Authors: Christine Wicker
The Town That Talks to the Dead
To Philip, my own blithe spirit
Lynn Mahaffey rides up and down the hills of Lilyâ¦
Just pop my brain out, put it in a computer,â¦
Sinclair Lewis was shocked by the poor deluded and bereavedâ¦
Picnic tables scattered around the grass near the Good Vibrationsâ¦
Before coming to Lily Dale, I had consulted only twoâ¦
I returned to Lily Dale on a cold March night.
I picked my way carefully across the wet ground atâ¦
The mediums are nice people, and they believe what theyâ¦
The main question I wanted answeredâhow do beliefs change lives?âwouldâ¦
Pat Naulty, the English professor whose son died playing Russianâ¦
The June day I met Murry King was early inâ¦
The first time I tried to contact spirit was theâ¦
The morning after newly widowed Carol Lucas saw Martie Hughesâ¦
When I heard that Patricia Price, the medium who hadâ¦
After dinner the night I attended Patricia Price's reunion, herâ¦
No one but me seemed to notice the difference, whichâ¦
Here is the story Marian Boswell told about her returnâ¦
I hadn't known Shelley Takei a week before she invitedâ¦
Here is the short version of Lynn's creed. People's heartsâ¦
One weekend in July, a handful of New Choices womenâ¦
Lily Dale has always been a place where women findâ¦
Every morning at ten to nine, I stumbled down Clevelandâ¦
Anne Gehman was obviously a woman who wanted to leadâ¦
I believed I killed my son,” Pat Naulty said. “Iâ¦
Our class's star pupil was Sean, one of those thin,â¦
Before he died, Noel Lucas used to say, “If I'mâ¦
When table-tipping day arrived, we were as wiggly as schoolchildren.
Much of Lily Dale makes me roll my eyes, butâ¦
You only have to see one white crow to knowâ¦
My own white crow was Sherry Lee Calkins. I didn'tâ¦
When Marian Boswell fired up Jack's computer, she checked e-mailâ¦
It was one of my last jobs as a reporterâ¦
I entered the evening development circle in high spirits, readyâ¦
I might never have come back to the Dale ifâ¦
A month later I returned to Lily Dale for theâ¦
It's as though we live inside a big egg, whoseâ¦
ily Dale is sixty miles south of Buffalo, tucked off the side road of a side road to Interstate 90. It's easy to miss. Little Victorian houses sitting at the edge of a lake. A settlement of a few hundred people clinging to a religion that once had millions of believers and now has only a remnant. American flags flapping from screened porches. Fountains splashing in shady little pocket parks. Big-bellied cats strolling across streets as though they own them. So many cats sun themselves about town that squirrels are said to be fearful of touching ground.
Women set the tone in this lakeside community where houses are painted in pastels. During the height of the summer season, when twenty thousand visitors come to consult the town's mediums, it resembles nothing so much as a sorority sleepover for aging sisters. They laze about in the hotel parlor and fan themselves in white rockers that line the veranda. They sweep down the streets in flowing dresses. Tinsel stars and crystals hang in windows. Christmas lights twinkle from porches all year long. Stone angels stand sentry on walkways, and plaster elves march across lawns.
I was a religion reporter for the
Dallas Morning News
when I first drove a rental car past the filigree sign that proclaims Lily Dale
to be the world's largest community of Spiritualists. The entrance shack where attendants take seven dollars from visitors during what the community calls camp season is white with bright blue trim and the walls and roof seem slightly out of plumb. Many things in Lily Dale are not quite square. For more than a hundred years, people of the Dale have believed they can talk with the dead. They think anybody can. Call them demented, sneer at their gullibility, suspect them of trickeryâcatch them in it even, lots of people haveâbut they won't give up what they believe.
I first read about Lily Dale in the
New York Times
in a little story that told everything except what I wanted to know. The reporter mentioned Lily Dale's 1879 founding, which makes it the oldest Spiritualist community in America and probably the world. He described the community's beginning as a summer camp for well-to-do freethinkers and Spiritualists, and he related stories its residents had told him. His skepticism was not quite hidden between carefully noncommittal lines, and that is a fine way for a reporter to behave in the face of such absurdity as Lily Dale presentsâthe only way really. He wrote like a good fact-based reporter living in a scientific age in which provable facts are the only allowable reality. He had no reason to write anything more and all the reason in the world not to. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why this strange little outpost clings to such absurd ideas. I wanted to know who these people are and what makes them tick.
