Watseka Wonder: The Startling Story Of The First Documented Possession

Tales of paranormal activity date back thousands of years, but a tiny Illinois town holds the distinction of being the site of America’s first documented demonic possession.

August 11, 2021
House on the Outskirts of Illinois

In the rural outskirts of the tiny city of Watseka, IL, is an architectural Victorian gem with big arching windows that harbors a frightening secret from the afterlife. [via Discovery Inc.]

In the rural outskirts of the tiny city of Watseka, IL, is an architectural Victorian gem with big arching windows that harbors a frightening secret from the afterlife. [via Discovery Inc.]

Today, Watseka, Illinois, is a quiet midwestern town nestled among wide swaths of farmland about halfway between Chicago and Champaign. In the late 1800s, tales of paranormal happenings in the tiny town were spreading throughout the nation’s newspapers, making Watseka a household name.

Mary Roff was a baby when she had her first “cataleptic fit” and the incidents became worse as she grew. When the girl grew old enough to speak, she told her parents, Dorthy and Asa, that she could speak to spirits when she was in one of her trances. As a teenager, Mary gained the ability to read any book while completely blindfolded and was prone to hours-long

fits where it took up to five grown men to hold her down. She often cut herself with knives, hoping to bleed off a pressure she said she felt in her head. She began hearing voices, and began speaking in different languages she had no way of knowing, according History of Yesterday.

Her desperate parents wanted a cure for their daughter and ultimately decided to commit her to an insane asylum, hoping that she could be treated. Mary died at the age of 19 in 1865.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

It turns out, Mary was neither truly gone nor happy about the death of her body.

On July 11, 1877, another young woman in Watseka, Lurancy Vennum, told her mother she didn’t feel well and laid down. Much like Mary Roff, 13-year-old Lurancy suddenly became prone to long trances where she spoke in different voices and gave details about places she’d never been. The girl also told her parents she’d been communicating with the spirits of two older siblings who had died many years before.

According to Morbidology, doctors wanted the Vennums to send their daughter to an asylum, but they refused. Asa Roff, still reeling from the death of his daughter, wanted to see this other girl with an eerily similar affliction. Asa and a spiritualist who visited the Vennum home noted that Lurancy would introduce herself as different people, including an elderly German woman and a little boy. After meeting Asa, Lurancy introduced herself as Mary and asked to go home.

Lurancy’s body, inhabited by Mary’s spirit, went to the Roff house and lived as Mary for months, even visiting Mary’s friends. Ten months after Lurancy first fell into a trance, the voice of Mary informed the Roffs that Lurancy’s spirit was healed and she’d return soon.

When Mary’s spirit relinquished control of Lurancy’s body, Lurancy was reportedly healed and lived a relatively normal life, according to an Illinois Library article. Mary finally seemed to rest.

Something Still Lingers

In an episode of Ghost Brothers: Lights Out, Dalen, Juwan, and Marcus head out to see what’s still lurking in the Roff house. Hauntings there have reportedly turned dark and aggressive throughout the last hundred years, with a variety of spirits and sometimes violent entities telling paranormal investigators to get out.

You can stream this episode of Ghost Brothers: Lights Out on discovery+.

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