The city of Watseka is located in the northeast corner of Illinois, just across the Indiana line. In the month of July 1877 a thirteen year old girl named Lurancy Vennum – whose childhood up until this time had been completely normal – began to experience mysterious trances in which she claimed she was capable of speaking to angels, and also to the spirits of dead people. These strange spells occurred many times every day and sometimes they lasted for hours. She told her parents that she was in heaven and she could hear and see spirits, including her brother who had died three years previously. The trances increased in frequency and duration until they were occurring as many as a dozen times daily, and they would last for over eight hours. During them Lurancy would speak in different languages; and upon awakening she would remember nothing.
News of Lurancy’s strange trances spread throughout the town and state since the Spiritualist movement was very popular at this time. Mediums who professed to speak with the dead were very popular, and followers of Spiritualism came from all over the state to see if the news that they had heard was true. Lurancy’s parents, however, were not interested in Spiritualism, so they took their daughter to one Watseka Illinois healthcare doctor after another in hopes of helping her. The Watseka healthcare doctors found nothing wrong with the girl physically; they recommended that she be committed to the state insane asylum. Reluctantly, Lurancy’s parents agreed, and preparations were made to commit her in January 1878. But before she could be sent away, a neighbor named Asa Roff explained to Lurancy’s parents that one of his own daughters, Mary, who was born in 1846, had been similarly afflicted and sent to the asylum, where she tragically died. Roff begged Lurancy’s parents not to make the same mistake with Lurancy which he had made with his Mary. Mary had also complained of hearing voices in her head; and she had also experienced trance states in which she seemed to be possessed. When in trance she also spoke about places she had never known, and was able to predict the future, and knew secret things about people that she had no way of knowing. She became increasingly violent and erratic, scraping her body compulsively with pins and razors to bleed herself. Finally her desperate father committed her to the insane asylum when she was nineteen years old, where she died three years later. Lurancy Vennum was one year old at this time.
Mary Roff’s father, who was a Spiritualist, contacted Dr. E.W. Stevens, another Illinois healthcare Spiritualist, and convinced Lurancy’s parents to allow them to try to help the girl. Stevens mesmerized Lurancy, who immediately started speaking in different voices which claimed to be different spirits, one of which was Mary Roff. When Asa Roff told his wife about Lurancy’s claim, she and her daughter visited the Vennum home to see for themselves. As they approached the house Lurancy spotted them from the window and told her mother, “Here come Ma and Nervie” (no one had called Mary’s sister Minerva “Nervie” except Mary). Upon interrogation Lurancy revealed that she knew everything about Mary’s family, and she treated them like kin; whereas when she was in trance she treated her own family, the Vennums, politely but distantly.
In February 1878 Lurancy visited the Roff’s home. To test her, Mary’s parents took her in the buggy past their home, at which point Lurancy asked why they had gone past the house. On entering the house Lurancy knew all the details of the Roff family’s habits and possessions, including incidents which had occurred before Lurancy had been born. For several months Lurancy became Mary, living in the Roff home, and her trances began to abate as well. However, she informed Mrs. Roff that she would stay with them only until May.