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Authors: Christine Wicker

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BOOK: Lily Dale
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S
inclair Lewis was shocked by the poor deluded and bereaved souls he met in Lily Dale when he visited in 1917.

“No one could be flippant over the great tears, the broken voices, with which the old people greet the ‘message,'” he wrote, characterizing the Dale's visitors as people who lived in the past. “No few of them are absolutely alone—parents, husband or wife, brothers, sisters, uncles, even children gone.”

In one séance, as squeaky spirit voices spoke from within a curtained-off area known as the spirit cabinet, a woman sobbed and called to her dead husband, “Oh, my dear, my dear, it's so wonderful. Oh, my dear, I am so lonely for you. Is Charley with you? Oh, my dear!” Another woman moaned hysterically and finally fainted.

Lewis left the room with relief, writing that the cheerful music of the Saturday evening dance was decidedly “preferable to the spirit fog we had been swathed in.”

Most of the spirit fog has now been banished from Lily Dale. Today's mediums practice in well-lighted parlors and do not use crystal balls, spirit cabinets, or Ouija boards. Trances are out of favor. Mediums speak in their own normal voices and rarely even shut their eyes. Spirits don't generally appear to the physical eye or
make noises that the physical ear can hear. These days few people expect them to. People usually come to Lily Dale to talk about manifestations that only the mediums perceive.

What hasn't changed is Lily Dale's attraction for the bereaved. Sometimes their grief is so fresh it oozes. Sometimes it's ancient, calcified about them, a carapace that has grown between them and other living things. Some want a door that will let them into the past. Others want release. They all want a sign, a vision, a word that will give them surcease from the terrible gone of death. They seek forgiveness for wrongs they don't dare name. They have one last message that they must deliver.

And always the question is, are the Spiritualists good people helping or cold-hearted deceivers gulling the weak? It is here that Spiritualism's critics catch fire, sickened by what they see. Perhaps the saddest of the bereaved are parents who've recently lost a child. They huddle into one another, their heads tucked like wet sparrows, or they sit planted on the seats, separate, hardly looking at each other, their eyes wide, their feet flat on the ground, their faces as stiff as statues in a wax museum.

One blond woman came to Lily Dale hoping desperately for contact with her dead son. At an outdoor message service, where crowds gather hoping for a few free words from spirit, the medium picked her right away. “Do you have a son in spirit?” she asked.

The mother nodded.

“He's here,” said the medium. “He wants you to know that. Are you into computers?”

The mother shook her head slowly.

“You're not. Well, you will be. I see you working with computers and being very successful.”

The mother's face was wooden. She shook her head again.

“Yes. That's what the spirits are telling me,” the medium said. “That's what they say.”

The woman went to medium Lauren Thibodeau after the outdoor service and was near tears as she told Lauren what happened.

“She was right about my son,” she said. “So she did know that, but if he was there, why didn't she give me a message? Why did she keep talking about computers? I hate computers. I don't work with them. I'm not going to work with them. All I wanted was a message from my son.”

“Sometimes mediums get mixed up,” Lauren said. “Sometimes they have an off day.

“Your son is here now, and he does have things to tell you,” she said. The boy's spirit had come in with his mother, Lauren told me later. “Parents who have children in spirit almost always bring them,” she said.

 

C
arol Lucas was a widow of three months. Unlike those pitiable souls who so upset Lewis, she was not alone. A childhood friend had come with her for her visit to Lily Dale, and they stayed at the house of Carol's former philosophy professor, Frank Takei, Shelley's husband. Carol was not poor, she was not old, and no one would ever have said she could be easily deluded. She was a hardheaded, practical woman. Too perfectionist, she admitted, but responsible, dependable. Students in her high school English classes nicknamed her Mother Lucas after she wagged her finger at one of them during class and said, “You can't fool Mother Lucas.”

