Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Day in Lily Dale

Almost twenty years ago, when I first moved to the state of New York and I was deep into the woo, I was excited to be within driving distance to one of the best known Spiritualist communities, Lily Dale. According to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches: "Spiritualism is the Science, Philosophy, and Religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World."  But I didn't make the trip until author and Geeks and Ghosts co-host Kenny Biddle invited me to meet up with him there this summer.

Kenny at the Fox Family memorial, quite skeptical of the word "proof" in the context of this plaque. 

While the Fox sisters of Hydesville, NY are commonly credited with starting the Spiritualist movement in America, it is more accurate to say they were a spark igniting a fuel which had already been permeating the atmosphere for some time.  In the early 19th century, a second wave of a Protestant revival movement began in the United States, called the Second Great Awakening.  It was prompted, in part, by the notion that the second coming of Jesus Christ would arrive with the new century.  Starting around 1790, it gained popularity by 1800 and by 1820, membership among Baptist and Methodists rapidly increased.  Millions of members from evangelical denominations enrolled, leading to the formations of new religious denominations.  Charles Grandison Finny was a theologian, lawyer, college professor and president of Oberlin College, and also the most famous revivalist of the Second Great Awakening. He actively marketed and promoted revivals.  In his autobiography, he referred to an area in central and western New York as a "Burned-Over District", due to the large concentration of evangelists and converts in that region.

During this time period, western New York was an isolated frontier land where established clergy were scarce.  Many people in the region were attracted to the enthusiastic evangelists who brought their brand of religion to the area.  Believers converted not only to Protestant sects, but nonconformist religious movements founded by laypeople as well.  The Latter Day Saint movement was started when Joseph Smith claimed he was led by an angel to golden plates, near Palmyra, NY.  The Shakers, a celibate offshoot of the Quakers, who literally shook during their ecstatic sessions of worship, established their initial settlements in New Lebonon, and Watervliet, NY.  A farmer named William Miller in Low Hampton, NY preached that the Second Coming of Christ would occur on October 22, 1844.  Millerism became popular, and whether Christ showed up on that date or not, the Millerite movement started Adventism. Affiliated churches Adventists, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses are still active today.

So the region was fertile ground for a religious movement to born out of table-rapping seances conducted by young sisters from Hydesville, NY.  The idea of communicating with spirits of the dead is ages old, spanning across cultures and religions.  But the ideas leading to it as a foundation for an actual religion first took seed in Americans in the 1830s when Mesmerism, based on the theories of German physician Franz Mesmer, gained popularity in United States.  Mesmer believed in animal magnetism, an energetic transference between all objects.  To heal his patients, he put them into a trance (later called hypnosis).  Some subjects reported they were able to communicate with departed spirits while "mesmerized".  This led to a fad of amateur "Mesmerists" going under trances in parlors.  Not much later, in the 1840s, English editions of Emanuel Swedenborg's works were available to Americans for the first time.  Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, theologian and mystic.  Through visions, he said he communicated with God about True Christianity.  He also claimed to be able to communicate with angels, demons and spirits of the dead.  These ideas held great appeal to many people of the day.  As Whitney R. Cross explains in The Burned-Over District:

"Mesmerism led to Swedenborgianism, and Swedenborgianism to spiritualism.... The religious liberals of the forties [1840s] had grown beyond dependence on the letter of Scripture.  After their fashion, they had espoused science as the grand highway to knowledge and happiness.  But they lived in an era of romantic idealism.  Before they ever heard of Mesmer of Swedenborg, they expected new scientific discoveries to confirm the broad patterns of revelation as they understood them: to give mankind ever-more-revealing glimpses of the preordained divine plan for humanity and the universe."

In 1843, Andrew Jackson Davis, later dubbed as the "John the Baptist of Spiritualism", attended a lecture in Ploughkeepsie, NY on animal magnetism.  This apparently awakened his ability as a clairvoyant.  He later claimed Swedenborg's spirit communicated with him.  In 1847, combining the ideologies of Mesmerism and Swedenborgianism, Davis published The Principals of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, in which he asserted a new age was dawning where spiritual communication with mankind would be established.

