Lily Dale Assembly is a spiritualist community in southwestern New York State. Lily Dale is a small village of approximately 250 full-time residents located in Pomfret on Cassadaga Lake about 60 miles south of Buffalo. Established in 1879, it is the oldest community in the United States—perhaps the world—dedicated to the spiritualist beliefs of its founders: that the living can and should communicate with the spirits of the departed in order to prove that death is merely a part of life.
Every summer Lily Dale becomes a mecca for mediums and psychics, their clients and others who hope to contact a lost loved one. The mediums, who must be registered by the village’s governing body, the Assembly, give private readings for a fee and also participate in free, short group readings open to anyone. Most summers the ranks of “those interested” raise Lily Dale’s population to about 450 residents and perhaps thousands of tourists. Lily Dale is a private, gated area within Pomfret; entrants pay gate fees ranging from modest fees for an evening pass to more expensive passes good for the entire summer season. Mediums set their own fees.
Some of the seekers are recently bereaved, desperate to know that their husband, mother, father, wife, child, or friend is not really gone but only in another reality, merely waiting until the petitioner can join the deceased “in spirit.” Others come to Lily Dale for classes in spiritualist communication, learning how to develop their latent psychic abilities, see themselves in a past incarnation, or recognize their spirit guides. These students give readings in the tiny spiritualist churches and listen to famous mediums like James van Praagh, who speak to much larger gatherings and gives messages to members of the audience.
Skeptics also come to Lily Dale to try and trap mediums in mistakes. Disbelievers and curiosity seekers come, and some leave as converts. Author Christine Wicker, who wrote Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead, originally went there to find out why the believers remain faithful, even in the face of vague or outright incorrect information. She said that she came away with grudging respect for the messages the mediums do get right and sympathy for the seekers who keep trying to make contact, even if past reports from beyond have been confusing or silent. Wicker even received a few singularly personal revelations of her own.
Unlike Lily Dale’s wealthier neighbour, Chautauqua— the 19th-century home of enlightened debate on political reform, women’s suffrage, and other issues of the day—Lily Dale remains a summer camp, with old wooden buildings unimproved by air conditioning or many modern conveniences. Without the condominium developments and large auditoriums, Lily Dale has had difficulty attracting the bigger and more expensive names in psychic circles. First and foremost, the community remains dedicated to the ideals of Spiritualism and the spiritualist credo: that there is no death but merely continuity of life in another form and that it is the believer’s responsibility to provide proof of that survival of the spirit.
Spiritualists have always felt kinship with liberal causes, and Lily Dale was the summer home of progressive authors, politicians, and reformers, including William James, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis. Celebrities like Mae West were frequent guests as well. Susan B. Anthony gave her first important speech on women’s suffrage there in 1891 and visited the camp so often locals referred to her as “Aunt Susan.” She did not put much stock in Lily Dale’s mission, however. When informed by a medium that her aunt was trying to reach her, Anthony replied that she didn’t like the old woman when she was alive and had no interest in speaking with her now, and why couldn’t the medium bring back someone interesting like suffrage pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton?
The original Hydesville, New York, farm home belonging to the celebrated Fox Sisters, founders of the spiritualist movement, was moved to Lily Dale in 1916 but burned down in 1955.
The Lily Dale Assembly still governs the community as it has since 1879. Assembly members control which mediums become licensed to practice in the community (around 30), what fees are levied, and where, when, and how readings may be given. The elaborate Séances of an earlier day, complete with spirit voices, flying TRUMPETS, and spirit CABINETS that opened to reveal the dearly departed (or at least an Ectoplasm emission from the beyond) are now forbidden. No one but a spiritualist may own a home or other property in the 167-acre community and the property-holder does not own the land his home or business sits on. The Assembly owns all the land in Lily Dale and leases it back to the buyer. Such an arrangement ensures spiritualist control but makes obtaining a bank loan difficult.
By the turn of the 20th century, spiritualism had lost much of its appeal, thanks to skepticism and the movement’s pretenders and con men. World War I and the great Spanish influenza pandemic of 1917–1918 spurred a brief renaissance, but since then spirit communication has been relegated to the backwaters. Television mediums like Van Praagh and John Edward have stirred interest, not only with the faithful but within skeptics. A rise of popular interest in ghost and paranormal investigation and Electronic Voice Phenomena has also contributed to renewed interest in spiritualism and Mediumship, and communities such as Lily Dale.
- Gilbert, Bil. “In Good Spirits.” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2001. Available online. URL: https://smithsonianmag.com/ smithsonian/issues01/jun01/interest_jun01.html. Downloaded January 23, 2006.
- Lily Dale Assembly Web site. Available online. URL: www. lilydaleassembly.com Downloaded January 23, 2006.
- Wicker, Christine. Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2003.