Lurancy Vennum and Mary Roff

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”—Edgar Allan Poe


In all of the research that done on the subject (and I’ve done a lot), I have yet to find one credible, verifiable case of demonic possession. I’ve heard and read a lot of good stories, some of which might be true, but there is just no way of finding out for sure. They either happened too long ago, or in a remote part of the world, or people want to remain anonymous…or they were completely made up. For instance, the story of the Illfurth boys is an entertaining tale and fascinating if it’s true, but there’s no way to check it to find out. It meets at least two and possibly three of the veracity nullifying conditions listed above. I’ve also heard modern day exorcists and “experts” tell amazing stories of supernatural manifestations, but there is never any photographic evidence. You’d think that somebody at some point would have pulled out their phone and at least gotten a few seconds of video.

I read a book a number of years ago about a young woman who supposedly had over a dozen demons exorcised from her, during which she performed several “impossible” paranormal feats, such as levitating off of her bed with two grown men draped over her, trying in vain to hold her down. This Cover of The Devil and Karen Kingstonbook included numerous photographs taken during the exorcism, but not one of them showed any of these extraordinary incidents. In fact, there was not one photo that you and a few friends couldn’t duplicate without any special effects or software enhancements whatsoever.¹ This trend has held up over time. To the best of my knowledge, there is no evidence other than the testimony of participants in the alleged exorcisms that any of these things ever happened. Some of these people seem sincere and believable, but can’t they produce just one verifiable photo or video, or at least a good audio recording?

Another part of the problem is defining what exactly constitutes possession and who is doing the defining. In some cases, what religious types call possession is identical to what paranormal investigators call poltergeists. Other times, a person is tormented by malevolent and often anti-religious voices in their heads. These are occasionally accompanied by bizarre wounds or welts in distinct shapes, sometimes spelling out words on the victim’s skin. Mental health professionals usually call these schizophrenic hallucinations. The markings are explained as being self-inflicted or the result of some sort of hysterical physiological response. Whether or not these sorts of things might be more objectively real than is generally thought is covered at length in an earlier article on the work of Wilson Van Dusen, so I’m not going to rehash all of that here.

Those previous two phenomena are definitely interesting and well worth exploring, but when I think of possession, I think of some form of intelligence taking over complete control of a person’s body. The metaphor that I like to use is that someone else is driving your car while you’re tied up and helpless in the backseat. That’s what I call possession, and I’ve never found a convincing case of this being pulled off by a verifiable demon. What I have found is a handful of cases in which this has seemingly been done by something that is not likely a demon at all, and the most well-documented, persuasive and entertaining one that I’ve encountered thus far is that of Lurancy Vennum and Mary Roff.

photo of Mary RoffMary Roff was born in Indiana on October 8, 1846. Her family moved to Watseka, Illinois, about 70 miles south of Chicago, when she was 13. Mary was already in poor health by then and suffered from frequent epileptic seizures and depression brought on by her condition. When she was 18, she tried to kill herself by slashing her wrists. She survived her suicide attempt but remained in a state of delirium for five days, then fell asleep for 15 hours. She awoke to find her eyes bandaged to prevent her from scratching them out, but this didn’t prevent her from seeing. In fact, she could see even better with her eyes covered. A minister and an editor from a local paper supposedly both witnessed her read a letter that was sealed in an envelope in the editor’s pocket. All of this was written up in the Danville Times.

Despite her newfound psychic abilities, Mary’s health continued to deteriorate. When her family was visiting friends in Peoria for the Fourth of July holiday, Mary went to her room to rest due to a severe headache and was later found unconscious on the floor in a pool of blood. She was taken to the mental asylum in Peoria, where she died the next day, July 5, 1865 at the age of 19.

Lurancy Vennum was born on April 16, 1864, just over a year before Mary Roff died. Her family moved to a farm a few miles south of Watseka in 1871 when Lurancy was seven. On the morning of July 5, 1877, the twelfth anniversary of Mary’s death, Lurancy told her parents that there had been people in her room the night before and that they were calling to her. She said that she could feel their breath on her face. The parents thought nothing of it at the time, but a week later she became ill, passed out and was unconscious for five hours. These seizures began to happen on a daily basis, during which she would lose consciousness, become rigid and sometimes mumble incoherently about angels. At times during these fits, she would speak in different voices, as if she were another person. One of voices was an angry old woman who identified herself as Katrina Hogan. Another was that of a young man named Willie Canning,² who according to some sources said that he had committed suicide. There were others as well, but I guess they didn’t identify themselves since Hogan and Canning are the only names anyone mentions.

photo of Lurancy VennumDoctors advised the Vennums to place Lurancy in the asylum in Peoria, but they were hesitant to do so. By some accounts, Asa Roff, Mary’s father, heard about Lurancy’s condition and advised them not to have their daughter committed. He suggested that they contact Dr. E. Winchester Stevens, a physician who was also involved in the spiritualist movement which was popular at the time.

