We’ve all heard tales of spiritual possession. Most of the time, the stories we hear are of malicious, demonic entities hell-bent on controlling the living. Frightening and ghastly visions come to mind when we think of them. But what if some spirits are only looking for a way to communicate. In the form of a living person, a vessel to help them find closure to a life cut short? Or, to help bring peace to their own family, whose grief is so deep, they’ve taken to rituals to communicate with the other side? So was the story in the historical, haunting case of the Watseka Wonder.
The Watseka Wonder is credited as the first well-documented case of possession in the United States. It has inspired a movie, and it was so profound that the physician, Dr. E. Winchester Stevens, who witnessed the phenomenon first hand, wrote a book documenting the case.
To understand this mysterious story, we must first visit the heartland of America, Watseka, Illinois. Here, an ominous-looking home stands. Built, in 1868, the long, narrow, arched windows and brick exterior give this Victorian, Italianate style home a Gothic mood. Known today as the Roff House, it was constructed by Asa Roff, a prominent member of the Watseka community in the mid-eighteen hundreds, and has remained a mystery in the paranormal world since the Roff’s occupied it.
Clairvoyance Brought On By Illness?
Asa and Dorothy Roff’s daughter, Mary Roff, suffered from epilepsy and had frequent seizures. As she grew older, Mary claimed that spirits were around and spoke to her. These episodes became more violent as years passed. During one of her last and most violent spells, she became so fierce that it took several adults to restrain her while she calmed down. By this point, Mary was incredibly weak from a suicide attempt and blood loss, yet she exhibited a tremendous amount of strength.
She eventually settled down and remained delirious for five days and slept for many hours. When she awoke, it is said that Mary gained supernatural gifts. Her senses seemed to be heightened and, supposedly, could read while blindfolded.
Witnesses stated that she accurately read a letter in the pocket of A.J. Smith, editor of the Danville Times. The letter was supposedly sealed and in his pocket, but Mary read it aloud.
Because doctors could not find a cure or proper diagnosis of her strange symptoms, it was assumed she was afflicted with insanity. She was placed in an asylum for treatment in Peoria, Illinois, but died there in July 1865.
Séances And Secret Societies
After her death, The Roff family home was constructed in 1868. Being devout spiritualists and a common practice during the nineteenth century, the family immediately began holding séances inside the house. In addition to the family séances, Asa Roff was a known member of the Odd Fellows. A secret society who were known for partaking in mysterious rituals surrounding the dead during that time.
Some have speculated that the Roff’s involvement with the spiritual word may have been the catalyst that awoke the spirits which plagued Mary.
Watseka Wonder Under Spiritual Possession
In 1878, over a decade after Mary’s death, a young girl named Lurancy Vennum, who was thirteen years old at the time, lived in Watseka. One day, she suddenly became ill and began suffering epileptic seizures, stomach pains and said she saw angels around her. Her illness soon worsened; she spoke in different voices, taking on personalities not her own, and, at times, became violent.
This was during the height of the spiritual movement and gained rapid popularity amongst those practicing spiritualism. Instead of following doctors’ suggestions of placing Lurancy in an asylum, her parents sought help from local spiritualists to investigate.
Asa Roff was interested in Lurancy’s case because her symptoms so closely resembled his daughter, Mary’s. He had been convinced that Mary’s illness was not caused by insanity, as doctors tried to explain. But that she had been touched by the spiritual world, and he carried a tremendous amount of guilt over what happened to his daughter.
Good Spirits vs. Bad
Lurancy claimed evil spirits possessed her, and that was the cause of her violent outbursts. One of the doctors treating Lurancy asked her to seek a more pleasant spirit surrounding her to possess her body. When she stated that Mary Roff was present and wanted to help, the witnesses were astounded. Lurancy then invited Mary to take control of her physical body.
Immediately after the possession, Lurancy became calm and polite. A sharp contradiction to her previous behavior, and took on the personality of Mary Roff. Though Lurancy had never met Mary and had no knowledge of what Mary had gone through, she seemed to have intimate details of the Roff family. She was able to recognize them and knew the names of the Roff family relatives. She was even able to recall personal possessions that the family had owned.
Lurancy no longer recognized her own family and asked to be taken to the Roff home. Convinced that Lurancy was under the possession of his daughter, Asa asked if he could take Lurancy with him, believing that his daughter was asking from the spiritual world to be brought back to her family.
The Vennum’s agreed, and Lurancy accompanied Asa back to his home, where she lived for 15 weeks. At the end of that time, she bid the family goodbye in a tearful departure that she had prophesied and promised the return of Lurancy once she departed her body.
As promised, Lurancy returned. Seeming to be back to her old self and without any further episodes of spiritual possession, she went back to live with her parents. She eventually married, had a family of her own, and lived a normal, long life with no other illnesses.
Summoned Spirits Left Behind
Today, the Roff House still stands and is owned by John Whitman, who has worked to restore the home and turn it into a Bed & Breakfast. However, the Watseka Wonder possession story is not the only haunting tale attached to this property. Over the years, the owner and guests at the house have reported ghostly activity—some sinister.
Whispering is often heard from empty rooms. Black shadows have been spotted. Even reports of demons have been made. The owner stated in an interview that while staying the night, he awoke to a figure in his bedroom which appeared to have been burned, was wearing a black hooded cloak, and an evil grin curled its lips. Some visitors have also said that spirits have taken over their bodies, in a temporary possession.
Many believe that the ghostly sightings and dark presence that roam the property were invited through the portals opened during the many séances that the Roff family held. And that over the years, investigation groups who were inexperienced could have unknowingly exacerbated the haunted property by inviting more unfriendly spirits into the home.
As alluring as it is to make contact with the other side, one must always be cautious. Opening doors could very well let the person you are seeking to communicate with in, but there is no guarantee that others spirits, friendly or malicious, won’t follow them.