Early the following year, in March of 1848, adolescent sisters Kate and Maggie Fox claimed they heard knocking on their walls around bedtime each night.  It soon became apparent that that knocks were "intelligent", and a form of communication.    Intrigued, and influenced by a rumor that a man had been murdered in the house, neighbors came to witness the events.  If someone asked the supposed spirit to count to ten, there would be ten loud raps in reply.  Someone figured out how to use the alphabet by corresponding numbers to the letters, and that is how it was "confirmed" that a peddler had been murdered and buried in the cellar of the home by previous occupants.  Soon afterward, Kate and Maggie were sent to live with their older married sister Leah in Rochester, but the rappings "followed" them there.  Friends of the Fox family, Isaac and Amy Post, were convinced the girls were communicating with spirits and spread the word to their Quaker friends.  A large hall in Rochester was rented where 400 people came to see the girls demonstrate their abilities.

When Andrew Jackson Davis heard of the public demonstration in Rochester, he invited the sisters to his home where he became convinced of their mediumship felt they were the proof he was looking for.  Joining his cause with the sister's abilities, he soon became a leader of a new Spiritualist movement,  where people believed they could play a party in their own salvation and communication with spirits would offer them guidance in their journey. While the sisters toured as successful mediums during the following years, Spiritualism spread throughout the nation.  For example, my friend Anna Hill talks about Spiritualism near where I grew up in California:  Spiritualist camps sprouted up all over, including one along Cassadaga Lake, in New York in 1879.  It was later called Lily Dale Assembly in 1906.

It was a hot and humid day when my husband and I pulled into Lily Dale.  There was a gate fee of $12 per person which covers parking, daily activities and noted weekly activities. When we reached the crowded parking lot, we were directed to park right behind vehicle with a familiar looking guy, Kenny Biddle, who had just arrived with his family.  (Were spirits guiding us so we didn't waste much time trying to find each other, or was it pure coincidence?  I'll let you decide.) We had basically the same goals:  tour the grounds, visit various spots including the library, the museum, the bookstore, and attend public readings by the "registered" mediums.  It is a picturesque location right on the lake and nestled within trees.  The quaint old cottages with their well-kept gardens were welcoming. Everywhere, people were friendly and happy to answer questions.

In the Library we were nicely greeted by the librarian and asked to sign in.  The library itself was pretty much what I expected:  most of the books were on either the history of Lily Dale and Spiritualism, but also crystals, psychic powers, energetic healing, ghost hunting and the like.  Kenny and I had fun pointing out books we owned.

When we visited the bookstore, two women were giving readings.  One used Tarot cards and the other did what Spiritualists call a "mental" reading, in which they claim to be able to contact and identify a deceased loved one.  I was hesitant to get a personal reading because I am still sensitive to my father's passing and I was afraid I'd lose my objectivity or even my composure if my dad was mentioned.  So I watched Kenny and his wife receive readings with really vague information.  Instead of specific entities, the medium said "male figure" and "female figure".  Interestingly, when Kenny asked for more specific details, he was given the explanation that they weren't "allowed to go deeper into Spirit" because it was a free reading and she couldn't go any further.  Frankly, that was a less than satisfying answer to me, and resembled a cop-out. So I felt more confident about getting a reading too.  The Tarot Card reader pulled a card that said I was in a phase of experiencing "new beginnings".  This really didn't feel applicable to me, so she went into more (vague) detail that it could apply to a relationship (I hope not, I like my husband a lot), a new job, or just a general renewal in life.  Again, I couldn't make any connection.  Then it was the medium's turn and, as is my luck, she said she felt the presence with me was my father (oh, shit).  But then she continued with details about him that were really huge misses.  "He passed too soon, way too soon."  My father was just shy of 91 years old when he passed and since he had been so ill and suffering it was a relief.  "He gave encouragement in very gentle ways."  Let's just say this got a good chuckle out of those of us who knew my dad.  But afterward I found myself doing what many mediums count on: trying to make the information "fit" somehow.  I thought of my uncle who I lost this year, who was also my godfather.  He indeed was a gentle encourager.  But then I returned to reality when I remembered he passed at 92, and beforehand, reassured his family he lived a full life and was ready to go.

