New York, The East

Maximum Mediums: Communicating with the Dead in Lily Dale, NY

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Lily Dale, a secluded Victorian-era community in upstate New York, is home to more than 40 spirit mediums, all communicating with the dead.

Established in 1879, Lily Dale, a secluded Victorian-era community in upstate New York, is home to more than 40 spirit mediums, all communicating with the dead.

My medium was striking out. Oh sure, she had gotten June.  Sitting in a white wicker chair in the sunroom at the back of her Victorian home on a flower-lined street in Lily Dale, she had gotten June, my mother’s lifelong friend who had passed away recently. But that wasn’t too difficult. My mother had just been in for a reading before me. Obviously, June had been discussed.  So now June was saying hello to me from the other side. Okay.
But then my medium started striking out. She saw a man with a badge, a policeman or firefighter. No badge. I don’t know any such person. And a man with a pipe. Nope. No pipe.

She closed her eyes again and came back with the name Jane or January. The name Jane means nothing to me when it comes to the deceased. Maybe something significant is coming in the month of January, she suggested. A birthday, an anniversary.  Sorry.

Lily Dale houses with signs advertising spirit mediums.

Walking through Lily Dale, you see house after house with a sign out front declaring this to be the home of a spirit medium. Thousands flock here each summer to visit them.

She had a whole list of names. Ed and Frank and John and Elizabeth and Evelyn, all of them meaningless to me. It occurred to me that John and Elizabeth and January are the names of the actors on Madmen, which I’ve been watching lately. But why the actors on Madmen would be communicating to me through a spirit medium is beyond me.

Then she said, “I’ve got an Anna, or Ann. Then also Maria. Maybe Anna Maria.  Do you know somebody named Anna Maria? It could be someone among the living.”

I was discouraged, ready to chuck the whole thing, all $85 worth. “No,” I said without giving it much thought. “Don’t know such a person.”

Now she concentrated intently, gripping the arms of her chair, scrunching her eyes. “I’m getting a Jim very strong. Is there a Jim?”

Seance

In the aftermath of the Civil War Spiritualism became a huge national fad. Lily Dale was established during that time.

I thought of my uncle Jim who passed away about ten years ago, although I couldn’t imagine why he would be trying to contact me. He hadn’t shown much interest in me when he was alive.

“I see a white-haired man sitting in a chair with his legs up.” I thought maybe this was my stepfather, Gil. But it occurred to me I was grasping at straws.  There were a few more visions: an elderly woman with bushy white hair canning fruit. Somebody with something wrong with her head. Somebody who felt repressed in her life but is flourishing now in the afterlife.

In the end I actually apologized to Jessie Furst, the medium who had done her level best to get me into contact with the spirit world. I wasn’t exactly the best candidate for a reading, I had suffered no recent losses, I wasn’t grieving and I wasn’t disappointed with my life, hungry for someone, anyone, to provide direction.

Jessie seemed to take it all in stride. She had my $85 after all.  But then I went out and talked to my mother. We compared notes.  “I was contacted by June,” I said offhandedly.

“That’s funny,” said my mother, “because she never contacted me.”

I paused, turning to my mother in slowly dawning comprehension, “Are you telling me that June never came up in your session?”

“I never mentioned her once.”

I felt a chill go down my spine.  Where did Jessie get that name?

 

Gnomes May be Real

My mother and I at Lily Dale

I went with my mother Adele to Lily Dale to see if we could communicate with the dead. Neither one of us were particularly persuaded it was possible – at first.

I first heard of Lily Dale in a song by Natalie Merchant.

Some think it’s so haunting to be drawn to the cemetery ground, there’s a stillness here thankful found, God’s acre is a fenced in hollow ground.

Later I became aware that Lily Dale was a place where spirit mediums and clairvoyants gather each summer to share community and ply their trade. Established in 1879 this tiny Victorian-era village of 350 permanent residents is home to more than 40 spirit mediums, drawing thousands of visitors to hear lectures on New Age subjects like spiritual alchemy, chakra balancing, crystal energy, past lives, dowsing, and auras. While we were there, a visiting Icelandic professor was conducting a workshop on elves, fairies and gnomes. In case you’re curious, they pop in and out from another dimension, which is why they’re so hard to pin down.

Adele Bowen high fives a gnome at Lily Dale

My mother high-fives a gnome in Lily Dale.

