cure.

This view naturally commended itself to spiritists, but by the

unbelieving it was vigorously combatted, not a few insinuating or openly

alleging that Dr. Stevens's narrative was a work of fiction. The

veracity of the Roffs was also attacked. "Can the truthfulness of the

narrative," one skeptical inquirer wrote Mr. Roff, "be substantiated

outside of yourself and those immediately interested? Can it be shown

that there was no collusion between the parties?" And another asked him,

"Is it a fact, or is it a story made up to see how cunning a tale one

can tell?"

Waxing indignant, Mr. Roff wrote a long letter to The

Religio-Philosophical Journal denouncing the imputation of fraud,

giving the names of a number of men who would vouch for his integrity,

and concluding with the statement: "I am now sixty years old; have

resided in Iroquois county thirty years; and would not now sacrifice

what reputation I may have by being party to the publication of such a

narrative, if it was not perfectly true."

Following this there appeared in The Religio-Philosophical Journal

several letters from well-known Illinois professional men warmly

indorsing Mr. Roff's character, and an announcement to the effect that

the editor, Colonel J. C. Bundy, himself of undoubted honesty, "has

entire confidence in the truthfulness of the narrative and believes from

his knowledge of the witnesses that the account is unimpeachable in

every particular." As for Dr. Stevens, Colonel Bundy declared that he

had been personally acquainted with the physician for years, and had

"implicit confidence in his veracity." After all this, accusations of

perjury and deception were obviously futile, and, no adequate

non-spiritistic interpretation being forthcoming, there was an

increasing tendency to accept the view advanced by those who had

participated in the affair.

Such was the situation at the time of Richard Hodgson's advent.

Primarily, as will be remembered by all who have followed the work of

the Society for Psychical Research, Dr. Hodgson had come to this country

to investigate the trance mediumship of Mrs. Leonora Piper. But his

attention having been called to the Vennum mystery, he visited Watseka

in April, 1890, and instituted a rigorous cross-examination of the

surviving witnesses. Dr. Stevens was dead, and Lurancy herself had

married and moved with her husband to Kansas, but Dr. Hodgson was able

to interview Mr. and Mrs. Roff, Mrs. Alter, and half a dozen neighbors

who had personal knowledge of the "possession." All answered his

questions freely and fully, reiterating the facts as given in Dr.

Stevens's narrative, and adding some interesting information hitherto

not made public. In the main this bore on the question of identity and

tended to vindicate the reincarnation theory. It also developed that

while Lurancy had grown to be a strong, healthy woman, she had had

occasional returns of Mary's spirit in the years immediately following

the chief visitation; but that these had ceased with her marriage to a

man who, Roff regretfully observed, had never made himself acquainted

with spiritism and therefore "furnished poor conditions for further

development in that direction."

Appreciating the fact that Mr. Roff and his family would furnish the

best possible conditions for such development, and that he must be on

his guard against unconscious exaggeration and misstatement, Dr. Hodgson

nevertheless deemed the evidence presented to him too strong to be

explained away on naturalistic grounds. Contributing to The

Religio-Philosophical Journal an account of his inquiry and of the

additional data it had brought to light, he described the case as

"unique among the records of supernormal occurrences," and frankly

admitted that he could not "find any satisfactory interpretation of it

except the spiritistic."

* * * * *

Yet, as was said at the outset, it may now be affirmed that another

interpretation is possible, and one far more satisfactory than the

spiritistic; this, too, without impeaching in any way the truthfulness

of the testimony given by Dr. Stevens, the Roffs, and the numerous other

witnesses. To begin: apart from the supernatural implications forced

into it by the appearance of the so-called spirit control, it is clear

that the affair bears a striking resemblance to the instances of

"secondary" or "multiple" personality which recent research has

discovered in such numbers, and which are due to perfectly natural, if

often obscure, causes. In these, it has already been pointed out, as the

result of an illness, a blow, a shock, or some other unusual stimulus,

there is a partial or complete effacement of the original personality of

the victim and its replacement by a new personality, sometimes of

radically different characteristics from the normal self.