Whether Mr. Roff had anything to do with it or not, the Vennums did contact Dr. Stevens, and he agreed to see Lurancy to evaluate her case. On their first meeting in February of 1878, Lurancy was sullen and hostile toward Stevens before going into one of her fits, during which the doctor managed to hypnotize her. This calmed her down, and under hypnosis she told them that she had been possessed by evil spirits and began naming some of the spirits present in the room with them, including Mary Roff. Mr. Roff was also present and was astounded when Lurancy let Mary speak through her. Lurancy (or Mary, depending on what you’re prepared to believe) began giving details of Mary’s life, and her father confirmed that everything that she said was accurate.

By the next morning, Mary seemed to be in full control of Lurancy. She ceased to have fits and became quiet and mild-mannered, but also sad. She seemed not to know anyone in the Vennum family, but became excited when she saw Mrs. Roff and Mary’s sister Minerva walking toward the house for a visit. After this, Mary (or Lurancy – this gets confusing) begged the Vennums to let her go home, by which she meant the Roff home. The Vennums reluctantly agreed to let her go, hoping that this would speed their daughter’s recovery.

The Roff's house
The Roff House

On the ride over to the Roff’s, Mary/Lurancy (maybe I should just call her “the girl” from now on) became mildly agitated when they passed the house where the Roffs had lived while Mary was alive. It had to be explained to her that the family had since moved. Once they arrived at the current Roff home, she greeted all of her relatives by name and spoke of numerous events from Mary’s life as if she had been there. It didn’t take long for even skeptical members of the extended Roff family to become convinced that this girl really was Mary. During her subsequent three month stay with the Roffs, the girl spoke of events in Mary’s past life on a daily basis, and soon even friends of the family came to believe that Mary had returned.

The Mary formerly known as Lurancy told her family that the angels would only allow her to stay for a few months. She would occasionally leave to “go back to Heaven,” during which time Lurancy’s body would go into a trance and a few times Lurancy’s personality would make a partial return, whatever that means. Lurancy once briefly resumed full control of herself, but Mary returned shortly. When Mary was asked where Lurancy was, she replied that she was with the angels and would come back when she was healthy again. During this time, Lurancy’s body, which had been seriously weakened by her frequent fits, did become much healthier.

Mary also spoke regularly with Dr. Stevens and at one of these meetings described to him watching her own funeral and told him who had been there. She also spoke of seeing his daughter Angelina in Heaven and said that she was happy. On another occasion, she accurately described the doctor’s home in Wisconsin and told him the names of his other children.

The Vennum's house
The Vennum Home

In early May of 1878, Mary announced that the angels had told her that it would soon be time for her to leave. Two weeks later, 15 weeks after her arrival, she told her family that it was time for her to go. She said her goodbyes to her family and then she and her sister began the long walk across town to the Vennum’s home. Along the way, they stopped at the house where the Roffs had lived during Mary’s life to reminisce about their childhood together before continuing on to Lurancy’s house. Somewhere along the way, Mary transformed back into Lurancy. Though she wasn’t sure exactly what had happened to her, she was happy to finally return home.

Dr. Stevens examined Lurancy in July and found her to be in good health. Lurancy’s parents reported to him that she was happy, healthy, more mature and well-mannered than ever before. As for her time with the angels, she told her family that it all seemed like a dream. If she ever elaborated further, the Vennums apparently kept it to themselves.

Over the years, Mary would still “pop in” on Lurancy from time to time for short visits with her family. This seems to have been done with Lurancy’s full cooperation. Perhaps to repay Lurancy for letting Mary borrow her body, Mary also returned to Lurancy during childbirth (she had 13 of them!) to help lessen her pain. All in all, this seems to have been a beneficial situation for everyone involved.

Lurancy died in 1952 at the age of 88, which is usually not the case in situations like this. Many mediums, trance channelers, whatever you want to call them, don’t live very long even if their experiences with the world of the dead are predominantly positive. And I don’t know of any of them who had 13 kids. That’s got to take a toll on your body.

So that’s the most well-documented and credible case of possession that I’ve ever encountered, and it had nothing to do with demons. Some of the details vary from source to source, and I have no idea who’s really got their facts straight, but no matter. They all tell essentially the same story, and demons never figure into any of them. Some might argue that Lurancy herself said that she was being possessed by evil spirits, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as demons. When was the last time you heard of a demon named Katrina or Willie? Most of those guys have names like Azazel and Orobas and Pazuzu. There don’t seem to be a lot of devils running around out there with names like Bob or Tiffany.³


¹There was one interesting element to this book that I’ve never encountered either before or since. All of these “demons” were asked to supply samples of their handwriting, and most of them complied. While graphology has been largely discredited as any sort of reliable indicator of personality traits, the analyst’s assessment of these samples sound much more like something that you would expect from severely maladjusted human beings than demons. Or maybe the author just made the whole thing up and added this as a way of making his fib sound more scientific and believable. This was the 1970s, when many people, some of them mental health professionals, did think that your handwriting revealed a lot about your personality.

²To the best of my knowledge, no one ever bothered to try to find out if Katrina Hogan or Willie Canning were actual people who might have lived in the area. The first place I would look for them would be in the records of the Peoria mental hospital, but they aren’t going to give me access to their patient files, even if they still have them. That place was torn down a long time ago.

³Most of the alleged demons who produced the handwriting samples in the above mentioned book also gave very human names.

and all the devils are here


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