At fifty-nine, she wore well-pressed, carefully chosen clothes. When she stood, her posture was invariably erect, and she did not shy away from using the fine vocabulary and precise expression that are an English teacher's natural way. Carol was the kind of person who white-knuckles every plane flight, certain that if she were at the controls, everyone would be safer. Never mind
that she knew nothing about flying. She knew nothing about leukemia either.

When her husband, Noel, was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, she cried. Then she started looking for a cure. She spent hours on the Internet, whole days at the computer, working late into the night. Sometimes even that wouldn't be enough. She would awaken at 3:00 or 4:00
A.M
. and go back, chasing one more link that might save her husband.

She bound stacks of printouts into three-ring notebooks. When she decided that Johns Hopkins was the best hospital for treatment, she and Noel left South Carolina, where they had retired to their dream house on a golf course, and went to Baltimore. Carol had done such a good research job that Johns Hopkins sponsored a workshop she helped put together for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and their families. She and Noel were in Baltimore for the workshop when Noel's heart arrested. The doctors revived him, but his lungs filled with blood.

For the last six hours of Noel's life, Carol and their younger daughter sat by his side. The breathing tube in his throat didn't allow him to speak, and he didn't appear to be conscious, but Carol talked and talked. She told stories of good times she and Noel had shared since their first date when he was seventeen and she was fifteen and they were both just learning what love was about.

“I lost my best friend, the person who had been the center of my existence for forty-four years,” she said.

In a sense, Carol's trip to Lily Dale was a bid to get a little leverage back. She had done everything she could to save him, but she had failed. Now, if the universe could be jiggled, the veil torn, the wall between this life and the next cracked, Carol was going to do it.

“I only see three choices,” she said. “I can wither. I can become a recluse. Or I can use this for growth.” Lily Dale was the path to growth.

On Friday night, the first evening of Carol's visit, she was sitting with Frank and Shelley on the long, screened back porch of the Takeis' house. They'd just been to a little outdoor amphitheater called Forest Temple for an outdoor message service. Each day during camp season the Dale hosts three outdoor services—one at Forest Temple and two at Inspiration Stump, a squat concrete pillar that is said to encase a tree stump. Mediums once stood on the Stump during message services. That ended when one of them had a heart attack in midproclamation. Lily Dale leaders decided that Stump energy might be a bit too strong.

Spiritualist religious practice includes giving messages from the dearly departed, which is called “serving spirit.” These services contain no offering and no sermon, only spirit messages. They begin with a prayer asking that only the “highest and best” spirits be present. Mediums, who often say they must turn off the spirit voices or go crazy from all the chatter in their heads, want to make sure that not just any errant spirit comes beaming in when they open the channel.

Typically mediums stand before the group, scanning the crowd. Then they pick someone and ask permission to give a message.

Most often they ask, “May I come to you?” Some mediums prefer more flamboyant phraseology: “May I step into your vibrations?” or “May I touch in with you, my friend?”

That opening query is one of the few questions mediums in the Dale's public services are supposed to ask because the community wants to guard against what critics call “cold reading”—basing messages on bits of information mediums have cleverly elicited from their clients.

During my first summer in the Dale many spirits named John had died of something in the chest area. Many grandmotherly vibrations brought roses, peace, and love. Many female tourists heard the spirits say they were doing too much for others and not
enough for themselves. Many men heard that they were misunderstood.

Could I have guessed that?
I'd ask myself after a message. Often the answer was yes.

Mediums who are really “on” give their messages as fast as they can talk. Their words come out in a rush of images, advice, and predictions. It's as if they can't keep up with all that's coming through. Student mediums sit in the audience watching and sometimes get up to give their own messages. It's easy to see who knows the drill and who doesn't by how well they use the jargon.

“Let me say I want to bring you a female vibration,” mediums are apt to say. When tourists shake their heads or deny that the messages make any sense, the mediums say, “Take it with you. It will mean something later.”