Suffice it to say, there’s plenty of room for skepticism at Lily Dale, but I tried to approach it with an open mind. I had never been to a spirit medium before, never had my fortune told or my palm read. I had certainly never entertained the notion that gnomes might be real. But like all things that involve the human capacity for belief, I was fascinated. It little matters to me that most people are skeptical and others consider it outright fraud, the fact that a substantial percentage of Americans (up to 40% by some accounts) consider the spirit world plausible is enough for me. I wanted to check it out.

 

Spiritualism 101

Silver Tea at Lily Dale

My mother and I arrived on the night of the Silver Tea, a kind of opening gala to inaugurate the summer season at Lily Dale.

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My mother and I arrived on the night of the Silver Tea, a kind of opening gala to inaugurate the summer season at Lily Dale, which runs from late June to mid September. About 300 people were gathered in the auditorium to nosh on a complimentary buffet, mingle and get acquainted.

The vast majority of these people are Spiritualists, a belief system loosely comparable to a religion that postulates that the dead go on living in another realm, and that they can communicate with us through mediums, and that they may have something important to say.

Mixed up with this is the ability on the part of some mediums to see the future. Whether or not this clairvoyance comes directly from the spirits is an open question, but the common denominator is a spiritual energy, perhaps related to the soul, that emanates from each of us, and which certain gifted individuals can tap into, whether you’re living or dead, and which tells them a great deal about us.

We sat down at a table with six other people and got acquainted. I told them I wrote a travel blog and handed them my card. One of them, a fellow named Claude, asked me to write my name on a napkin. He took it from me, pondered it, and then beckoned me over to him. He told me some interesting things about myself.

 

Clairvoyants at Lily Dale

Claude (right) with his friends at Lily Dale. He told me some interesting things about my future. I was intrigued.

Claude Tells my Future

He told me I traveled a lot and was a creative person, both of which he could’ve gotten from reading my business card. This did nothing to alleviate my skepticism. Then he told me I was a hard worker. But everybody thinks they’re a hard worker. He told me that I ought to be in a lot higher position professionally.  I agreed with that, naturally. Then he told me I was planning a trip overseas, which was true. In fact, my wife and I had just booked our airfare for Rome for May. Then he told me I was going on a trip in the spring, probably in May. That was pretty impressive. Then he started telling me things I didn’t know.

The lake at Lily Dale

The lake at Lily Dale. We may not be able to see what lies ahead but gifted folks like Claude can see what lies over the horizon.  I was completely supportive of what he revealed to me.

He told me that this trip was going to be important because I was going to achieve something I’d been working on for years.  Furthermore, he said I was going to make a new friend and that my new friend would be an important person in my life going forward and that my whole life was about to flourish and expand in an exciting new direction. I must say I was completely supportive of this version of my future.

But then he told me that my grandfather likes what I’m doing because he was a big traveler too. This was news to me. He told me my grandfather often rode a bicycle. Which I had no knowledge of. And he told me I’m planning a big move soon, and I told him I was not, and he told me I was, and in the end I decided not argue with him because he seemed so excited for me.

It occurred to me that half of what Claude told me could be figured out from the available clues and the other half was speculation of the sort designed to stroke my ego. As for his stabs in the dark – the trip overseas, the season of my travel, my grandfather’s penchant for travel, his bicycle riding, and my big move – he was only two for five, about what you’d get from a roulette wheel.

I wasn’t about to sign up as a Spiritualist. But what the heck, the reading was gratis. The next day I would shell out $85 for pretty much the same thing.

 

Throwing the Healer for a Loop

Victorian home in Lily Dale

The lovely Victorian architecture in Lily Dale transports you back to an earlier, simpler time, a time when almost half of all Americans believed you could speak to the dead.

The next morning my mother and I went to the Healing Temple, a tranquil chapel on the fringe of the woods in Lily Dale where healing energies are channeled through the auras of gifted individuals, what religious charismatics refer to as “the laying on of hands.” Here ten healers in white medical jackets and sensible shoes stand behind ten seated participants. They hold their flattened palms inches from the temples of their subjects, or lay their hands gently on their shoulders, or wrap them lightly around their brows.

Presumably all these people are suffering from one ailment or another and are being cured. Some people are up there for 15 minutes or more. Everyone gets a crack at it, though. An usher directs the audience members one by one to the seats to be healed as they become available. I’m afraid I threw my healer for a loop when I sat down.  When he bent over to find out what was wrong with me, I told him, “Nothing.”

