Nestled in the old-growth forests surrounding Cassadaga Lake in Eastern New York, the community of Lily Dale sits as a beaconing force to the Spiritualists of the world. Sometimes dubbed as “The Town That Talks to the Dead,” Lily Dale is considered by many to be the central location of the Spiritualist movement. Even though this fascinating place attracts thousands of visitors and devoted followers each year, it remains a mystery to most people. There are many questions about the history of the place and what it meant to the people who founded it. What is this place exactly? What did the Fox sisters have to do with it? How was a prominent political leader like Susan B. Anthony involved? Read on to find the answers and make the connection between this spiritual community and an unlikely grouping of three young mediums and one outspoken women’s right advocate.
What is Lily Dale? Lily Dale is not a town or a city; rather, it is a small community that serves as a gathering place and educational center for those interested in the Spiritualist movement. For the past 130 years, it has been a place of spiritual growth for followers across the globe who come together to learn more about their religion, discuss new ideas and concepts, and further their own spiritual progress as they continue on life’s journey. Founded in 1879 by local Spiritualists (though the grounds had been used for the same purpose for many years already), Lily Dale served as a place where the people could openly discuss their beliefs regarding the spirit world and life after death. During a time when non-Christians were often social pariahs, Spiritualism followers needed a place where they could practice their religion without judgment. Their belief system was (and still is) based on the ideas that death is only the end of the physical body, and that the spirit continues on in other planes of existence. The spirits of the dead can and do communicate with living people and are capable of providing valuable information about God and the spirit world.
How did the Fox sisters factor in? The Fox sisters are commonly referred to as the founders of Spiritualism. These women were just young girls in 1848 when they claimed to be receiving messages from the spirit world. After hearing strange knocking sounds coming from within their home, they realized that something, or someone, was trying to communicate with them. They worked out a code where they would ask questions, and the “thing” would respond using a series of knocks. With this they learned that they were communicating with a murder victim who had been buried in the cellar of their home. Word of the mysterious contact spread quickly, and believers and skeptics alike came in droves to see for themselves. The girls quickly rose to fame, eventually traveling to New York and other parts of the country where they served as mediums between the living and dead. All of this attention brought about a popular new movement – Spiritualism – that focused on spiritual communication and understanding. The Fox girls played a vital role in establishing this new belief system, and they are still credited to this day for their part in its founding.
And what about Susan B. Anthony? Susan B. Anthony is best known as an active participant in the women’s right movement, particularly where women’s suffrage was concerned. Born into a Quaker family in 1820, Anthony had a somewhat restricted childhood, though her family was part of a “liberal” group of Quakers. She became aware of the inequalities between men and women at a young age, and she fought for equal wages as a young teacher in New York. As her interest in women’s rights grew, she spent a great deal of time traveling the country and lecturing on equality for women, often with fellow advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton. After meeting Stanton in 1831, Anthony spent much of her time in eastern New York, near Rochester. Her neighbors and acquaintances were made up of political reformers like herself and other “social outcasts,” including Frederick Douglass, radical abolitionists, organizers of women’s rights conventions, and yes, Spiritualists who were beginning to congregate in and around what would become Lily Dale. During this period, she also separated herself further from her childhood religion and Christianity in general. She found the Christian belief system at the time to be oppressive toward women, and she looked for something that would respect women as men’s equals. Anthony discovered Spiritualism, and though she was never formally a member, she did recognize it as one of the rare religious organizations that did not subjugate women. She gave several lectures at Lily Dale, and later in book she collaborated on with Stanton wrote, “The only religious sect in the world…that has recognized the equality of women is the Spiritualists.”