From Lily Dale: A Report on the Spirits

October 20, 2015

On Saturday, September 5, 2015, my wife Diana and I attended yet another open-air séance at the village of Lily Dale, on Cassadaga Lake, New York. Lily Dale advertises that it is “The World’s Largest Center for the Religion of Spiritualism.”

It is also the oldest, founded in 1879. The Fox cottage, where schoolgirls Maggie and Katie Fox began modern spiritualism in 1848 by pretending to communicate with the ghost of a murdered peddler, was moved to the grounds in 1916. It was the movement’s most revered shrine, but it burned in 1955. (Its charred signboard is still preserved in the Lily Dale Museum.)

In my many visits to Lily Dale I have exposed as fakes several “spirit” paintings, a spirit-slate message allegedly by Abraham Lincoln, and other artifacts and claims. But the old fakery of “physical mediumship” (typically produced in the dark) has largely given way to “mental mediumship” generally done by “cold reading” (that is, without advance knowledge). This can be an artful method of fishing for information that is then represented as coming from the spirit world, or it may simply rely on whatever the medium imagines, hoping a credulous sitter will fit the offerings to his or her situation. In her 2003 book Lily Dale, journalist Christine Wicker says in this regard, “Many mediums are so sweetly vague that I have wondered how they find their way home.”

On this day, as usual, several Lily Dale resident mediums and a few visiting mediums took turns giving free readings for visitors at “Inspiration Stump.” Located in an old-growth forest on the grounds, known as Leolyn Woods, the stump (now a concrete replica) has been a focal point for alleged communication with spirits since back in the nineteenth century. The hour’s offerings, to a few dozen people seated on the benches, seemed little different than those of a few years ago, except for more attempts at humor.

Otherwise, the readings followed a familiar plan: throw out, say, a first name or initial, or perhaps some feature—like “paperwork” or “hip replacement”—and see if anyone could fit it to someone they knew who had “passed over.” Often (perhaps with modifications or clarifications) they could. (A couple of times a sitter forgot that the person who seemed so clearly indicated was supposed to be deceased!) A medium would continue with other pronouncements—often asking “Okay?” and otherwise encouraging the sitter to validate what was being said. When necessary—when the medium was clearly getting nowhere—a course correction was made or an approach abandoned. Most sitters seemed to want to help the nice medium and to avoid outright challenges.

Nothing I witnessed seemed at all to indicate actual contact with otherworldly entities, but rather appeared noting more than part of an act—sometimes a rather poor one at that. One clever technique, of conjuring up a busload of dead soldiers that the medium claimed had just driven up beside her, provided some interest and most of the entertainment for the session. (See the accompanying poem.)