Adele Bowen pets a cat at the pet cemetery in Lily Dale

A cat appears out of nowhere and approaches my mother at the pet cemetery in Lily Dale. Our medium told her that her departed felines were reaching out to her.

He paused for a second to digest this and then said, “It can be spiritual or physical.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Nothing wrong with me.”

“Life is good,” he commented, a little snippily. Then he gave me a healing that lasted about 30 seconds and sent me packing.

Outside, sitting on a park bench, mom was impressed. She found the whole experience emotional and uplifting.

“But did you feel anything?” I asked her.

“It was nice,” she said.  “I liked it.”

“I’m glad I didn’t pay for it,” I said.

 

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I Hear a Helicopter

A medium gives a reading at Lily Dale

The medium told her all the good luck she’d been experiencing lately was no accident. The spirits were watching over her.

After lunch we headed back to the auditorium for the afternoon service, which is dominated by medium demonstrations. Here a selection of spirit mediums takes turns standing in front of an audience giving impromptu readings.

These mediums are no slouches. To practice at Lily Dale you have to be approved by a board and demonstrate an 80% accuracy rate. Two-thirds of the mediums that apply here are rejected. Claude, for the record, was not a Lily Dale medium, just a tourist with a special gift.

The first medium to step in front of the audience was Jessie Furst, the woman who would be our spirit guide later in the day. Jessie picked out a woman from the audience and told her that her brother-in-law wanted to send her a message; he wanted her to know that he can breathe again and is at peace. The woman was moved. She let it be known that her brother-in-law had died last year of respiratory failure after a long illness.

A gathering of spirit mediums at Lily Dale

A gathering of spirit mediums waiting to demonstrate their talents. The lady in the pink hat is Jessie Furst who sought to put us in touch with our dearly departed.

Then Jessie spoke to a guy whose mother wanted to apologize to him for being so sharp-tongued when she was alive. The guy admitted to having struggled with that. Then Jessie told him she was seeing flowers. The guy smiled and said his mother had been a florist.

Unlike Jessie, the next medium that stood in front of the audience didn’t know who she was supposed to be connecting with. She got visions and had to find the person they matched up with. She was looking for someone who’d injured her hand recently and been surprised at how fast it had healed. A woman stood up.  “That’s me,” she said.

The medium told her that all the good luck she’d been experiencing lately was no accident. The spirits on the other side were looking after her. “That’s why your hand healed so fast,” the medium told her. “They’re helping you.”

A guy’s deceased mother communicated that she was proud of him and encouraged him to make the decision he’d been struggling with. A woman got a message from her dead aunt telling her to pull the trigger on an investment she’d been waffling about.

The medium connected with someone who died in a helicopter crash

Then the medium looked off into space and said, “I see a military uniform. I hear a helicopter.” The woman gasped and began to sob.

Then one of the mediums laid out a series of things she was seeing and asked if it made sense to anyone in the audience. A young woman in her mid-twenties stood up. The medium told her she was not alone. In spite of the fact that she was feeling as if the burden was too great, he was there, standing at her elbow.  You have a little boy, the medium told her. The woman nodded.  “He’s helping you with your son,” she told her. “He wants you to know that, and he also wants you to know that he’s sorry he had to leave so unexpectedly.”

The woman was ashen.

Then the medium looked off into space and said, “I see a military uniform. I hear a helicopter.” The woman gasped and began to sob.

Mom and I looked at each other. Wow! This was good.

 

The Other Grandmother

Julia Bell and David Logan

Julia Bell and David Logan. My other grandparents.

Our final stop of the day was at Jessie Furst’s pleasant Victorian home where we went to get our readings. Mom went first. Her reading took 15 minutes. I suspected she was making all kinds of fascinating contacts with the other side. My mother has suffered many losses in her life. In a lot of ways she is wonderfully blessed, but the sheer number of friends and relatives she’s lost has been a heavy cross to bear. Poor Jessie Furst had no idea what an overstuffed closet she was peeking into.

But to my surprise when mom came out she was disappointed.  In fact, Jessie had had such a tough time making connections for her that she’d practically given up. As we later discovered, Mom had made the same mistake I was about to make. She had gone into her reading with too many preconceived notions about who would contact her and had nearly missed those who were reaching out.

Lily Dale, New York at dawn

The sun rises on a street in Lily Dale. The whole village is only about eight square blocks with just 350 year round residents, almost all of whom are Spiritualists.

