When the forests of Upstate New York are blanketed in orange and brown hues during the fall of Autumn leaves, there are few places more bewitching to escape for the weekend. But there is certainly no place quite like the enchanting hamlet of Lily Dale, NY, population: 275, where over 50 registered spiritual mediums are in residence year-round, offering private readings, forest temple services, seances, workshops and access to the spirit world for all who care to venture to the other side.
Home to the world’s largest spiritualist community, the tiny village on the east side of Cassadaga Lake is a place where fireflies are mistaken for fairies and the church bells ring every day to announce a seance circle in one of the last original virgin forests left in North East America.
You can try out a psychic reading on someone’s front porch in the morning, catch a healing service before lunch and walk over to the little beach in the afternoon to fish off the pier. Bats fly around at night and everything is more or less officially “haunted” in Lily Dale, which states its mission as a community to “further the science, philosophy, and religion of Spiritualism”.
There are two hotels and several bed & breakfasts in the quaint and verdant village, where everything is walkable and open to all, from the skeptical to the curious to the devoted pilgrims that rely on Lily Dale’s psychics to communicate with lost loved ones.
Private readings start at around $80 to $100, depending on whose door your knock, but services at the forest temple are free, where mediums will do public readings by calling on several members in the audience “at random” during the course of an hour.
The Lily Dale website has lists of the psychics available as well as places to stay, news and seasonal events.
At the centre of town is the Lily Dale Museum, where one can soak in the stories of the community during the late 19th and early 20th century, and discover another side of American history through the lens of the Spiritualist Movement. The museum also offers ghost walks through the town at night.
At the heart of the community’s history are the Fox sisters, whose story goes something like this…
Once upon a time, there were three sisters from Upstate New York who claimed to conjure the spiritual “rappings” of the dead. The Fox sisters held seances for paying audiences at their home where the mysterious sounds convinced people of their supernatural powers and abilities to communicate with the departed. They enjoyed a lucrative career, performing their highly sought-after seances for several years – until one of the sisters decided to reveal that it had all been a hoax, and that the spiritual “rappings” had been nothing more than a common delusion achieved by cracking their knuckles and toes in secret.
Their reputation was ruined and within five years, all three sisters had died in poverty – but a door had been opened by the Fox sisters that would launch a mass religious movement and turn Upstate New York into a hotbed of religious fervour for a century to come. Spiritualism had been born. And to this day, their legacy; their movement still thrives in Lily Dale.
The family didn’t actually reside in Lily Dale however. Some years after their deaths, the Fox family cottage was moved in 1915 from nearby Hydesville, NY (which no longer exists) and transported to Lily Dale, where it served as a sort of attraction for the blossoming Spiritualist community. It was destroyed by fire in 1955 and all that’s left of the cabin today is a small clearing in the woods. In the 1840s, when the Fox sisters were children, the house developed a reputation for being haunted when they reported being frightened by unexplained sounds that sounded like knocking and moving of furniture.
According to the historical reports, the youngest sister Kate claimed to challenge the unexplained noisemaker to repeat the snaps of her fingers. The invisible presence did so and then allegedly rapped out the ages of the girls upon demand. Neighbours were called in and within a few days, they began to develop a code with the presumed spirit and its rappings, identifying which noises signified yes or no in response to a question and which sounds indicated letters of the alphabet. Their older sister took charge of their special “talents” and managed their careers for some time. Word of their abilities spread quickly, especially amongst growing radical Quaker communities in New York.
They performed the first demonstration of spiritualism held before a paying public at the Corinthian Hall in Rochester and their fame attracted high society clients, including statesmen, businessmen, notable writers and poets who sought insight into “the state of railway stocks or the issue of love affairs.” By the 1880s there were an estimated eight million Spiritualists in the United States and Europe. Out on the road without parental supervision, the youngest sisters began drinking heavily and grew weary of the pressures to perform. The middle sister, Margaret, married a man thirteen years her senior, who encouraged her to give up her “life of dreary sameness and suspected deceit” and abandon the Spiritualist movement. He died a few short years into their marriage, and Margaret continued to drink in mourning, which may likely have facilitated her eventual confession. She offered a public demonstration with journalists in the audience, by removing her shoes and proceeding to rap her toe knuckles – the very same sounds that had been heard by thousands of believers around the country.
“My sister Katie and myself were very young children when this horrible deception began…When we went to bed at night we used to tie an apple to a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound. Mother listened to this for a time. She would not understand it and did not suspect us as being capable of a trick because we were so young.”
The entire signed confession in 1888 can be read here.
The truth was out, apparently, and the entire Spiritualist movement was brought into question. But Spiritualists argued that Maggie’s career as a medium had been flailing, and she was a traitor to her movement by trying to make a profit with her sensationalists claims that it was all a hoax. A year later, Maggie did indeed try to take back her confession, claiming in a nutshell, that the “spirits made her do it”.
Despite the hiccup, the Spiritualist movement continued to spread throughout the 19th century, particularly in Upstate New York, which became known as the “Burned Over District”, alongside Mormon, Shaker, Adventist and the Millerite communities.
The little-known village of Lily Dale is today home to the largest concentration of Spiritualists in the world. In 2010, the Lily Dalians (not their official name) were the subject of an HBO documentary called No One Dies in Lily Dale. It is the most 90s documentary in the best possible way and makes for a highly fascinating weekend watch while pondering your next Autumn weekend escape. And with Halloween around the corner, where better to drop in than this white picket-fenced American village with an otherworldly secret…