As it is in the year 2009, so was it in 1853.
A young man leaves his place of origin pursuing an ill-advised dream.
For the young man in 1853—nameless, there were thousands like him—actively seeking a life in the city would have constituted a social liability in the eyes of the agrarian community he’d quit. This young man and others like him arrived on the coattails of the elusive main chance—what de Tocqueville called, in his infinite wryness, “the bootless chase of complete felicity.” These men would settle for being clerks and brokers, skilled and semiskilled artisans and merchants, dockhands and stablers in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, New Haven, and Lowell, Massachusetts. But unexpected dangers awaited them there. Sure-thing tricksters, damper-sneaks, drapery-hangers, Spanish-prisoner racketeers, thimble-riggers, ropers-in, party men, and William Thompsons—all of them given a face by Melville in The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857)—were on the prowl for innocents to draw beneath their sooty wings. In the lee of every doorway, in the fall of every shadow, in the gritty defile of every alley, these young men arrived from the sticks had not only the tyrant vice to fear, in the form of gambling, drink, and women, but, even more corruptive because more insidious, the tyrant belief, which was vice’s first cousin: free love, abolition, universal salvation, feminism, bloomerism, antisabbattarianism, phrenology, hydropathy, magnetism, Spiritualism.
For me, the young man in 2009, driving northwest up Route 17 from New York City in my Budget Ford Taurus, I’m researching one of this country’s most prolific hoodwinkers, the spirit photographer William H. Mumler. First in Boston, then New York, between 1859 and 1870, Mumler, with the help of his clairvoyant wife, fleeced at a rate of ten dollars a print scores upon scores of American mourners, and all of this under the gossamer standard of what was known, then as now, as the Spiritualist movement. Invented by Mumler, spirit photography was an offshoot of said movement, which began in 1848 when two sisters claimed they could communicate with spirits by way of raps, spirit writing, telekinesis, magnetism, and all manner of question-and-answer techniques; but where Spiritualism sought to contact spirits and ask them enigmatic questions, spirit photography promised results far more evidential: the spirit would be captured on the plate glass of the camera and presented to the sitter to console him in his grief. Spirit photography flourished mostly in major urban centers such as Boston and New York, but Spiritualism could be found everywhere, from the fetid streets of SoHo to Rhode Island’s backwaters.
Unlike the young man in 1853, I’m leaving the city for the sticks, heading to a town called Lily Dale just west of Lake Erie. Also known as “The Town that Talks to the Dead,” Lily Dale is Spiritualism’s last redoubt, a haven for its mediums and seekers alike, over a hundred miles southeast of where the movement first began, in Hydesville. Lily Dale was founded in 1879 as a Spiritualist utopia due to its proximity to the Dunkirk, Alleghany Valley, and Pittsburgh railroad; Hydesville, being smaller and farther afield, wasn’t equipped to handle the volume of people who flocked and continue to flock to northwestern New York state every summer.
“[Belief is] loving someone in the dark who does not answer,” says Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal. And it is growing darker as I break with Route 17 and turn down NY 60, which will take me into Lily Dale.
The Jewel on the Lake guesthouse is a three-story Victorian painted light blue, with a darker blue trim on its shutters and moldings, and a phalanx of Zen-looking flags out front. The house’s proprietor is a pretty woman named Teresa, who signs her emails “Namaste.” Her manner is pleasant, if a little bit guarded. Teresa, it turns out, is an unofficial disciple of Mumler’s, though she photographs “auras” and “orbs” for the most part. She and her husband have installed on the roof some sort of antenna to record what Teresa describes as “phenomena.”
While Teresa’s mien grows more pleasant, the house she leads me through grows less so. A dim red light pervades its innards, gloaming up from a small chandelier in the foyer. She leads me past a room on the third floor where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of Spiritualism’s seekers, was reported to have stayed on a pilgrimage through town; past a door no more than three feet high, surmounted by an exit sign; and finally to a room that at one point in time must have served as an attic, filled with not one but three separate beds, a low-slung double and two singles, their lacy floral counterpanes the eerie quintessence of Victorian girlhood. And indeed, I find it none too difficult, as my hostess bids me good night, to imagine Kate and Margaret Fox, the mischievous sisters who begat Spiritualism, growing up in a room not unlike this one, in a town as silent and as still.
