Summertime spirits: Village of Lily Dale reopens for believers and doubters alike

The 140-year-old village, a mecca for spiritualism and mediumship, will draw regulars and curious first-timers to cross paths after a hiatus of three years.

Leonard George in front of a 19th-century hotel in Lily Dale. The place is said to be haunted. Photo courtesy of George

(RNS) — Every year before heading to Lily Dale Assembly, Doot Bokelman says a brief prayer inviting her relatives who have passed away to meet her at the spiritualist meeting in Western New York.

“Anybody who wants to show, now would be a great time,” Bokelman, an art history professor, tells her dad, her grandparents and her uncle Bill. “And if you have a message or if there is something I need to know, that would be terrific!”

Like Bokelman, about 10,000 people attend Lily Dale every summer to meet with mediums who they believe can connect with the spirits of their dead relatives. Established in the late 1870s, the village of Lily Dale has been a mecca for spiritualism and mediumship ever since. With the COVID-19 pandemic’s official end, the village is reopening without any restrictions, allowing seasoned regulars and curious first-timers to cross paths at “the Dale” after a hiatus of three years.

The village, which counts about 100 inhabitants during the winter season, hopes to host up to “3,000 people on big weekends,” said Havivah Richards, the community’s administrator.

For the reopening, Jack Osbourne, son of Ozzy Osbourne and host of television shows on the paranormal, including “Portals to Hell,” will be on hand to talk about his experiences.

Bokelman, a professor at Nazareth University, grew up in a 250-year-old house that she believed was haunted. She would regularly hear odd sounds from the hallway, and lights would turn on by themselves. This convinced her that spirits existed.

“I was brought up in the Christian tradition, one that doesn’t believe in ghosts, but I always knew they were spirits, I knew I was getting help from the other side,” she said.

Intrigued by the paranormal events she experienced, Bokelman came to Lily Dale for the first time two decades ago with many questions about her family’s history and ghosts and mediumship. Through medium sessions, she made peace with dead family members and got to know her dad’s side of the family.

“I had a number of dead people on the other side that I did not get along with in life at all. But we fixed all that. It’s amazing; I get along better with dead people than I do with living people,” she said.

In 2021, Bokelman decided to take the “spiritualist track,” a two-year program to develop the participants’ different mediumistic abilities. She took classes through Zoom, which left her skeptical at first. A visual artist, Bokelman developed a talent for drawing spirits. Though she enjoys practicing her new skill, she doesn’t aspire to be a “medium per se” and doesn’t consider herself a spiritualist.

Western New York has held a special place in the spiritualist community since the practice arrived in the U.S. in the 1840s. The region is believed to have special properties that ease the connection with spirits.

Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox: the original mediums of the mysterious noises at Rochester Western, N.Y. The daguerreotype was first published by N. Currier circa 1852. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Mrs. Fish and the Misses Fox: the original mediums of the mysterious noises at Rochester Western, N.Y. The daguerreotype was first published by N. Currier circa 1852. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Two Methodist sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, from the hamlet of Hydesville, near Rochester, brought modern spiritualism to the United States in 1848, convincing their family and others that they were communicating with spirits by snapping their fingers. For 40 years, the Fox sisters enjoyed a successful medium career before revealing that it was all a hoax.

Yet, their practice continued on. In 1916, the Fox cottage was moved to Lily Dale. It burned in a fire in 1955, and a memorial version has been built.

Lily Dale’s rich history is also one of the things that attracts visitors. The first time she attended 25 years ago, Marjorie Roth wasn’t looking to talk to spirits; she wanted to meet mediums to further her research for her dissertation on lay prophecy in the ancient world. She fell in love with the charm of the 19th-century cottages in which the village’s mediums live and the positive atmosphere of the place.

“It was just incredibly peaceful,” she said.

At the time, mediums left appointment books open on their porches, and anyone could sign up for sessions. Roth’s favorite place in Lily Dale was the healing temple.

“It’s a charming place. I’m not a healer, and I’m not a medium or any of those things, but when I go to Lily Dale, I usually try to get the healing temple and sit there a couple of times because it’s just very positive,” she said.

But Lily Dale has a way of pulling nonbelievers in. This year, Roth, who also teaches at the School of Music of Nazareth University, will visit Lily Dale with her husband, Leonard George, a psychologist. George has long been interested in spiritualism and magical practices.

Eager to learn more, he underwent a mediumship training program at Lily Dale a few years ago. “I was wondering what kind of experience was it exactly (mediumship). Is it a kind of experience that is unique to spiritualism? Or the kind of experience that other people had, that I had?”

During the week-long program directed by Judith Rochester, George learned to enter a trance state and discovered how his sense could help him connect with spirits.

He has a better idea of how mediumship works now, but still, he isn’t convinced of the continuity of life and therefore doesn’t consider himself a spiritualist. However, it’s not evidence of fraud, and he remains interested.

Roth said that she still maintains a healthy skepticism, though she admits that during one session in 2012, a medium told her in detail about a recent trip she made to Egypt.

“That kind of thing, every once in a while, just makes me sit back and say: What is it exactly that these people are doing?”

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