When Christopher Saint Booth, a Los Angeles-based television ghost hunter, arrived at Watseka's Roff house, he had an aura about him. He wore lots of big silver or chrome bracelets, a straw cowboy hat with a feather on its brim, a bandana, a khaki shirt opened to the waist, fashionable jeans and heavy black boots.
He smelled of sweet cologne, and it mixed with showmanship and a will to believe.
It was a heady mixture that attracted other ghost hunters from three states, including six members of the Momence-based International Society of Paranormal Investigators. They weren't there to see if the Roff house, the scene of an alleged well-known case of possession, was a bonafide ghost house. Several said it was. The reason they came there was that Booth and his brother, Philip, were filming an in-depth investigation of the house, complete with a Hoosier spirit communicator and lots of laptops, lasers and gizmos that squeaked and even talked. Booth's advanced publicity had promised a séance, but what his team produced was an electronic version of the old scenario. Instead of a group of family members holding hands with a medium or psychic, Rick Hayes, of Jasper, Indiana's LifeGift Inc., interceded with a field of lasers and lights to summon a spectral image in the Roff house that was otherwise deep in night shadow. John Whitman, owner of the historic brick, two-story mansion house at 300 E. Sheridan St., had invited the filmmakers to his home for the second time in two years to complete "The Possessed," a straight-to-DVD docudrama about the "Watseka Wonder." That was the title of an 1879 pamphlet about the case that is still reprinted by the Iroquois County Historical Society. According to the account, Mary Roff had a mania for bleeding herself and died after one of her many fits. Later, another young woman named Lurancy Vennum became ill in a similar way. Due to the intervention of Roff's father and another spiritualist, Vennum was convinced to allow the spirit of Roff's daughter to possess her body for some months, leading to Vennum's healing. Ghost siting?
When the modern-day spiritualist, Hayes, arrived at the front of the Roff house, he announced that a 17-year-old girl, that no one else could see or hear, had called to him from the top of the stairway, just inside the front doors.
Hayes looks and sounds like a cross between Dr. Phil and a southern preacher. Broad shouldered, with tall, light-colored hair, he speaks in a southern drawl about living here, today, as well as in the hereafter. In fact, he said he splits his time between motivational speaking and counseling individuals about their dear departed.
Christopher Booth, wielding a small video camera, immediately started taping Hayes' reactions, while Philip Booth donned a much larger video camera.
Speaking with the silent and invisible "ghost," Hayes got emotional and said that "it's not proper for me to talk about that." Later, Christopher Booth recounted how Hayes perceived that the Roff girl had been sexually abused by two men in an upstairs room of the house, an allegation not found in the 1879 account.
In fact, Whitman said that he believes "The Watseka Wonder" case, as documented in the pamphlet, is a story of healing. However, the séances that were held at the Roff house and subsequent investigations by ghost hunters have tainted the story.
For instance, a book published in the 1970s called "Watseka," sensationalized the story, he said.
Another book was published last fall called, "The Possessed." But Whitman mentions both books on a flyer he distributes for regular self-guided tours of his house. The next one will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, the anniversary of Mary Roff's death. Call (917) 304-7015 for more information.
Asked when the séances started at the Roff home, Whitman guessed they began even before the possession because Roff's parents were spiritualists who tried to reach the other side, much like Momence investigator Sandy Wulf. She said she and her partners used radios to detect voices at the Roff house. Wearing a black t-shirt with a big crucifix on the back, she said that while the psychic community may not accept these radio voice recordings, she said this evidence was "phenomenal" and matches the history of the house. Christopher Booth said his film will eventually appear on the Sci-Fi Channel, although he couldn't say when. Tonight, he plans to hold another electronic séance, in part of the former Manteno Mental Health Center, the site of a massive typhoid outbreak in the 1930s. And tonight at the Roff house, just around dusk, a squadron of small bats will pop out of the black hole at the white peak at the front of the house, just like they do every night each summer.