Chronicles of Lily Dale

July 17, 2018

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Chronicles of Lily Dale (2017) is a compilation of material from early Spiritualist publications—mostly relating to Lily Dale (the world’s largest Spiritualist village), ca. 1861–1915. It was compiled by Spiritualists (but not mediums) Ron Nagy and the late Joyce LaJudice (both longtime friends of mine).

From the Banner of Light (August 16, 1884), we learn of “a circle of nine favored with a dark séance” where— “under strict test conditions” (the medium’s hands were perhaps tied)—there were numerous “spirit” antics: As one attendee reported, “. . . all in the circle were patted on the face and hands by spirit fingers; my watch was detached from the chain and placed in the hand of another . . .; a guitar was taken into the air and carried about the room over the sitters’ heads, the strings sounding all the time; . . . a handkerchief, afterward, found to be tied in two knots . . . and lights floated in the air before our eyes.” Such feats were invariably done in the dark—to conceal trickery. Skeptics, like Houdini much later, would expose many bogus Spiritualists and their tricks.

There were exhibitions of slate writing, whereby a pair of school slates would have a slate pencil placed between them and then be tied together. Spirits would be asked to write messages and—in the dark séance—would often oblige. For example, in September 1888: “Mr. Ransom declared he heard the pencil stir between the slates which he held. When the influence left the medium two pairs of slates were untied by the committee. On one of the slates . . . were four communications, one of them being signed. . . . On [another] . . . were found short marks as through an unsuccessful attempt had been made to write upon it.” (Banner of Light).

There are descriptions of picnics, a spiritualist wedding, meetings of suffragettes, and a sudden death (that the spirits had not foretold). An account is given of the 1893 death of Margaret Fox Kane (one of the infamous Fox sisters, whose purported communication with spirits in 1848, which began modern Spiritualism, is related). She is praised as “one of the first to lead millions” and to help them communicate with those “whom the world called dead.”

Here and there are mentions of such notables as “Dr. Keeler the spirit photographer,” “Hugh Moor, the materializing medium,” “Mr. Mansfield, the famous independent slate writer medium,” and “Miss Hattie Danford, Psychic reader and palmist” (Banner of Light, 1895). The Campbell Brothers held semi-weekly séances at their cottage and offered “slate writing and their famous paintings” allegedly produced in the dark by spirits. (The “brothers,” according to my sources, were a gay couple. See my article, “spirit Painting”—Part I, in Skeptical Briefs, March 2000.) There was a “very practical lecture at Library Hall by Prof. Pratt, the phrenologist.” Another lecturer was a “clairvoyant test medium.” Supposed materializations of spirits were especially popular, “Whether the manifestations are fraudulent or a genuine article,” according to the Banner of Light (Sept. 7, 1895) in a rare moment of equivocation.

One lecturer predicted that the “x-ray” would be likely—“in less than twenty-five years”—to enable scientists “to discover by material means the spirit world and its inhabitants” (Light of Truth, April 18, 1896). (Alas, that never happened—or should we say, never “materialized.”) A Mrs. R.S. Lillie, gave an “eloquent address,” to wit: “The message of Spiritualism was not merely to satisfy the yearnings of the human heart in regard to the future life—not merely to roll back the stone from the sepulcher, and lift the burden of sorrow from the human heart—not merely to dry the tear, and assure us that our loved ones still live, but it calls to come up higher—to live nobler, truer and better lives” (June 27, 1896). But doesn’t it all have the sound of make-believe?

These are only a few highlights, but they indicate some of the activities of those in the Spiritualist fold—at Lily Dale on Cassadaga Lake—in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Spiritualism was all the rage, and mediums proliferated to teach the “higher truths” of the beckoning Other World—where death is just a “transition” and love is somehow forever.

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