Several years ago I wrote about a destructive spook light that was dubbed by the Welsh locals “owl blasting.” The term was new to me and its origins are still baffling. The closest reference I could find was the notion of “eye blasting” as a manifestation of the Evil Eye.
But I may be a little closer to solving the question of “owl blasting.” In my recent fairy researches, I was pleased to find the “fairy blast,” an event that has a variety of meanings, most commonly a “stroke” felt by a mortal in a variety of ways. Intriguingly, the “blast” in this first story effected a transmigration of souls.
THE FAIRY BLAST
Changed an Irish Girl To Her Dead Sister
[Limerick Cable New York Journal.]
A strange case of superstition has been brought to light here. It is what may be called a local adaptation of the transmigration-of-souls idea and goes under the local name of “fairy blast.”
The symptoms of this “fairy blast” are that the person affected ceases for a time to be himself or herself, and becomes somebody else, very frequently a relative or friend. The following instance will hardly be believed, yet it was the experience of a lady living in George’s street, Limerick, with a servant girl in her employment. One morning the mistress on encountering the servant, whose name was Mary, found her speech took the form of an unmistakable Yankee twang. Mary knew there was something the matter with her, and to account for it asked in the same strange accent:
“Didn’t you hear of it, ma’am?”
“Hear what?” replied her astonished mistress.
“Didn’t you hear,” was the answer, “that I’ve got the ‘fairy blast,’ and I am not Mary now? I’m my sister Ellen.”
This sister had been absent in America for some time, and the lady, while grasping the meaning of the altered speech, was considerably puzzled to know what had come over her slavey. The damsel, however, hastened to relieve her mistress’s anxiety by the assurance, conveyed in perfect seriousness:
“I expect to be myself again in a few days, ma’am, but I’m Ellen now, and not Mary.”
She kept her word, and just when the household had come to regard her as fit for a lunatic asylum she became herself again, remarking that the “blast” was over.
The Enquirer [Cincinnati OH] 26 November 1898: p. 10
While the headline states that her sister is dead; the article merely says that she had been in America for some time. Which, if either, do we trust?
While this might just have been a servant playing a prank on her mistress, what struck me about this account was its resemblance to the well-known story of Lurancy Vennum, “The Watseka Wonder,” who “became” her dead neighbor, Mary Roff.
Lurancy was tormented by convulsions, including heel-to-head contortions characteristic of hysterics and demoniacs. Just before the onset of her illness, she told her family that “There were persons in my room last night, and they called ‘Rancy! Rancy!!’ and I felt their breath on my face.” Those knowledgeable in the ways of the Good People could easily identify the callers as fairies seeking to “blast” Lurancy. She also reported seeing two dead siblings and went into trances where she saw angels. Her seizures became so severe that her parents were advised to place her in the insane asylum.
When Dr. E.W. Stevens, a Spiritualist, was brought by Mary Roff’s father to investigate the case, he conversed with the spirits who were possessing Lurancy, including an “old hag,” Katrina Hogan and the errant Willie Canning. When he put the girl under “magnetic influence,” he suggested that these evil spirits be banished in favor of a more edifying one. Lurancy said, “there is one the angels desire should come, and she wants to come. On being asked if she knew who it was, she said: ‘Her name is Mary Roff.’ Mr. Roff being present, said: ‘That is my daughter; Mary Roff is my girl. Why, she has been in heaven twelve years. Yes, let her come, we’ll be glad to have her come.’
Mr. Roff told Dr. Stevens and Lurancy that Mary Roff had also been subject to trances, seizures, and violent mania; she often cut herself in the throes of madness. But, he assured them, she would be an influence for “mutual benefit.” And so, for fifteen weeks “Mary Roff” inhabited Lurancy Vennum’s body. For much of that time she lived with the Roffs and they and their relatives swore that the young woman’s voice, mannerisms, and knowledge of intimate family stories meant that their Mary had returned.
While “Mary” denied that she was dead, saying “I never died,” or “I did not die,” at last “Mary” stated that she was going to leave her borrowed body:
“Mary is to leave the body of Rancy to-day, about eleven o’clock so she says. She is bidding neighbors and friends good-by. Rancy to return home all right to-day. Mary directed her father to write to Dr. Stevens and say, ‘Tell him I am going to heaven, and Rancy is coming home well.'”
Lurancy did, in fact, return home in good health, married, and went on to lead a normal life, although Mary supposedly took over Lurancy’s body during labor for her first child, sparing her pain.
Was this episode an example of the “fairy blast?” Lurancy’s father and grandfather were born in Pennsylvania; her mother was born in Indiana. The census does not provide enough information to tell if the family was originally from Ireland. There is no mention of fairies in The Watseka Wonder, only angels and good and evil spirits of the Spiritualist afterlife, yet the parallels with the Limerick story are striking.
To be a completist, the most common definition of “fairy blast” was a general “stroke” from the fairies, as in this reference to “The wicked sprite who would blast the eye or the hand of some mortal.” [The Irish People (Dublin, IR) 16 September 1865: p. 9]
In this tragic case from 1856 of a boy killed by a “Fairy Man,” it was claimed that young Patrick Kearns had received a “blast,” and needed curing. “The Whiteboy,” a fictional story set in Ireland, describes a young girl as “sinking under the malignant effects of a fairy blast. [“The Whiteboy” Philadelphia (PA) Inquirer 28 August 1837: p. 1]
The other definition of “fairy blast” is a freakishly high, destructive wind like a cyclone or hurricane—a very rare event in Ireland. But scarcely rarer, one imagines, than the dead returning to possess the living…
Other examples of “fairy blasts?” chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com Barbara Rieti has written a brilliant essay on the horrors of ‘”The Blast” in Newfoundland Fairy Tradition’ in The Good People: New Fairylore Essays, edited by Peter Narvaez, 1991, p. 284.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.