Although popular in England, America is widely heralded as the birthplace of a unique practice known as Spiritualism. This was due to three New York sisters, Leah, Maggie and Kate Fox, who in 1848 gained notoriety as mediums who could contact the dead through seances.
All over New York, even after the Fox sisters admitted they were enhancing their abilities with theatrics, spiritualism became a popular hobby if not religion in New York. A cultural renaissance, called The Second Great Awakening was taking hold and new ideas and philosophies were embraced by many seekers. The bloody Civil War with so many families grieving their young loved ones who died horrible violent deaths kept mediums in business, with the upstate area a particular meeting ground for Spiritualists. This interest spread throughout the county, with Mary Todd Lincoln, distraught of the loss of two of her sons, particularly Willie who died in 1862 welcomed mediums to her home and held seances in The White House.
Spiritualism, although practiced all over the world, has a distinctly American appeal and New York remained the faith’s version of Mecca. In 1979 the Cassadaga Lake Free Association formed a community called Lily Dale. Lily Dale is situated just 60 miles south of Buffalo. In 1915, the little cottage home inhabited by the famous mediums, The Fox Sisters was moved from Hydesville to Lily Dale. There it remained until a fire destroyed it in 1955. Although the Fox Sister’s home no longer exists, their contribution to Spiritualism, although controversial is impossible to ignore. Lily Dale keeps the memories of the early medium pioneers alive.
Lily Dale was first a summer camp meeting ground for Spiritualists circa 1870. Twenty acres were purchased and became the Cassadaga Lake Free Association. Then the incorporated town was renamed The City of Light. By the year 1900 the name was again changed, permanently, to Lily Dale Assembly. The name “Lily Dale” is derived from the water lilies that grow in abundance around the lake area. If the name Cassadaga seems familiar, there is also a sister Spiritualist City, Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, located in Volusia county not far from Daytona Beach. Both cities offer a trip back in time and the chance to visit with some unusual helping professionals who say the dead have plenty to say and are around us all the time.
Lily Dale is a hamlet, nestled in the Township of Pomfret. The latest census data estimates the full-time population as 275 and the median age of its residents is 55. Tourism constitutes most of the area’s revenue, especially in the autumn months close to Halloween. Tours and planned programs, bookstores and restaurants make this little town the place to go for spiritual seekers.
Why does this small New York community in Chautauqua County hold such an attraction? Not only is Lily Dale a place to get away from it all with its bucolic setting and quaint charm, it is home to what they say are the best mediums in the world. This is no traveling psychic show, there are full-time residents that call Lily Dale Home. When one thinks of those who can communicate with spirits, we naturally think of crones dressed in black but although many of the mediums are over fifty, they are anything but dark and mysterious. What you will find in Lily Dale are matronly practitioners wearing bright dresses, stylish hairdos, pastel straw hats and lots of jewelry. There are not only mediums residing in Lily Dale, but also psychics who employ various methods to predict the future and healers who use reiki and other methods to help heal the body as well as restore the spirit.
Even if you weren’t interested in contacting a lost loved one, Lily Dale is a vacation destination for those who want to turn back time. The main hotel in Lily Dale, The Maplewood, has no TV, wi-fi, or air conditioning. You won’t find seances going on in the hotel lobby either, as the lobby is just there for folks to hang out, relax and socialize. Besides, with so many psychics hanging out there shingle advertisements all over town, a seeker would not need to go far to find a reader.
Lily Dale in many ways is like any other upstate New York community. It has its own post office, volunteer fire department They do have a Sunday School program, courtesy of The Andrew Jackson Davis Lyceum, also known simply as The A.J. Davis Lyceum. Andrew Davis (1826-1910) was a medium who decided that children required education guided by spirit or “The Summerland” rather than earthly pedagogic methods, so he dictated a series of books based on information he gleaned from the other world. January 25th is an important day in the Spiritualist community as the first Spiritualist Progressive Children’s’ Lyceum was opened in 1863. Davis’ writings are still used as cornerstone texts of religious education for Spiritualists.
When the Fox sisters admitted to fraud and then later retracted their confession, mediums and the practice of Spiritualism have been a source of fascination and of fury. With the plethora of shows about the hereafter, Lily Dale has gained supporters and detractors. The community is so controversial that HBO shot a 2011 documentary about the little town called “No One Dies in Lily Dale.” The show featured hard-core believers and vehement detractors who have picketed Lily Dale. They are mainly fundamentalist Christians who decry that psychic readings go against the Bible.
There are also critics who cry foul and fraud. Most recently, skeptics have taken on New York’s most famous modern medium. Theresa Caputo, aka The Long Island Medium whose methods have been suspect as they claim that she gleans audience information via registration cards filled out before her live appearances and produced shows which are heavily edited. Even with the prep Ms. Caputo has been known to bomb spectacularly during her live performance. The paranormal resurgence of the 1990s has given way to post recession skepticism and seeing how much a reading costs, consumers are not willing to throw away their hard earned money on generalities and readings like “Has someone lost someone whose name begins with a ‘J”” in a large arena. Those looking for less glamour and more spiritual substance choose a retreat to Lily Dale or Cassadaga in Florida to attending a Hollywood style medium show.
The mediums in Lily Dale, as demonstrated in the documentary, seem to do some fishing in the “group performance” readings and are not always right on target, but they are accurate enough to many who suspend disbelief and are amazed at how many times the readers are spot on.
Lily Dale, is proclaimed by many as a must visit town and come home after visiting the tiny community comforted and encouraged from a reading that lets them know that their loved one is doing just fine on the other side. They say it is worth the price of admission and fees for private readings. Considering the gorgeous setting, the friendly mediums and the long history of Lily Dale, it’s not surprising that the town remains a place of healing and hope for many who want to know what’s waiting on the other side.