I can admit now that I went – and dragged my long-suffering husband – to the community of Lily Dale in Western New York because I was secretly hoping for a message from the dead.
Specifically, one from my father, who now is gone six years. The Lily Dale Assembly is the country’s oldest continuously operating spiritualist community, founded in 1879. The village, a leafy place lined with Victorian gingerbread cottages and gardens dotted with angel statues, is packed with registered mediums – people who claim they hear and see dead people.
Spiritualism has a long history in the United States, including a 19th-century trio, the Fox sisters, who convinced hundreds that they heard tapping and messages from the spirit world. Even after their claims were debunked and the sisters admitted that they had cracked their toe joints and created contraptions for sounds coming from other rooms, the movement continued.
First lady Mary Todd Lincoln famously cherished a photo that purported to show her assassinated husband standing behind her with his hands resting on her shoulder in a ghostly way.
For people who often lost as many children as survived and who lived through the devastating Civil War, there was something comforting in thinking that the dead stay around, guiding us, watching over us, cheering us on like silent chaperons.
Even today, spiritualism has a place in our consciousness. Think of the popularity of TV shows such as Long Island Medium and Hollywood Medium. Besides the true believers, there probably are even more who would count themselves as spirit-curious, who would like to be persuaded that those who have gone before haven’t gone all that far.
These days, Lily Dale’s summer high season, which starts at the end of June, draws 30,000 visitors a year, says Lily Dale historian Ron Nagy, who also conducts spoon-bending workshops. The community on Cassadaga Lake houses 55 registered mediums – each in his or her own house – a turn-of-the-century hotel, three cafes, a library and quite possibly the world’s most charming pet cemetery. In its heyday, Lily Dale, about 60 miles south of Buffalo, drew as many as 5000 people a day by train, he says.
Today, the town is far quieter than its nearby cousin, Chautauqua, home of the summerlong arts and ideas festival that draws visitors from around the globe.
We visited Lily Dale on the kind of perfect summer day where the sunlight dapples the 100-year-old trees. Cars lined up to pay the gate fee – US$15 a person – with many headed for the daily “inspiration meeting” at Inspiration Stump, in the village. The wide, flat stump, surrounded by a cast-iron fence, is the sacred place where mediums are said to best receive messages from the spirit world. In the past, mediums would stand on the stump. Today, they stand near it.
Besides the daily open meetings, visitors can also get an individual reading from the many mediums registered at Lily Dale, with fees running about US$60 to US$100. On the day we visited, many signs outside the homes of mediums announced that their schedules were full.
No matter. We were headed to the woods for the group service – there are several daily – where we might have a shot at getting picked by a medium to receive a message. Down a path we reached an outdoor theater with rows of wooden benches facing Inspiration Stump. About 80 visitors sat in anticipation.
Leader Joe Shiel, himself a medium and an ordained minister at a New Jersey church affiliated with a British spiritualists union, welcomed the crowd and explained that we were sitting in a “vortex” that amplified everything. In other words, he said, if you come in a bad mood, it will get worse. Since I was annoyed by how long it took me to find a place to park the car, I was already mucking this up.
A series of mediums took turns “reading” the crowd. First up was Jessie Furst. An elfin woman with deep-red hair, Furst announced that she was getting a vision of a wood-framed house and someone named George. Someone in the audience gamely volunteered that George was the name of the family across the street. The announcement landed with a bit of a thud.
Between readings, Shiel announced, “I’d like to bow our heads because I just put two mosquitoes into spirit.” We chuckled. The meeting was starting to feel a little bit like improv night with affirmations.
A mother-and-daughter team, Kathy and Celeste Elliott, took a turn. Kathy Elliott focused on a wooden bench where three overweight women sat. “Your grandmother is with you,” she said. “She is worried about diabetes.” The message from the grandmother to the women, she added, was to eat fewer carbs and more veggies.
As the hour passed, I sensed deeper and deeper sighs coming from the skeptic sitting next to me on the wooden bench. “You’re messing up my aura,” I hissed to Bob. But it’s true that most of the messages from the spirit world seemed to be of the horoscope variety: You are about to make a decision and you should be brave, or be more open to the people in your life. Several mediums mentioned pets alongside loved ones in the spirit world.
I knew the clock was ticking for my spirit-skeptical husband.
