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Lily Dale by Christine Wicker

My great grandparents, Tint and Emma Champlin, had a house in Lily Dale, New York. Like many in their generation —including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle— they were Spiritualists. Which is to say, they believed that the spirits of the dead could be contacted, and that there were spirits of all kinds, human and otherwise, lingering about us, influencing us, typically for the good if we had the interest to listen.

I even have a few letters received from Tint’s deceased mother from the other side, transcribed from automatic writing, which some psychics or mediums claimed to be able to perform.

So when I was given the book, “Lily Dale,” by a friend, I was naturally excited and curious to read it.

The writer visited Lily Dale in the early 2000s, long after its heyday, but though it is a shabby remnant of its late 1800s and early 20th century popularity, it continues to attract believers, tourists, the curious and those who remain convinced they can channel guides and the dead.

The writer, while billing herself a reporter, has entered her story as a full-blown character, which makes for interesting reading, but a certain edge. She goes to Lily Dale with the intent to remain skeptical; but seems to be drawn into its energy —often against her will and better judgement— and finds herself confounded and maybe even a little concerned.

Lily Dale is a Victorian village, full of quaint gingerbread cottages, near the much larger and more famous Chatauqua Institution – which transformed itself into a center for the arts as well as investigation and learning. Lily Dale dug in its heels and remained as it had been when it was founded in 1879. Originally incorporated as Cassadaga Lake Free Association, a campground for Spiritualists and Freethinkers, the place changed its name to City of Light in 1903, and eventually to Lily Dale Assembly in 1906.

The “big question” with all investigations into the paranormal is simple: “is it real?” Such famous persons as Harry Houdini were convinced it was not; and spent a great deal of time and energy using his famous talents for trickery to demonstrate that, in fact, it was all tricks and illusions, used to gull the gullible. Among the many so-called “mediums” of the Spiritualist wave that swept across New York State in the late 1800s were the Fox Sisters – who later admitted that they had devised tricks such as cracking their big toes loudly enough to convince visitors that they were hearing “raps” from spirit visitors.

Wicker “outs” one famous medium’s trick (a medium is a person who claims to have developed special powers to receive and transmit messages from The Other Side). This one is the “billet” message. In this game, someone in the audience is in league with the medium. People in the audience are asked to write a question on a “billet,” or slip of paper. These are folded and dropped into a basket. The medium is handed one of the questions, and, without reading it, holds the billet to his or her forehead, eyes closed. The medium then channels the question, and the answer, and often the dead person who has sent the message to the audience member. The partner in the audience screams in joy, weeps, and is released from grief as the question is “answered.” Then the medium opens the question, glances at it, balls it up, and throws it away —meanwhile, the medium reads a real question— and then the game, as they say, is afoot. The medium is one question ahead of the answer, but from that point on, knows what questions have genuinely been asked, and is able to at least hint at an answer.

But, as Wicker tells us, not all mediumship is trickery. Yes, many of the so-called psychics and mediums at the height of the Spiritualist movement were charlatans and essentially, street magicians – using tricks and misdirection, as well as a deep knowledge of human psychology, to convince often grieving, confused and unhappy people that their deepest doubts and questions have been answered from beyond. But some of them, she simply could not explain or understand, except to admit that they had something going on.

Her story is told in a quixotic fashion – leaving you hanging at the end of a chapter only to change up subjects at the beginning of the next, returning to the thread several chapters later. While it’s an interesting trick, it’s almost akin to the tricks she attempts to disprove: distract, and then if the reader doesn’t have the patience to go back and find the original story that was dropped mid-tale, he or she is likely to ride along with the second and even third parts as they appear later in the book, without consulting the setup.

But she writes in a personal, easy to read, first person narrative style, and leaves you feeling that you’ve been on her adventure with her – meeting the mediums, dismissing the obvious fakes and intrigued by the more subtle, or possibly even real communicants with the other worlds that perhaps, just maybe, swirl all around us all the time.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.