Some mediums hear spirit voices, and some see visions or get feelings that they translate into messages. They sometimes spot spirits hovering over the crowd or standing behind their relatives. Some mediums describe spirit figures as looking like a piece of film projected onto a wall, slightly out of focus and wavery. Others say the figures look perfectly solid. Some see them as translucent images. Some say they appear to be behind wax paper. They may appear as shadowy figures flitting about at the outer edges of vision. They may signal their arrival with sparks of light glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

At public services, “people with pushy relatives get the most messages,” says medium Gretchen Clark Lazarony.

My dead relatives must be a genteel lot because I didn't get many messages. A medium at the Stump did once bring through a spirit in my family who hated wearing her false teeth. Lots of old people may hate wearing their dentures, but I never heard another medium give that message. The fact was I did have an elderly relative whose teeth hurt her mouth so much that she wore them only
when she had to. She would put them on for company or a meal and then pull them out and forget where she left them. Every time we went somewhere the shout went up, “Find the teeth.” We'd shake out pillows and flip bedcovers, check cups left on the counters, run our hands behind the sofa cushions. Finding those teeth was an event in our family. If that was a guess, it was a good one.

Sometimes the mediums laugh at private jokes when listening to spirit or say something into the air such as, “All right. All right. I'll tell them.” When they describe someone's death, they often touch their chest or stomach, whichever part of themselves would be affected by the fatal illness that took the spirit, and grimace as though they are feeling pain. Maybe it is real, maybe it isn't, but it is good theater.

The crowd loves mediums who are loud and funny and fast. If they aren't, the tourists yawn and blink and look up at the trees. The medium Patricia Price calls these performances “doing standup” and says mediums have to be “comediums” to win the crowd. It doesn't matter a bit that poor old dead Mom has dropped in with her first words in fifty years. If she doesn't have anything snappy to say, she might as well float on off because nobody is interested in hearing her dither around.

 

T
he evening Carol Lucas attended her first service, Martie Hughes was one of the mediums. Martie, formerly in advertising, lives in Buffalo. She has creamy skin, dark blue eyes, and silvery hair that she wears short with soft bangs falling over her forehead. Her voice is gentle enough to lull a baby to sleep.

Like many mediums, Martie is middle-aged, unmarried, and of somewhat larger size than other people—physically and in personality. The tendency to bulk up often goes with mediumistic talent, I was told. That propensity is so evident in Lily Dale that one visitor threatened to sneak about town some night, go to every
house with a sign that reads M
EDIUM
, and change it to L
ARGE
. One sensitive told me she gained fifty pounds when she gave in to her gifts.

Some explain the weight gain by saying mediums need extra padding to protect their overly sensitive psyches. Medium Patricia Bell pooh-poohs that idea. Since they use their spleen to transmit messages, the sugar in their blood is depleted and they crave sweets, she says. Nonsense, says another local authority. It's because they get so caught up in spiritual worlds that they don't tend to mundane matters such as exercise and controlled eating.

I like to think that spirit connections give the mediums license to take up space. Maybe their bodies expand with their consciousness. Or maybe they need all the heft they can gather to stay grounded.

Alcoholism is also a common affliction among mediums, a fact that Patricia cites as backup for her sugar deprivation theory. John Slater, known as the dean of American Spiritualists in the 1920s, often disappeared for multiple-day binges with his secretary, forcing Lily Dale authorities to pacify his fans with concocted stories of illness and emergency.

“His liking for liquor was common talk about the camp, though in whispers,” according to George Lawton, a psychology student who visited the Dale in the 1920s. “What is interesting is that I have never seen Mr. Slater so chastened and purified, in a spiritual sense,” as he was when he returned.

Patricia Bell, who lives in the big pink and yellow house on Cleveland Avenue and does not drink alcohol, once found herself waking up with a strong taste of gin in her mouth. Puzzled, she mentioned the odd occurrence to another medium, who answered, “Oh, that was Billy Turner's drink of choice. He must still be around.”

BOOK: Lily Dale
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