But I was eager to get a glimpse inside the 133-year-old auditorium hosting services by the Lily Dale Spiritualist Church, and the lecture there was free, so we ventured inside.
After a few hymns, including Amazing Grace, the service gave way to an inspirational talk by Cyndi Pirog with themes that included knowing yourself, the golden rule and the fact that if we worry about money all the time, our thoughts become our reality. (Yes, I thought of the 2006 book The Secret.)
Volunteers passed a collection plate. A medium did more readings. Yes, another grandmother is with you. Yes, she thinks you should take that chance with a new job.
A sign on the wall said, “We never die. Spiritualism proves that we can talk with people in the spirit world.” We wandered out again before the close of the meeting, even though we had been warned that leaving in the middle of a reading is disruptive to the medium’s work.
A pamphlet given out by the Lily Dale Assembly listed a dizzying number of workshops and talks: seances, animal communication, how to use pendulums, qi gong and even one on “the afterlife of Michael Jackson.” There were evening ghost walks, drum circles and a sweat lodge.
One summer speaker was artist Marshall Arisman, producer of the film A Postcard from Lily Dale, about his medium grandmother Louise Arisman. In the film, Arisman recalls that his grandmother once told a young Lucille Ball – who grew up in Jamestown, NY, not far from Lily Dale – that she would meet a Cuban bandleader and become one of the most beloved comedians of all time.
Arisman’s grandmother, whom he called “Muddy,” had a vision for him, he said in an interview from his home in New York City. Three hours after he was born, she picked him out of a nursery and told his parents that she saw from his aura that he would be an artist.
Arisman, 78, spent every weekend in Lily Dale when he was a child. The film, he said, was his way of thanking his grandmother for encouraging him. “Somebody saw something in you that you didn’t see; you owe them a thank you,” he said.
These days, Arisman said, Lily Dale is a mixture of true-believer spiritualists and visitors looking for entertainment.
“Twenty years ago,” he said, “there was no ghost walk.”
For my part, I received no messages. Not from Dad, not from my grandparents, not from friends who died and not from any past pets. Lily Dale was, though, a lovely and meditative place to spend some time. Historian Nagy said that some guests rush from workshop to workshop and miss the experience of just sitting on the porch of the Maplewood Hotel and relaxing. Others come and never get a reading, he said. “They just come to walk around and be quiet.”
That was me. In fact, the experience of wandering around a charming village on a quiet summer day did bring me closer to the spirit world. I had an image of my father, my grandparents and my godmother standing behind me. They were rolling their eyes and glancing at their spectral watches.
“You’re doing fine,” they told me. “Just get on with it.”
Where to stay
Maplewood Hotel, 5 Melrose Dr., Lily Dale
The 19th-century wooden hotel lacks televisions, phones and air conditioning in most rooms, but if you’re looking for spiritual authenticity, this is the way to stay on the grounds of Lily Dale. In addition to room fees, a daily or weekly gate pass must be purchased.
Athenaeum Hotel, 3 South Lake Dr., Chautauqua
Established in 1881, the grande dame of Chautauqua overlooks the lake and offers a wraparound porch. Most guests – who must also purchase a gate pass to get on the institution grounds in summer months – are there more for culture than for luxury. A pet-friendly hotel, breakfast included.
Where to eat
Italian Fisherman, 61 Lakeside Dr., Bemus Point
About 16 miles from Lily Dale on the shore of Chautauqua Lake, the casual restaurant is a great place to take in the sunset. In the summer, bands in the tiny lakeside town play as boats dock. Open between May and September.
What to do
Chautauqua Institution, One Ames Ave., Chautauqua
The more-famous summer assembly, about 17 miles from Lily Dale, began in 1874 and is still going strong today. Visitors can sign up for week-long sessions, day visits or even a performance of a Shakespeare play or a tribute to Prince. They also must pay a day (US$15), weekly (US$63) or season-long (US$238) fee to enter the grounds.
Lucy Desi Museum & Center for Comedy, 2 West 3rd St., Jamestown
Jamestown, about 20 miles south of Lily Dale, was the home of Lucille Ball. In her honor, the town has a museum, comedy center and a gift shop where you can purchase I Love Lucy costumes, aprons and even facsimiles of the cherry chocolate chip bonbons she stuffed in her mouth in the show’s famous candy factory episode.