Rare Spiritualists Photo Discovered

October 11, 2012


I often spend weekends searching area antique stores and malls for treasures for my paranormal and pseudoscience collection (a small amount of which is online at www.skeptiseum.org). So it was that I came across the old stereoscopic card pictured here. (Placed in an antique viewer called a stereoscope—one of which is included in my collection—such a double picture appears in 3-D.)

Given the tent and the subjects’ late-nineteenth-century dress, I thought the photograph might have been taken at a Spiritualists’ camp. I turned the card over and found penciled on the back the notation: “Massachusetts/‘The Last Group’ taken at/Lake Pleasant. Camp Meeting/Aug–1879.” (A rubber stamped imprint reads “S.B. NICHOLS/467 WAVERLY AVE./BROOKLYN, N.Y.”) The word Camp made me think the individuals were indeed Spiritualists, though it was not decisive, and I paid the card’s fifteen dollars price in a gamble that I was right.

Back at CFI, I more carefully examined the picture. What I had thought could possibly be a spirit trumpet was only a parasol, but I was still hopeful. I gave photocopies of the front and back to CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga (The “Masked Librarian” of an earlier blog). He soon had the information that Lake Pleasant had been the site of an early Spiritualist campground. A book Tim turned up from our library collection (Emma Hardinge Britten’s Nineteenth Century Miracles; or, Spirits and Their Work in Every Country of the Earth, New York: Lovell & Co., 1884, pp. 542–50) even had a picture of one of the founders of the Lake Pleasant camp: Dr. Joseph Beals. It was easy to match him to one of the people in the stereo photograph. (He is the central figure in the back row.)

In time the campground, incorporated in 1879, became a village of some 90 cottages plus a hotel and other buildings, and later (by about 1900), it boasted 196 residences. Although a fire destroyed 130 homes in 1907 and the lake became a public water-supply facility (excluding recreational use), the Spiritualist site survived. Beginning in 1913 it housed two rival Spiritualist groups, but after one disbanded in 1976, the other continued, now claiming to be the oldest community in the country. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_Pleasant,_Massachusetts.)

This is the Village of Lake Pleasant, Town of Montague, Franklin County, Massachusetts. It is headquarters of The National Spiritualist Alliance (TNSA) which was founded in 1913 and continues to promote belief in reincarnation as well as Spiritualism. Both beliefs continue to lure adherents, despite the debunkings they repeatedly suffer.