A sufficient example is the case of the Rev. Thomas C. Hanna, for

knowledge of which the scientific world is indebted to Dr. Boris

Sidis.[P] Following a fall from his carriage, Mr. Hanna, a Connecticut

clergyman, lost all consciousness of his identity, had no memory for the

events of his life prior to the accident, recognized none of his

friends, could not read or write, nor so much as walk or talk,--was, in

fact, like a child new born. On the other hand, as soon as the rudiments

of education were acquired by him once more, he showed himself the

possessor of a vigorous, independent, self-reliant personality, lacking

all knowledge of the original personality, but still able to adapt

himself readily to his environment and make headway in the world.

Ultimately, through methods which are distinctively modern, Dr. Sidis

was able to recall the vanished self, and, fusing the secondary self

with it, restore the clergyman to his former sphere of usefulness.

This, of course, is an extreme example. The usual procedure is for the

secondary personality to retain some of the characteristics of the

original self--as the ability to read, write, etc.--and give itself a

name. In this way Ansel Bourne, the Rhode Island itinerant preacher,

became metamorphosed into A. J. Brown, and, without any recollection of

his former career or relationships, drifted to Pennsylvania and began an

entirely new existence as a shopkeeper in a small country town.

Similarly with Dr. R. Osgood Mason's patient, Alma Z., in whom the

secondary personality assumed the odd name of "Twoey," spoke, as Dr.

Mason phrased it, "in a peculiar child-like and Indianlike dialect," and

announced that her mission was to cure the broken down physical organism

of the original self, which remained completely in abeyance so long as

"Twoey" was in evidence. Here, as is apparent, we have a case almost

identical with that of Lurancy Vennum, the sole difference being that

"Twoey"--who, by the way, is credited with having exercised seemingly

supernormal powers--did not pose as a returned visitant from the world

of spirits.

Thus far, then, depending on the argument from analogy, the presumption

is strong that Lurancy's case belongs to the same category as the cases

just mentioned. In the one, as in the others, we have loss of the

original self, development of a new self, and the enactment by the

latter of a role conspicuously alien from that played by the former. The

one difficulty in the way of unreserved acceptance of this view is the

character of the secondary personality which replaced Lurancy's original

personality. Here the positive claim was made that the secondary

personality was in reality the personality of a girl long dead, and by

way of proof vivid knowledge of the life, circumstances, and conduct of

that girl was offered. But on this point considerable light is shed by

the discovery that in a number of instances of secondary personality in

which no supernatural pretensions are advanced there is a notable

sharpening of the faculties, knowledge being obtained telepathically or

clairvoyantly; and by the further discovery that it is quite possible to

create experimentally secondary selves assuming the characteristics of

real persons who have died.

In this the creative force is nothing more or less than suggestion.

There is on record, indeed, an instance of mediumship in which the

medium, an amateur investigator of the phenomena of spiritism, clearly

recognized that his various impersonations were suggested to him by the

spectators. This gentleman, Mr. Charles H. Tout, of Vancouver, records

that after attending a few seances with some friends he felt a strong

impulse to turn medium himself, and assume a foreign personality.

Yielding to the impulse, he discovered, much to his amazement, that

without losing complete control of his consciousness, he could develop a

secondary self that would impose on the beholders as a discarnate

spirit. On one occasion he thus acted in a semi-conscious way the part

of a dead woman, the mother of a friend present, and the impersonation

was accepted as a genuine case of spirit control. On another, having

given several successful impersonations, he suddenly felt weak and ill,

and almost fell to the floor.

At this point, he stated, one of the sitters "made the remark, which I

remember to have overheard, 'It is father controlling him,' and I then

seemed to realize who I was and whom I was seeking. I began to be

distressed in my lungs, and should have fallen if they had not held me

by the hands and let me back gently upon the floor.... I was in a

measure still conscious of my actions, though not of my surroundings,

and I have a clear memory of seeing myself in the character of my dying

father lying in the bed and in the room in which he died. It was a most

curious sensation. I saw his shrunken hands and face, and lived again

through his dying moments; only now I was both myself, in an indistinct

sort of way, and my father, with his feelings and appearance."

