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Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Deadby Christine Wicker
Synopses & Reviews
In Lily Dale, New York, the dead don't die.
Instead, spirits flit among the elms and stroll along the streets, sometimes dressed in garb more common 120 years ago, when Lily Dale was founded and suffragette Susan B. Anthony was a frequent guest.
According to Spiritualists who have ruled this Victorian hamlet for five generations, the dead don't go away and they stay anything but quiet. Every summer twenty thousand guests come to consult the town's mediums, who can hangout a shingle only after passing a test that confirms their connection to the spirit world.
On the hot June day when reporter Christine Wicker comes to the world's oldest and largest Spiritualist community, she is determined to understand the secret forces — human or otherwise — that keep Lily Dale alive. She follows three visitors: a newly bereaved widow; a mother whose son killed himself; and a beautiful, happily married wife whose first visit to Lily Dale brings an ominous warning.
Are the mediums cold-hearted charlatans, as Sinclair Lewis wrote of them? Or are they conduits for a hidden world that longs to bring peace and healing to the living, as psychologist William James and muckraker Upton Sinclair once hoped to prove?
Investigating a movement that attracted millions of Americans in the 1800s and now barely survives, Wicker moves beyond the mediums' front parlors and into the lives that tourists never see. She follows the mediums to a place where what we know and how we know it is the greatest mystery of all.
"Some of the tales are sad ones, but Wicker's jaunty pacing and humor keep the work from growing too dark and leave the reader with a feeling of tenderness, rather than pity, toward her subjects....[The] lack of resolution is refreshing...and wonderfully fitting for a book about the mystery of faith." Publishers Weekly
"[Wicker] arrived as a skeptic and left still somewhat doubtful but with a surprisingly open mind. Whether or not one accepts the existence of the supernatural, the resulting book is a very good read. Residents are often portrayed with humor but are never condescended to or ridiculed." Library Journal
Twenty-thousand visitors a year travel to Lily Dale, the birthplace of American spiritualism and the oldest and largest community of Spiritualists in the world. They come to this little Victorian village in upstate New York to consult the town's mediums, who can pull dead relatives from the beyond, predict the future, and provide healing and solace. Lily Dale delights, entertains, and pulls at the heartstrings, as Christine Wicker, who came prepared to scoff, stays to learn her own lessons about the limits and possibilities of what humans can know.
Sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, often tender, and ultimately profound, Lily Dale is a moving portrait of belief. Wicker illuminates the universal longings for love and connection that have drawn visitors such as Susan B. Anthony, Harry Houdini, and Mae West to "the Dale," and she shows us that it is belief itself that opens the universe and so transforms us.
An award-winning journalist captures the life and spirit of a 122-year-old town and the townspeople who believe the dead live among them. 18-page photo insert.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -280).
Chapter One Lily Dale: How It Began
Lily Dale is sixty miles south of Buffalo, tucked off the side road of a side road to Interstate 90. It's easy to miss. Little Victorian houses sitting at the edge of a lake. A settlement of a few hundred people clinging to a religion that once had millions of believers and now has only a remnant. American flags flapping from screened porches. Fountains splashing in shady little pocket parks. Big-bellied cats strolling across streets as though they own them. So many cats sun themselves about town that squirrels are said to be fearful of touching ground.
Women set the tone in this lakeside community where houses are painted in pastels. During the height of the summer season, when twenty thousand visitors come to consult the town's mediums, it resembles nothing so much as a sorority sleepover for aging sisters. They laze about in the hotel parlor and fan themselves in white rockers that line the veranda. They sweep down the streets in flowing dresses. Tinsel stars and crystals hang in windows. Christmas lights twinkle from porches all year long. Stone angels stand sentry on walkways, and plaster elves march across lawns.
When they remember that "New York Times reporter in Lily Dale, they mention how much the community's tatty look dismayed him and what he said to Hilda Wilkinson after she fed him tea and lunch. According to the story, he told Hilda, who first came to the Dale seventy-five years ago, he didn't believe a thing he'd heard. He said he didn't know how anyone could believe such nonsense. And Hilda said, "Well, young man, you just hold on to your beliefs." She paused.
"You just hold on, young man. Until you wake up."
Covering the God beat, I've met lots of people who believe strange things. I've talked with a voodoo priestess in Cuba who communed with the Virgin Mary. I've interviewed a man walking across America pulling a big wooden cross because Jesus told him to. I've spent all night in Garland, Texas, with a Taiwanese cult waiting for God to come on television and announce the end of the world. They lived in Garland because their leader thought "Garland" was "God-land."
Weird never puts me off. I like it, and usually I understand it. In Lily Dale, some people were nervous about talking to me, but I told them straight out that I had not come to ridicule.
"You're afraid I'm going to write something that will make you seem crazy. Don't worry about that," I told them. "Everybody thinks you're nuts already. So there's no story there."
With regard to talking dead people, I considered myself ambivalent. Compared to most people in Lily Dale, I was a raging skeptic. Compared to most of my colleagues, I was a soft-headed sap. I didn't believe Lily Dale's people could chat with the dead, but I was willing to concede that I didn't know much about cosmic workings. I might be wrong.
And more to the point for a reporter, the Spiritualists were making the biggest brag in modern-day religion. Desperate for civic respectability in the face of science, most religions have pushed far away from the miracles on which they were founded. Not Spiritualism. Believers in this faith holdtight to their miracles, which they don't even think of as miracles actually, but as ordinary, accessible experience. I admired their pluck.
My first night was spent in a room above the old Assembly Hall. The ground floor is a dusty, wood-planked meeting room lined with grim-faced portraits of important Spiritualists from the 1800s and early 1900s. A private bedroom upstairs, with a shared bath, cost twenty-five dollars ...
About the Author
Christine Wicker, a reporter for the Dallas Morning News for seventeen years, has won numerous awards for her journalism. She now lives in Wisconsin with her husband and is the first reporter to write a book on Lily Dale, a town that refused to co-operate with journalists until a few years ago.
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