The afterlife story I want to tell is singular, first, because of the sheer oddness and rarity of the circumstances. But also because, if true as reported, it’s remarkable 1) as proof of postmortem survival; 2) as showing human personality is multiple; 3) that we can be possessed by other minds; and finally, 4), it’s a story about a very unconventional healing of mental illness.
Two girls, Mary Roff (1846-1865) and Lurancy Vennum, (1864—1952) lived in Watseka, Illinois, a prosperous, middle class farming town. As you might infer from their dates, Mary and Lurancy never knew each other in the flesh, and in fact Mary had been dead for 12 years when “she,” in 1878, reportedly took possession of Lurancy’s body.
The “Mary persona’ (I’ll use this expression)—using the body of Lurancy--begs to be taken to her parents’ home. So the girl known as Lurancy enters the Roff household and soon convinces the mother, father, brother and sister that Mary Roff was the thinking, feeling presence acting through Lurancy’s body. At first it was a shocking and strange adjustment the family had to make, but they did it out of kindness toward the suffering girl. But in the end, the family became convinced they had spent three months with the dead but still vivacious Mary, albeit in a surrogate body. That’s the essence of this story, a tale that Edgar Allan Poe might have invented.
But is it true? Or have a lot of people been deceived? To begin with, we have a careful compiler of all the evidence, Dr. E. Winchester Stevens, who was also an eyewitness and participant in the affair. His role in the story is important. Stevens saved Lurancy from being prematurely sent to the State Insane Asylum in Peoria. His report, The Watseka Wonder, was first published in the Religio-Philosophical Journal in 1887.
The story begins in July, 1877, with Lurancy having seizures—“fits” Stevens calls them—hysterically induced blindness, catalepsy, and insensibility. In this state, she slides in and out of normal self-awareness, seeming to be possessed by different personalities, at first assaulted by two low-order spirits, one a known recent suicide, Willie Canning; the other a foul-talking old woman, Katrina Hogan. But she also claimed to see her sister and brother and spoke of “angels” and being in “heaven.”
Amid all this, Mary Roff’s spirit comes into focus. Thanks to a certain mutual rapport, and guided by the suggestions of Dr. Stevens, it was agreed that the congenial Mary persona would remain in Lurancy’s body for three months and one week. This was for therapeutic purposes, and indeed Lurancy’s condition would radically improve.
However, most relatives, clergy, strangers, and eminent physicians believed she was insane, and should be incarcerated. Her parents, the Roffs, and a few sympathetic observers such as Dr. Stevens thought that she needed psycho-therapy, and were opposed to handing her over to “ignorant and bigoted strangers,” as Dr. Stevens put it.
The Roffs had been forced to place their daughter, Mary, age 19, under the care of the State Asylum, after she was found in a pool of blood from cutting her arm. Mary lasted little more than a night in the State Asylum before she died. The Roffs were not recommending that the Vennums abandon their child to the Asylum. They all agreed to the experiment, in which Lurancy would live with the Roff family, lending her body to the Mary persona. The hope was that this would benefit Lurancy.
The crucial event occurred when the mind of the dead Mary Roff seemed to take full and steady possession of Lurancy’s body. By Feb. 1, 1878, it was obvious to witnesses that an intelligence calling itself Mary Roff was in continuous control of the body of Lurancy Vennum. About a week later, the Roffs heard about this and Mrs. Roff and her daughter, Mrs. Minerva Alter, decided to investigate.
As they approached the Vennum house, Lurancy, from the window, cried out, “there comes my Ma and sister Nervie!“ a nickname Lurancy could not have known. Nor was she familiar with the two women and didn’t know they were Mary’s family. But she embraced them warmly with kisses and joyous recognition—exactly as if they were her family, and she had not seen them for twelve years.
The main witnesses to support the strange claim were her family and family friends, all of whom were quickly convinced by the detailed knowledge the Lurancy-body displayed of countless facts and details appropriate to Mary Roff’s lived life. This was no small thing to digest, and once the story got out, it caused a sensation.