When they remember that
New York Times
reporter in Lily Dale, they mention how much the community's tatty look dismayed him and what he said to Hilda Wilkinson after she fed him tea and lunch. According to the story, he told Hilda, who first came to the Dale seventy-five years ago, he didn't believe a thing he'd heard. He said he didn't know how anyone could believe such nonsense. And Hilda said, “Well, young man, you just hold on to your beliefs.” She paused.
“You just hold on, young man. Until you wake up.”
I put the story in a file where it sat for a year. In June, when Dallas temperatures were climbing toward 100 and every reporter in Texas was looking for a story in a cool climate, I showed it to my editors. Within two weeks, I was on a flight to Buffalo.
Covering the God beat, I've met lots of people who believe strange things. I've talked with a voodoo priestess in Cuba who communed with the Virgin Mary. I've interviewed a man walking across America pulling a big wooden cross because Jesus told him to. I've spent all night in Garland, Texas, with a Taiwanese cult waiting for God to come on television and announce the end of the world. They lived in Garland because their leader thought “Garland” was “God-land.”
Weird never puts me off. I like it, and usually I understand it. In Lily Dale, some people were nervous about talking to me, but I told them straight out that I had not come to ridicule.
“You're afraid I'm going to write something that will make you seem crazy. Don't worry about that,” I told them. “Everybody thinks you're nuts already. So there's no story there.”
With regard to talking dead people, I considered myself ambivalent. Compared to most people in Lily Dale, I was a raging skeptic. Compared to most of my colleagues, I was a soft-headed sap. I didn't believe Lily Dale's people could chat with the dead, but I was willing to concede that I didn't know much about cosmic workings. I might be wrong.
And more to the point for a reporter, the Spiritualists were making the biggest brag in modern-day religion. Desperate for civic respectability in the face of science, most religions have pushed far away from the miracles on which they were founded. Not Spiritualism. Believers in this faith hold tight to their miracles, which they don't even think of as miracles actually, but as ordinary, accessible experience. I admired their pluck.
y first night was spent in a room above the old Assembly Hall. The ground floor is a dusty, wood-planked meeting room lined with grim-faced portraits of important Spiritualists from the 1800s and early 1900s. A private bedroom upstairs, with a shared bath, cost twenty-five dollars. Because it was the opening week of Lily Dale's summer season, every other available room was rented.
Lily Dale clings to its founding tradition as a summer camp by opening its hotels and restaurants each July and August for the summer season. The community's population swells to 450 as summer residents, many of them registered mediums, return to Lily Dale. Tourists come to consult the mediums and to attend workshops on topics such as heart healing and understanding out-of-body experiences.
When Lily Dale's unofficial town manager, Sue Glasier, showed me upstairs, I asked what made her a believer. She told me that years ago a medium said her father was coming through. The woman described him as a man with a terrible weight on his chest.
“My father died when a car he was working under fell on him,” said Sue.
I couldn't sleep that first night. My legs were restless, and then my arms wanted to move. It was hot. Lily Dale has no air conditioning, and the little window in my room was catching no breeze. I twisted about under the thin sheet. At three in the morning I gave up on sleep and went to the terrace that looks over Cleveland Avenue. This is the community's main road, but, like all the streets in Lily Dale, it was built for horses and buggies, and it looked as though it hadn't been resurfaced since the horses left.
I could see the old Maplewood Hotel, where a sign in the lobby requests, N
O READINGS, HEALINGS, CIRCLES, OR SÃANCES IN THIS AREA, PLEASE
. Its high-ceilinged parlor is decorated with portraits that the Spiritualists swear were painted by spirits and with a
tapestry sewn by a woman who was in a trance and didn't eat for nine years, according to a plaque near her work. Behind the Assembly Hall, cottages crouch close to the streets, their yards crowded with snowball bushes and hostas. Elms, maples, and firs wave overhead. I was in a place lost to time, buried in drifts of flowers. A faint breeze stirred my nightgown. A dog barked, a tree creaked. Otherwise, there was no sound. Lily Dale is a long way from anywhere, a bad place to be wakeful.
Maybe I could sleep if I stayed outside. I wrestled the limp mattress off the bed and dragged it to the porch. Within a few minutes I began to worry about being caught in my nightgown by the other guests. So again I fumbled into the hot, dark rooms, put on jeans and a shirt, returned to the mattress, and fell asleep. Within an hour, thunder woke me. Plops of rain splattered around me like June bugs falling from the sky. I groaned, got up, squeezed the mattress together so it would fit through the doorway, and walked it down the hall.
