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Historic Ghosts and Ghost Hunters By H. Addington Bruce Characters: 31141

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The Watseka Wonder

When the biography of the late Richard Hodgson is written one of its most interesting chapters will be the story of his investigation into the strange case of Lurancy Vennum. Archinquisitor of the Society for Psychical Research, the Sherlock Holmes of professional detectives of the supernatural, in this instance Hodgson was forced to confess himself beaten and to acknowledge that in his belief the only satisfactory solution of the problem before him was to be had through recourse to the hypothesis that the dead can and do communicate with the living.

As is well known, subsequent inquiries, and notably his experiences with the famous Mrs. Piper, led him to the enthusiastic indorsement of this hypothesis; but at the time of the Vennum affair, with the recollection of his triumphs in Europe and Asia fresh in his mind, he was still a thoroughgoing if open minded skeptic; and to Lurancy Vennum must accordingly be given the credit of having brought him, so to speak, to the turning of the ways. Oddly enough too, scarce an effort has been made to assemble evidence in disproof of his findings in that case and to develop a purely naturalistic explanation of a mystery which his verdict went far to establish in the minds of many as a classic illustration of supernatural action. Yet, while it must be admitted that until recently such a task would have been extremely difficult, it may safely be declared that the phenomena manifested through Lurancy Vennum were not a whit more other-worldly than the phenomena produced by the tricksters whom Hodgson himself so skilfully and mercilessly exposed.

To refresh the reader's memory with regard to the facts in the case, it will be recalled that Lurancy Vennum was a young girl, between thirteen and fourteen years old, the daughter of respectable parents living at Watseka, Illinois, a town about eighty-five miles south of Chicago and boasting at the time a population of perhaps fifteen hundred. On the afternoon of July 11, 1877, while sitting sewing with her mother, she suddenly complained of feeling ill, and immediately afterward fell to the floor unconscious, in which state she remained for five hours. The next day the same thing happened; but now, while still apparently insensible to all about her, she began to talk, affirming that she was in heaven and in the company of numerous spirits, whom she described, naming among others the spirit of her brother who had died when she was only three years old. Her parents, deeply religious people of an orthodox denomination, feared that she had become insane, and their fears were increased when, with the passage of time, her "fits," as they called her trances, became more frequent and of longer duration, lasting from one to eight hours and occurring from three to twelve times a day. Physicians could do nothing for her, and by January, 1878, it was decided that she was beyond all hope of cure and that the proper place for her was an insane asylum.

At this juncture her father was visited by Mr. Asa B. Roff, also a resident of Watseka, but having no more than a casual acquaintanceship with the Vennums. He had become interested in the case, he explained, through hearing reports of the intercourse Lurancy claimed to have with the world of the dead, the possibility of which, being a devout spiritist, he did not in the slightest doubt. Moreover, he himself had had a daughter, Mary, long dead, who had been subject to conditions exactly like Lurancy's and had given incontrovertible evidence of possessing supernatural powers of a clairvoyant nature. In her time she too had been deemed insane, but Mr. Roff was confident that she had really been of entirely sound mind, and equally confident that the present victim of "spirit infestation," to use the singular term employed by a later spiritistic eulogist of Lurancy, was also of sound mind. He therefore begged Mr. Vennum not to immure his daughter in an asylum; and Mrs. Roff adding her entreaties, it was finally resolved as a last resort to call in a physician from Janesville, Wisconsin, who was himself a spiritist and would, the Roffs felt sure, be able to treat the case with great success.

This physician, Dr. E. Winchester Stevens, paid his first visit to Lurancy in Mr. Roff's company on the afternoon of January 31. He found the girl, as he afterward related, sitting "near a stove, in a common chair, her elbows on her knees, her hands under her chin, feet curled up on the chair, eyes staring, looking every way like an old hag." She was evidently in an ugly mood, for she refused even to shake hands, called her father "Old Black Dick" and her mother "Old Granny," and at first kept an obstinate silence. But presently, brightening up, she announced that she had discovered that Dr. Stevens was a "spiritual" doctor and could help her, and that she was ready to answer any questions he might put. Now followed a strange dialogue. In reply to his queries she said that her name was not Lurancy Vennum but Katrina Hogan, that she was sixty-three years old, and had come from Germany "through the air" three days before. Changing her manner quickly, she confessed that she had lied and was in reality a boy, Willie Canning, who had died and "now is here because he wants to be." More than an hour passed in this "insane talk," as her weeping parents accounted it, and then, flinging up her hands, she fell headlong in a state of cataleptic rigidity.