“Watseka, Illinois, has been swept up by a tidal wave of excitement, on account of the presumed insanity of one Lurancy Vennum . . . .”, begins Dr. Stevens narrative concerning this alleged case of possession. The story gained a great deal of public attention, all over the state and even the country. It also garnered a fair share of venom and irrational outrage. The bastions of proper normality thought Lurancy’s behavior was insane and/or diabolically inspired, and was best treated by locking her up. That was the initial consensus about her in Watseka in the 1870s.
Dr. Stevens was credited with “opening the gate for Lurancy”--saving her from an insane asylum that might well have killed her. He did this by appealing to her reason. He invited her to ally herself with the higher spirits around her and reject the lower. The higher, helpful spirit she found (or that found her) was believed to be Mary Roff who, like Lurancy, also had seizures and psychic powers when she was a child. The mutual attraction seems plausible enough.
So the spirit of Mary was allowed to occupy the body of Lurancy and live with Mary’s family. During the visit, “Mary” was happy, “knowing every person and everything that Mary knew when in her original body, twelve years to twenty-five years ago, recognizing and calling by name those who were friends and neighbors of the family from 1852 to 1865, when Mary died, calling attention to scores, yes, hundreds of incidents that transpired during her natural life,” wrote Stevens.
Stevens, in fact, gives many specific examples meant to prove that the vocal chords and muscular apparatus of Lurancy Vennum behaved as if controlled by the mind of the deceased Mary Roff. Mary’s father wrote: “Mary . . . recognizes everybody and everything that she knew when in her body . . . she knows nobody nor anything whatsoever that is known by Lurancy.” It looks as if Lurancy’s mind is out of commission so Mary can use her body.
One thing I would underscore, in the Watseka story, Dr. Stevens helped a patient suffering from what today some might call a “spiritual emergency.” Moreover, the drug and shock free spiritual treatment actually worked—granting the weirdly singular form it assumed. The three-month experiment and the healed life of Lurancy were proof of healing. When, as promised, “Mary” finally departed and Lurancy regained her normal self, she grew up, healthy and sane enough to survive mothering eleven children.
This result took the wind from the sails of naysayers. The screaming maniac with all the queer personas disappeared for three months, but then returned in full possession of herself. Stevens quotes various newspaper reports. The Watseka “Republican” wrote, noting the perfect healing, “This is a remarkable case, and the fact that we cannot understand such things does not do away with the existence of the unaccountable manifestations.” The “Danville Times” wrote that the phenomena “are hard to explain upon any natural hypothesis, but is attributable to spirits’ aid.” The Iroquois County “Times” flatly asked: “If she was not prompted by the spirit of Mary Roff, how could she know so much about the family, people with whom she was not acquainted, and whom she had never visited?” The article concludes that there is a good deal in Lurancy’s story that seems at present “beyond human comprehension.”
Lurancy had a genius for creative dissociation, a facility for occupying—or being occupied by—alternate “spirits” and personas. She once “became” the grandmother of one of her observers, named her, showed knowledge of her relatives, “never for a moment showing any sign of deception, but a veritable, honest experienced domestic old lady.” One can only imagine what kind of actress Lurancy might have become, if she ever had the chance. She had a kind of greatness of imagination that Keats called “negative capability,” and that Shakespeare had in spades.
We are told of an experiment initiated by the Mary Roff persona, in which she vacates the body of Lurancy, leaving it limply leaning aside, and then takes control (without asking) of a Dr. Steel sitting opposite the unconscious Lurancy. Dr. Stevens describes the “manly form” of Dr. Steel assuming the manner of and speaking like Mary Roff! According to Stevens, she performed this little marvel with a certain childish glee.
Stevens witnessed Lurancy assume identities of numerous dead people, talking and behaving like them with frightening realism. However, regardless of the flux, the Mary-persona was always in control. The end result of the planned three-month long experiment was twofold. “Mary” was able to enjoy a postmortem family reunion and Lurancy would emerge as a responsible, sane, and healthy human being. She survived her illness and ended by providing us a singular case for afterlife consciousness..
