Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead

Overview

In Lily Dale, New York, the dead don't die.

Instead, spirits flit among the elms and stroll along the streets, sometimes dressed in garb more common 120 years ago, when Lily Dale was founded and suffragette Susan B. Anthony was a frequent guest.

According to Spiritualists who have ruled this Victorian hamlet for five generations, the dead don't go away and they stay anything but quiet. Every summer twenty thousand guests come to consult the ...

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Overview

In Lily Dale, New York, the dead don't die.

Instead, spirits flit among the elms and stroll along the streets, sometimes dressed in garb more common 120 years ago, when Lily Dale was founded and suffragette Susan B. Anthony was a frequent guest.

According to Spiritualists who have ruled this Victorian hamlet for five generations, the dead don't go away and they stay anything but quiet. Every summer twenty thousand guests come to consult the town's mediums, who can hang out a shingle only after passing a test that confirms their connection to the spirit world.

On the hot June day when reporter Christine Wicker comes to the world's oldest and largest Spiritualist community, she is determined to understand the secret forces — human or otherwise — that keep Lily Dale alive. She follows three visitors: a newly bereaved widow; a mother whose son killed himself; and a beautiful, happily married wife whose first visit to Lily Dale brings an ominous warning.

Are the mediums cold-hearted charlatans, as Sinclair Lewis wrote of them? Or are they conduits for a hidden world that longs to bring peace and healing to the living, as psychologist William James and muckraker Upton Sinclair once hoped to prove?

Investigating a movement that attracted millions of Americans in the 1800s and now barely survives, Wicker moves beyond the mediums' front parlors and into the lives that tourists never see. She follows the mediums to a place where what we know and how we know it is the greatest mystery of all.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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Every summer, 20,000 people flock to Lily Dale, a tiny Victorian lakeside village of 250 year-round residents in upstate New York. Lily Dale is a town of wide porches bedecked with American flags, where neighbors help one another as a matter of course, old people are looked after and included in gatherings, children play outdoors on crime-free streets, and the citizens talk to the dead.

A belief in psychic phenomena -- the ability to communicate with the dead -- has had proponents in every civilization in recorded history. And Lily Dale is the place where American Spiritualism was born. People have always found strength in beliefs that can't be proven by scientific means. In all religions, faith is its own reward.

The mediums of Lily Dale don't feel they are special -- they believe all those with faith have the ability to talk with the dead. As author Wicker notes, with reference to philosopher William James, "a good way to judge a religion's validity is by the effect it has on people's lives." She visited Lily Dale on more than one occasion, and marveled at the warmth of its denizens and the giddy possibility of communication with the dead. As a journalist, she began as a skeptic. Upon leaving, she concluded, "Did I believe it? Sometimes yes. Sometimes no. But I'd like to." (Spring 2003 Selection)