Dr. Stevens promptly renewed his questioning, at the same time taking both her hands in his and endeavoring to "magnetize" her, to quote his own expression. It soon developed, according to the replies she made, that she was no longer on earth but in heaven and surrounded by spirits of a far more beneficent character than the so-called Katrina and Willie. With all the earnestness of an ardent spiritist, the doctor immediately suggested that she allow herself to be controlled by a spirit who would prevent those that were evil and insane from returning to trouble her and her family, and would assist her to regain health. To which she answered that she would gladly do so, and that among the spirits around her was one that the angels strongly recommended for this very purpose. It was, she said, the spirit of a young girl who on earth had been named Mary Roff.

"Why," cried Mr. Roff, "that is my daughter, who has been in heaven these twelve years. Yes, let her come. We'll be glad to have her come."

Come she did, as the greatly bewildered Mr. Vennum testified next morning during a hasty visit to Mr. Roff's office.

"My girl," said he, "had a sound night's sleep after you and Dr. Stevens left us; but to-day she asserts that she is Mary Roff, refuses to recognize her mother or myself, and demands to be taken to your house."

At this amazing information, Mrs. Roff and her surviving daughter Minerva, who since Mary's death had married a Mr. Alter, promptly went to see Lurancy. From a seat at the window she beheld them approaching down the street, and with an exultant cry exclaimed, "Here comes my ma, and 'Nervie'!" the name by which Mary Roff had been accustomed to call her sister in girlhood. Running to the door and throwing her arms about them as they entered, she hugged and kissed them with expressions of endearment and with whispering allusions to past events of which she as Lurancy could in their opinion have had absolutely no knowledge.

Mr. Roff who came afterward, she greeted in the same affectionate way, while treating the members of her own family as though they were entire strangers. To her father and mother it seemed that this must be only a new phase of her insanity, but to the Roffs there remained no doubt that in her they beheld an actual reincarnation of the girl whom they had buried twelve years before-that is to say, when Lurancy herself was a puny, wailing infant. Eagerly they seconded her entreaties to be allowed to return with them; and, Mrs. Vennum being completely prostrated by this unexpected development, it was soon decided that the little girl should for the time being take up her residence under the Roff roof.

She removed there February 11, and on the way an event occurred that vastly strengthened belief in the reality of her claims. The Vennums and the Roffs lived at opposite ends of Watseka; but the latter family, at the time of Mary's death in 1865, had been occupying a dwelling in a central section of the town. Arrived at this house, Lurancy unhesitatingly turned to enter it, and seemed much astonished when told that her home was elsewhere. "Why," said she, in a positive tone, "I know that I live here." It was indeed with some difficulty that she was persuaded to continue her journey; but once at its end all signs of disappointment vanished and she passed gaily from room to room, identifying objects which she had never seen before but which had been well-known to Mary Roff. Her pseudo-parents were in ecstacies of joy. "Truly," they said to each other, "our daughter who was dead has been restored to us," and anxiously they inquired of her how long they might hope to have her with them. "The angels," was her response, "will let me stay till some time in May-and oh how happy I am!"

Happy and contented she proved herself and, which was remarked by all who saw her, entirely free from the maladies that had so sorely beset both the living Lurancy and the dead Mary. For her life as Lurancy she appeared to have no remembrance; but she readily and unfailingly recollected everything connected with the career of Mary. She was well aware also that she was masquerading, as it were, in a borrowed body. "Do you remember," Dr. Stevens asked her one day, "the time that you cut your arm?" "Yes, indeed. And," slipping up her sleeve, "I can show you the scar. It was-" She paused, and quickly added, "Oh, this is not the arm; that one is in the ground," and proceeded to describe the spot where Mary had been buried and the circumstances attending her funeral. Old acquaintances of Mary's were greeted as though they had been seen only the day before, although in one or two cases there was lack of recognition, due, it was inferred, to physical changes in the visitor's appearance since Mary had known her on earth.

