Lily Dale, the Town That Speaks to the Dead

billrock54, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
billrock54, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Imagine a town where every house is haunted—on purpose. The Victorian gingerbread cottages of Lily Dale, nestled along the leafy roads on the east side of Cassadaga Lake in upstate New York, are home to hundreds of mediums: people who believe they can communicate with the dead.

Lily Dale, about an hour south of Buffalo, is one of the few remaining outposts of a religion called Spiritualism, which was founded in the 19th century and still attracts followers today. Its story—and the story of Lily Dale—goes back to 1848, when two teenaged sisters, Margaret and Catherine Fox, claimed to hear mysterious loud raps on the walls and furniture of their farmhouse in the village of Hydesville. The girls attributed the noises to the spirit of a murdered peddler they called Charles B. Rosa, whom they said had been buried in their basement. Instead of dismissing their story (or sending them to a psychiatrist, as parents today might do), the girls’ parents sent the pair to live with an older sister in Rochester. There, demonstrations of their "rappings" became popular with a group of local abolitionist crusaders and disaffected Quakers. 

The girls soon found they could produce the raps in a variety of locations, and poor murdered Charles wasn’t the only spirit they claimed to summon. The dead the Fox sisters said they contacted via these rappings were capable of giving messages that ranged from the banal (a direction to "put on as much molasses as he likes" was revealed during one dinner) to more profound accounts of life on the other side. At first, the spirits seemed capable of answering only yes or no questions, but friends later devised a system for rapping out various letters of the alphabet, which allowed the spirits to spell out words. Public demonstrations of the girls’ abilities in Rochester and then New York City spread their fame, especially when New York Herald Tribune publisher Horace Greeley proclaimed himself impressed after his wife, Molly, received messages from their dead 5-year-old son via the sisters. 

The girls didn’t just create fame for themselves, however—they helped birth a major Victorian pastime: communicating with the dead. Copycat mediums sprung up around the Northern and Eastern states, moving beyond communication-via-raps and into techniques such as automatic writing (where the spirits controlled one’s hands to communicate messages), and direct communication via possession experiences. Spiritualists also began to devise an increasing number of gadgets for talking to the dead, such as “spirit trumpets,” which were said to amplify the whispers of spirits controlling the medium’s vocal cords. The best ones glowed in the dark during séances.

By 1855, spiritualism—which was never centralized around one formal doctrine or single church, but often layered over various versions of Christianity—claimed about 1 million adherents. The religion was notable for being open to anyone, and often aligned itself with radical causes of the day, such as abolitionism and women’s rights. In fact, the mediums tended to be young women: perhaps because the Fox sisters were, because of older ideas about an association between young women and magic, or because of an association between spirituality, femininity and the home. Whatever the precise cause, historian Ann Braude notes that “Americans throughout the country found messages from spirits most plausible when delivered through the agency of adolescent girls.” Victorian society allowed few powerful roles for women, and séances likely caught on among women in part as a way to voice otherwise unwelcome opinions. 

Jimmy Emerson, DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lily Dale, formally known as Lily Dale Assembly, was founded in 1879 as the Cassadaga Lake Free Association. (It took its current name in 1906, named for the lilies covering Cassadaga Lake.) The hamlet basically started out as spiritualist summer camp, evolving out of local meetings and picnics held in the grove of a farm belonging to a spiritualist named Willard Alden. The spiritualists began by holding a day-long conference once a year, which expanded into a longer “camp season” of meetings and picnics, and then a permanent settlement of about 20 acres along Cassadaga Lake. A hotel followed in 1880, as did an auditorium that saw grand balls—Susan B. Anthony hosted a few when she came to speak during several summers. 

As the years went on, residents added a billiard parlor, bowling alley, a Ferris Wheel (briefly), a lyceum (named for Andrew Jackson Davis, “The Poughkeepsie Seer” and the founder of the lyceum school system) and several temples. Other modern Lily Dale landmarks include the Inspiration Stump (a grove where mediums give demonstrations of their services), a museum filled with spiritualist memorabilia and artifacts, a library with one of the largest collections of Spiritualist literature in the country, and a pet cemetery. 

But for many years, perhaps the most famous building was the cottage in which the Fox sisters first heard their raps, which was moved to Lily Dale near the beginning of the 20th century. A medium named Miss Flo Cottrell—considered one of the best of her day—gave readings in the cottage for years, using the raps that continued to somehow manifest themselves inside the house. Unfortunately, the cottage burned to the ground in 1955. 

