In the winter of 1844, Dr. Moran traveled from his home in Vermont to Laona, a small village near Cassadaga Lake in New York. Dr. Moran, a mesmerist, had made a name for himself by touting the healing powers of hypnotism, and his teachings had caught the attention of William Johnson, who’s friend Jeremiah Carter had taken ill. Dr. Moran gave a lecture to the people of Laona, or at least to those interested in hearing him speak, but was unable to help Jeremiah Carter, not because he couldn’t, but because he had to get moving to his next lecture. Darn the time!
Undeterred by Dr. Moran’s hasty exit, William Jefferson and Jeremiah Carter decided, in the tradition of Freethinkers, to try out Dr. Moran’s methods themselves. They, along with a few other residents, met in Laona’s general store and set up everything they needed to hypnotize Carter. As the story goes, Carter went under quickly, and his presence was replaced by a spirit claiming to be a man named Dr. Hedges. The spirit of Dr. Hedges answered the questions of those in the general store, explaining to them what the spirit world was like, and even showing them the laying on of hands – a method to heal the infirm.
Word spread, and more meetings were held in the Loana general store, the number of attendees growing with each gathering. Three years after Carter had first become the vessel for a spirit, the Fox family of Hydesville, NY would turn Spiritualism into a worldwide phenomena with séances became a must-have feature at parties.
Laona, like many other small towns across the country, became a hotspot for Spiritualists. Every year they would meet and discuss all things paranormal; from recent “verified” spirit contact to ways to spot a con artist taking advantage of others. In 1855, the First Spiritualist Society of Laona was formed.
The Spiritualist movement grew with the start of the American Civil War. Mothers, fathers, and wives found comfort in the words of mediums. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln became an advocate for Spiritualism after the death of her son William in 1862. After the assassination of her husband, Mary Todd dove deeper into the practice, believing that she could speak to Abraham through mediums and the spirit photography of William Mumler.
Jeremiah Carter couldn’t sleep; he tried, but the voices wouldn’t let him. It had been over thirty years since Carter first let a spirit enter him, and now he felt more like their puppet than ever before. Every day, even waking minute, the voices of the dead filled his mind. They needed Carter to do something for them, and they weren’t going to quiet down until he completed the task.
Carter traveled to Cassadaga Lake and found himself at the farm of William Alden. Carter explained to the farmer what was happening to him; how the dead demanded that he use the Alden farm to set up a campground for Spiritualists to meet at every year. Alden, possibly a Spiritualist himself, or maybe just interested in seeing how things would play out, agreed to let Carter build the camp on his land. Carter and other members of the First Spiritualist Society of Laona went to work, and by the summer of 1873, a series of cabins had been built. The Lily Dale Camp Meeting was ready to go.
After William Alden died in 1879, his family made it clear to the Spiritualists that they needed to get off the land. Undeterred, the members of the First Spiritualist Society of Laona pooled their money and purchased 22 acres of land. When deciding what to name their new location, they decided to leave it up to the spirit guide of Amelia Colby, and so it was that the Cassadaga Lake Free Association, a town for Spiritualists and the exploration of the spirit world, came to be. I suppose the people of the Cassadaga Lake Free Association decided that Amelia Colby’s spirit guide wasn’t all that good at naming things; in 1903, they changed the name of their town to The City of Light only to change it again in 1906 to The Lily Dale Assembly.
With the coming of the 20th Century, Spiritualism faced new challenges. In 1888, Maggie Fox and younger sister Katy, both alcoholics and living in poverty were paid $1,500 to admit that they had faked the activity in their home. Margaret gave a demonstration to the public, showing how they pulled off their supposed communications with the spirit world. While she would later recant the confession, the damage was done, and people began to see Spiritualism as bunk.
As the 1900s began, so did a new profession; the skeptic. SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN offered a cash prize to any medium who could prove the existence of spirits; the prize has never been awarded. After being taken advantage of by a conman, famed illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini turned his attention to outing fake mediums.
Still, the town of Lily Dale prospered. They built an Assembly Hall, a Healing Temple, and a museum of spiritualist memorabilia. As the population grew, Lily Dale opened a post office and created a volunteer fire department. A school was built for the children, and a little park to go with it.
From the initial 22 acres, Lily Dale grew to 160 acres, including the land that was once the Alden Farm. The Fox home in Hydesville was moved to Lily Dale in 1916 but sadly burned down in 1955.
Lily Dale became a sanctuary for Spiritualists, letting those who truly believed to practice without being mocked. While other Spiritualist towns fell to the changing times, Lily Dale prospered, becoming a tourist destination for anyone interested in the teachings of Spiritualism. Most of the year, Lily Dale is the home to fewer than 300 residents, but in the summer, the number grows to upwards of 22,000 as visitors from around the world come to the small town looking to reconnect with loved ones who have passed on.
A town as unusual as Lily Dale seems ripe for fiction, but it has only shown up in a handful of stories. Novelist Wendy Corsi Stauba has a four-book young adult series set in the town, and in season seven of SUPERNATURAL, Sam and Dean spent some time there when the ghost of one of the Fox sisters starts killing mediums in the town. I can only suppose that Stan Lee had never heard of Lily Dale, otherwise, Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters would surely have been a town, right? I mean, that seems real obvious to me.