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.
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. Psychic researcher Richard Hodgson of the American Society for Psychical Research was also convinced that Vennum was possessed by Roff's spirit.
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.
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." 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."
Film adaptation & Play
A 2009 movie, The Possessed, was produced by The Booth Brothers, Christopher Saint Booth and Philip Adrian Booth, that recounts the story of the Watseka case by "Spooked Television" to appear on the SyFy Channel. Since then, the film has aired on The Chiller Channel on June 10, 2012, owned by the same network of channels as SyFy.
A fictional play based on the case, "Before I Wake", has also been 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.
An obscure 1930s radio program, Out Of The Night, dramatized the case as "The Girl With the Dual Personality" (a recording of which survives).
- St. Clair, David. Watseka. (Fiction). Chicago, Playboy Press. 1977.
- St. Clair, David. Child Possessed. (Fiction) London, Corgi. 1979.
- Edwards, Frank. Strange People, London, Pan Books Ltd, 1966. pp126–133.
- Myers, F.W.H. Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death, New York, University Books, 1961 (1903). pp66–72
- Ancestry.com, Vennum family photo
- Roff Home, where Lurancy Vennum stayed for 100 days in 1878, while purportedly possessed by the spirit of Mary Roff.
- Paranormal Generation season 2 premiere episode "The Watseka Wonder"
- Out Of The Night - The Girl With the Dual Personality E33
- Henry Addington Bruce (1908). Historic ghosts and ghost hunters. Moffat, Yard. pp. 171–. Retrieved March 28, 2011.
- 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.
- Stevens, E. Winchester (1928). The Watseka Wonder (reissue ed.). The Austin Publishing Company.
- 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.
- Carla Waters (October 1, 2009). "'Watseka Wonder' story to air on television". Iroquois County Times-Republic. Retrieved March 21, 2011.
- The Booth Brothers Blog News item dated June 5, 2012: THE POSSESSED BOOTH BROTHERS JUNE 1Oth CHILLER CHANNEL
- Leah, Frank D. (April 13, 1986). THEATER REVIEW; NEW THRILLER ISN'T ALL FICTION. The New York Times. Retrieved June 11, 2012