The museum had many interesting artifacts from the beginnings of Lily Dale and Spiritualism.  There were the trumpets that spirits supposedly used to speak through during seances, bent spoons, a small model of the cottage where the Fox sisters first made "contact" and many photos.  There was a large painting of a man dressed in a military uniform hanging on the wall.  Curious, my husband asked the museum employee who he was.  The employee said they didn't know, they just call him "The General".  I whispered to Kenny and his wife Donna, "With over a century of psychics and mediums here, no one could come up with his name?"  (Just sayin'.)  One of the items that caught my attention was a collage with pictures of famous psychic spoon bender Uri Geller during his visit to Lily Dale. Interestingly, according to Lily Dale curator and author Ron Nagy, physical mediumship is now frowned upon because "the physical phenomenon is easily faked" and mental mediumship brings a "more meaningful message" from Spirit.  In addition, Geller's "powers" had been debunked by magician James Randi many years ago.  There is a cringeworthy video of Geller's failure on The Tonight Show.  Before Geller's appearance, Johnny Carson and stage managers received instructions from James Randi how to set up the props to prevent known stage magic trickery.  James Randi also exposed serious flaws in scientific experiments at the Standford Research Institute supposedly supporting Geller's psychic abilities.  Among the issues were poor controls, omitting crucial data to skew results in Geller's favor, and strong concern and even opposition from some working on the project about scientific validity and protocols used in the project.   There is a clip of Geller in the James Randi biopic, An Honest Liar, where he argues that just because magicians can duplicate his abilities with tricks, doesn't mean his abilities aren't real.  With this, he fails to understand or acknowledge that the burden is on him to provide objective evidence for his extraordinary claims.  And so far, scientifically, he has fallen far short of that.

Did ghostly voices come through these saying, "Can you hear me now?"

Throughout the day, Kenny and my husband observed how greatly outnumbered they were by female visitors.  This actually reflects the beginnings of Spiritualism, but for different reasons.  In the 1800s, many followers considered themselves liberal Freethinkers who supported women's suffrage.  In fact, again in New York state, the first woman's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls in 1848.  The two main topics were womens' right to vote and reforming marriage and property laws for women.  At the time, unmarried women could own property, but once a woman got married, all her property was given over to her husband.  One could see the appeal of how woman could make her own name and career as a medium in a time they didn't have an equal voice.  As to why Spiritualism and psychic fairs tend to attract more women in current times, I can only speculate.  Some suggest it is because women tend to be more emotional and intuitive, so they are more receptive to subjective information while men are more logical and support more objective data.  (Although, I've seen some pretty silly superstitions with some men and their sports teams.)

The Fox sister's home from Hydeville, in which they supposedly first made contact with the spirit world, was moved to Lily Dale in 1915.  In 1955 a fire of "undermined" origins completely destroyed the cottage. (Apparently, none of the psychics saw that coming, and none of the spirit guides bothered to warn anyone.) Today, there is a garden and memorial plaque to mark where it had stood.  It reads in part, "Margaret and Katie Fox... received the first proof of the continuity of life".  I'll come back to that "proof" later.

