Fourteen year old Lurancy Vennum began to suffer mysterious spells in which she would fall into an eerie, corpse-like catatonic trance during which she claimed to converse with angels and spirits. Sometimes she would speak in unknown voices, supposedly those of the deceased. These peculiar spells lasted anywhere from two to eight hours and Lurancy's health suffered as a result, often she was assailed by sharp, stabbing stomach pains that made her double up and scream in agony. Her desperate parents consulted doctor after doctor in search of a cure, but none could discern a physical cause for Lurancy's suffering. In the end, the insane asylum--in that era a fate worse than death--seemed the only realistic alternative.
Before Lurancy could be sent away, her father received a visit from a Mr. Roff who implored him not to make the same mistake he had and send his daughter to the asylum. Mr. Roff went on to explain that he had had a daughter named Mary who had been similarly afflicted, though in a much more violent fashion than Lurancy. Mary had suffered violent seizures from infancy and had also developed a compulsion to cut and bleed herself (bloodletting was still a common and acceptable medical treatment at the time). Like the Vennums, the Roffs had spared no expense to find a cure for their daughter, she had even spent 18 months at a fine sanitarium taking the then fashionable "Water Cure" (immersion in tubs of hot or cold water as the doctor prescribed, tight wrapping in sheets soaked with cold water, and ice water douches) before the family was forced to conclude that the asylum was their only choice. In the 19th century, insane asylums were unsanitary, inhumane places that did not treat the mentally ill, but restrained and imprisoned them instead, incarceration behind their walls was literally a living death in a very real and horrible hell on earth. Mary Roff died in the asylum in 1865 at only 18 years of age. Afterwards, her desolate parents turned to spiritualism for consolation.
Mr. Roff begged Mr. Vennum to allow him to bring a spiritualist doctor, a certain Dr. Stevens, to see Lurancy and Mr. Vennum, willing to do anything that would save his daughter, agreed. When he called, Dr. Stevens found Lurancy in the grip of spirits, an old woman and a tormented young man alternately possessed and spoke through her. She later told the doctor that she disliked these spirits taking control of her as they were troubled and bad. In the presence of her distraught parents and Mr. Roff, Dr. Stevens hypnotized Lurancy and told her that she had the power to control which spirits took over her body and, if she must play hostess to spirits of the dead, she should invite a good entity in. After reviewing several possible candidates, Lurancy announced that there was a young woman who wanted to come in and that she claimed that she could help her in a way no other spirit could and "her name is Mary Roff."
The following day Mary Roff took over the body of Lurancy Vennum for a possession that was to last for several months. She treated Mr. and Mrs. Vennum with courtesy but as strangers, she failed to recognize them as her parents or their house as her home, nothing from Lurancy's life seemed familiar to her. She exhibited signs of severe homesickness and begged repeatedly to be allowed to go home. The Vennums could not bear to see her suffering and allowed her to go home with the Roffs.
When she saw Mary's mother and sister Minerva, Lurancy fell on them in a heartfelt frenzy of weeping, kissing, and hugging. She seemed to know everything about the Roffs, little known family anecdotes and history, things that only Mary and her intimate family would have known, and she recognized Mary's possessions and friends. According to witnesses, not once was she ever mistaken or deceived.
Some months later a quiet struggle began as Lurancy began to re-exert control of her body. Mary announced that Lurancy would soon return, healthy and completely cured, and go home to her parents, and this indeed is what happened. It all ended as suddenly as it began and Lurancy returned to her parents a healthy, happy young woman with little memory of the past months beyond a feeling that she had passed them in sleeping or dreaming.
Troy Taylor's book, which begins with a lengthy (51 pages) chapter on the history of spirit possession, is a quick and intriguing read (136 pages altogether) that does not solve the mystery of "The Watseka Wonder," but presents all the known evidence and allows the reader to make up their own mind. It also includes several photographs of people and places involved in the mystery and letters from the participants, family members, and investigators.