Many people can't sleep when they first come to Lily Dale. “It's the energy,” I heard again and again. People say they can feel Lily Dale's power when they enter the gates. It calms some people and revs others up. One resident told me that her first summer in town she ran outside every morning to walk barefoot in the grass. “I needed to feel grounded,” she said. Several Lily Dale houses are said to contain energy vortexes, and a spot in the woods is supposed to be so charged that the hair on your arms will stand up. Some people say fairies live in the woods. Others say brooding spirits called elementals live among the trees deep in the forest and take over after nightfall. Many people told me that the land Lily Dale sits on was once sacred to Native American tribes.
As dawn came, I lay in my bed, sore-eyed and dry-mouthed. The score was clearly 0â1, Lily Dale leading. Now that I know Lily Dale so much better, I wonder if I ever caught up. Maybe Lily Dale has always been ahead.
hat would later be called Spiritualism started in 1848 when a Hydesville, New York, farm family heard knocks they thought were coming from the cellar of their house. According to the story, the knocks continued for months. One night the youngest daughter, nine-year-old Kate Fox, called out, “Here, Mr. Split-foot, do as I do.” Split-foot was a jocular name for the devil.
She rubbed her finger against her thumb as though snapping her fingers but without any sound. One rap sounded for each motion of her fingers. “Only look, Mother,” she exclaimed. “It can see as well as hear.”
The family began asking questions and soon set up a system of taps for yes and no. They invited neighbors in, and the knocks continued. The answers to their questions eventually convinced them that the rapper was the spirit of a peddler and, further, that he had been murdered and buried in the cellar. It made a grand ghost story, although no one had ever been convicted of such a crime.
Kate and her sister Margaret began appearing before large audiences. Author James Fenimore Cooper, poet William Cullen Bryant, and New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley were among those who attended their presentations. The Fox sisters were tested by many critics. They were bound, raised off the ground, and even strip-searched. No one ever found any devices.
Years later, Margaret confessed that the sisters made the noises themselves by clicking their knee and toe joints. She demonstrated her ability before a large audience. Kate confirmed her sister's account. The sisters meant only to trick their mother, who was easily frightened, but the joke got out of hand, they said. Before they died, both recanted their confessions.
By the early part of the twentieth century, so many mediums had been exposed as frauds that many of Spiritualism's faithful were wavering. Spiritualism might have died out then, but along
came World War I and the flu of 1918. Millions died, and grieving family members turned to the mediums once again seeking otherworldly comfort. Along the way, the basement of the house in Hydesville was dug up. Human bones were found behind a wall, according to Spiritualist history. The Lily Dale museum has a peddler's box believed to have belonged to the murdered man. The Fox cottage itself was moved to Lily Dale in 1916, an acquisition that added to the town's mystique. It burned in 1955.
The area of New York State where Spiritualism started was a region known during the 1800s for mighty works of spirit. It came to be called the “burned-over district” because the “fires” of Christian revivals swept through again and again. In 1823 a New York farmboy named Joseph Smith said he received a set of golden plates from the angel Moroni. The translation of those plates became the Book of Mormon. In the 1830s a New York farmer and Baptist preacher named William Miller began telling rural New Yorkers that the world was going to end. As many as one million people attended his camp meetings, and by October 22, 1844, supposedly the last day, almost one hundred thousand people had sold their belongings and were awaiting judgment. The Shakers, who believed as Spiritualists did that spirits visit humans, established their Holy Sanctuary of the New World in New York. Quakers also had congregations in the area, and some of them were among Spiritualism's earliest and staunchest converts.
It's hard to know how many people were practicing Spiritualism at the religion's height because these believers have always resisted formal memberships and organization. Mediumship was so popular a profession by the 1850s that Ralph Waldo Emerson listed it in his journal as a new occupation, along with railroad man and landscape gardener. Estimates of the number of Spiritualists by journalists and historians in the decades around the turn of the century varied wildly. Some said the number of people rocking tables and
summoning ghosts was only a few hundred thousand, while others estimated that 11 million folks communed with the spirits.
In the United States, the faith is now confined to about four hundred mostly tiny churches around the country, but inside those churches, and in Lily Dale, the spirits still speak as forcefully as ever. People of the Dale believe they have “proof” that the soul lives on. “There is no death and there are no dead,” they like to say. If they're right, it's the biggest news since Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead.
But how to prove it? Religion reporters learn pretty quickly that the usual reportorial methods don't yield the most important stories. We might expose a little grab and tickle under the choir robes, some tricky accounting with the church funds, but investigating the questions at the heart of religion, the ones that change people's lives, keep them on their knees, or give them a reason to get up, are mostly off-limits because nobody can interview the Source. Sister Jones heard God's voice. Preacher Smith knows God's will. Brother Hernando saw the Blessed Virgin's face in a tortilla. They can't prove it happened, but you can't prove it didn't. It's all hearsay and perception and a matter of faith.