Lily Dale: The town that talks to the dead
Curiosity and a lost loved-one led Quentin Fottrell to New York to contact the afterlife
We sat silently on long, wooden benches by a lake in the Lily Dale Assembly, a Victorian spiritualist community in upstate New York.
We were here to contact the dead. Some of us arrived on this warm afternoon out of curiosity, others had lost loved ones. And me? Probably a little bit of both. We, the small, eclectic congregation, said a quick prayer led by the half-dozen spiritualists, or ‘mediums’, who were conducting the service. They took turns reaching out to the other side. As soon as the first took to her feet, it was down to business.
They picked a random person out of the crowd, asked questions, made a few educated guesses, sometimes found someone for whom the message rang true and then delivered a message from the other side. They’d say things like: “I see an older man. His name begins with B. Your father, is he in spirit?”
Lily Dale was founded in 1879 and is a gated community in Chautauqua County, about two hours from the Canadian border. It has little rickety houses, a wooden hotel, two outdoor temples, a restaurant, museum and a community hall where people sing hymns for those who are gone but not forgotten.
There are black-and-white photographs taken during the 19thcentury heyday of spiritualism, when it had an estimated eight million followers in America. Houdini was spotted in Lily Dale and Mae West was pictured here too, in the early 20th century.
Other reported visitors include Mahatma Gandhi, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and suffragette Susan B Anthony.
One sepia-toned picture shows hundreds of people in highcollared lace gowns and starched white shirts. These days, it’s not even as popular as Scientology.
Victorians had a fascination with angels and fairies, and were obsessed with the romantic idea of tombs, elaborate graveyards, the afterlife and Beautiful Death.
My friend and I had driven to Lily Dale across the Canadian border from Toronto to Jamestown, New York — via Niagara Falls. It was quite a trip. He’d first heard about this place when he read the book, ‘Lily Dale: the True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead' by Christine Wicker.
A lawyer by profession, he told me, as we drove through the gates of Lily Dale, that he wished he’d written that book.
It was here at Forest Temple, a small white gazebo built in 1894 by the lake, that my friend was chosen by a medium named Pauline Kay. She told him Spirit was telling her he wanted to be a writer. Not a rare ambition, granted, but it was true and eerily good timing.
She said it could take up to five years to write his book. “And,” she concluded, “I’ll leave that with you with God’s blessings.”
All spiritualists believe in an afterlife, and think it can be reached without telephone, fax, iMessage, Post-it note or carrier pigeon, but they are not all successful mediums.
I wondered if the mediums in this town who did claim to speak to the dead, tap into the collective unconscious or simply cold-read people using clues from their appearance.
I longed for a medium to come to me. None did. It’s bad enough when people don’t return your calls when they’re alive. I left feeling quietly chagrined. I had never even got a postcard from the other side to say, “The weather here is 50/50”.
But that was all five years ago. We were back and my friend had a bestselling book under his arm. He thanked Pauline Kay in the book’s acknowledgments. She had since passed on, so he couldn’t present it to her personally. I reassured him that, given her beliefs, she would probably get the message.
He donated his book to the Lily Dale Library. The clerk placed it upright on a table under a plaque dedicated to Pauline Kay. Another coincidence.
On our first day back, we attended the Annual Memorial Concert in the cavernous wooden auditorium. We sang ‘Morning Has Broken’ — the folksier Cat Stevens version. We moved on to ‘Amazing Grace’ and On Eagle’s Wings.
Then, the fun began again: contacting the dead. Those chosen by Spirit took on a celebrity status. If you saw them on the veranda of the old Maplewood Hotel, they seemed a little bit more special than everyone else.
Most of the people on that veranda were women. Spiritualism — at the very least requiring intuition for those who practise — attracts plenty of women and just a smattering of men. Regardless of gender, you have to be a registered spiritualist to live here.
Sometimes, Spirit was scarily spot-on. Rather than go to someone with vague details and initials, some spiritualists came up with names and professions. “Who’s Connie?” a medium asked at Inspiration Stump, a clearing in an old-growth forest. Connie turned out to be the first wife of a man seated in front of me. He was with his second wife and they were thrilled to hear from her.
Spirit also threw out the number “42”. This was Connie’s age when she died. “I’m getting a Charles or a Chuck?” the medium added. “And a motorbike.” Turns out, Connie left a son, Chuck, behind and wanted him to drive carefully.
Another medium said Spirit wanted to talk to a “Mary-Jo”. She was an overweight girl of about 25. “An older female figure is giving me a heart-shaped box,” the medium said.
