Lily Dale: A Rainy Day with the Spirits

During my road trip I got to do a few things outside of Pagandom, one of them was visiting Lily Dale, a Spiritualist community in Western (western) New York. Lily Dale is a place that brings out mixed feelings in me. I’m fascinated by it, while also being (mostly) a skeptic. I’m skeptical of mediums, I’m not skeptical about ghosts. I’ve had real life encounters with ghosts and I’m firmly convinced that we share this world with a spirit or two.

While I’ve been to Lily Dale before, I’ve never visited it during a period of twenty four hour rain. The wet both enhanced and limited our trip to Lily Dale. The overcast skies seemed to fit the idea of spirits and the Victorian architecture. The rain meant that we hurried from place to place and probably spent too much time at the gift shop. (Weirdly the rain doesn’t ever show up in the pictures I took, that’s the power of Spirit.)


Sepia tone only because my phone was near battery death, on the plus side things look cooler this way.

The Spiritualism of the 19th Century fascinated me as a kid (and still holds a lot of appeal today). Mediums in that era were said to produce physical phenomenon. Spirit writing would appear on formerly blank chalk slates, people watched paintings magically appear on blank canvases, mediums produced ectoplasm, and of course weird sounds were a part of the proceedings. That stuff fascinates me, and while I’m pretty sure the majority of it could be attributed to “parlor tricks,” it’s amazing how many people believed in it. I read a figure once that 20% of Americans were Spiritualists* (or believed in the phenomenon) in the post-Civil War period. That’s a huge number, and something very rarely mentioned in the history books.

Spiritualism at Lily Dale today is nothing like it was in the 19th Century. There are no french horns suspended in the air, no raps signifying yes or no, connection to spirit is done entirely through mediums. If you’ve ever watched John Edward (not the politician) on television then you know exactly what it’s like. Since I’m far too cheap to pay for a one on one reading at Lily Dale most of my interaction with the mediums there have been at Inspiration Stump.


Inspiration Stump

Inspiration Stump is a tranquil spot tucked into the woods of Lily Dale where mediums come to give some of us who have paid our ten dollar admission free cold readings. Decades ago mediums used to stand on The Stump so they could be heard (and seen) by the assembled masses. Today The Stump is more of a backdrop (it’s not in the best of shape so no one stands on it anymore) and the mediums use microphones. Since gatherings at The Stump generally attract large audiences (anywhere between 50 and 100 people) only a small handful get a reading.

During a service at Inspiration Stump you might see ten or twelve different mediums. Most readings at The Stump begin one of two ways. Some mediums stand in front of the crowd and begin relating random information. “I’m getting something from a Nora or a Noreen or an Eleanor. I’m sensing she has a problem with her throat, there’s something radiating from just below her chin down to her upper chest. Perhaps she was a smoker or had a problem with her speech. Does that mean anything to anyone in the audience?” Usually at least one or two hands will go up at this point and the medium will then give a message from the spirit to one (or sometimes both) of the people whose hands went up. Sometimes the medium will ask a few additional questions and interact with the person getting the reading. Usually the response to the medium is positive, but I’ve seen a few instances where the person getting the reading reacts negatively. One medium told an individual that he could picture that person “dancing.” The person getting the reading replied through gritted teeth “I’m in a wheelchair.” It was pretty awkward.

The second method I’ve witnessed at Lily Dale leaves no room for argument. The medium runs up to the front of assembly, picks someone out of the audience, and then doesn’t let the person getting the reading say anything. I was fascinated by this, and when I got out of Lily Dale I began giving people “readings” in this fashion for the rest of the week. “I see someone standing behind you. They are wearing blue pants and a white shirt. They are telling me that there are big changes coming up in your life. In October you are going to come to a door that will change you forever. The spirit is telling me that they are going to push you through that door. That’s right, they are going to push you, and you may not even realize it at the time. In December or January you are going to be somewhere thinking about the past year and you are going to look back and say, ‘that’s it, that’s the time spirit pushed me through the door.’ So be waiting for it, it’s going to happen, and spirit will get you through it.”

I witnessed a reading nearly exactly like that and I thought it was awesome. There was nothing awkward about it at all, and the person getting the reading seemed genuinely excited about it. You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m pretty skeptical about all of this, but at the same time I don’t think there’s anything bad about it. If it’s real then it’s all for the better, and if it’s not I think the idea of spirits watching over us or relating messages from the other side is probably beneficial to a lot of people. It gives solace, comfort, and hope. I have a hard time being angry about that.


There’s a lot of pretty at Lily Dale.

The friends I went to Lily Dale with weren’t quite as skeptical as I was, and they thought that several of the readings we witnessed at The Stump were genuinely real. While I disagreed, I did concede that it was possible. Until I get a private reading from a registered Lily Dale psychic I can’t discount everything entirely. I have a feeling that readings at The Stump are probably not ideal for either medium or readee.


Slate with spirit writing from the Lily Dale Museum.

While I’m mostly a skeptic, as a fan of Spiritualism and the unexplained Lily Dale was like an amusement park. Visiting the Lily Dale Museum and getting to see old slates, megaphones, and other things involved in seances was a thrill for me. The slates were especially interesting as many of them still had stuff written on them from the 19th Century. I don’t think the people I was with were as excited about this side of Lily Dale as I was, but they put up with my slow trek through the museum with a great deal of patience.


Raymond Buckland’s car at Lily Dale, as a Witch this was definitely a highlight. Blue tone caused by the power of Bucky’s Big Blue Book a mistake with my phone.

Perhaps it’s the long hair, but during my most recent trip to Lily Dale I ended up talking to a lot of (living) people I didn’t know. I had one woman ask me if everything at Lily Dale was as uninspiring as the afternoon we shared together at The Stump. I told her that the private readings were better, so some medium at Lily Dale currently owes me twenty bucks. I also had a lot of people nod at me, I’m nearly convinced that some of them thought that I might be a medium. Anytime I’m visiting someone else’s spiritual home I do my best to be respectful. I might mostly be a skeptic but I don’t wear that emotion on my sleeve. I think most people only saw my excitement at visiting a living part of history.

(My friend Lauren beat me posting about our experiences at Lily Dale. Her blog has a different take on our adventures, and more pictures of Lily Dale.)

*Today Spiritualism is a religion. For many people in the 19th and early 20th Centuries spiritualism was probably a supplement to their own beliefs.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Michelle

    It was a very fun day. Thanks for suggesting it and taking us along with you! Well written!


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