Banner of Light: The Lily Dale Photographs
"To me, nineteenth-century Spiritualism, like many of the spiritual explorations associated with the New Age, appears as an example of a profound mystical experience and extraordinary self-deception tangled together in a hopeless mélange."
Ann Braude, Radical Spirits
The beginning of Spiritualism as a religious movement can be traced to rural western New York, where in 1848, two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, heard raps in the walls and furniture of their family farmhouse.
News of the mysterious rappings and the sisters' apparent ability to communicate with the sound maker (the spirit of a murdered peddler) spread quickly and local residents crowded the tiny house to witness the strange dialogue.
Family friends encouraged and counseled the sisters to further develop their newfound abilities. Within a year Kate and Margaret had given a series of public demonstrations on spirit communication in nearby Rochester. By 1850 they were living in a hotel in New York City, charging fees for their thrice daily public séances.
The "Rochester Rappers", as they were popularly known, became national sensations and set out on tour, giving public and private séances in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. In 1852, during a stopover in St. Louis, a daguerreotype portrait was made by Thomas Easterly, in acknowledgment of their fame and notoriety.
Word of the Fox sisters' talents (and the potential of their newly created professional niche) inspired others to publicly profess and practice their psychic powers. Mediumistic methods such as automatic writing, controlling voices, slate writing and psychic healing became widespread.
Enthusiasm for psychic investigation was contagious, and in the 1850's and 60's great numbers of Americans explored spirit communication. Estimates of the number of Spiritualists in the United States in the 1850's range from 1 million to 11 million (out of a total population of 25 million). In 1854 a petition signed by 13,000 people asked the U.S. Senate to appoint a committee to scientifically investigate Spiritualism.
Many séance participants desired to contact deceased loved ones, while others sought to find empirical evidence in their witnessing of spirit manifestations. For some it was simply great entertainment, where friends and family could enjoy a parlor game of floating tables, apparitions and echoing voices.
And still for others, Spiritualism was one of several concomitant social reform causes, taking place alongside the abolition and woman's rights movements.
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Located on the shores of Cassadaga Lake, in western New York, Lily Dale was established in 1879 as a Spiritualist camp meeting ground. People gathered there for lectures and séances, as well as music, picnics, boating and fishing. Like many other Spiritualist camps popular during this period, Lily Dale allowed like-minded people to insulate themselves from the attacks and ridicule perpetuated from mainstream religious organizations.
In the 1880's and 90's Lily Dale flourished and many buildings were constructed. The Maplewood Hotel was built in 1880 and the auditorium was constructed in 1883. By 1900 Lily Dale had grown to a settled community, its streets lined with 200 Victorian cottages, a school, library, post office, and several meeting houses.
Today Lily Dale comprises 167 acres and is owned by the Lily Dale Assembly. One must belong to a Spiritualist church to reside in the community-- the Assembly leases its houses for 99 years. The Assembly also governs who may publicly practice mediumship on the grounds. Mediums must be registered, having passed a series of exams to prove their legitimacy. Currently there are 35 mediums practicing in the town.
During the summer visitors arrive from the surrounding region-- Rochester, Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland and Toronto-- to attend public message services and healings, as well as workshops and lectures.
Many of the message services are held at "Inspiration Stump", a massive hemlock stump faced with concrete, complete with steps running up one side. Situated in a clearing surrounded by an old growth forest, the stump stands in front of rows of benches.
Usually four or five mediums attend a service. Taking turns standing alongside the stump, they choose members of the audience for an impromptu reading, in hopes of alluring the intrigued for a paid private reading later.
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In the lobby of the Maplewood Hotel hang 5 paintings and an enormous set of embroidered portieres, all attributed to psychic manufacture.
Two of the paintings are of well-known subjects, Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte. Another is of one of Lily Dale's founders, Leolyn Pettengill. According to Lily Dale sources, these paintings were created through the mediumship of the Campbell brothers.
In the late 19th century the Campbells held séances where they gathered people around an empty canvas. During a session an image gradually appeared on the canvas and by the end of the séance the painting was fully completed.
The portieres, according to an index card attached to their frame, were embroidered by Mollie Fancher, "an instrument for spirit". Blind and paralyzed, Ms. Fancher worked while in a trance state.
In the 1988 Village Voice cover article on Lily Dale, titled Week of the Living Dead: You Are About to Enter Lily Dale, NY- Population Unknown, Daisann McLane wrote of spending a few nights in the Maplewood Hotel. "I'm not sure what I think about the Spiritualists or the spirits. Especially at three in the morning in a rickety bed in a certified Ghost Hotel. But I'm sure of this: When I went to sleep, hours ago, this bed was flush against the left hand of the wall. And now it's not. Now it's moved about 6 inches to the right, a gap I will spend many restless hours trying to explain."
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Betty Schultz, a retired medium and third generation Spiritualist, represented a traditionally held perspective at Lily Dale when she stated, "Mediumship was never meant to be a prediction of things to come. This is something that the world has wanted and so that's what spirit does. The only thing that spirit really wants to prove is that there is an afterlife, to bring proof that is undeniable. So, say you're a total disbeliever. If they can give you one tiny bit of proof that you know no medium is going to know, that could not be picked out of the ether, then they've planted the seed to get you thinking. They plant the seed and no matter how you deny it, you come back to that one seed of truth."
"The clients we love to have are the people who have lost a dear loved one and we've been able to prove their existence. We don't care if you're going to have a baby, get married, get a divorce, buy a car-- those are things in your control. But if we can give somebody the proof that the one they love still exists, it gives them the ability to go on and accept that there is only a fine line separating us from those we love over there. That's our real purpose here. The rest is garbage people want because they don't have enough faith and trust in their own abilities." (Interview with Betty Schultz, Lily Dale, 1992.)
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I began photographing and conducting audio taped interviews at Lily Dale in 1991. During the course of the project, I found myself attracted to subjects that had little function in serving the traditional documentary model. These scenes didn't describe the place or the people in Lily Dale directly, but instead established a more poetic and ambiguous relationship between subject and meaning.
For example, one day after a public message service, I noticed a sheet of notebook paper lying in the grass next to a bench. Over the years I had watched people madly write, as mediums provided them information at such services. Seeing the discarded piece of paper evoked narrative possibilities: Perhaps it was left behind out of fear or disgust. Maybe it was confusion or forgetfulness, or just litter.
I've had psychic readings where the medium had an amazing ability to tell me things about myself. But it was the mundane information they provided that impressed me the most: your wife's car-- its left rear wheel is squeaking-- get it fixed. You have a drainage problem in your basement. Your fruit trees need pruning.
At some point I realized that Lily Dale wasn't necessarily a spiritual place. Maybe people spoke to spirits, but they were still mired in the narrow, petty, materialistic lives most of us lead. They were stressed out, too fat, too skinny, smoked too much, ate badly and they weren't happy.
Visitors, experiencing crises of faith, knocked on their doors all day, asking for their fortunes to be read. I had done that myself, many times, looking to a medium for answers. But beyond gaining a basic acceptance that there is more to my life than I usually give credence to, talking to the dead brought me no closer to understanding that greater world and how to live in it.