Tests, suggested and carried out by Dr. Stevens and Mr. Roff, only reinforced the view that they were really dealing with a visitant from the unseen world. For instance, while the little girl was playing outdoors one afternoon, Mr. Roff suggested to his wife that she bring down-stairs a velvet hat that their daughter had worn the last year of her life, place it on the hat stand, and see if Lurancy would recognize it. This was done, and the recognition was instant. With a smile of delight Lurancy picked up the hat, mentioned an incident connected with it, and asked, "Have you my box of letters also?" The box was found, and rummaging through it the child presently cried, "Oh, ma, here is a collar I tatted! Ma, why did you not show me my letters and things before?" One by one she picked out and identified relics dating back to Mary's girlhood, long before Lurancy Vennum had come into the world.

She displayed, too, not a little of the clairvoyant ability ascribed to Mary. The story is told that on one occasion she affirmed that her supposed brother, Frank Roff, would be taken seriously ill during the night; and when, about two o'clock in the morning, he was actually stricken with what is vaguely said to have been "something like a spasm and congestive chill," she directed Mr. Roff to hurry next door where he would find Dr. Stevens.

"But," protested Mr. Roff, "Dr. Stevens is in quite another part of the city to-night."

"No," she calmly said, "he has come back, and you will find him where I say."

Quite incredulous, Mr. Roff gave his neighbor's door-bell a lusty pull, and the next moment was talking to the doctor, who, unknown to the Roffs, was spending the night there. With his aid, it is perhaps worth adding, brother Frank was soon relieved of the "spasm and congestive chill."

In this way, continually surprising but constantly delighting the happy Roffs, Lurancy Vennum remained with them for more than three months, professing complete ignorance of her identity and enacting with the greatest fidelity the r?le of the spirit who was supposed to have taken possession of her. Early in May, however, she called Mrs. Roff to one side and informed her in a voice broken by sobs that Lurancy was "coming back" and that they would soon have to take another farewell of their Mary. This said, a change became apparent in her. She glared wildly around, and in an agitated tone demanded, "Where am I? I was never here before. I want to go home." Mrs. Roff, heartbroken, explained that she had been under the control of Mary's spirit for the purpose of "curing her body," and told her that her parents would be sent for. But within five minutes she had again lost all knowledge of her true identity, and seemingly was Mary Roff once more, overjoyed that she had been permitted to return.

For some days she continued in this state, with only occasional lapses into her original self; then, on the morning of May 21, she announced that the time for definite leave-taking had at last arrived, and with evident grief went about among the neighbors bidding them good-by. It was arranged that "sister Nervie" should take her to Mr. Roff's office, and that Mr. Roff should thence escort her home. En route there were sharp interchanges of personality, with the spirit control dominant; but when the office was reached it became evident that she had fully come into her own again. The night before she had wept bitterly at the thought of leaving her "father." Now she addressed him calmly as "Mr. Roff," called herself Lurancy, and said that her one wish was to see her parents as soon as possible. Nor, as the Vennums were quickly to discover, did she return to torment and alarm them by the weird actions of the preceding months. On the contrary, they found her healthy and normal in mind and body, completely cured, as a result, the Roffs emphatically declared, of the intervention of the spirit of their beloved daughter.

Needless to say, the people of Watseka and the surrounding country had watched with breathless interest the progress of this curious affair; but it was not until three months after the "possession" had ended that the public at large obtained any knowledge of it. The first intimation, outside of unnoticed reports in local newspapers, came through the medium of two articles contributed by Dr. Stevens to the August 3 and 10, 1878, issues of The Religio-Philosophical Journal, one of the leading spiritist organs of the United States. Traversing the case in the fullest detail, and emphasizing the fact that up to the moment of writing the principal actor had had no return of the ills from which she had previously suffered, Dr. Stevens gave it as his unqualified conviction that the spirit of Mary Roff had actually revisited earth in the person of Lurancy Vennum, and had been the instrument of her cure. This view naturally commended itself to spiritists, but by the unbelieving it was vigorously combatted, not a few insinuating or openly alleging that Dr. Stevens's narrative was a work of fiction. The veracity of the Roffs was also attacked. "Can the truthfulness of the narrative," one skeptical inquirer wrote Mr. Roff, "be substantiated outside of yourself and those immediately interested? Can it be shown that t

here was no collusion between the parties?" And another asked him, "Is it a fact, or is it a story made up to see how cunning a tale one can tell?"

