Lily Dale, on Cassadagah Lake in upstate New York, is one of those places where a spell has been cast, or conjured. It is a small town, a hamlet or village really, of Spiritualists. Founded in 1879, it is the oldest Spiritualist community in the world. That we know of.
At the time Wicker wrote this book it had a population of 450 residents in the summer, although upwards of 20,000 tourists flocked there. In winter months the place shrinks as registered mediums go elsewhere, usually south, leaving only about half the houses inhabited year-round.
Spiritualism is generally credited to, or blamed on, the Fox sisters, Kate & Margaret, who communicated, they claimed, with spirits who used knockings or table or wall rapping in elementary codes. This began in 1848 when their family moved into a house in Hydesville, NY. Later confessions said these knockings were faked, and those confessions were later recanted, having been issued in order to get money offered them by religious groups opposed to encouraging spirit communications. One’s conscience, or cynicism, must be the guide here.
While it is evident such things as spirit boards, divining rods, pendulums, crystal gazing, scrying, and other means of communing with spirits had existed for millennia — ask the Delphic Oracles, for instance — the Hyde Sisters created a huge public stir and interest in Spiritualism, or the communication with spirits, exploded in popularity. Spirits were generally thought to be the shades of dead people but demons and djinn and other forms quickly got into the act, much to Harry Houdini’s disgust.
Christine Wicker is an excellent, sharp-eyed reporter with a charmingly ironic take on things. Her approach to Lily Dale is part personal quest, curiosity, and assignment. She is skeptical but open-minded and fair, and eventually learns to let things flow without questioning them too much at the time. This helps her experience things she otherwise might have missed.
This is an engaging, amusing book full of wonderful anecdotes, trenchant character sketches of various eccentrics, and a human, genuine affection for her subjects, even as she keeps their claims mostly at arm’s length. Turns out, most of the folks in Lily Dale are highly skeptical of each other, too. Turns out, they are a contented, happy lot, and not nearly as mindless as many would have us think.
Finding ways to be happy in this world, this veil of tears, is not easy, but it can be, if we get out of our own way. Wicker finds this out slowly, and never fully. By fighting and struggling and straining to make her way in life, she made things hard for her. By learning to accept things as they are, and as they come, she was able to relax into a much more productive mode, even though she was never a slacker. Far from it.
We meet so many folks she includes a partial list of characters in the back of the book. She also includes a couple pages of excellent suggestions for further reading, prime among them the work of William James, the famous and ground-breaking American psychologist, brother to writer Henry.
Much of Lily Dale is Wicker confirming, to her own surprise, James’s conclusions from the 1800s, when he was a found of and active in the Society for Psychical Research. Where Houdini found only cynical exploitation of the bereaved, James found genuine flashes of amazing ability amidst the dross of fakery and fraud. He even understood that some genuine mediums learned to fake in order to continue pleasing clients when their natural gifts got tired.
Wicker does not set out to prove or disprove. Her interest is the people. Why do they believe and behave as they do? Does it help or harm them? Is it based on delusions, projected hopes, or is it mere patter, a carny barker’s advertisement for this or that type of ESP? She is also deeply interested in the spiritual impulse in most people. Why do we respond to such things so deeply? Why do some crave it enough to allow themselves to be duped?
These and other questions she raises are serious but the book maintains a generally light, bemused tone. It sprawls among many people she meets, to the point she must remind us now and then which person she is now talking about. Oddly, this lack of overt order doesn’t matter by the end of the book. It was never about portraiture.
Christine Wicker is a hard-core physics devotee. She is a hard-headed skeptic. She is reality-based and grounded in materialism. These flaky folks with their readings are alien to her and she is justifiably curious. She is as unlike today’s cheating, lying debunkers as a poltergeist is from a residual haunt. She is not desperate to dismiss even the discussion of things paranormal, as the debunkers are. She has no fear, no dread, and no mistrust of reality, despite baggage from her religious upbringing, which she readily admits to.
This book was a brief sensation when it first came out but it’s nearly forgotten now in the welter of ghost hunting merchandise flooding us today. It’s well worth finding and reading; check your library or the used books section of your favorite online provider. Skeptic, believer, or anyone else will enjoy this book thanks to its discursive style and level-headed, honest accounts.
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