I don’t even know how to start to tell you about Watseka. It was wonderful. First, everyone knows about the Wonder. The guy at the cemetery gave us directions to the Roff graves (go to the second blue barrel, turn right, veer away from the mausoleum and look on the right). The people at the Historical society were awesome and told us all about the ghost hunters who came to investigate the museum and the jackass Disciples of Christ minister who was trying to scare them while they were investigating. The Methodist minister joked about letting us have a seance on the city’s side of the sidewalk in order to contact old parishioners. And it was just awesome.
If you get a chance, the museum run by the Iroquois County Historical Society is amazing. It’s in the old Victorian Courthouse and the people who run it are just smart and funny and very, very nice. And the museum is incredible, with all kinds of rooms set up with different artifact themes and everything is just nicely done and wow. We were there looking for Watseka Wonder stuff, and I was afraid of the stairs, so we didn’t see much but even the stuff we did see, I could not believe only cost $2.
Anyway, so we were able to see the outside of the house Lurancy Vennum lived in when she became possessed (there’s some speculation that there were two Thomas Vennums in Watseka at that time and her dad was NOT the banker but was the somewhat ne’er-do-well, but Dad and I both thought that the house the Vennums lived in at the time of the Wonder looked exactly like what a relatively wealthy person on his way to becoming a banker would live in–I’ll have pictures up at some point.) and the outside of the Roff home where Vennum lived when she was possessed.
And this is the tidbit I learned–one of the reasons some folks in Watseka think Lurancy was faking is that the Roff home was built after Mary died and yet “Mary” made no mention of her family’s grand, new digs. I’m incorporating that into my book. But in what I hope will be a subtle way that will be a treat for folks who do know that and not really matter to folks who don’t.
The oldest newspaper article they had on the Wonder said that the families DID know each other and that the Roffs only visited the Vennums twice while Lurancy was ill but before it was obvious she was possessed. That seems to have been misunderstood by later writers (and bless his heart, Stevenson, the author of the earliest book) as they not knowing each other really and only ever having visited one another twice–with the second visit being the one where the Roffs sprang their “it’s a spiritual malady” theory on the Vennums.
The families were acquainted, even if not close. And the houses were a lot closer than they looked on the map. We came from the Roff home to the Vennum home and missed the Vennum home twice because it was closer to downtown than we thought. It’s closer than the house the Butcher lived in when he went to high school is to the high school and the Butcher walked home every day. And the original house was closer to downtown.
So, even if the parents weren’t acquainted (which we now know wasn’t true) the kids could have run into each other.
But the thing that struck me struck me early at the cemetery. Mary wasn’t the only Roff kid to die young. At least two of her older siblings died as small children. It’s really no wonder her parents turned to Spiritualism. That’s so much grief.
My dad was disappointed that the guy who’s renovating the Roff home doesn’t have a mannequin of a girl in the window to scare the shit out of people driving by. Ooo, and Watseka is getting a new Walmart.
And I love their old courthouse/museum, even if their stairs are scary as hell.
And the folks in town who know about the Wonder are rightly proud of it. So, that’s cool. I still think it was a hoax of kindness, but I’m glad other people don’t.
I’m glad you had a good trip there – and I love your dad’s idea for the window. That is one of those so wrong it is right kind of things.
So…I know you’re sort of like me in many ways. I have to ask. Could you sense anything different or amiss at the Vennum house?
I have real problems with places like that. It’s why I never want to go to New Orleans and won’t go into Antique stores.
The whole town of Watseka is filled with this big old homes. I’m sure you know the type–railroad money came through and people built themselves big old Victorian fantasies. The Vennum house is obviously a little older than this. So, it’s large for a pre-railroad-town house, but not large in comparison to other houses in that part of town.
I took a picture of it, and I’ll be interested in Bridgett’s take on the color, because, to me, it looks a little too Victorian for the age of the house and the color is really dour.
I say all this to say that, in spite of it being modest compared to other houses in the neighborhood, in spite of being a color more suited for a gothic nightmare, at least from the road, the house gave an impression of relentless cheefulness, like it knew its purpose in the world and was happy to do it.
The Roff home, to me, did feel a little unsettled, but I know they’re doing some major renovations in there and that can unsettle a place. Plus, it’s obviously missing a rather grand porch and I imagine that would also be unsettling.
If any places were “different” I would say they were the cemetery (unsurprisingly), though not so much Mary’s grave as her older siblings who died younger, and the old courthouse, which is now the museum. I didn’t feel anything negative at the courthouse, but it did feel like a place people of all sorts might come, just out of curiosity, to run into other people of all sorts.