Publishers Weekly
Since it's become nearly extinguished, the American Spiritualism movement seems more ripe for sociological study and amused incredulity than a topic for deep reflection or journalistic memoir. But Wicker, a Dallas Morning News religion reporter, resists her own skepticism just as Lily Dale's citizens resist letting the movement die. The result is a portrait not just of an upstate New York town built 122 years ago on old-fashioned spirituality, but also of the mediums who practice there, their clients, and Wicker herself, who lets details of her own spiritual beliefs lightly shade her travels to Lily Dale. Although the book details the town's story, Wicker uses its history merely as a framework to explore more slippery topics, e.g., the nature of faith, the value of belief and the need for solace. She explores these areas through the stories of those who visit Lily Dale annually, craving a few insightful words about deceased family members or hoping for a premonition about romances, careers or children. Some of the tales are sad ones, but Wicker's jaunty pacing and humor keep the work from growing too dark and leave the reader with a feeling of tenderness, rather than pity, toward her subjects. She also weaves in stories of trickery, giving the tales of otherworldliness a nicely earthbound counterpoint. By the end, Wicker feels subtly changed, and she offers no answers as to why that might be or how long it may last. This lack of resolution is refreshing, however, and wonderfully fitting for a book about the mystery of faith. Agents, Janet Wilkins Manus and Jandy Nelson. (Mar.) Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In some ways, Lily Dale-a village in upstate New York populated by the largest community of spiritualists in the world-seems like "the little town that time forgot." Founded in 1879, Lily Dale has long been Mecca for people who truly believe that they can communicate with the dead, that angels literally watch over earthlings' everyday lives, and that the vocation of medium is no more unusual than teacher or police officer. Visitors to the town have been as diverse as Susan B. Anthony and Mae West. Baptist by upbringing and a respected religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News, Wicker writes that "a good way to judge a religion's validity is by the effect it has on people's lives." She went to Lily Dale to find out what the residents were like: wacky? forerunners of New Agers? She arrived as a skeptic and left still somewhat doubtful but with a surprisingly open mind. Whether or not one accepts the existence of the supernatural, the resulting book is a very good read. Residents are often portrayed with humor but are never condescended to or ridiculed. For public libraries.-Mary Prokop, Savannah Country Day Sch., GA Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060086664
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/4/2003
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.97 (d)

Meet the Author

Christine Wicker was raised in Oklahoma, Texas, and other parts of the South. Her mother's grandfather was an itinerant Baptist preacher, and her dad's father was a Kentucky coal miner. During her seventeen years at the Dallas Morning News, she was a feature writer, columnist, and religion reporter. She is the author of several books, including the highly acclaimed New York Times bestseller Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead.

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Read an Excerpt

Lily Dale


By Wicker, Christine

HarperSanFrancisco

ISBN: 006008667X

Chapter One

Lily Dale: How It Began

Lily Dale is sixty miles south of Buffalo, tucked off the side road of a side road to Interstate 90. It's easy to miss. Little Victorian houses sitting at the edge of a lake. A settlement of a few hundred people clinging to a religion that once had millions of believers and now has only a remnant. American flags flapping from screened porches. Fountains splashing in shady little pocket parks. Big-bellied cats strolling across streets as though they own them. So many cats sun themselves about town that squirrels are said to be fearful of touching ground.

Women set the tone in this lakeside community where houses are painted in pastels. During the height of the summer season, when twenty thousand visitors come to consult the town's mediums, it resembles nothing so much as a sorority sleepover for aging sisters. They laze about in the hotel parlor and fan themselves in white rockers that line the veranda. They sweep down the streets in flowing dresses. Tinsel stars and crystals hang in windows. Christmas lights twinkle from porches all year long. Stone angels stand sentry on walkways, and plaster elves march across lawns.

I was a religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News when I first drove a rental car past the filigree sign that proclaims Lily Dale to be the world's largest community of Spiritualists. The entrance shack where attendants take seven dollars from visitors during what the community calls camp season is white with bright blue trim and the walls and roof seem slightly out of plumb. Many things in Lily Dale are not quite square. For more than a hundred years, people of the Dale have believed they can talk with the dead. They think anybody can. Call them demented, sneer at their gullibility, suspect them of trickery -- catch them in it even, lots of people have -- but they won't give up what they believe.

I first read about Lily Dale in the New York Times in a little story that told everything except what I wanted to know. The reporter mentioned Lily Dale's 1879 founding, which makes it the oldest Spiritualist community in America and probably the world. He described the community's beginning as a summer camp for well-to-do freethinkers and Spiritualists, and he related stories its residents had told him. His skepticism was not quite hidden between carefully noncommittal lines, and that is a fine way for a reporter to behave in the face of such absurdity as Lily Dale presents -- the only way really. He wrote like a good fact-based reporter living in a scientific age in which provable facts are the only allowable reality. He had no reason to write anything more and all the reason in the world not to. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why this strange little outpost clings to such absurd ideas. I wanted to know who these people are and what makes them tick.

