They’ve changed their layouts over at Ancestry.com and so, even though I’ve looked at the information on the Roff and Vennum families a million times, this is the very first time I noticed that Mary (the spirit who possessed) Roff’s brothers Frank (b. 1859) and Charles (b. 1861)* were the same ages as Mary Lurancy (the girl who was possessed) Vennum’s brothers Henry (b. 1859) and Elmber (b. 1861). I knew one boy from each family was the same age, but I hadn’t realized there were two.
This pretty much exponentially ups the chances that the families knew each other (even if the parents were not lying when they said they didn’t know each other). I’m also trying to quickly pin down a hunch and so I’ve written the church secretary at the Watseka United Methodist Church and asked her to check the roles to see if the Roffs and Vennums attended and I’ve threatened to stop in on Thursday to help look, if need be.
In my book, the Watseka Wonder is an elaborate hoax, something the children did to try to bring Mrs. Roff some piece of mind after the loss of her young daughter. It happened in 1878, which is just as the Spiritualist movement is starting to lose steam and peter out into elaborate cons. Eh, not that it’s unfair to interpret the early women sleep-preachers of the Spiritualist movement as con artists as well, if you so choose, but I think you have to acknowledge, in those cases, that they were also conning themselves. They believed as deeply or more in what was happening to them than their audiences.
The women whose male partners nailed them into sacks on stage? More obviously a side-show con.
And I know I’ve said it before, but I’m still struck by what those scholars pointed out–that at the start of the Spiritualist movement in the early 1800s, you had lone women traveling to speaking in public with authority, a sight so strange people would come from all over to see it with their own eyes, and by the end, in the late 1800s, you had men nailing women into sacks on a stage.
But I guess the thing that strikes me is how long it took this stuff to permeate. Both the Watseka Wonder (1878) and the Bell Witch (supposedly 1817, but not written about until 1887) are talked about like they’re these early verifiable possessions, unique in their own ways. But really, they work as stories–and I’d argue worked as stories at the time–because of how thoroughly Spiritualism and Spiritualist ideas had permeated. These stories are actually a part of a supernatural tradition in our country, not early signs of new-age nonsense to come.
*It’s a little known but easily verifiable fact that every Midwestern family in the 1800s was required by intense social pressure to have sons named either Frank or Charles or both. No, not really, but damn it seems like it.