One day when I was jobless and pregnant, I caught a documentary on HBO about a town in upstate New York called Lily Dale. I was fascinated by what I saw. Lily Dale is what is considered to be a “spiritualist community.” The year-round population is 275 people and its residents are people who all claim to or do posses psychic abilities or can communicate with the dead.
Lily Dale was founded by sisters Margaret and Kate Fox in 1916. The sisters claimed to be mediums who could communicate with the dead by rapping noises. As young teenagers living in small upstate New York town called Hydesville, they claimed to communicate with spirit they called “Mr. Splitfoot” which is a nickname for the devil. Later, they confessed that they were actually communicating with the spirit of a peddler that had been murdered on their property years before named Charles B. Rosma. There was never any record of this man in their town, nor had anyone ever heard of such a person. These claims sent their small town into quite a frenzy and the Fox sisters where sent away to Rochester, New York during the height of excitement. The girls were split up once in Rochester. One sent to live with their much-older sister, Leah and one sent to live with their much-older brother, David. Apparently, Mr. Spiltfoot or the mysterious peddler, followed the girls to their separate homes in Rochester since the rappings continued where the girls were. Amy and Isaac Post, a Quaker couple who were longtime family friends of the Fox family then invited Margaret and Kate to come live with them after the rappings made them somewhat unwanted guests in their siblings’ homes. The rappings continued once the girls arrived at the Posts, but instead of fearing the communication with the unseen the Posts fostered it and encouraged it in the girls and spread the word of the girls’ abilities among their Quaker friends.
Soon the Fox sisters where performing public seances, and by 1850 where quite famous and attracting people of note in New York at the time for private seances. During these years of the sister’s popularity thousands of people emerged also claiming to have the same gifts as the Fox sisters (like the Hiltons begat the Kardashians…) some where flat out frauds, but there were a few who truly did possess the ability to communicate with the dead. Unfortunately, with there new-found fame and lack of parental supervision, the Fox sisters soon became heavy drinkers.
Soon, their older sister Leah became their manager and the girls success continued into their adult lives. Margaret was the first one to break ranks when she married an explorer named Elisha Kane. He was convinced Margaret and Kate were committing fraud and that Leah was facilitating it. He convinced Margaret of the same thing. Her and Kane moved away, married and she converted to Roman Catholicism. Five years after their marriage, however, Elisha Kane died and Margaret returned to working as a medium. Kate, in the meantime, went to England, a trip funded by a prosperous New York bank, to work as a medium for only very high-end clientele. In 1872 Kate married H.D. Jencken, a barrister and legal scholar. He died nine years after their marriage, and left Kate to raise their two sons. She wasn’t left along to raise her sons however, since in 1876 Margaret moved to England to live with Kate and her family.
As the years went on the Fox sisters developed serious drinking problems. Leah, the eldest Fox sister confronted Kate in 1888 about her drinking and told her she wasn’t fit to raise her sons. At the same time, Margaret had convinced herself that her abilities were the work of the devil and thought about rejoining the Catholic church. Margaret and Kate Fox had decided that all their problems were stemming from one source, their older sister Leah. The two younger Fox sisters left England and returned to New York, where they were offered a substantial sum of money from a reporter if they exposed themselves as frauds. They did, claiming they were making all the noises during the seances themselves by moving and cracking their fingers and toes, something their sister Leah taught them to do.
Five years after their confession of fraud ran in the national media Margaret recanted her confession in writing in 1889. By 1916, the Fox sisters moved to a small town near their hometown in upstate New York called Lily Dale. Within five years both sisters had died in total poverty, shunned by former friends.
On November 22, 1904 the body of Charles B. Rosma was found in the cellar of the girls’ childhood home. He was a peddler that had been murdered years before the girls lived in that home, like they originally claimed.
The Fox sisters were a big part of the Spiritualist movement. Spiritualism is a religion in which the ability to communicate with the dead and the dead being able to communicate with the living is a tent-pole along with the other beliefs such as:
- A belief that the soul continues to exist after the death of the physical body.
- Personal responsibility for life circumstances.
- Even after death it is possible for the soul to learn and improve
- A belief in a God, often referred to as “Infinite Intelligence”.
- The natural world considered as an expression of said intelligence.
In Spiritualism anyone can communicate with spirits, but formal communication happens with a medium at seances.
In the 1840′s to the 1920′s Spiritualism hit its peak, mostly in the English speaking world. Most of the members were of the upper-class. The organization was very liberal when it came to the social issues of the time, which included the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. By the late 1800′s and early 1900′s the credibility of the movement started to deteriorate when many people were exposed and debunked as frauds and as people where starting to use the religion as a means to make fast cash.
Lily Dale residents, the permanent ones anyways, are all followers of the Spiritualism movement. While Lily Dale’s permanent population is only 275, the town has nearly 22,000 visitors a year. People come to seek communication with their deceased loved ones, to attend various speaking engagements with the likes of Depak Chopra, John Edward, James Van Praagh and an Oprah fav, Dr. Wayne Dyer. Lily Dale very much so caters to its tourist clientele, with a Main Street populated with many shops, cafes, restaurants and museum and historical society. There are also several hotels and bed and breakfasts to accommodate all the tourists.
The HBO documentary about Lily Dale, entitled No One Dies in Lily Dale, follows both people who live in the town and make it their home, and the people traveling to Lily Dale for some sort of closure or healing to help them move on or gain acceptance of an event in their life. It’s really fascinating and shows the town to be a cute little hamlet where all the townspeople live and work harmoniously side-by-side. I can’t believe living year round in a town of 275 would be all that easy. Especially if they’re psychic, they must know literally everything about each other.
One part of No One Dies in Lily Dale that really stood out in my mind where when the protesters showed up. Those whack-a-doo fundamentalists will travel just about anywhere to get in the faces of people just living their lives and disrupt daily routines. It was kind of funny though. The people of Lily Dale, being who they are, went out and met with the protests (one who was holding a sign that said “Harry Potter is the work of the devil” he must have thought he was in Hogsmede) and tried to speak with them in a reasonable matter. It was kind of sweet seeing the people of Lily Dale not get worked up by these hateful people and try to explain to them what they were doing wasn’t evil, but you know how people who take time off of work to protest something are….
Ever since I watched No One Dies in Lily Dale, the town has been on my list of places to visit. Along with Salem, of course, and New Orleans (any place with above ground cemeteries is a place I want to visit.) If you ever get the chance to watch No One Dies in Lily Dale I really recommend it. It’s so cool to see how other people live.
Also, I just learned that there is a teen fiction series that takes place in Lily Dale….I’m totally going to have to read that. I bet I can find it under the Paranormal Teen Romance section of my local Barnes and Noble.
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