Lily Dale is still going strong, with a year-round population of several hundred permanent residents, many of them mediums and healers offering their services to the public. Approximately 22,000 visitors come each year for classes, workshops, lectures, church services, demonstrations, and private readings and healings. Although the place is open year-round, a high season from June to September sees the most traffic—a reflection of its beginnings as a kind of spooky summer camp.

The Fox Sisters, however, fared less well. Although the girls enjoyed a few years of touring the world with their demonstrations of supposed spirit communication, their lives were difficult, unstable, and increasingly troubled by alcoholism. During a particularly low period in 1888, one reporter offered Margaret and Kate $1,500 if they would reveal their methods. On October 21, 1888, Margaret appeared at the New York Academy of Music and showed the audience how she was able to crack the joints of her toes to produce the raps. Margaret retracted her confession the following year, but the damage was done. Both sisters died within the next few years, and were buried in paupers’ graves at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Cemetery.

Up in the Air: When 'Balloon Boy' Took Flight

John Moore, Getty Images
John Moore, Getty Images

It was like a Weekly World News cover come to life. On October 15, 2009, most of the major network and cable broadcasters interrupted their daytime programming to cover what appeared to be a silver flying saucer streaking through the air. Out of context, it was as though the world was getting its first sight of a genuine UFO.

Reading the scroll at the bottom, or listening to the somewhat frantic newscasters, provided an explanation: It was not alien craft but a homemade balloon that had inadvertently taken off from the backyard of a family home in Fort Collins, Colorado. That, of course, was not inherently newsworthy. What made this story must-see television was the fact that authorities believed a 6-year-old boy was somehow trapped inside.

As the helium-filled balloon careened through the air and toward Denver International Airport, millions of people watched and wondered if its passenger could survive the perilous trip. When the craft finally touched down after floating for some 60 miles, responders surrounded it, expecting the worst. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Had he already fallen out?

The brief saga that became known as the Balloon Boy incident was one of the biggest indictments of the burgeoning worlds of reality television and breathless 24/7 news coverage. It seemed to check off every box that observers associated with societal decline. There was the morbidity of a child speeding through the air without control; the unwavering gaze of news networks who cut away from reports on world affairs and even ignored their commercial breaks to obtain footage of an aircraft that measure around 20 feet wide and 5 feet high and resembled a bag of Jiffy Pop.

 

The boy in question was Falcon Heene, one of Richard and Mayumi Heene's three children. The couple had met in California and bonded over their mutual desire to get into the entertainment business. Richard dreamed of becoming a comedian; Mayumi played guitar. The couple married in 1997 and eventually relocated to Colorado; they got their first taste of Hollywood in 2008, when they made their first of two appearances on the reality series Wife Swap.

But Richard Heene wanted more. The avid tinkerer envisioned a show that followed his family around, while at the same time working on his new inventions—one of which was sitting in his backyard. It was essentially a Mylar balloon staked to the ground, which he would later describe as a very early prototype for a low-altitude commuter vehicle.

 sheriff's deputies seach a field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found October 15, 2009 southeast of Ft. Collins, Colorado
Sheriff's deputies search a Colorado field for Falcon Heene before learning he had been found safe at home.
John Moore, Getty Images

It was this balloon, Bradford Heene told police in 2009, that his brother Falcon had climbed into just before it had taken flight. Earlier, Richard said, Falcon had been playing near the contraption and was scolded for potentially creating a dangerous situation. Now, Falcon was gone, the balloon was in the air, and Falcon's parents feared the worst. Mayumi called the authorities.

“My other son said that Falcon was at the bottom of the flying saucer,” Mayumi told the 911 dispatcher. “I can’t find him anywhere!”

As news cameras watched and the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service followed, the balloon reached an altitude of 7000 feet. Police made a painstaking search of the Heene household, looking for any sign of Falcon. After three passes, they determined it was possible he was inside the balloon.

Approximately one hour later, the balloon seemed to deflate. Authorities cleared the air space near Denver International Airport and greeted the craft as it landed, tethering it to the ground so no air current could hoist it back up and out of reach.

No one was inside the small cabin under the balloon, which left three possibilities: Falcon was hiding somewhere, he had run away ... or he had fallen out.

 

Not long after the craft had landed, a police officer at the Heene house decided to investigate an attic space above the garage. It had gone ignored because it didn’t seem possible Falcon could have reached the entrance on his own.

Yet there he was, hiding.

Elated, authorities explained to the media that they thought Falcon had untethered the balloon by accident and then hid because he knew his father would be upset with him.