In December of 1847, in the hamlet of Hydesville in the town of Arcadia, the two youngest daughters of a Methodist family heard a series of raps in the room that they shared. Margaretta, or Maggie, was fifteen years old; Catherine, or Kate, just twelve. When they tried to replicate these “jars” by snapping their fingers rapidly, the rapping would cease and then recommence, matching their snaps until they grew tired. It was soon ascertained by the girls and their family that a peddler had been murdered in the house years ago. Here is how his blood was spilled on a Tuesday at midnight, the Fox sisters claimed: a butcher knife dragged across his throat, his body pulled down the cellar stairs, his hasty grave dug out and filled, his “vials of essence” cast aside, and all of this to steal five hundred in cash. The sounds of the struggle, the throat being slashed, the gurgling blood, the descent to the cellar, and the digging of the hasty grave were all heard not only by the sisters but by a cellar full of sane adults, a couple of whom, upon digging themselves, reached a span of wooden planks ten feet beneath the cellar floor. Under these they discovered a few human teeth amid a nest of bones and hair.
MEMORIAL TO THE FOX FAMILY reads the plaque that marks the site where the Fox cottage, after it was relocated to Lily Dale, once stood, WHO LIVED IN THIS COTTAGE AT THE TIME MARGARET AND KATIE FOX, AGED NINE AND ELEVEN YEARS, RECEIVED THE FIRST PROOF OF THE CONTINUITY OF LIFE, WHICH WAS THE BEGINNING OF MODERN SPIRITUALISM, MARCH 31, 1848. THIS COTTAGE WAS BOUGHT AND MOVED FROM HYDESVILLE, NY, ITS ORIGINAL SITE, TO LILY DALE, NY IN MAY 1916 BY BENJAMIN F. BARTLETT.
The plaque fails to acknowledge the “undetermined” fire that burned the cabin to the ground in 1955.
It also fails to acknowledge what was broadcast by a billboard in Rochester, the year after Maggie Fox confessed that the rapping she and Kate had heard at Hydesville when they were twelve and nine was in fact the effect of dropping apples that the sisters had fastened to puppeted strings. MODERN SPIRITUALISM—BORN MARCH 31, 1848—DIED AT ROCHESTER, NOVEMBER 15, 1888, IT READ. AGED 40 YEARS, 7 MONTHS AND 15 DAYS—BORN OF MISCHIEF AND GONE TO MISCHIEF.
Yet mischief that, alas, turned tragic for the Foxes, all of whom died within three years of each other, and within five of Maggie’s statement: Leah Fox Fish of an ailment called carditis, an inflammation of the heart caused by what was diagnosed as “nervous excitability,” an unmistakably turn-of-the-century malaise—akin to “utromania,” i.e., “womb disease”—that would gall to no end, just two years later, the writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman; Kate Fox at the young age of fifty-five due to “chronic diffuse nephritis,” a disease of the kidneys brought about by nearly two decades of publicized drinking; and Maggie Fox at fifty-nine, due to ostensibly natural causes that were suspected by many, like Catherine her sister, to be alcoholically related as well.
I wake up rested in my garret to a soft conspiracy of rain. Despite a symposium set for this weekend on doomsday predictions in Mayan cosmology, the streets of Lily Dale are empty.
At the Lily Dale Assembly 2009, which runs throughout the summer season, there are workshops called Evidential Mediumship, The Psychic in You, Ectoplasm and Energy, Life After Death, and Séance 101, as well as Reiki and Yoga classes, weekly Astrology Roundtables, workshops that deal in Animal Communication, Mirror Gazing, Hand Reflexology, Chakra and Crystal Healing, Spoon Bending, The Spirituality of Money, Autism and the God Connection, the year 2012, Crystals and Crystal Skulls, Sound Healing, the Goddess, Native American Dance, and the Mystical Arts of Tibet, among others. Lacking dogma or precepts to hold Spiritualism together, save those of Andrew Jackson Davis—who dreamed up its scripture based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, an eighteenth-century Swedish mystic, was known in his time (born 1826, died 1910) as the “seer of Poughkeepsie,” and is the closest thing Spiritualism has to a father—the movement has softened into a mélange of Eastern philosophy, telekinetics, and new age transcendentalism, retaining but little of its steam-punk mystique.
Yet the seeker need only take one look at Jackson Davis’s ecstatically oblique cosmovision to see that though the game has changed, the lines on the field remain the same: “Everything is perfect in its way and state of being; everything is necessary; everything is pure, even celestial and divine; everything teaches harmony and reciprocity by an unfailing manifestation of the same.” But Spiritualism really means it; Spiritualism can’t but not. Which offers up a vital clue as to why Spiritualism still stands on two feet when many of its sibling-vogues—phrenology, hydropathy, free love, magnetism—have gone the way of blackface and ancient phlebotomy. The sheer implausibility of Spiritualist belief has granted it adaptability. The movement’s vagueness and disorder have turned into its saving graces.
Nineteenth-century Spiritualism, however, has found a loyal warden in historian Ron Nagy, tour guide and curator of the Lily Dale Museum. Nagy, who worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections after a stint in the U.S. Air Force, has lived in Lily Dale year-round ever since he visited the town years ago for a psychic consultation with one of its mediums, and was told that in addition to possessing abilities that Nagy has since marshaled as a medium himself, he would find himself a full-time resident before the year was out. He is also the author of three history books: Precipitated Spirit Paintings: Beyond the Shadow of Doubt, Slate Writing: Invisible Intelligence, and recently The Spirits of Lily Dale.
