In Good Spirits

Lily dale, New York, is a curious little village where the still-quick commune with the once-quick

smithsonian.com

I’ve long wanted to spend some time in a town called Lily Dale, and recently I did. It’s an otherworldly community of some 250 more or less permanent residents situated above Cassadaga Lake, 60 miles south of Buffalo, New York. Most true Lily Daleans live in gingerbread Victorian cottages standing haphazardly along a maze of narrow, rough lanes laid out in the 19th century for horse-drawn carriages. The village is overshadowed by groves of century-old oaks, maples and hemlocks, under which proliferate a rich variety of mosses, ferns and fungi. A fairy-tale ambiance pervades the place, something a bit fey and toadstoolish, which is perfectly in keeping with what Lily Dale is all about.

Each summer, thousands of Spiritualists come here to consult with mediums who profess to be in communication with the immaterial remains of the once-quick and who will, for a fee, bring messages from those spirits to the still-quick. Some 30 mediums hung their shingles outside Lily Dale cottages last summer to advertise their services. All had been certified as competent and upright by the Lily Dale Assembly, the governing body of the community, which claims to be the "World’s Largest Center for the Science, Philosophy and Religion of Spiritualism."

A belief that spirits can affect mortal affairs is ancient, and a component of many religions. By the mid-1850s, there were more than a million professing Spiritualists in the United States and nearly 70 of their newspapers. Countless Spiritualist study groups (often calling themselves societies of freethinkers) and churches were established. There were liturgical differences among them, but the basic tenet of this faith was, and remains, that there is an afterlife in which individuals are changed from corporeal to spiritual beings but retain their identities and some of their former, mortal interests.

In 1871 a group of Spiritualists, who later organized as the Lily Dale Assembly, began holding summer meetings on the shores of Cassadaga Lake. Eventually they built some 200 cottages there as well as a sprawling hotel (now the Maplewood), auditoriums, outdoor amphitheaters and picnic pavilions, all of which are still being used. Its facilities and general open-mindedness made the village a haven for iconoclastic thinkers and activists. Susan B. Anthony, the grande dame of the women’s suffrage movement, made the first of her several public appearances in Lily Dale in 1891. That day she spoke to an audience of 3,000 people in an amphitheater decorated with flags.

From their beginnings, American Spiritualist groups have been strongly reformist, supporting women’s rights, abolition and temperance. Currently, the Lily Dale Assembly, a nonprofit religious corporation, owns all the land within the village. Long-term leases are given to residents, who own their cottages outright and can sell or rent them only to other Spiritualists. An annual maintenance assessment is levied on residents, and summer visitors pay an entrance fee at the community’s gate.

Inside, a fascinating smorgasbord of uplifting lectures and demonstrations is offered—different ones by different visiting speakers each day. The program-givers sell tickets and split the receipts with the assembly. Broadly, the topics are New Ageish; the visiting savants are not required to be practicing Spiritualists. Last summer, visitors could learn about Past-Life Regression, the Venus Mars Cycle, Angelic Messages, Universal Peace Shield of Truths, Expanding your Mediumship with Vince and John, Therapeutic Touch (at Lily Dale laying hands on clients is permitted but rubbing is not) and Reiki I and II, said to be a Tibetan study of transcendental and transformational energy.

Because their faith emphasizes the power of free will, Spiritualists object to "fortune-telling." Therefore, crystal ballers, palm- and tea-leaf readers and such cannot practice in Lily Dale. Otherwise, so long as they are law abiding, metaphysical rappers of all persuasions are welcomed. "Remember, we started out as freethinkers," Susan Glasier told me, "and we still are." Glasier is a member of the Assembly board of directors and the village manager.

The main continuing attraction and economic backbone of Lily Dale is the cadre of full-time mediums who live there. To practice in the village, they must have professional credentials that satisfy the Assembly and buy an annual business license. They can set their own rates, with $35 to $50 for a half-hour session, or "reading," being about average.

After I talked to a number of people who had been read, it seemed to me that for most it had been a novel experience, but one that left them largely skeptical about having received messages from genuine spirits. However, nearly all had found the reading entertaining, at least in a magic-show way, and were a bit curious about some of the things the medium had told them.

As a daily community service, local mediums volunteer to give short group readings. The one my wife, Ann, and I went to with about a dozen others was conducted by an articulate, businesslike young woman who told us to relax and open our minds. After studying the group intently, she began with a tall, somewhat overweight man who looked to be about 50 years old.

She asked if he had played any sports. He said he had. She asked if an older man, a relative or family friend, had been an athletic mentor. The man said he had an uncle who fitted that description. The medium saw a J in his name, which she said might have been Jim. The man said his uncle had been John. The medium said that John was comfortable in the afterworld, as he had not been during his last months here. He advised his nephew to improve his diet and exercise regularly but not so strenuously as he had before.

Then, after studying me briefly but making no comment, the medium turned to Ann, whom she said she saw as a little girl in a farm kitchen with a churn. Ann replied that she had as a child sometimes visited an aunt in Iowa who lived on a farm and owned an electric cream separator. The medium said, "Ah, so." Without giving a spiritual source, she counseled Ann that once she made up her mind she should not let others change it. Ann followed the medium’s advice that very evening, in regard to choosing a restaurant.

Later Ann went off to have a private reading with another medium. She was given some general, horoscope-type information, and a message that her mother was happy because her dentures no longer hurt as they had in this life. Ann told me, but not the medium, that her mother only had a removable bridge and it never seemed to bother her.

Meanwhile, I spent some time with Ronald Skowronski, a retired medium and former pastor in Rochester, New York, of the Plymouth Spiritualist Church, which is known as the "Mother Church of Modern Spiritualism." When we met, he was employed as the manager of the Maplewood Hotel in Lily Dale. Skowronski told me he feels Spiritualism is the most comforting of religions because it holds that death is only a transformation from the material to the spiritual world, communication between the two is possible and there is no hell or damnation. He also thinks it is the most open to fraud. "Unquestionably it has attracted con artists who prey on vulnerable people," he said. He believes, however, that self-delusion is far more common than outright fraud. Some mediums are such true believers that they confuse messages that originate in their own minds with those that come from the spiritual world.

The issue that concerns Skowronski is not the authenticity of most messages delivered by mediums but the possibility that people will be overawed by them. "Aunt Martha says you should move to Chicago. That is her opinion and not necessarily your fate. To go or not to go is your choice. Being a spirit doesn’t make Martha all knowing or mean she can’t be wrong."

So why get in touch with her?

"Spirits probably have a wider perspective than we do and she may give good counsel. But for me it is mostly that I like knowing the old girl is there and we will meet again."

 

by Bil Gilbert

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