Late in the afternoon, we went to a service at the Forest Temple, which was basically like any other psychic gallery reading I've attended or seen on TV, except they ask the audience to refrain from applause, recording, or taking pictures out of respect for their religion.  The mediums picked people out of the audience to tell them which departed loved one they see with them. Like the ladies in the book store earlier in the day, the information offered by the mediums was vague and they asked for confirmation from those who they were reading.  (This is a well-known cold reading technique.)  The first medium even chose people she had already read for earlier in the day, so she had a lot of information going in already.  She picked a lady in the audience and said she lost someone close to her, a young male.  The lady nodded and started crying.  A woman sitting next to Kenny said, "She lost her son."  I couldn't help but wonder if that woman already knew the story (probably from one of the other gallery readings earlier in the day), it was possible the medium did as well.   The second medium was a male and his performance was much the same: picking someone, saying there is a male father or father like figure, and asking for confirmation. Then he chose Donna.  Donna knows about cold reading so she did not offer any information unless asked, nor did she show any emotion or give any non-verbal indicators.  The first "spirit" coming through for her was a young man who passed who fit the description of Lou Castillo, Kenny's co-host.  (Happy to report Lou is still amoung the living.) When the medium asked Donna if that made sense to her, she said no.  He offered a couple more details, but again, it was a miss.  So then he moved on to a spirit he felt was her grandmother.  He described her as large woman and other traits that didn't fit with anyone Donna knew.  So he said it may go back a generation and he was actually seeing her great-grandmother.  Donna again said no, so then he said, "Go home and ask your mother".  This is where I gasped loud enough for Kenny to hear, because Donna's mother died earlier this year.  Knowing he was failing miserably, the medium quickly moved onto another person.  By this time, I'd seen enough, and decided it was time to leave.

Once back home, I looked through a couple of books I had bought at Lily Dale.  While they mentioned that some supposed skeptics of the day investigated the Fox sisters and could not find any sign of trickery, they failed to mention that there were also skeptics of the day who figured out how the girls were manufacturing the raps themselves.  For example, in 1850, E.P. Longworthy, a Rochester physician observed that the raps always came either from under the sisters' feet or doors and tables which were in contact with the girls' long dresses.  He concluded the girls were producing the raps. Reverend John M. Austin wrote how the noises could be produced by the cracking of the toe joints and Reverend D. Potts demonstrated it to an audience.  In 1851, Austin Flint, Charles E. Lee and C.B. Coventry of Buffalo University investigated the sisters and when they had the sisters sit on a padded couch with cushions placed under their feet, the raps stopped.  They concluded the noises were made by by cracking the joints of the toes, knees, ankles or hips.  In a signed statement in front of witnesses, a relative by marriage of the sisters, Mrs. Culver, admitted she helped Kate Fox by indicating through touch when to respond with raps.  Further, she said Kate showed her how she made the noises with her toes and that Margaret told her she could make them with her knees and ankles.  A few years later, in 1857, the Boston Courier offered $500 to any medium who could pass an investigative committee, which included three Harvard professors.  Margaret and Kate Fox did not get a favorable report from the committee who suggested they were making the raps with bones in their feet.

The conclusions made by these skeptics would be confirmed many years later, in 1888, by Margaret Fox when she confessed to an audience at the Academy of Music with her sister Kate in the audience in support.  She began her speech: " There is no such thing as a spirit manifestation.  That I have been mainly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of spiritualism upon a too-confiding public many of you already know.  It is the greatest sorrow of my life." Physicians in the audience came up to the stage to observe close up how she snapped her toe against the table and the raps were heard throughout the hall.  Further, in a written statement to New York World  she explained that she and her sister Kate could produce noises with their joints.  Included in the statement:  "First as a mere trick to frighten mother, and then when so many people came to see us children, we were ourselves frightened and for self-preservation forced to keep it up... We were led on by our sister [Leah] purposely; and by my mother unintentionally."  Kate supported her sister Margaret's denouncement of spiritualism, and in an interview published in the New York Herald, Kate Fox stated, "Spiritualism is a humbug from beginning to end... the biggest humbug of the century." Amazingly, neither their confessions nor the exposure of numerous mediums at the time had much impact on the popularity of the movement.