Waxing indignant, Mr. Roff wrote a long letter to The Religio-Philosophical Journal denouncing the imputation of fraud, giving the names of a number of men who would vouch for his integrity, and concluding with the statement: "I am now sixty years old; have resided in Iroquois county thirty years; and would not now sacrifice what reputation I may have by being party to the publication of such a narrative, if it was not perfectly true."

Following this there appeared in The Religio-Philosophical Journal several letters from well-known Illinois professional men warmly indorsing Mr. Roff's character, and an announcement to the effect that the editor, Colonel J. C. Bundy, himself of undoubted honesty, "has entire confidence in the truthfulness of the narrative and believes from his knowledge of the witnesses that the account is unimpeachable in every particular." As for Dr. Stevens, Colonel Bundy declared that he had been personally acquainted with the physician for years, and had "implicit confidence in his veracity." After all this, accusations of perjury and deception were obviously futile, and, no adequate non-spiritistic interpretation being forthcoming, there was an increasing tendency to accept the view advanced by those who had participated in the affair.

Such was the situation at the time of Richard Hodgson's advent. Primarily, as will be remembered by all who have followed the work of the Society for Psychical Research, Dr. Hodgson had come to this country to investigate the trance mediumship of Mrs. Leonora Piper. But his attention having been called to the Vennum mystery, he visited Watseka in April, 1890, and instituted a rigorous cross-examination of the surviving witnesses. Dr. Stevens was dead, and Lurancy herself had married and moved with her husband to Kansas, but Dr. Hodgson was able to interview Mr. and Mrs. Roff, Mrs. Alter, and half a dozen neighbors who had personal knowledge of the "possession." All answered his questions freely and fully, reiterating the facts as given in Dr. Stevens's narrative, and adding some interesting information hitherto not made public. In the main this bore on the question of identity and tended to vindicate the reincarnation theory. It also developed that while Lurancy had grown to be a strong, healthy woman, she had had occasional returns of Mary's spirit in the years immediately following the chief visitation; but that these had ceased with her marriage to a man who, Roff regretfully observed, had never made himself acquainted with spiritism and therefore "furnished poor conditions for further development in that direction."

Appreciating the fact that Mr. Roff and his family would furnish the best possible conditions for such development, and that he must be on his guard against unconscious exaggeration and misstatement, Dr. Hodgson nevertheless deemed the evidence presented to him too strong to be explained away on naturalistic grounds. Contributing to The Religio-Philosophical Journal an account of his inquiry and of the additional data it had brought to light, he described the case as "unique among the records of supernormal occurrences," and frankly admitted that he could not "find any satisfactory interpretation of it except the spiritistic."

Yet, as was said at the outset, it may now be affirmed that another interpretation is possible, and one far more satisfactory than the spiritistic; this, too, without impeaching in any way the truthfulness of the testimony given by Dr. Stevens, the Roffs, and the numerous other witnesses. To begin: apart from the supernatural implications forced into it by the appearance of the so-called spirit control, it is clear that the affair bears a striking resemblance to the instances of "secondary" or "multiple" personality which recent research has discovered in such numbers, and which are due to perfectly natural, if often obscure, causes. In these, it has already been pointed out, as the result of an illness, a blow, a shock, or some other unusual stimulus, there is a partial or complete effacement of the original personality of the victim and its replacement by a new personality, sometimes of radically different characteristics from the normal self.

A sufficient example is the case of the Rev. Thomas C. Hanna, for knowledge of which the scientific world is indebted to Dr. Boris Sidis.[P] Following a fall from his carriage, Mr. Hanna, a Connecticut clergyman, lost all consciousness of his identity, had no memory for the events of his life prior to the accident, recognized none of his friends, could not read or write, nor so much as walk or talk,-was, in fact, like a child new born. On the other hand, as soon as the rudiments of education were acquired by him once more, he showed himself the possessor of a vigorous, independent, self-reliant personality, lacking all knowledge of the original personality, but still able to adapt himself readily to his environment and make headway in the world. Ultimately, through methods which are distinctively modern, Dr. Sidis was able to recall the vanished self, and, fusing the secondary self with it, restore the clergyman to his former sphere of usefulness.