The museum resembles a museum only to the extent that there are placards and an entrance fee for visitors, yet other than that it’s a curio shop where nothing appears to be for sale. Really, it’s best described as a historical society, the Spiritualist objects mixed in with the piano and the crank Victrola. A trinity of spirit trumpets, for example, otherwise known as “Aeolian horns,” perched on a high and dusty sill; a chalkboard cramped with spirit writing; a scuffed-up pair of “Aura Goggles,” lolling half-in, half-out of their packaging, like something scavenged from the wreckage of a World War I biplane.
Pictures—some framed and others not—hang close together. There’s a portrait of Emma Hardinge Britten, one of Spiritualism’s most lauded trance-speakers, and another black-and-white one of a dapper brass band in what looks to be the town at the turn of the century, the pleasant faces of the men with cowlicked pates and neat mustaches. And there’s a sepia photo of the world’s suffragettes, ranked and unsmiling in high-collared dresses. The programs of women’s rights and Spiritualism were closely linked—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Grimke sisters, Victoria Woodhull, all were Spiritualists. Often Spiritualism was used as a platform from which women, in a trance, could then advocate on behalf of their sex.
Yet Nagy, who takes me through the museum, is more than just a tour guide, or the Homer Collyer of supernatural arcana; he is one third hard-as-flint C.O., another third elbow-patched professor, and yet another third overeager devotee of the movement, with an inbuilt resentment of skeptics and snobs. The same could be said of Lily Dale. For a quasi-religion that advocates love among all living things as the “pivot” of the universe, the movement’s current epicenter is a mite less inclusive than it wants to believe it is. Though this, after all, may be out of necessity. With a cat for nearly every household, gingerbread cottages and modest Victorians that have the sedentary creepiness of “Hansel and Gretel,” one gets the impression it hasn’t been easy for Lily Dale to mingle with the populace outside. There is a hennishness, a cultishness—dare I mention it, a witchiness—to the layout and appearance of the town. And one, after all, that seems not accidental given the posters for Halloween carnivals that decorate its gated entrance, and the legions of lighted jack-o’-lanterns leering from windows.
Contemporary Spiritualism’s wise, winking impulse to play up its more theatrical aspects, to embrace and acknowledge the dreadful delight in a phantasmagoric ethos centuries in the making, strikes me as a luxury that practicing mediums and trance-speakers of the nineteenth century had too much at stake, so to speak, to enjoy. There was discrimination waged against the Spiritualist program in almost every sector of the cities where it flourished, which made for mesmerizing news among skeptics, believers, and agnostics alike. William H. Mumler was put on trial for fraud and larceny in 1869 as a bid against corruption under Tammany Hall. The trial, lasting for several months and one of the highest profile of its day, ended in a baffled acquittal of Mumler when the trick behind his photographs could not be found out. (To this day the trick remains a mystery. The operative theory is that Mumler faked the photos by double-exposing the camera’s glass plates so that a ghostly image could be superimposed over that of the sitter’s.)
Soon after Mumler was acquitted, and he’d returned to Boston to revitalize his business, a woman veiled in crepe came to call at his studio and asked Mumler to take her portrait. When Mumler asked her who she was, she signed her name as Mrs. Lindall, and when he asked this Mrs. Lindall if she would remove her veil, she refused. “When you are ready, I shall remove it,” the woman in mourning intoned, and who should emerge from behind that obscurity but the face of Mary Todd Lincoln, widowed seven years.
When the pictures were developed, an ectoplasmic Lincoln could be glimpsed in the background, leaning in toward Mary Todd as if to whisper in her ear.
Mary Todd wasn’t the only person of not inconsiderable learning, not to mention public prominence, who succumbed to the comforts provided by photographers-cum-mediums like Mumler. Famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; Henry Wilson, vice president under Grant; media magnate Horace Greeley; female candidate for president Victoria Woodhull; poet and one-time fiancée of Poe’s, Sarah Helen Whitman; and, later in the century and into the next, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and philosopher-psychologist William James—all of them intelligent, urbane men and women. All of them Spiritualists.