Supporters of Spiritualism point out Margaret later recanted her confession. But it is important know what likely led up to her reversal.  After their public confessions of fraud and denouncement of Spiritualism, Margaret and Kate went on tour to demonstrate how the raps and other deceptions of mediumship were done.  They sadly learned the general public were far less interested in paying to be educated about the trickery of mediums than they were to pay for seances.  Furthermore, they were harshly criticized and shunned by the Spiritualist community as well as their former friends in society.  Also at this point in their lives, they were both battling alcoholism.  In 1889 their bookings were cancelled due to Kate's excessive problems with alcohol.  They were facing poverty.  After Margaret recanted, instead of welcoming her back with open arms, most Spiritualists were even more disgusted with her reversal. Kate died in 1892 and Margaret died the following year.

Spiritualists also point there was "confirmation" of the ghost of the murdered peddler that the girls first contacted in their cottage in Hydesville.  They refer to 1904 newspaper report from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that human bones were discovered buried under the former Fox home.  Later articles say a peddler's box was also found.  But again, they fail to mention how it was discredited at the time.  The New York Times and the Acadian Weekly both wrote editorials on the dubious nature of the discovery in 1904.   There was never any evidence that the bones belonged to a peddler or even that any peddler had been murdered.  At the time the girls were living in the cottage, there was local rumor of a murdered peddler and they likely exploited the story to bolster their act.  In 1909, an editorial in The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research appeared, explaining the source of the bones.  A physician investigated the bones:

"He reports to us that he found a number of bones there, but that there were only a few ribs with odds and ends of bones and among them a superabundance of some and a deficiency of others. Among them also were some chicken bones. There was nothing about the premises to indicate that they had been buried there, but might have been put there by boys in sport. He also reports that within a few days past he has learned that a certain person near the place had put the bones there as a practical joke and is now too much ashamed of it to confess it. Whether there is any better foundation for these incidents than for the original story it is not possible to decide, but it is certain that the probabilities that there is anything more than a casual coincidence or than a trick played on the credulity of the defenders of the Fox sisters are very much shaded."

Furthermore, there is no proof the peddler's tin was buried or uncovered at the site.  Investigator Joe Nickell did exhaustive research on it.  The first mention of the tin wasn't until 1922, and that came from a dubious source known for faking spirit writing.  Nickell went to Lily Dale to examine the peddler's tin in the museum.  The curator at the time, Ron Nagy, conceded there was no proof it had been uncovered in 1904, and Nickell concluded it looked in too good of a condition to have been buried for half a century.

Carolyn's Cycles of Truth: Either you're telling the truth or you're not.

A believer friend of mine said they weren't surprised of my impression of the Lily Dale mediums, since I went there as a skeptic.  I reminded them that part of me was actually hoping the medium who said my dad was with me would have given me something to believe.  Like his name, or a nickname he called me, or his profession, or the branch of military he served, or lizards stalking me.  (See my article:  But no, she only provided information that did not apply to him at all.  While I was not surprised, I admit I was a little disappointed. And my friend is missing a huge point:  the responsibility lies with the mediums to provide remarkable proof for their claims and the justification for charging grieving people $80 - $100 a reading.  In my opinion, Spiritualism as a religion can be used by mediums as a shield to justify their lack of evidence and deflect criticism.  By contrast, when I or loved ones were hospitalized, the priests or chaplains who came to pray for us never charged a cent.  I would love to find true evidence of the continuation of consciousness after death, and that contact with departed loved ones is possible.  But unfortunately, I didn't find it in Lily Dale.


Karen Abott, The Fox Sisters and The Rap on Spiritualsim, October 30, 2012

Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District 
Cornell University Press, London, 1950  342-352

C.E.M. Hansel, The Search for Psychic Power: ESP & Parapsychology Revisited
Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1989 

Paul Kurtz, editor, A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology
Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 1985 

Ron Nagy with Joyce LaJudice, The Spirits of Lily Dale
Glade Press, Inc., Lakeville, Minnesota, 2010

Joe Nickell, A Skeleton's Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism
Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.4, July / August 2008

James Randi, Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions
Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1982