This, of course, is an extreme example. The usual procedure is for the secondary personality to retain some of the characteristics of the original self-as the ability to read, write, etc.-and give itself a name. In this way Ansel Bourne, the Rhode Island itinerant preacher, became metamorphosed into A. J. Brown, and, without any recollection of his former career or relationships, drifted to Pennsylvania and began an entirely new existence as a shopkeeper in a small country town. Similarly with Dr. R. Osgood Mason's patient, Alma Z., in whom the secondary personality assumed the odd name of "Twoey," spoke, as Dr. Mason phrased it, "in a peculiar child-like and Indianlike dialect," and announced that her mission was to cure the broken down physical organism of the original self, which remained completely in abeyance so long as "Twoey" was in evidence. Here, as is apparent, we have a case almost identical with that of Lurancy Vennum, the sole difference being that "Twoey"-who, by the way, is credited with having exercised seemingly supernormal powers-did not pose as a returned visitant from the world of spirits.

Thus far, then, depending on the argument from analogy, the presumption is strong that Lurancy's case belongs to the same category as the cases just mentioned. In the one, as in the others, we have loss of the original self, development of a new self, and the enactment by the latter of a r?le conspicuously alien from that played by the former. The one difficulty in the way of unreserved acceptance of this view is the character of the secondary personality which replaced Lurancy's original personality. Here the positive claim was made that the secondary personality was in reality the personality of a girl long dead, and by way of proof vivid knowledge of the life, circumstances, and conduct of that girl was offered. But on this point considerable light is shed by the discovery that in a number of instances of secondary personality in which no supernatural pretensions are advanced there is a notable sharpening of the faculties, knowledge being obtained telepathically or clairvoyantly; and by the further discovery that it is quite possible to create experimentally secondary selves assuming the characteristics of real persons who have died.

In this the creative force is nothing more or less than suggestion. There is on record, indeed, an instance of mediumship in which the medium, an amateur investigator of the phenomena of spiritism, clearly recognized that his various impersonations were suggested to him by the spectators. This gentleman, Mr. Charles H. Tout, of Vancouver, records that after attending a few séances with some friends he felt a strong impulse to turn medium himself, and assume a foreign personality. Yielding to the impulse, he discovered, much to his amazement, that without losing complete control of his consciousness, he could develop a secondary self that would impose on the beholders as a discarnate spirit. On one occasion he thus acted in a semi-conscious way the part of a dead woman, the mother of a friend present, and the impersonation was accepted as a genuine case of spirit control. On another, having given several successful impersonations, he suddenly felt weak and ill, and almost fell to the floor.

At this point, he stated, one of the sitters "made the remark, which I remember to have overheard, 'It is father controlling him,' and I then seemed to realize who I was and whom I was seeking. I began to be distressed in my lungs, and should have fallen if they had not held me by the hands and let me back gently upon the floor.... I was in a measure still conscious of my actions, though not of my surroundings, and I have a clear memory of seeing myself in the character of my dying father lying in the bed and in the room in which he died. It was a most curious sensation. I saw his shrunken hands and face, and lived again through his dying moments; only now I was both myself, in an indistinct sort of way, and my father, with his feelings and appearance."

All of this Tout explained correctly as "the dramatic working out, by some half conscious stratum of his personality, of suggestions made at the time by other members of the circle, or received in prior experiences of the kind." In most instances, however, the original self is completely effaced, and no consciousness is retained of the performances of the secondary self; but that an avenue of sense is still open is sufficiently demonstrated by the readiness with which, in hypnotic experiments, seemingly insensible subjects respond to the suggestions of the operator. Here, therefore, we find our clue to the solution of the mystery of Lurancy Vennum. A victim of a psychic catastrophe, the cause of which must be left to conjecture in the absence of knowledge of her previous history, she was placed in precisely the position of the adventurous Mr. Tout and of the inert subjects of the hypnotist's art. That is to say, having lost momentarily all knowledge and control of her own personality, the character her new personality would assume depended on the suggestions received from those about her.

