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.
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.