For years, I had thought my maternal grandmother, who we called Mimi, would be looking down on me – if anyone would, or could.  So naturally Mimi was the one I was expecting. But Jessie wasn’t finding anything to indicate Mimi was there. Instead, she was giving me a woman with bushy white hair who was canning fruit, a woman who had something wrong with her head.

Afterwards, mom said, “That’s Julia Bell Logan, your father’s mother.”

Instantly, it fell into place. Of course! She had suffered from Alzheimers during the last years of her life and died when I was only 12. Julia Bell Logan, I had not known her since I was a child. Having lived through the Great Depression, she was deeply frugal and regularly canned fruits and vegetables. She had bushy white hair. My other grandmother! I was astounded to think she was the one who had been reaching out to me. All of a sudden it was looking like Jessie was not so far off the mark.

 

Jim Reaches Out

Sharon and Jim Grisdale

Sharon and Jim Grisdale at my wedding to Marianne in 2005.  A jolt of electricity went through me. I couldn’t believe it!

But what about Mimi?

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I asked Jesse to see if she was there, but Jesse couldn’t make the connection. The best she could come up with was Jim, my uncle, who was my mother’s brother, Mimi’s son. Jim seemed intent on making a connection with me, but I couldn’t imagine why. We had barely known each other in life.

Then Jessie predicted that next year something good was going to happen to me, that something I had been working on was going to come to fruition. This lined up with what Claude had told me, but I didn’t get too excited because telling someone something good is going to happen to them next year seems like boiler plate fortune telling.

No, my real revelation came later, after Mom and I had left Lily Dale and started home. We had stopped for dinner in Cleveland and were comparing notes when I listed all the names Jessie had given to me that meant nothing to me. “I got Anna Maria,” I said.

“What about your ex-wife Marie?” Mom suggested.

“Yeah,” I said. “I thought of that, but it seems like a stretch.”

“Maybe it’s Marianne,” she conjectured.

Marianne is my wife. That made sense. All the letters were there. Anna Maria – Marianne.

Then mom said, “I got Marianne too. Jessie actually gave me that name. She asked me if the name Marianne made any sense to me. And before that she told me she was seeing a red haired woman.” Marianne has red hair.

“That’s interesting,” I said. “Both of us got Marianne. It seems like someone was really interested in Marianne.”

Then a jolt of electricity went through me. “Oh – my – God!” I couldn’t believe it.

Marianne’s father’s name was Jim. He died four years ago. Marianne had suffered some guilt over the nature of her father’s passing, and from what I had seen in the medium demonstrations, the departed often reach out to the living to comfort them, to assuage them in their feelings and reassure them they are at peace. That was what Jim had been trying to do through me! But I had been too fixated on my grandmother Mimi to even think about Jim.

Jim wasn’t my uncle at all. Jim was my father-in-law!

 

The Magic of Lily Dale

A lovely and serene setting, the lakeside park at Lily Dale, New York

A lovely and serene setting, Lily Dale provides comfort and hope to those suffering the loss of loved ones. It also provides plenty of things for the skeptic to think about.

Lily Dale had worked its magic on me. When I finally put all this together, I was astonished and emotional. My feelings of skepticism had vanished, my rational mind had gone on holiday. I spoke about my contacts with the other side as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I felt as guilty about missing Jim’s message for Marianne as I would have had I missed a vital appointment with the living.

Of course it’s easy to dismiss all this as a load of bunk. Throw enough crap at a wall, and something is bound to stick. Combine that with a desire to believe, and a random list of names and images seems to take the shape of something meaningful.
Still, to pull the name June out of thin air, to describe my grandmother Julia Bell to a tee, to put an eager spirit named Jim right up against words that describe his daughter, all this feels like something more preternatural than skillful guessing.

At the very least, further reflection and conversation had increased Jessie Furst’s batting average. I no longer missed my $85. It was beginning to feel like money well spent. After all, what’s it worth to say hello to the dearly departed?

It’s only money anyway.

And you can’t take it with you.

 

Check it out…

Malcolm Logan and Adele Bowen at Lily Dale AssemblyLily Dale Assembly

5 Melrose Park
Lily Dale, NY  14752
(716) 595-8721
Website

 

Previous stop on the odyssey: Beckley, WV //
Next stop on the odyssey:  Detroit, MI

 

Image credits:
All images by Malcolm Logan, except 19th century séance, Public domain; Victorian houses in Lily Dale, Plazak; Helicopter crash, Public domain

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