In the latter part of the 19th century, during the heyday of Spiritualism, the case of the 'spiritual possession' of Lurancy Vennum attracted a great deal of publicity. Lurancy was a young girl from Illinois who claimed to be a reincarnation of another teenager called Mary Roff, who had died 15 years earlier. Through the spirit of Mary she claimed that she was able to recall in detail a past life with the Roff family and their friends, leading many to believe she was indeed, spiritually at least, Mary Roff.
Was Lurancy Vennum really the reincarnation of Mary Roff?
The Story of Mary Roff
Mary Roff was born in Warren County, Indiana, on 8 October,1846. When she was thirteen years old the family moved to Watseka, about 70 miles south of Chicago, Illinois. By that time Mary’s health had been badly weakened by epileptic fits, which she suffered from about twice a day. In spring, 1865, in an attempt to escape from depression caused by her health, she tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrists. Her parents found her unconscious from loss of blood and called a doctor. When Mary eventually regained consciousness she became so violent that it took several adults to hold her down in bed. She was delirious for five days, after which she suddenly became calm and slept for fifteen hours. She awoke to find bandages covering her eyes to protect them from her unconscious scratching; but instead of removing them, she discovered that she seemed to be able to see as easily while blindfolded as she had before.
Family friends, including A.J. Smith, editor of the Danville Times, and the Reverend J.H. Rhea, witnessed Mary Roff, heavily blindfolded, accurately ‘read’ to them the contents of a sealed letter in the editor’s pocket, and arrange, correctly, a pile of old letters which she could not see. The amazed editor wrote a long, detailed account of the incidence in his paper.
Slowly, however, the young girl’s health deteriorated, and before long doctor’s advised her parents to put her in a mental institution. They refused and decided to care for her themselves. They took her with them when they visited friends in Peoria, Illinois, for the 4th of July holiday in 1865. While there Mary complained of a terrible headache and went to her room. A few minutes later they found her unconscious on the floor in a pool of blood and rushed her to the asylum, where she died on the afternoon of 5 July.
Lurancy Vennum sees Angels
On the day of Mary Roff’s death, Lurancy Vennum was a fifteen-month-old baby living on her parents’ farm in Iowa. She had been born Mary Lurancy Vennum, on 16 April 1864, at Milford Township, Iroquois Co, Illinois. In 1871, the family moved to a farm seven miles south of Watseka. This was nearly six years after the death of Mary Roff; so there is no possibility that Lurancy Vennum could ever have seen Mary. Lurancy was a normal, healthy child of thirteen when the twelfth anniversary of Mary Roff’s death occurred on 5 July 1877. Next morning she told her parents - ‘There were people in my room last night and they kept calling ‘Rancy! Rancy!’ and I could feel their breath on my face.’ A week after this incident Lurancy was helping her mother stitch a broken seam in a carpet when she suddenly straightened herself up and said - ‘Maw, I feel bad; I feel mighty queer!’
Seconds later she became rigid and fell unconscious for five hours. This began to happen every day and usually consisted of Lurancy lying stiff, with only a faint pulse, her breath slow and weak, and her temperature below normal. She suffered from excruciating abdominal pains and would murmur about strange visions which usually involved what she called 'angels'. Sometimes the attacks lasted up to eight hours, during which time Lurancy would speak in different voices, though when she awoke, she would remember nothing.
A Spiritualist Investigates
Doctors thought her mentally ill and could do nothing for her, only recommending that she be sent to the State Insane Asylum in Peoria. At this time the Spiritualist movement was at its height of popularity and news of the strange girl brought many curious visitors to see her. Mr. and Mrs. Asa B. Roff, the parents of Mary Roff and apparently Spiritualists themselves, heard about the case and were reminded of their own daughter’s similar problems. They visited the Vennums and persuaded them to allow a Dr. E. Winchester Stevens of Janesville, Wisconsin, a medical doctor and an advocate of Spiritualism, to investigate the case.