Jim Alderden, the sheriff of Colorado's Larimer County, assured reporters that the Heenes had not done anything suspect. They demonstrated all the concern for their missing child that one would expect. Alderden stuck to that even after the Heenes were interviewed on CNN and Falcon appeared to slip up. When asked by Wolf Blitzer if he had heard his parents calling for him, the boy admitted that he had but was ignoring them “for a show.”

Though the Heenes seemed to scramble to cover up for their son's gaffe, Blitzer didn’t appear to register the comment at first. He came back around to it, though, insisting on clarification. Richard would later state that Falcon was referring to the news cameras who wanted to see where he had been hiding. That was the "show" he meant.

Alderden reiterated that he didn’t think the boy could remain still and quiet for five hours in an attic if he had been instructed to. But he admitted the CNN interview raised questions. After initially clearing the family of any wrongdoing, Alderden said he would sit down and speak to them again.

Within the week, Alderden was holding a press conference with an entirely different mood. He solemnly explained that the Heenes had perpetuated a hoax and speculated that they could be charged with up to three felonies, including conspiracy and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Outlets had already tracked down an associate of Richard’s who detailed his reality series idea, with one episode devoted to the balloon.

 

Richard and Mayumi voluntarily turned themselves into authorities. They each pled guilty: Richard for attempting to influence a public servant and Mayumi for making a false report. In addition to paying $36,016 in restitution, Richard wound up with a 90-day jail sentence, 60 days of which was served on supervised work release. Mayumi got 20 days. Though they pled guilty, Richard maintained that he and his family had not perpetuated any kind of a hoax. In a 2010 video posted to YouTube, Richard said he only pled guilty because authorities were threatening to deport his wife.

Mayumi, meanwhile, reportedly told police it had all been an act (though critics of the prosecution argued that Mayumi's imperfect English made that confession open to interpretation). Mayumi later stated she had no firm understanding of the word "hoax."

Richard Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene (R) are flanked by members of the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the alleged hoax of the couple claiming that their son, Falcon Heene was last month onboard a helium balloon, at the Larime
Richard and Mayumi Heene surrounded by the media after they both plead guilty to charges related to the "Balloon Boy Hoax" on November 13, 2009.
Matt McClain, Getty Images

In addition to the fine and jail sentences, the judge also mandated that the family not seek to profit from the incident for a period of four years, which meant any potential for Richard to grab a reality show opportunity would be put on hold until long after the public had lost interest in the "Balloon Boy."

The Heenes moved to Florida in 2010, and soon after their three boys formed a heavy metal band—reputed to be the world’s youngest—dubbed the Heene Boyz. They’ve self-released several albums, and in 2014 even released a song called "Balloon Boy No Hoax."

Richard also peddles some of his inventions, including a wall-mounted back scratcher that allows users to alleviate itching by rubbing up against it. It’s called the Bear Scratch.

In October 2019, Robert Sanchez, a writer for 5280 magazine in Denver, profiled the Heenes and produced a smoking gun of sorts. Sanchez, who was allowed access to the Heene case file by Mayumi's defense attorney, discovered copies of Mayumi's notes about the events leading up to the flight. In one entry, she disclosed Richard had asked her about the possibility of letting the craft go off while Falcon remained in the basement, stirring up attention for the news networks. Later, when the saucer flew away, Richard was confused when Falcon wasn't downstairs. (He chose instead to hide in the attic.) That made the Heenes believe he might really be inside.

When confronted with the document, Mayumi told Sanchez she had made that story up in an attempt to "save" herself and her children, presumably from being separated in the ensuing legal struggle. In the Balloon Boy story, the saucer may have come crashing back to Earth, but the truth remains up in the air.

Invasive Snakehead Fish That Can Breathe on Land Is Roaming Georgia

Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Mohd Fazlin Mohd Effendy Ooi, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

A fish recently found in Georgia has wildlife officials stirred up. In fact, they’re advising anyone who sees a northern snakehead to kill it on sight.

That death sentence might sound extreme, but there’s good reason for it. The northern snakehead, which can survive for brief periods on land and breathe air, is an invasive species in North America. With one specimen found in a privately owned pond in Gwinnett County, the state wants to take swift action to make certain the fish, which is native to East Asia, doesn’t continue to spread. Non-native species can upset local ecosystems by competing with native species for food and habitat.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Resources Division is advising people who encounter the snakehead—a long, splotchy-brown fish that can reach 3 feet in length—to kill it and freeze it, then report the catch to the agency's fisheries office.

Wildlife authorities believe snakeheads wind up in non-native areas as a result of the aquarium trade or food industry. A snakehead was recently caught in southwestern Pennsylvania. The species has been spotted in 14 states.

[h/t CNN]

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