Have you ever sought spiritual guidance? Desired to receive the wisdom and reassurance of those who have passed to the afterlife? Lily Dale Assembly in Western New York creates a beautiful setting for those seeking connection with the spirit world. As the world’s largest spiritualist community, Lily Dale is a site of historical, cultural, and spiritual significance.
Lily Dale is located in Chautauqua County in Southwestern New York, along Cassadaga Lake. Since its founding in 1879, Lily Dale Assembly has drawn in people who want to learn more about Spiritualism and those who hope to receive a message from beyond the veil. Lily Dale visitors can receive readings from registered mediums, participate in healing services, attend workshops or lectures, and explore an old-growth forest.
The Growth of Spiritualism and the Fox Sisters
During the 19th century, industrialization and urbanization were on the rise. As new ideas and technology spread on the earthly plane, a movement focusing on communication with spirits of the dead was also emerging—Spiritualism. With declining birthrates and a rise in mortality in crowded urban settings, Americans became increasingly preoccupied with death. With hundreds of thousands of deaths during the Civil War (1861–1865) and World War I (1917–1918), the numbers of Spiritualists in America swelled as people grieved the loss of their loved ones. It has been reported that even President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln attended a séance at the White House after the death of their son. The Spiritualist movement peaked from the 1840s to the 1920s, with more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe in 1897.
The emergence of Spiritualism as a popular movement in the United States began with a report of spirit communication by the Fox Sisters—Kate and Margaret. The girls first reported hearing rappings from a spirit in their Hydesville, NY home in 1848. The Fox Sisters revealed that they had developed the ability to communicate with the spirit of an itinerant peddler who had reportedly been murdered and buried under the house. The girls were sent to live with older sister Leah in Rochester, where they began to further share their gifts. As they grew older, Kate and Margaret Fox became well-known mediums, conducting séances with hundreds of people in the audience.
Towards the end of their lives the Fox sisters, both living in poverty and struggling with alcoholism, were paid $1,500 to publicly confess their communication with the dead as fraudulent. In 1888 Margaret gave a public demonstration exposing their methods, but she recanted her confession within a year. Regardless of the veracity of claims on either side, the Fox Sisters played a significant role in the Spiritualist movement. (Learn more about “The Fox Sisters and the Birth of Spirtualism” here.)
The original Fox cottage where the spirit rappings were first reported was moved from Hydesville to Lily Dale in 1916. The cottage burned to the ground in 1955, but the Fox family Bible was saved and remains on display at the Lily Dale Museum. Lily Dale also has a memorial garden dedicated to the Fox family.
The Founding of Lily Dale Assembly
In 1844, a Dr. Moran of Vermont was invited to give a series of talks on Mesmerism in Laona, NY. His talks inspired residents Jeremiah Carter and William Johnson to create experiments emulating Dr. Moran’s work. While in a mesmeric state, Jeremiah Carter became entranced and communicated as another entity called Dr. Hedges. After this event, interest grew in connecting with spirits in this manner, and in 1850 a society of Spiritualists and Liberals was organized.
In 1873, Willard Alden invited the group to picnic at what is now the Leolyn Hotel on the Lily Dale assembly grounds, with the intent of dedicating the grove for the use of Spiritualists. In 1875 the First Spiritualist Society of Laona was formed. The day-long conferences in Alden’s grove eventually developed into a longer summer gathering after Jeremiah Carter was moved by spirit voices telling him to start a camp there. In 1879, after Willard Alden passed into the spirit world, the Spiritualist Society purchased the 20 acres of land along Cassadaga Lake.
The camp was initially called Cassadaga Lake Free Association, but in 1903 it was renamed The City of Light after becoming the first community in the area to get electric lights. In 1906 the name was changed to the Lily Dale Assembly after the abundant water lilies found in the lake.
Lily Dale Today
Though Spiritualist camps became increasingly common in the United States by the end of the 19th century, Lily Dale Assembly is an important site for spiritualism. Lily Dale remains significant because of the crowds it continues to draw each summer. An enriching and diverse program is still offered each summer season. Well-known figures have come to lecture at Lily Dale since the community was founded, and the practice of inviting culturally relevant guests to share their knowledge continues to this day.
Today Lily Dale Assembly is 167 acres, with homes, a library, a museum, meeting buildings, shops, several cafes, two hotels, guesthouses, a campground, a beach, and an old-growth forest. The year-round population of residents at Lily Dale is fewer than 300, but during the summer season the number of residents doubles to meet the needs of the many visitors who pass through the gates, mostly in the summer. Approximately 22,000 visitors come to Lily Dale each year. Though most who attend are from North America, Lily Dale has visitors from around the world.
There are around 50 registered mediums in Lily Dale. Mediums receive messages from the spirit world using varied methods. Communication occurs by seeing or hearing spirits, receiving mental impressions or thoughts, or by way of physical or emotional feelings. All registered mediums at Lily Dale must meet a required set of standards. Only registered mediums can provide private consultations on the grounds.
The 2017 Summer Season is from June 30 to September 3. There is a daily schedule of events throughout the summer. In recent years, Lily Dale has hosted well-known lecturers such as Deepak Chopra, Dr. Wayne Dyer, and John Edward.
During the summer season there are entrance fees, but Lily Dale is free and open to the public the rest of the year. A daily pass (24 hours) is $15 per person and an evening pass (6pm–midnight) is $9 per person.
In this series, we explore different facets of Lily Dale Assembly and Spiritualism:
- How the World’s Largest Spiritualist Center Came to Be
- Home of America’s Oldest Pet Cemetery
- Spiritualist Practices in the 19th and 20th Centuries
- Walking the Fairy Trail
- 19th Century Reform and Revival in Western New York
- Architecture and Community-building
- Leolyn Woods and Being One with Nature