In 1896, Essex County Asylum for the Insane was build on 325 acres of lane in Cedar Grove, New Jersey. The asylum was more commonly referred to as Overbrook. From the onset, the asylum was at full capacity, often housing thousands of patients at once. Additionally, the asylum was severely understaffed. On the grounds of the asylum stood a train station, as well as a power house and a boiler. The patients at the asylum were mostly fed by food that was grown in the fields on the grounds. A bakery and firehouse were also built within the complex of Overbrook.
It was said that it was a town within a town, but with an ever growing patient list combined with minimal staff and developing drugs, it was set up to fail, and fail it certainly did. Due to the sheer amount of patients, many were left without a bed and were forced to sleep on the cold asylum floors. In 1917, disaster struck when the asylum’s only boiler malfunctioned and 24 inmates froze to death in their beds while they slept. Disease was often rampant in Overbrook.
As time progressed and mental health issues became better understood, grim methods such as lobotomies and electroshock therapy became outdated. This was a blow to the already failing asylum, who used both methods in abundance. The asylum eventually closed in 2007, with over 10,000 patients dying within the confines of the walls. It isn’t much surprise that many say Overbrook is haunted - several visitors have claimed to witness a nurse wearing a 19th century nurses uniform, walking around the asylum conducting checks.
In a rural farming town of Watseka, Illinois, something peculiar was going down in 1877 to 1878. It was here that the very first American possession was documented. 13-year-old Lurancy Vennun lived at home with her siblings and parents. One day, she started to fall into bizarre catatonic trances in which she would claim that she visited heaven where she would speak to angels and spirits of the deceased. A couple of years beforehand, Lurancy’s brother and sister perished. She saw them in heaven too, she reported. Sometimes these trances would last for hours and Lurancy would speak in a different voice than her regular voice and speak of places that were far away - places she certainly hadn’t visited.
At a time when the spiritualism movement was widely popular, many people believed that Lurancy was manifesting mediumistic abilities during these trances. She certainly was able to contact spirits and angels, many believed. While many physicians diagnosed her as being mentally ill and attempted to encourage her parents to send her to the State Insane Asylum in Peoria, they refused. Asylums in that day and age were rife with abuse and offered zero treatment. In fact, many patients would be lucky to make it out alive never mind make it out “cured.” The idea was to lock those who were deemed mentally ill away from the outside world and those who were deemed as “normal.”
As the trances became more frequent and more detailed, a man called Asa Roff, who also lived in Watseka, showed up at the Vennum family residence. Asa told the Vennum family about his own daughter, Mary Roff, who had suffered from something eerily similar to Lurancy. Mary would often enter similar trance like states in which she would take on the character of somebody else - she was possessed, they believed and could recollect information about places she had never been and people she had never known. One morning, her father found her slicing open her arms with a straight razor. She needed to rid her body of blood, she told him. Her father had agreed with the physicians and sent Mary to the insane asylum where she perished while in confinement. Despite her death, Asa was adamant that Mary’s spirit was still alive.
Now this is where the story becomes even more obscure. Following this meeting, another spirit came through Lurancy - Mary Roff. While in one of her trances, she introduced herself as Mary. As the Roff family caught wind of this, they immediately made their way to the Vennum household. Although Lunacy had never met the family, she was able to identity each one, even identifying them by childhood nicknames. A couple of days later, the Vennum family allowed the Roff family to take Lurancy to their home, to see how she would behave and to see if she would regain her real identity. As they rode past their old house, Lurancy became confused and asked why they weren’t stopping there. They had moved from that home several years ago.
Miraculously, the longer Lurancy stayed with the Roff family, the less frequent her trances were. That was until a couple of months later, when Lurancy told the Roff family it was time for her to leave. Kissing them all goodbye, she was increasingly upset. Days later, Mary was gone for good and Lurancy never fell into another trance again. What happened in Watseka? Was Lurancy really possessed by the spirit of Mary? Many people, including both the Roff family and Vennum family, believe so.
I love Ancestry. I’ve wasted so much time leafing through records and tracing my family history back through time and over seas, it’s downright sad. I’ve also discovered how easy it is to abuse the resources provided and look up the families of strangers—celebrities both famous and infamous.
I finally bit the bullet and decided to dig for information on Jeffrey Dahmer’s lineage. (And I’m not the only person who has attempted this, since I found other Dahmer family trees made by other weirdos like me. At least one managed to go back to the 1500’s with the Flints, who are English/Welsh.) Since my Dad also uses the same account, I took some extra precautions and named it “Madell family tree”, a dead-end surname from my mother’s side. If he were to get curious and click on it, he would be in for a bit of a shock.
What have I learned that is of interest? Well, aside from common knowledge (the surname Dahmer is of German origin, obviously) being proven with censuses and birth certificates, there wasn’t much on his father’s side. I couldn’t go very far into his paternal grandmother’s line, (she has some Welsh ancestry, dunno what else) and since our subscription is limited to American records, I was unfortunately unable to chase the Dahmer family back into the Dark Ages.
Everything interesting was on his mother’s side. The Rundbergs, Joyce’s mother’s parents (Jeffrey’s great-grandparents) are listed as immigrants from Norway. I fully expect every Dahmer book written henceforth to refrain from the clipped “German and Welsh” description and add “*also Norwegian”. Either way he’s still white.
To the left we have Joyce’s father, Floyd Flint, who was known to have been an abusive alcoholic. His father, James Ernest Humphrey Flint, spent time in an insane asylum. No, really—the 1920 Federal Census lists him as an inmate of the Wisconsin State Hospital For the Insane, now known as the Mendota Mental Health Institute. Naturally, it doesn’t list why he was there, but I’m sure we can all imagine. Three generations of mental health issues is a hefty inheritance.