The Watseka Wonder

The case of the Watseka Wonder is listed by Myers as an incidence of multiple personality strongly suggesting the spiritualist hypothesis. It was originally published in the Religio-Philosophical Journal in 1879 and later in pamphlet form with the title “The Watseka Wonder,” by E. W. Stevens. The editor of the journal, highly regarded as a skillful and honest investigator by Myers, spoke highly of Dr. Stevens and claimed to have taken great pains to “obtain full corroboration of the astounding facts” from competent witnesses.

The case briefly is the alleged possession of thirteen year old Lurancy Vennum by the spirit of Mary Roff, a neighbor’s daughter who had died at the age of eighteen when Lurancy was a child of about fifteen months.

 Myers quotes Dr. Stevens, with his abridgements in square brackets:

[Mary Lurancy Vennum, the “Watseka Wonder,” was born April 16th, 1864, in Milford township, about seven miles from Watseka, Illinois. The family moved to Iowa in July 1864 (when Lurancy was about three months old), and returned to within eight miles from Watseka in October 1865 (three months after the death of Mary Roff). Lurancy was then about a year and a half old. After two other moves in the neighbourhood, the family moved into Watseka on April 1st, 1871], locating about forty rods from the residence of A. B. Roff. They remained at this place during the summer. The only acquaintance ever had between the two families during the season was simply one brief call of Mrs. Roff, for a few minutes, on Mrs. Vennum, which call was never returned, and a formal speaking acquaintance between the two gentlemen. Since 1871 the Vennum family have lived entirely away from the vicinity of Mr. Roff’s, and never nearer than now, on extreme opposite limits of the city.

Rancy,” as she is familiarly called, had never been sick, save a light run of measles in 1873.

[On July 11th, 1877, she had a sort of fit, and was unconscious for five hours. Next day the fit recurred, but while lying as if dead she described her sensations to her family, declaring that she could see heaven and the angels, and a little brother and sister and others who had died. The fits or trances, occasionally passing into ecstasy, when she claimed to be in heaven, occurred several times a day up to the end of January 1878; she was generally believed to be insane, and most friends of the family urged that she should be sent to an insane asylum.

At this stage Mr. and Mrs. Asa B. Roff, whose daughter, Mary Roff, as we shall see, had had periods of insanity, persuaded Mr. Vennum to allow him to bring Dr. E. W. Stevens of Janesville, Wisconsin, to investigate the case.]

On the afternoon of January 31st, 1878, the two gentlemen repaired to Mr. Vennum’s residence, a little out of the city. Dr. Stevens, an entire stranger to the family, was introduced by Mr. Roff at four o’clock P.M.; no other persons present but the family. The girl sat near the 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 like an “ol` hag.” She refuses to be touched, even to shake hands, and was reticent and sullen with all save the doctor, with whom she entered freely into conversation giving her reasons for doing so; she said he was a spiritual doctor, and would understand her.

She described herself first as an old woman named Katrina Hogan, and then as a young man named Willie Canning, and after some insane conversation had another fit, which Dr. Stevens relieved by hypnotizing her. She then became calm, and said that she had been controlled by evil spirits. Dr. Stevens suggested that she should try to have a better control, and encouraged her to try and find one. She then mentioned the names of several deceased persons, saying there was one who wanted to come, named Mary Roff.

Mr. Roff being present, said: “That is my daughter; Mary Roff is my girl. Why, she has been in heaven twelve years. Yes, let her come, we’ll be glad to have her come.” Mr. Roff assured Lurancy that Mary was good and intelligent, and would help her all she could; stating further that Mary used to be subject to conditions like herself. Lurancy, after due deliberation and counsel with spirits, said that Mary would take the place of the former wild and unreasonable influence. Mr. Roff said to her, “Have your mother bring you to my house, and Mary will be likely to come along, and a mutual benefit may be derived from our former experience with Mary.”

On the following morning, Friday, February 1st, Mr. Vennum called at the office of Mr. Roff and informed him that the girl claimed to be Mary Roff, and wanted to go home. He said, “She seems like a child real homesick, wanting to see her pa and ma and her brothers.”