What happened to Lurancy after she recaptured her personal identity? Were the symptoms all gone? Was she still into mediumship? In response to queries, on December 4, 1886, Asa B. Roff wrote an account that updates her story. He reported that Lurancy matured into a normal woman, met a farmer who became her husband and promptly had a large family.
However—and this I find interesting--when the Roffs visited with the Vennums, which was at least yearly, and the all-important “necessary conditions” were provided, Lurancy went into trances and the Mary-persona returned and took over the medium’s body. For brief, thrilling but tantalizing times, Mary would again reincarnate in the body of Lurancy Vennum. These were private parties, unchronicled; no way to find out what went on there.
Mr. Roff was clear that Lurancy’s talents as a medium were being squelched out of existence. Her husband had no interest in his wife’s extraordinary psyche; his interest lay in her body, which succeeded eleven times in producing his progeny.
A society suspicious, hostile, and ignorant had no interest in Lurancy’s rare talents. Crushed by huge family cares, they remained fallow. As Asa Roff liked to say, the “necessary conditions” were lacking, the right group dynamic. If the science of all this ever evolves, it may one day be normal to travel back and forth between this and the “next” world, with the aid of talented mediums.
Not surprisingly, attempts have been made to explain away the Watseka wonder. There are two ways it could be done. Either we’ve been tricked by a brilliant con and many complicit with her or we’ve been misled by the unconscious powers of a thirteen year old with super-paranormal and super-histrionic talents.
It has been said that the Roff family were Spiritualists and therefore not trustworthy, which is a fallacy that argues ad hominem. But William James’s monumental Principles of Psychology reviews Dr. Stevens’ Watseka Wonder, concluding that the evidence points toward a genuine case of possession. Richard Hodgson went to Watseka in Illinois--a break from working with the medium, Eleanora Piper--and interviewed many of the parties directly acquainted with the Vennum case. He found their accounts cogent and coherent.
The long chapter in which James covers the Watseka story is titled “The Consciousness of the Self.” The case of Lurancy reminds us in a dramatic way that our usual self-awareness is a more fragile entity than we think. We can be replaced anytime, as it were, whether from our own psychic depths or an agent external to me. In this case, it seems to have been a consciousness whose body died twelve years ago, the ill-fated Mary Ross.
The question remains, however, whether a living agent using her psychic talents might be able to create the appearance of a deceased person. So, entering the house of the Roffs, it is possible to argue that Lurancy retrocognized the earthly life of Mary and assumed her identity, living the life of Mary for three months, convincing everybody that she was the Mary who died. If this is what happened, we have super ESP and a super theatric talent packed in one thirteen year old girl, but nothing about an afterlife.
But when I try to imagine how this could happen in detail, it doesn’t seem credible: the idea that the girl’s psychic talents were the secret engineer of all the compelling effects that convinced everybody it was Mary Roff. Walter Leaf and Rodger Anderson both argue this in some detail and try to show that everything that Lurancy did that seemed like it came from the dead Mary could be explained by the living Lurancy’s paranormal potential. Both Leaf and Anderson accept the basic facts of the case as true; they just don’t think the facts entail the survival of Mary.
Neither James nor Hodgson say this living agent hypothesis can be logically ruled out. However, all sorts of things are logically possible that we would not for a moment believe. Second, mediums usually perform greatly in short bursts, but a continuous three month performance without once slipping up and giving the game away seems highly improbable, and is as far as I know unprecedented. Third, there is the question of motivation. We have to assume that all the parties involved in this performance were unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) willing, without missing a beat, to maintain the pretence and embrace the lie they were acting out for three months.
Finally, there is the undoubted fact that Lurancy emerged completely healed of her mental illness as a result of Dr. Steven’s experiment. This is at least consistent with the survival story. Otherwise, we might see the story as the product of the will to believe and a shocking incapacity to expose the lie.
However you decide, the story belongs in a taxonomy of human singularities. Whether it be a case of possession and postmortem survival or a superb three-month psychic con job, thanks to super-psi—on either horn of this dilemma, it forces us to expand our concept of mind.-->