Dr. Stevens visited the family, and found Lurancy sitting in a chair near the stove, with her elbows on her knees, her hands under her chin, and feet curled up on the chair, eyes staring wildly. For a while there was silence, broken only when Dr. Stevens moved his chair. At this Lurancy savagely warned him not to come any closer. She was surly and refused to be touched, calling her father ‘Old Black Dick’ and her mother ‘Old Granny.’
During these trances Lurancy was apparently ‘taken over’ by a range of unpleasant 'spirits' or entities, including an angry old woman called Katrina Hogan and a young man called Willie Canning. After some unintelligible conversation she had another fit, which Dr. Stevens relieved by hypnotizing her. She then calmed down and said that she had been controlled by evil spirits.
Dr. Stevens encouraged her to try and find a better control, after which she mentioned the names of several people who had died, eventually saying that there was one who wanted to come. Her name was Mary Roff. Mary’s father was present, and agreed to let her come, which she apparently did, astounding the whole company with the details she gave of the Roff’s house.
The 'Spiritual Possession' of Lurancy Vennum
It was after this, in February, 1878, that the ‘control’ of Lurancy, or the 'spiritual possession' as some researchers have called it, began. Far from being sullen and aggressive the girl became mild, passive and polite, not recognizing her own family, but instead asking to be taken ‘home’. On hearing of the extraordinary change in the girl, Mrs. Roff and her daughter, Mrs. Minerva Alter, Mary’s sister, went to visit Lurancy. Lurancy was looking out of the window of her house at the time and when she saw them coming down the street exclaimed - ‘There comes my ma and sister Nervie!’- the latter being the name Mary used to call Mrs. Alter when a young girl. When they came into the house she hugged them and cried for joy. After this incident Lurancy became progressively more homesick and continually begged to be taken 'home' to the Roffs.
Hoping that it might help their daughter’s recovery, the Vennums allowed their daughter to be taken into the Roff home. When asked how long she would remain there, Lurancy answered that the angels would let her stay until some time in May. She had never been in the house before but, remarkably, seemed to know everything about it. She also spoke almost daily of particular incidents in Mary Roff’s life, she recognized family members and friends, identified her favourite clothes and belongings and recounted past event known only to the family.
For fifteen weeks Lurancy Vennum lived as Mary Roff among her family and friends, and everything she did convinced people that she was the real Mary Roff, whom she had never known. When Mrs. Roff asked her if she recalled the family moving to Texas in 1857 (when Mary was eleven) the girl responded promptly that she remembered it well, particularly seeing the Indians along the Red River and playing with the young daughters of a family named Reeder, who were among the same travelling party. The Roffs also tested her with a velvet head dress Mary used to wear; which she recognized immediately.
The stay at Mr. Roff’s was beneficial to her physical condition, which continued to improved, and her mental health, though she seemed not to recognize or know anything about her own family or their friends and neighbours. When Mr. and Mrs. Vennum and their children visited her she treated them as strangers, though after frequent visit she learned to love them as friends. She was generally happy in her new home and often went out with Mrs. Roff to visit the leading families of the city, who soon became convinced that the girl was not insane but a normal, well-mannered child.
Occasionally, ‘Mary’ would ‘go back to heaven,’ and leave the body in a state of trance, and after eight or nine weeks, the personality of Lurancy would occasionally return partially for a few minutes, and once seems to have taken full possession for a brief time
Lurancy's Past Life
Dr. Stevens often asked ‘Mary’ about her former life, and on one occasion she told him about cutting her arm, and asked if he had seen where she did it. After receiving a negative answer, she started to pull up her sleeve to show him the scar, but suddenly stopped, as if realizing something suddenly, and quickly said - ‘Oh, this is not the arm; that one is in the ground,’ and carried on to describe where it was buried, how she witnessed it done, and who was standing around at the time.
Lurancy often spoke of seeing Dr. Stevens’s daughter Emma Angelia Stevens in heaven; she told him she was happy there. She physically described the girl, who had died in March 1849, and the details were accurate even down to an X-shaped scar on the cheek resulting from surgery after an infection. She also correctly described Dr. Stevens home in Janesville, Wisconsin, where she had never been, and gave the names and ages of his children.
