Thursday August 19, 2010 – Day 1

This is the beginning of my travelogue for our trip to New York, Niagara Falls and Lily Dale.

Sure, I'm looking forward to Niagara Falls. I am too. But let's face it: I've seen Victoria Falls in Zambia and Iguazu Falls in Brazil. I've set my expectations pretty low. I'm more interested in Lily Dale.

What? What is Lily Dale, you ask? You've never heard of it? I'll tell you what I know:

Have you ever watched an episode of Medium or Ghost Whisperer on television? Have you watched the movie, “The Sixth Sense”? Remember the line, “I see dead people.”? Well, some people actually do claim to be mediums: in contact with dead people. In fact, there's a whole town of them called Lily Dale.

Kathy and I have talked about going to Lily Dale for several years. I had actually never heard of the place until around the year 2000 when an Internet friend of mine named Julia Melges-Brenner told me she was excited about going to Lily Dale and taking some classes. She made it sound like a very cool place. “Some day I've got to get there to see what it's like” I thought.

A few years later, I was shopping at a bookstore when I saw a new book called “Lily Dale: The Town The Talks To The Dead” by Christine Wicker. The book intrigued me for a number of years until finally I bought it and read it. That made me want to visit there even more. “Some day...”

For people who don't know about it, Lily Dale is where the religion of Spiritualism was born and grew up in the United States. Actually, as I understand it, the religion of Spiritualism was started in the year 1848 in a tiny town near Buffalo New York, when two young sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, heard rapping noises in their house. They concluded the house was haunted. Being good Christians, at first they thought it was the Devil and called it “Mister Split-Foot,” referring to the Satan's supposedly cloven hooves. But because they were only children (nine and eleven years old) they were not afraid and established a system to communicate with the ghost. “One knock means yes, two knocks means no.” That kind of thing.

Eventually they devised a scheme where different raps corresponded to different letters of the alphabet. Through rapping, the ghost identified himself as the spirit of a peddler who had been murdered in the house many years before. The peddler identified himself by name.

They say that in 1904, some children playing at the supposedly haunted house where the Fox family had lived discovered a crumbling wall in a basement. Behind it was the skeleton of a man. Many years later, one of the walls under the house crumbled and fell to reveal the dead man's belongings and bones. It was a second, false-wall built by the previous owner to conceal his crime.

Not long after that, a group of people who called themselves the “Free Thinkers” started meeting near the place where Lily Dale is today. The place started to attract forward-thinking speakers who gave lectures and held rallies there. The famous American Susan B. Anthony gave several rallies at Lily Dale to promote the women's suffragette movement which gave women the right to vote. Eventually, Lily Dale evolved into Spiritualism and many of the famous mediums lived, worked and taught there.

The Free Thinkers were forward-thinking. They were one of the first cities in the United States that had electricity. They installed a big noisy generator by the lake and strung light bulbs throughout the town. Then they put up a sign that read “City of Light”. Eventually, they replaced the sign with another that said Lily Dale, named for the lake nearby which harbored lots of lilies.

The religion of Spiritualism became very popular across the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to one historian we talked to, one United States Census listed the population of the United States as twenty million people, and eleven million people professed to be in the Spiritualist religion. So well over half the population. People all over the country were holding seances in their living rooms and parlors on a weekly basis. The game company Parker Brothers started selling lots of Ouija boards.

As the religion grew, people demanded more and more proof of communication with the dead, so mediums started doing physical manifestations: they did slate writing, spirit photography, levitation, table tipping and such. Then disreputable people, eager to cash in on the phenomena, started devising ways to trick and deceive believers. They perpetrated fraud and passed it off as real spiritual phenomena. Scientists started studying the mediums. Some did feats and fooled many of the lead scientists of the time.

Then stage magicians like Harry Houdini devised ways to replicate many of the physical tricks, and eventually the scientists and magicians exposed many of the mediums as frauds. Unfortunately, most people lost all faith in Spiritualism, even though many of the mediums were, in many people's opinions, genuine. Some of the mediums were never exposed as frauds. Perhaps the best of these was Daniel Dunglas Home, who supposedly levitated out one window of his house and back in another window, with several scientists present.

Still, the public threw out the baby with the bath water and abandoned Spiritualism almost as fast as they had embraced it. The religion died back until now there's just small pockets like Lily Dale.

Every summer, the town of Lily Dale opens their gates to the public: believers and curiosity seekers, eager to get psychic readings, learn about Spiritualism and take psychic development classes. Armed with our curiosity and eager to learn, Kathy and I decided to finally visit Lily Dale.

So today we drove after work to Wisconsin Dells. While we drove, we called ahead and made hotel reservations at Ho Chunk casino. I won $120.00 at the casino, but ended up giving all but $75.00 back. Still, it was fun. Kathy broke even, so she had a good time too.