Yet not altogether. Dr. Stevens's detailed record contains a reference which indicates strongly that the spiritistic tendency manifest from the onset of her trouble was to some extent predetermined. A few days before the first attack she informed the family that "there were persons in my room last night, and they called 'Rancy, Rancy!' and I felt their breath on my face"; and the next night, repeating the same story, she sought refuge in her mother's bed. These fanciful notions, symptomatic of the coming trouble and possibly provocative of it, would act in the way of a powerful autosuggestion, and would of themselves explain why there resulted an inchoate, tentative, vague personality, instead of the robust, definite personality that assumes control in most cases.

At first, the reader will remember, she sought vainly and wildly and wholly subconsciously-it cannot be made too clear that she was no longer consciously responsible for her acts-for a satisfactory self of ghostly origin. The aged Katrina, the masculine Willie, and other imaginary beings were tried and rejected; principally, no doubt, because her thirteen-year-old imagination was unequal to the task of investing them with satisfactory attributes. From her relatives she obtained no assistance in the strange quest. They, disbelieving in "spirits," persisted in calling her insane-a comfortless and far from beneficial suggestion. But with the intervention of the Roffs and Dr. Stevens everything changed. Not questioning the truth of her assertions, they confirmed her in them, and offered her into the bargain a ready-made personality.

Here at last was something tangible, a starting-point, a foundation-stone. Mary Roff had had a real existence, had had thoughts, feelings, desires, a life of flesh and blood. And Mary, they assured the poor, perturbed, disintegrated self, could help her regain all that she had lost. Very well, let Mary come, and the sooner she came the better. For knowledge of Mary, of her characteristics, her relationships, her friends, her earthly career, it was necessary only to tap telepathically the reservoir of information possessed by Mary's family; and there would be available besides a wealth of data in chance remarks, unconscious hints, unnoticed promptings. She had been too long in search of a personality not to grasp at the opening now afforded. Focused thus by suggestion,-that subtle, all-pervasive influence which man is only now beginning to appreciate,-the basic delusional idea promptly took root, blossomed, and burst into an amazing fruition. Banished were the spurious Katrinas and Willies. In their stead reigned Mary, no less spurious in point of fact, but so cunningly counterfeiting the true Mary that the deception was not once detected.

Mark too how suggestion sufficed not only to create the Mary personality but to expel it and restore the hapless Lurancy to perfect health. If the responsibility for the creation rests on Dr. Stevens and the Roffs, to them likewise belongs the credit for the cure. Their insistence on the fact that Mary's spirit could and would be of assistance, was itself as powerful a suggestion as could be hit upon by the most expert of modern practitioners of psychotherapeutics; and in unconsciously persuading the spirit to set a limit to its time of "possession" they made another suggestion of rare curative value. To the suggestionally inspired fixed idea that she was not Lurancy Vennum but Mary Roff was thus added the fixed idea, derived from the same source, that in May she would become Lurancy Vennum again, and a perfectly well Lurancy. It was as though the Roffs had actually hypnotized her and given her commands that were to be obeyed with the fidelity characteristic of the obedience hypnotized subjects render to the operator.

When the time came the transformation was duly effected, though, as has been seen, not without a struggle, a period of alternating personality, with Mary at one moment supreme and Lurancy at another. But this is a phenomenon that need give us no concern. Exactly the same thing happened in the last stages of the Hanna case. Nor do the fugitive recurrences of the Mary personality signify aught than that Lurancy was still unduly suggestionable. Note that these recurrences, according to the available evidence, developed only when the Roffs paid her visits; and that they ceased entirely upon her marriage to a man not interested in spiritism, and her removal to a distant part of the country.[Q]


[P] In his "Multiple Personality."

[Q] It is proper to add that since the recent publication of this paper as a contribution to The Associated Sunday Magazine, the charge of fraud has been revived in connection with the "Watseka Wonder." It is asserted by a resident of Watseka that although Lurancy Vennum unquestionably was a sufferer from "nervous trouble," she consciously impersonated the "spirit" of Mary Roff, her motive being a desire to be near one of the Roff boys, with whom she imagined herself in love.

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