And yet nineteeth-century showman and cad-about-town, the eternally caustic P. T. Barnum—who at one point exhibited Mumler’s photos in his museum in New York—put little stock in Spiritualism. Like Harry Houdini half a century later—who laid into the movement because it constituted inferior magic—Barnum must’ve harbored professional reasons for finding Spiritualism so hugely unappealing. On the eve of William Mumler’s trial, in 1869, he says, “If [Spiritualists] can cause invisible agencies to perform in open daylight many of the things which they pretend to accomplish by spirits in the dark, I will promptly pay $500 for the sight. In the mean time I think I can reasonably account for and explain all pretended spiritual gymnastic performances—throwing of hair-brushes—dancing pianos—spirit-rapping—table-tipping—playing of musical instruments, and flying through the air (in the dark) and a thousand other ‘wonderful manifestations’ which, like most of the performances of modern ‘magicians’ are ‘passing strange’ until explained, and then they are as flat as dish-water.”
And Barnum wasn’t so far off, considering the scandals and exposures that emerged. Fin de siècle mediums would use, by turns, the trains of their dresses or skinny, hooked rods to draw standing objects in the room slowly toward them, until they collapsed with a crash to the floor; or wore in one of their shoes an iron sole so as to withdraw their actual foot and deploy it fraudulently in the murk of the séance. Third and fourth parties were often employed, their arms and hands coated with glowing paint, to brush and caress and braid women’s hair, to touch circle members suddenly on the shoulder, to beat people lightly with brooms and other objects, often to their wonder and delight. Crockery, glass, and furniture were destroyed or thrown into general disorder; women’s nightgowns were arranged on the counterpanes of beds in the attitudes of people who were dead and in their coffins; “pseudopods,” or plasmic emanations, exuded from navels, nipples, mouths, and noses by the deft manipulation of papers and textiles; photographs of spirits were captured and developed through the double-exposure of collodion plates; people levitated ten feet in the air by way of superstructures that were hidden in the dark.
None of these antics are far from my mind as I go to meet with Gretchen Clark, one of forty mediums attached to the assembly, not to mention the one with the coolest webpage, which I think I’ll allow you to judge for yourself (gretchenclark.com).
Gretchen leads me through the foyer and into the parlor, where I’m asked, tea or coffee and instructed to sit. The woman before me is a far cry, however, from the Gretchen Clark of gretchenclark.com. The woman on the website is dripping with turquoise, a Cimmerian-shore-seeing glaze in her eyes, whereas this Gretchen Clark is the woman on the stool behind the crystal-shop counter in Provincetown or Santa Cruz, her rusty hair showing roots. Her parlor more resembles some retiree’s condo in Tempe: a varnished piano, a Japanese screen, a couch too long and soft for fainting, a long-haired white cat luxuriating on a divan, projecting an aura of offhand mistrust.
Gretchen begins by asking a series of vague, leading questions. Not ones she means me to answer in detail, but ones that I’m meant to affirm or deny. And yet, all the same, she knows things about me that no one but my closest relations and I could possibly know, barring psychic insight. Pricking her ears to invisible parties that hover somewhere to the left of her head, Gretchen does a girlish laugh and says that she’s picking up something from “Spirit.” Little by little, she posits a woman—an older woman dear to me—an older woman dear to me with a white streak in her jet-black hair, not directly through the center of her scalp, like a skunk, but marshaled slightly to the left.
And with those words she’s described to a T my dearly departed great-grandmother, a hit that I concede to her with a telltale expression of wonder, no doubt. But Ethel Schiff, dead for more than a decade, has more to impart via Gretchen. Another presence, male this time, is transmitting from “Spirit” along with the first—a young man, Gretchen specifies—a young man who never grew old—who died tragically—and who himself was dear to Ethel, hence their crossing wavelengths in the ether, I’m assuming. Hit number two: Ethel’s only son, Arnold, who died in a crash at the age of eighteen while driving home to visit his family in Ohio.
Gretchen assures me, Who else could it be? She’s finding her rhythm hit by hit. She’s well on her way to constructing between us what mental-health professionals describe as rapport.
Gretchen sees a beautiful woman, she says—a woman my age with dark red hair—a woman, Gretchen ventures further, with a beautiful mind that is different from mine. More scientifically leaning, perhaps—or no, strike that, rational is the word. A beautiful woman with dark red hair with a mind more ordered than my own, who is also, the medium hastens to add, training for a job in the healing profession.
I tell her she’s found my fiancée, Darcy, who matches her character sketch exactly, and who’s training right now as a hospital chaplain at Massachusetts General in Boston. Of course, Ethel knows about Darcy, says Gretchen. Ethel, like Darcy, is close to my heart.
Over the course of my sitting with Gretchen, she professed to know many, many things, some of them as vague as Jackson Davis’s cosmology, others of them as incontrovertible as my great-grandmother’s skunky do, my tragic great-uncle, my chaplain fiancée. But I find, on leaving Gretchen’s house, that such near-hits and misses have gone from my head. All I retain are the hard hits, the proof, the impossible truths of this spirit communion.
Belief is loving someone in the dark who does answer, but answers us in different ways. Belief is precisely what we make it. Belief is what we want for ourselves, what we are.
Hardly profound, I know, but true.