(The following text is adapted from “Watseka Wonder” (1879) by Dr. E. W. Stevens, the Spiritualist doctor who witnessed the supposed possession of Lurancy Vennum and then wrote extensively about it.)
Thomas J. Vennum was born May 7, 1832, in Washington Co., Penn.; Lurinda J. Smith (his wife), was born October 14, 1837, in St. Joseph Co., Ind. They were married in Fayette Co., Iowa, December 2, 1855. Mary Lurancy Vennum, daughter of the above named Thomas J. and Lurinda J. Vennum, was born on April 16, 1864, in Milford township, seven miles south of Watseka.
The family moved to Iowa, July 12, 1864, and returned to the vicinity eight miles from Watseka, in October 1865. In August 1866, they removed to Milford, twelve miles south of Watseka, and remained there till March 1, 1870, then moved out two and one-half miles from Milford until April 1, 1871, when they moved into Watseka, locating about forty rods from the residence of A. B. Roff, the spirit daughter of whom, according to all the facts and representations every way tested, is the principal character in this remarkable narrative. The family remained at this place during the summer.
Lurancy begins entering trances
“Rancy,” as she is familiarly called, had never been sick, save a light fun of measles in 1873. A few days before the following incidents took place, she said to her family: “There were persons in my room last night, and they called ‘Rancy! Rancy!!’ and I felt their breath on my face.” The very next night she arose from her bed, saying that she could not sleep, that every time she tried to sleep, persons came and called “Rancy! Rancy!!” to her. Her mother went to bed with her, after which she rested and slept the rest of the night.
On July 11, 1877, Lurancy had been sewing carpet a part of the afternoon, when, at about six o’clock she laid by her work, as her mother said: “Lurancy, you had better commence getting supper.” The girl replied: “Ma, I feel bad; I feel so queer,” and placing her hand to her left breast, she immediately went into what seemed like a fit, falling heavily on the floor, lying apparently dead, every muscle becoming suddenly rigid. Thus she lay five hours. On returning to consciousness she said she felt “very strange.” The remainder of the night she rested well. The next day the rigid state returned, and passing beyond the rigidity, her mind took cognizance of two states of being at the same time. Lying as if dead, she spoke freely, telling the family what persons and spirits she could see, describing them and calling some of them by name. Among those mentioned were her sister and brother, for she exclaimed, “Oh, mother! Can’t you see little Laura and Bertie? They are so beautiful!” (Bertie had died when Lurancy was but three years old.)
She had many of these trances, describing heaven and the spirits, or the angels as she called them. Sometime in September she became free from them and seemed to the family to be quite well again.
Contortions, trances, and communication with angels
On Nov. 27, 1877, she was attacked with a most violent pain in her stomach, some five or six times a day; for two weeks she had the most excruciating pains. in these painful paroxysms, she would double herself back until her head and feet actually touched. At the end of the two weeks, or about December 11, in these distressed attacks, she became unconscious and passed into a quiet trance, and, as at former times, would describe heaven and spirits, often calling them angels.
From this time on until February 1, 1878, she would have these trances and sometimes a seemingly real obsession, from three to eight and sometimes as many as twelve times a day, lasting from one to eight hours, occasionally passing into that state of ecstasy, when, as Lurancy, she claimed to be in heaven.
During the time recorded, up to about the middle of January 1878, she had been under the care of Dr. L. N. Pittwood in the summer and Dr. Jewett during the winter. These MD’s were both eminent allopathic practitioners, and residents of Watseka. Mrs. Allison, Mrs. Jolly and other relatives and friends believed her insane.
Residents agitate for an insane asylum
The Rev. B. M. Baker, the Methodist minister in charge at Watseka, wrote to the insane asylum to ascertain if the girl could be received there. It seemed to be the general feeling among all the friends, save the parents and a few who were only sympathetic observers and thinkers, that the girl should to the asylum.
Contact between the Roffs and the Vennums
The only acquaintance ever had between the Roff and Vennum 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 in 1878, on extreme opposite limits of the city.