The Watseka Wonder

I’ll admit, I sometimes get the Mad Gasser of Mattoon and the Watseka Wonder confused. You’d think that’d be difficult since the weirdness that is the Mad Gasser is right in his/her name–Mad Gasser. If you’re sitting around wondering which one is the Mad Gasser and which one is the other thing, it literally could not be more obvious. And then there’s the alliteration–Mad Mattoon and Watseka Wonder.

And my parents live or have lived right by both and we have driven through both many times and yet, because I can’t remember which is the apparent spirit possession and which is the mysterious stink, I have never crawled over Watseka with the enthusiams with which I crawl all over Nashville.

This did not bother me until recently. But I have been thinking about the Watseka Wonder a lot lately, because I have been thinking about what kind of larger thing I might want to write. I’ve been thinking I want to write about being a minister’s kid, but I don’t really want to write a memoir and I don’t think my everyday experiences really get at what I think are kind of the fundamental dilemmas of being a minister’s kid.

I mean, I can tell you that my dad was perfectly ordinary, except that he once heard God talking to him. And I can tell you that I believe him, at least 85% of the way. I can also tell you that he likes to be the center of attention and also loathes it. And that he has a job he took because he felt called to do it, and not one he would have had if he could have chosen.

But what I want to try to understand is what it means to be told “These kinds of completely implausible things are true–God can speak to you, these kinds of supernatural entities are real, prayer works” and “these kinds of completely implausible things are false” with the false things often being the same things. Where is the line in “God speaks to me” between “therefore I am a clergymember” and “therefore I am mentally ill”?

And how do you know? I mean, we all have mental quirks, but usually a mental illness has, as a component, some level of harm. Okay, is taking a job you don’t want and may not be suited for on the advice of your God a kind of harm?

So, yeah, back to the Watseka Wonder. The short form is that the Roffs had a girl, Mary, who was prone to fits and seizures and such, starting from the time she was an infant. She was sent to an insane asylum where she died. Across town, shortly before Mary’s death, the Vennums had a daughter, Lurancy. Lurancy hit puberty, as the girls in these stories often do, and all hell broke loose. She began to hear voices and to “visit Heaven” and then she becomes possessed by Mary Roff and goes to live with the Roffs for a few months. An an appointed time, Mary goes back to Heaven and Lurancy returns to her family.

I’m about halfway through the Stevens account and a couple of things strike me. One–the involvement of the Methodist church, even tangentially. But that’s a very Methodist part of the state, so it makes sense. But there’s a reference in the book to Lurancy behaving how the Methodists do during their revivals. If Lurancy wasn’t Methodist, she would have known Methodists, so how to behave in a way that made you seen overcome by the Spirit would have been known to her.

The book also, hilariously, claims that the Roffs and the Vennums did not know each other at all. Watseka has, now, maybe 4,000 people in it. I’d be surprised if it were any bigger back then. It’s implausible in a town that size that they didn’t know of each other and in a time of no TVs or radios, when church was the center of social life, it’s implausible that Lurancy wouldn’t have heard quite a bit of teenage gossip about what had happened to Mary.

Stevens seems to have no knowledge of the social workings of young teenage girls.

Interesting also that the Roffs were, by the time of Lurancy’s possession, avid Spiritualists. According to the Stevens account, they were the ones, even before Lurancy was possessed by Mary, who came over to the Vennum house and suggested that she was not insane, but a medium.

It’s easy enough to understand why they would have become avid Spiritualists in the wake of their daughter’s death, especially if you consider that they may have blamed themselves for sending her to the asylum where she died. And the all-too-human desire to believe that she had a special, but over-looked gift.

And, of course, for Lurancy, this must have been wild–to have this skill that made you the center of community attention, at least the center of two families’ attention, and to have a place of authority from which to speak, since you have been to Heaven and can channel the dead.

And it’s hard to tell from Stevens’ account how severely afflicted Mary was. Was she constantly suffering from bouts of whatever she had or were there times when she was lucid and able to communicate?

For Lurancy, it may have been a kind of ministry to be able to tell the Roffs that Mary loved them and knew them and cared about them and was in a place where she wasn’t suffering.