All of this Tout explained correctly as "the dramatic working out, by

some half conscious stratum of his personality, of suggestions made at

the time by other members of the circle, or received in prior

experiences of the kind." In most instances, however, the original self

is completely effaced, and no consciousness is retained of the

performances of the secondary self; but that an avenue of sense is still

open is sufficiently demonstrated by the readiness with which, in

hypnotic experiments, seemingly insensible subjects respond to the

suggestions of the operator. Here, therefore, we find our clue to the

solution of the mystery of Lurancy Vennum. A victim of a psychic

catastrophe, the cause of which must be left to conjecture in the

absence of knowledge of her previous history, she was placed in

precisely the position of the adventurous Mr. Tout and of the inert

subjects of the hypnotist's art. That is to say, having lost momentarily

all knowledge and control of her own personality, the character her new

personality would assume depended on the suggestions received from those

about her.

Yet not altogether. Dr. Stevens's detailed record contains a reference

which indicates strongly that the spiritistic tendency manifest from the

onset of her trouble was to some extent predetermined. A few days before

the first attack she informed the family that "there were persons in my

room last night, and they called 'Rancy, Rancy!' and I felt their breath

on my face"; and the next night, repeating the same story, she sought

refuge in her mother's bed. These fanciful notions, symptomatic of the

coming trouble and possibly provocative of it, would act in the way of a

powerful autosuggestion, and would of themselves explain why there

resulted an inchoate, tentative, vague personality, instead of the

robust, definite personality that assumes control in most cases.

At first, the reader will remember, she sought vainly and wildly and

wholly subconsciously--it cannot be made too clear that she was no

longer consciously responsible for her acts--for a satisfactory self of

ghostly origin. The aged Katrina, the masculine Willie, and other

imaginary beings were tried and rejected; principally, no doubt, because

her thirteen-year-old imagination was unequal to the task of investing

them with satisfactory attributes. From her relatives she obtained no

assistance in the strange quest. They, disbelieving in "spirits,"

persisted in calling her insane--a comfortless and far from beneficial

suggestion. But with the intervention of the Roffs and Dr. Stevens

everything changed. Not questioning the truth of her assertions, they

confirmed her in them, and offered her into the bargain a ready-made


Here at last was something tangible, a starting-point, a

foundation-stone. Mary Roff had had a real existence, had had thoughts,

feelings, desires, a life of flesh and blood. And Mary, they assured the

poor, perturbed, disintegrated self, could help her regain all that she

had lost. Very well, let Mary come, and the sooner she came the better.

For knowledge of Mary, of her characteristics, her relationships, her

friends, her earthly career, it was necessary only to tap telepathically

the reservoir of information possessed by Mary's family; and there would

be available besides a wealth of data in chance remarks, unconscious

hints, unnoticed promptings. She had been too long in search of a

personality not to grasp at the opening now afforded. Focused thus by

suggestion,--that subtle, all-pervasive influence which man is only now

beginning to appreciate,--the basic delusional idea promptly took root,

blossomed, and burst into an amazing fruition. Banished were the

spurious Katrinas and Willies. In their stead reigned Mary, no less

spurious in point of fact, but so cunningly counterfeiting the true

Mary that the deception was not once detected.

Mark too how suggestion sufficed not only to create the Mary personality

but to expel it and restore the hapless Lurancy to perfect health. If

the responsibility for the creation rests on Dr. Stevens and the Roffs,

to them likewise belongs the credit for the cure. Their insistence on

the fact that Mary's spirit could and would be of assistance, was itself

as powerful a suggestion as could be hit upon by the most expert of

modern practitioners of psychotherapeutics; and in unconsciously

persuading the spirit to set a limit to its time of "possession" they

made another suggestion of rare curative value. To the suggestionally

inspired fixed idea that she was not Lurancy Vennum but Mary Roff was

thus added the fixed idea, derived from the same source, that in May she

would become Lurancy Vennum again, and a perfectly well Lurancy. It was

as though the Roffs had actually hypnotized her and given her commands

that were to be obeyed with the fidelity characteristic of the obedience

hypnotized subjects render to the operator.

When the time came the transformation was duly effected, though, as has

been seen, not without a struggle, a period of alternating personality,

with Mary at one moment supreme and Lurancy at another. But this is a

phenomenon that need give us no concern. Exactly the same thing happened

in the last stages of the Hanna case. Nor do the fugitive recurrences of

the Mary personality signify aught than that Lurancy was still unduly

suggestionable. Note that these recurrences, according to the available

evidence, developed only when the Roffs 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.[Q]