Spiritualism in America began in New York in the mid-1800's, arguably when
a ten-year-old farm girl named Kate began interpreting a knocking sound as
messages from another world. In the same part of the state revivalism of
all sorts flourished, Joseph Smith saw the angel Moroni who presented him
golden tablets, and the Shakers established their original sanctuary.
The spiritualist movement progressed through years of high boil notoriety
and the public exposure of blatant chicanery in the early part of the
1900's, and survived to its present simmer. The town of Lily Dale is
actually an unincorporated village where an assortment of mostly women claim
to communicate with the unincorporated departed.
Journalist Christine Wicker penetrated into the mysteries of Lily Dale and
has written a delightful and intriguing chronicle of her relationship with
the town and its inhabitants. The word "relationship" applies, because though
she began her encroachment as a reporter, she ended by becoming a believer.
Or at least partially so:
"One minute I could believe, and then someone
would push me too far. I would hit the eye-rolling threshold and stop. As
far as Lily Dale was concerned, I was in for a penny, but not for a pound.
Wicker had sessions with some of Lily Dale's best visionaries, psychics, or
sensitives, whatever term best applies. After the most significant of these,
she counted five hits and three misses in the factual details she had been given.
Many people predictably told her that the book wasn't why she'd come to Lily
Dale -- that it was about her heart. That she would learn to open her heart.
After one too many of these generic pronouncements, with which Lily Dale
unfortunately abounds, Wicker finally declared that she thought her heart
was open pretty well, thank you. But she admits in many different ways that
the knowledge shared with her by Lily Dale's denizens did change her heart
and open her mind, helping her detach from stress and develop a more
aid-back approach to her work even as she did her writerly task of
Wicker's book looks at the spiritualist movement warts and all. It's a
group think which always has the next answer waiting and can slough off the
obvious failures and inconsistencies because inconsistency is a built-in
part of the phenomenon. It's also highly individualistic and celebrates
independence of mind. Spiritualism is for the most part a gift given to
women, and it has been suggested that the women in question are physically
weak, perhaps abused or neglected as children, who cope with pain and sorrow
by dissociating. They become sensitive to personality, and link this
sensitivity with imagined (or real?) entities which they characterize as
guides or angels. They develop, or innately possess, an ability to "see" or
"hear" messages transmitted from another world. This world they believe is
where the spirits of the dead reside.
It doesn't get much muddier than that. Or much clearer. Wicker points out
that people who come to Lily Dale are pretty normal folks, many of them in a
state of grief and looking for real answers about a particular lost loved
one. Others want to develop their own powers of extra normal perception,
perhaps building on experiences they have had since childhood.
Some want to see tables move -- and when a large top-heavy table falls after
considerable bouncing about, that seems pretty much in line with natural law
-- but how does it right itself? Surely fingertips didn't do that! So Lily
Dale and its wispy wacky mediums win out as often as they lose. Some
mediums will tell you that commercialism caused the movement to fall into
disrepute, but this was not because the mediums of that time were dishonest
but because they were responding to demands by the clients they so
submissively served. Others will say that if mediums don't charge enough
for their services, they will not give as strong a reading. The inhabitants
of Lily Dale don't just respond to criticism -- they welcome it and laugh it
off with a merry, fairy tinkle of spirit gaiety. It's like they invented
The contradictions multiply and Wicker, for all her pushing against it,
couldn't break the code. She ended up being bent, happily, by it. She
quite amicably describes Lily Dale as "dreamy and full of good
will...that's partly why people who move there think they've found a little
paradise. Neighbors help one another. Old people are looked after and
included in gatherings. When someone falls sick, everyone knows it and
helps." She compares it to Mayberry!
A Mayberry which derives its raison d'etre from sadness. But the good
witches, as we might call them, of Lily Dale, learn to ignore sadness by
trying to help seekers build on the possibilities for hope and good old
optimism. The medium nowadays is more of a (Lily) Dale Carnegie graduate,
sunny and somewhat sassy, than a spooky figure lurking in a darkened
Victorian parlor. When the parlor tricks are taken away, and the sincerity
laid on, Lily Dale comes into its own as the Mayberry of muddled mediumistic