Strange Powers - Lurancy Vennum -
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
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.
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.
Vennum sees Angels
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.
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
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
thought her mentally ill and could do nothing for her,
that she be sent to the State Insane Asylum in
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.
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.
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.
'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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Copyright 2003 / 2005 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.
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