Mary-Jo confirmed that her late aunt had given her a heart-shaped music box. “She wants you to look at your blood-sugar levels,” the medium said.
Afterwards, Mary-Jo walked away wiping away tears. (She was not the only overweight woman to be told by Spirit to look after her blood-sugar levels.)
We soon established other patterns to the readings. If a medium was seeing a blueprint and asked, incorrectly, if somebody’s late father was in construction, she immediately switched to the symbolic value of planning your life’s journey.
There were light moments too. “The cat says hi,” one medium said to a lady named Sarah. Spirit also said — correctly — that Sarah’s grandmother had a sewing machine and arthritis in her hands.
“Who can take two Bills, a Willy and a Wilhelmina?” another medium asked, looking for someone to claim these random after-lifers, as we all looked around and giggled.
One medium prefaced everything with “I feel to say...” and moved on to the next person before giving them a chance to respond. “I feel to say that you have a lot of past pain,” she told one woman. (And who doesn’t?) Her catchphrase became a running gag over our weekend: “I feel to say I’m off to Cup A Joe’s for a double-espresso,” we’d say.
Spiritualists have a sense of humour too. There was a gold sign in that coffee shop: “Don’t P*** Off The Fairies.”
On our last afternoon at Forest Temple, a medium called Gerta Lestock arrived in a flowing orange cape and cropped bleached-blonde hair. Finally, Spirit picked me. Gerta was channelling Spirit with great gusto: I was going to settle far away from home. (She hadn’t heard my Irish accent and — again, unknown to Gerta — I had recently emigrated to New York.)
That evening, we passed Gerta’s house. As I posed for a picture in front of a sign with Gerta’s name on it, Gerta popped her head out of the window and invited us in to meet Miss Nellie, her “child”. Miss Nellie was a dog. We liked Gerta a lot, so I decided to go back for a one-onone reading the next morning.
The following day, I sat on Gerta’s sun porch and she warned that she might go into a trance. I wasn’t to interrupt her. Gerta said an older man had stepped forward. He was a bit of a showman. She saw a train. I once took the DART from Sydney Parade to Howth with my late father when the DART first opened. Could it be?
It wasn’t much of an update after 10 years. He soon faded away. Still, I left with a smile on my face. Whether Gerta heard him or not in her trance, and I had my doubts, her intention was a good one: move on, don’t feel sad, live a full life.
On Sunday, I walked around the Pet Cemetery. In Lily Dale, no-one is forgotten. There was “Good Old Tuffy, the Friend of all Children, Died 9/6/1966”. And “Trigger, 1965”. Both dogs.
There was also a grave and photograph of a white horse named Topsy, “a true and faithful friend of Lily Dale”, cared for by a man named Harve Weaver; Topsy hauled the ice off the lake in winter. She fell through the ice and died on February 13, 1900. More than 100 years later, Topsy had the eternal gratitude of the Lily Dale Assembly for all her hard work.
We took a walk by the lake that last day. We had taken stock of our lives, remembered those who were no longer with us and looked ahead to the finite time we ourselves had left.
“I don’t think we communed with the dead,” my writer friend said as we packed our bags to leave, “but we did commune with each other.” We vowed to return to Lily Dale one day. It is a unique place.
As for the existence of an afterlife, or our ability contact it? I am still less than sure about that.
The Lily Dale Assembly is three hours from Toronto or one hour from Buffalo. Fly Air Transat (airtransat.com) to Toronto from Dublin/ Belfast or Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) to JFK and transfer on Jet Blue to Buffalo.
It’s $10 (€7) for a one-day pass to Lily Dale (001 716 595 8721; lilydaleassembly. com). The Leolyn Hotel is nearby, or inside the walls is the Maplewood Hotel, both $49 (€34.50) for single rooms or $69 (€48.60) for doubles, prices unchanged in four years. For reservations at both, call the Maplewood on 001 716 595 2505.
Jamestown, the birthplace of Lucille Ball, is about an hour away. The main street is devoted to all about Lucy. You can visit the Lucy Desi Museum or the Lucy Desi Museum Gift Shop (both on 001 716 484 0800). Ball’s gravestone is heart-shaped and has the inscription: “We loved Lucy.” Ellicottville is an hour from Lily Dale. There is golfing, hiking and skiing. A 880-mile hiking trail goes from Allegany State Park through Ellicottville and continues to the Catskills. The Edelweiss Lodge (001 716 699 2734; edelweissskilodge.com) has rooms from $75 (€53) and is a short walk from the town.