(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.)
Mary Roff, the daughter of Asa B. and Ann Roff, was born on Oct. 8, 1846, in Warren Co., Ind. The family moved in November of the same year to Williamsport, Ind., thence in September 1847, to Middleport, Ill., where they resided till September 1857, when they removed to Victoria, Texas, in search of relief for a sick child. in March 1858, they returned to Gilman and remained there and at Onarga, Ill., till the building of the Toledo, Peoria, and Warsaw Railroad, when they returned to Middleport, Nov. 8, 1859, and built the first house in the new town of South Middleport, which is now a part of the City of Watseka, where they still reside.
History of Seizures
In the spring of 1847, when about six months old, Mary was taken sick and had a fit, in which she remained several hours. After the fit, she became conscious and lay several days without the family having much hope of her recovery. In two or three weeks she seemed to have entirely recovered.
A few weeks later she acted, on one occasion, like a child going into a fit. The pupils of her eyes dilated, the muscles slightly twitched but lasted but a few moments. From the age of about six months, she had these spells as described, once in from three to five weeks, all the time increasing in force and violence, until her tenth year, when they proved to be real fits, having from one to three and sometimes four or five of them within a period of three or four days, when they would cease, and she would enjoy good health until the next period approached. At these times, she for a few days would seem sad and despondent, in which mood she would sing and play the most solemn music (for which all the rest of her studies, in which she was considered well advanced, she had learned music), and almost always would sing that beautiful song, “We Are Coming, Sister Mary,” which was a favorite with her.
Committed to Peoria
When she was fifteen years old, and the violence of the fits had increased, the parents said they could see her mind was affected during the melancholy periods prior to the fits. Dr. Jesse Bennett, now residing at Sparta, Wisc., and Dr. Franklin Baldes, then Judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Illinois, and resident of Watseka, were employed to attend her. Dr. N. S. Davis, of Chicago, and several other prominent physicians, had examined her. They kept her in the water cure at Peoria, Ill., under the care of Dr. Nevins, for eighteen months, but all to no purpose.
A Fascination with Blood: Bleeding, Leeches and Cutting
Drs. Fowler, Secrest and Pittwood were called and applied leeches. She would apply them herself to her temples, and liked them, treating them like little pets, until she seemed sound and well.
On Saturday morning, July 16, 1864, in one of her desponding moods, she secretly took a knife with her to the back yard, and cut her arm terribly, until bleeding excessively, she fainted. This occurred about nine o’clock in the morning.
She remained unconscious till two o’clock in the afternoon, when she became a raving maniac of the most violent kind, in which condition she remained five days and nights, requiring almost constantly the service of five of the most able bodied men to hold her on the bed, although her weight was only about one hundred pounds, and she had lost nearly all her blood.
Reading while Blindfolded
When she ceased raving, she looked and acted quite natural and well, and could do everything she desired as readily and properly as at any time in her life.
Yet she seemed to know no one, and could not recognize the presence of persons at all, although the house was nearly filled with people day and night. She had no sense whatever of sight, feeling or hearing in a natural way, as was proved by every test that could be applied.
She could read blindfolded, and do everything readily as when in health by her natural sight. She would dress, stand before the glass, open and search drawers, pick up loose pins, do any and all things readily and without annoyance, under heavy blindfoldings.
Near the time, in 1864, when she cut her arm while blindfolded, she took Dr. Trail’s encyclopedia, turned to the index, traced the column till she came to the word “blood,” then turned to the page indicated and read the subject through. On another occasion she took a box of her letters received from her friends, and sat down, heavily blindfolded by critical, intelligent, investigating gentlemen, examined and read them without error or hesitancy.
Her Parents Reconsider the Asylum
From this time she continued as she had been prior to cutting her arm. Her fits increased, and her parents were advised to place her in the insane asylum.
The Death of Mary Roff
On July 5, 1865, while her parents were at Peoria, Ill., on a three-day visit, she ate a hearty breakfast, and soon thereafter lay down on her bed, and in her usual health went to sleep. In a few minutes she was heard to scream, as was usual on taking a fit. On approaching her bedside, they found her in a fit, and in a few moments she expired.