And she may have actually been able to do what she said she was doing.

The way she was acting is pretty common behavior for people who are in touch with the spirit world, so to speak.

I don’t know. I want to read a good book about Spiritualism in the 19th century in the U.S. and a good book about a history of U.S.ian Methodism. I feel like I know Methodism boots on the ground style, but I lack a clear sense of what Methodists were like at the time.

6 thoughts on “The Watseka Wonder

  1. For spiritualism in the 19th c US, I’d recommend either Weisberg’s Talking to the Dead (focuses on the Fox sisters and the context in which spiritualism becomes a major cultural phenomenon) or Ann Braude’s Radical Spirits (which focuses more on the intersection of women’s rights and spiritualism). Most of my favorites of American Methodism (A. Gregory Schneider’s Way of the Cross Leads Home and John Wigger’s Taking Heaven by Storm) are probably set too early in the 19th century to make for good background for this project. The survey text (and second volume of documents, which is far more interesting to me than the survey overview in v. 1) is titled The Methodist Experience in America by Richey, Rowe, and Schmidt.

  2. I’ve got Weisberg and Braude on my list of stuff to go get at the library!

    But I’m struggling with finding a good overview of Methodist history. I don’t want to get too bogged down it it, but I’d like a better sense of the history than I have.

    I know, for instance, that the earliest recorded incident of snake-handling in the US happened at a Methodist tent revival, but I don’t know why. Did we have a lot of tent revivals? Did we have a charismatic streak in the 19th century that we lost by the time I came along?

  3. Yes, camp and tent revivals (and the charismatic behaviors associated with them) were the norm in the early/mid 19th century, so much so that there were Methodist “camp grounds” that were used every year to gather the spiritual harvest. (Here’s an example of one in Des Plaines, Illinois….

    Black churches in the post-bellum period preserved and elaborated on the tent revival form — had some powerful carry-over from the brush arbor churches of the enslaved. It seems to me that they were more common in Appalachia and less common in the Midwest as the Methodists tried to go solidly middle-class (and pass for Presbyterians, only with more casseroles). However, there were still booming Methodist tent revivals in the Free Methodist church into the 1930s and 1940s and I guess that anywhere that there’s strong rivalry between the recruiting power of the Baptists and the Methodists, there are still revivals.

  4. I don’t recall there being any sorts of revivals that I knew of in Illinois, but the Baptists were not that exciting in the areas we lived in. They did their thing, we did ours. Everyone bitched about the rise of the Assembly of God churches, except my dad, who was constantly counseling that we give them 20 years and they’d be boring, too.

    And, bless his heart, it looks like he was right about that.

    So, I think you’re right, especially down to the “We’re just like Presbyterians, but with better potlucks!” tensions in the Midwest.

    But I think I may be asking the wrong question.

    So, here’s what I want to understand. Stevens is writing towards the end of the 19th century about events that happened years before. He mentions Methodists twice–once because a Methodist pastor shows up and the other time as an observation of Lurancy’s behavior being like Methodists at a revival.

    Now, I think the mention of the Methodist pastor showing up is neutral. There would be a Methodist pastor in Mattoon, just because you’d likely find a Methodist church in any town in Illinois and there’s probably a 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 chance that the Methodist minister is the Vennum’s minister.

    But I feel like the second mention might carry a little meaning obvious to everyone who would have read that book initially that isn’t obvious now, because we don’t have those exact same prejudices in the exact same ways.

    So, I just don’t know if that’s also a neutral observation–“Here’s this thing I know you, dear reader, will be familiar with that will help you understand this unfamiliar thing”? or is it more like “Here’s this thing we find silly and yes, it was like that on the surface, but here’s how it differed”?

    And would the Roffs have been spiritualists in addition to whatever church they belonged to or would they have become spiritualists instead of another religion?

    So, is there some way in which this is also a story about a new religion/denomination trying to assert itself as being equally as valid as the Methodists?

  5. ask bob bray for a good history of methodism. he’s published in the field. write it as fiction–a winesburg ohio type of deal, a series of linked short stories. sorry no caps, cat on lap.

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