While all this was happening ‘Mary’ was asked where the real Lurancy Vennum was. She told them that Lurancy was away, being treated, and would come back when she was restored to health, both mentally and physically. When Lurancy was ready to return, ‘Mary’ must leave.
The 'Return' of Lurancy
On 7 May, 1878 , ‘Mary’ told the Roff family that it would soon be time for her to leave, as Lurancy Vennum was getting better and would return. Then, on 21 May, after fourteen weeks, thus fulfilling the prophecy which ‘Mary’ had made when first taking control, she tearfully bade everyone goodbye and left. Lurancy was back for good and she asked Mrs. Roff to take her home. When she arrived she met her parents and brothers, hugging and kissing them in tears of happiness, and was completely content to be in her own surroundings again. She told her family that the past fifteen weeks seemed like a dream to her. Back in her own house Lurancy became, in the words of her mother ‘perfectly and entirely well and natural . . . Lurancy has been smarter, more intelligent, more industrious, more womanly, and more polite than before.’
Her parents gave Dr. Stevens and Mr. and Mrs. Roff the credit for her complete cure and believed that if Lurancy had remained at home she would have died, or have been sent to the insane asylum. Her mother added: ‘Several of the relatives of Lurancy, including ourselves, now believe she was cured by spirit power, and that Mary Roff controlled the girl.’ In July, 1878, Dr. Stevens pronounced Lurancy in sound health, both mentally and physically. He received a pencil-written letter from her, in which she thanked him for his patience and help. Apparently, the handwriting in this letter bore no resemblance at all to other recent writings of Lurancy when she was ‘Mary Roff’.
In January 1882, now an attractive young woman, Lurancy Vennum married George Binning, a New York born farmer of English parentage, from near Watseka. They moved to Rawlins Co, Kansas, in 1884, where she became the mother of eleven children (she was to have thirteen altogether). Occasionally, it is said that Mary would take control of her again, but as she was not in an encouraging environment for such things she never developed her mediumistic powers further. George Binning died in Long Beach, California on 21 November, 1916.
In the thirties Lurancy used to travel by train to visit her sister Florence in Medicine Lodge, Kansas at least once, and sometimes twice a year. Her great niece, Joyce Wesbrooks, remembers a family visit to her and her daughter Daisy in Long Beach in 1938. In 1940 she was a seventy-six-year-old woman who preferred not to talk about those fifteen weeks in the 1870s when she had mystified science. Lurancy died in Los Angeles, California on 30 August 1952. Joyce Wesbrooks' son, William Wesbrooks, a successful director and playwright, has written a play about Lurancy entitled Before I Wake. This was first performed in Gettysburg, PA, at Gettysburg College, in May, 1981. The initial performances were attended by many of Lurancy's relatives.
The Society for Psychical Research Investigates
Dr. Richard Hodgson, a sceptical member of investigated the case and visited Watseka on 12 April, 1890, questioning the main witnesses who remained in the neighborhood. He also attempted to get some direct statements from Lurancy (Mrs. George Binning) but received no answer to his inquiries. Dr. Stevens wrote a book called The Watseka Wonder about the case based on his personal knowledge, and William James, American psychologist and brother of the novelist Henry James, also investigated and reported his findings in depth.
The families involved seemed to think Lurancy was indeed possessed by the spirit of Mary Roff. Richard Hodgson, who worked with Morton Prince in the Christine Beauchamp multiple personality case at the end of the 19th century, suggested that Mary Roff could be a secondary personality of Lurancy Vennum’s. If so, we can discount reincarnation, spiritual possession or any other 'paranormal' explanation for the case. However, the problem still remains of how Lurancy obtained the detailed knowledge she is said to have possessed. The same problem applies if the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. Where and how did she obtain the detailed information about people, places and events she knew nothing about? If this mystery could be explained then we would be much closer to understanding this case of alleged 'spiritual possession'.