a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

No contact here with the dead, for me anyhow

Judgement, originally uploaded by srinehuls.

POMFRET, NY – At the gated entrance to a village where people claim to converse with the dead, I reach for a $10 bill to pay the price of a day’s admission, eager to test the water and consult a medium.

The attendant smiles, hands me a guide to the unincorporated village of Lilly Dale in New York wine country and quickly opens it to a map of its streets.

“Have you been here before?” she asks.

“No,” I say.

“Well if you hurry, you can make it to the service at Inspiration Stump,” she says. “It starts in a few minutes. It’s something you don’t want to miss.”

Curious, I drive off, following a narrow lane only to be struck by a sudden uneasy loss of any sense of direction. The narrow roads, built for horse-drawn buggies in the 1800s, follow circular or oval paths unlike the orderly grid-pattern streets that can be found in most towns and cities in the United States.

I find a place ahead to park, grab the map and begin my journey to the mysterious tree stump in the woods.

The streets here are lined with impeccably maintained Victorian-era cottages on postage stamp-sized lots. Many of the houses have signs posted on their doors that indicate the medium who lives inside is either not home or has a booked schedule. There goes my shot at reaching out to my dearly departed great-aunt Blanche, who supposedly knew all the skeletons in the closets of my mom’s side of the family.

This oasis on Cassadaga Lake dates to 1879 and is supposed to be the largest spiritualist center in the world. It's roots are affiliated with the Fox sisters, Katie and Margaret, who at ages 11 and nine, respectively, on March 31, 1848, told people they held conversations with ghosts that had taken up residence in their home’s walls in Hydesville, NY. Their “haunted house” ended up being moved in 1916 to Lily Dale only to burn to the ground four decades later. The girls have long been credited with launching America’s spiritualist movement, even though some historians have labeled them pranksters.

On the sunny early August afternoon that I stroll these streets, nearly 50 Canadian believers are holding one of many conventions that are held here each year. A white-haired guy at the podium insists that most nonbelievers must first experience a physical apparition, such as seeing a bottle move on its own across a table or hearing some unexplained rapping in their homes, before they buy into spiritualism.

At the nearby corner of Library and East streets, another older gentlemen talks with a young couple inside the one-room Lily Dale Museum about his interpretations of handshake energy he receives when he greets people. Instead, I concentrate on an old photo of Susan B. Anthony and am surprised to learn that the famous suffragette once held court in town. She recognized the Lily Dale Assembly for its equal treatment of women, whom she believed were oppressed by Christianity. Down the wall is a series of portraits with piercing eyes the museum insists appeared by themselves on paper at the hands of spirits.

The museum is a short walk from Leolyn Forest, where services have been held since 1898. The historic stump is down a path from a creepy pet cemetery that even holds the remains of a horse. Circled in ducky stones, it’s the grave of Topsy, a white horse that plowed snow from local streets and died Feb. 13, 1900, when it fell through thin ice on the lake.

The ancient woods turn dark and damp under old-growth pine and maple trees. There gathered before the stump are about 100 people seated in park benches. A bird chirps nonstop from a nearby branch as resident or visiting mediums take turns at the stage to channel the dead among the people they handpick from the audience.

This is where things become foggy. The channeled information seems like stuff that could fit into anyone’s life. One woman claims to be on the line with a white-haired regal looking woman in the spirit world. “Do you know who I mean?” the medium asks.

The audience member smiles and nods her head in agreement.

The medium then tells her the dead lady wants her to slow down, that she is biting off more than she can handle. The audience member is in joy, and leaves with some vague message about a teacup.

Come on. Who doesn’t have a special regal aunt, grandmother or great-grandmother who no longer walks the land? And name an average American who isn’t overworked if he or she has enough money to buy the gasoline for the car to get to Lily Dale along with the admission to this out-of-the-ordinary destination.

While Lily Dale is fun to see, it’s going to take a visit from Aunt Blanche spouting off family secrets during a full moon to convert me to this church.


Anonymous said...

Your doctored photo of the stump is not very funny; is in fact, insulting to a religion many take very seriously. I doubt that anyone here tried to convert you to his/her belief system. Spiritualism welcomes seekers, even skeptics, but also recognizes those of any faith and those who practice it would not go to another's sacred site and be insulting. L.A.W.

Scott Beveridge said...

I don't know if the photo is real or fake. It's not mine. I found it on Flickr and think it's pretty cool. The links to the source are right under the picture.
I also wasn't trying to insult anyone, either. I went there with an open mind, a dose of skepticism and think the place is worth a visit.

Amanda Gillooly said...

I still want to go. I'm into it.