When they remember that New York Times reporter in Lily Dale, they mention how much the community's tatty look dismayed him and what he said to Hilda Wilkinson after she fed him tea and lunch. According to the story, he told Hilda, who first came to the Dale seventy-five years ago, he didn't believe a thing he'd heard. He said he didn't know how anyone could believe such nonsense. And Hilda said, "Well, young man, you just hold on to your beliefs." She paused.

"You just hold on, young man. Until you wake up."

I put the story in a file where it sat for a year. In June, when Dallas temperatures were climbing toward 100 and every reporter in Texas was looking for a story in a cool climate, I showed it to my editors. Within two weeks, I was on a flight to Buffalo.

Covering the God beat, I've met lots of people who believe strange things. I've talked with a voodoo priestess in Cuba who communed with the Virgin Mary. I've interviewed a man walking across America pulling a big wooden cross because Jesus told him to. I've spent all night in Garland, Texas, with a Taiwanese cult waiting for God to come on television and announce the end of the world. They lived in Garland because their leader thought "Garland" was "God-land."

Weird never puts me off. I like it, and usually I understand it. In Lily Dale, some people were nervous about talking to me, but I told them straight out that I had not come to ridicule.

"You're afraid I'm going to write something that will make you seem crazy. Don't worry about that," I told them. "Everybody thinks you're nuts already. So there's no story there."

With regard to talking dead people, I considered myself ambivalent. Compared to most people in Lily Dale, I was a raging skeptic. Compared to most of my colleagues, I was a soft-headed sap. I didn't believe Lily Dale's people could chat with the dead, but I was willing to concede that I didn't know much about cosmic workings. I might be wrong.

And more to the point for a reporter, the Spiritualists were making the biggest brag in modern-day religion. Desperate for civic respectability in the face of science, most religions have pushed far away from the miracles on which they were founded. Not Spiritualism. Believers in this faith hold tight to their miracles, which they don't even think of as miracles actually, but as ordinary, accessible experience. I admired their pluck.

My first night was spent in a room above the old Assembly Hall. The ground floor is a dusty, wood-planked meeting room lined with grim-faced portraits of important Spiritualists from the 1800s and early 1900s. A private bedroom upstairs, with a shared bath, cost twenty-five dollars ...

Continues...

Excerpted from Lily Dale by Wicker, Christine Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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First Chapter

Lily Dale
The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead

Chapter One

Lily Dale: How It Began

Lily Dale is sixty miles south of Buffalo, tucked off the side road of a side road to Interstate 90. It's easy to miss. Little Victorian houses sitting at the edge of a lake. A settlement of a few hundred people clinging to a religion that once had millions of believers and now has only a remnant. American flags flapping from screened porches. Fountains splashing in shady little pocket parks. Big-bellied cats strolling across streets as though they own them. So many cats sun themselves about town that squirrels are said to be fearful of touching ground.

Women set the tone in this lakeside community where houses are painted in pastels. During the height of the summer season, when twenty thousand visitors come to consult the town's mediums, it resembles nothing so much as a sorority sleepover for aging sisters. They laze about in the hotel parlor and fan themselves in white rockers that line the veranda. They sweep down the streets in flowing dresses. Tinsel stars and crystals hang in windows. Christmas lights twinkle from porches all year long. Stone angels stand sentry on walkways, and plaster elves march across lawns.

I was a religion reporter for the Dallas Morning News when I first drove a rental car past the filigree sign that proclaims Lily Dale to be the world's largest community of Spiritualists. The entrance shack where attendants take seven dollars from visitors during what the community calls camp season is white with bright blue trim and the walls and roof seem slightly out of plumb. Many things in Lily Dale are not quite square. For more than a hundred years, people of the Dale have believed they can talk with the dead. They think anybody can. Call them demented, sneer at their gullibility, suspect them of trickery -- catch them in it even, lots of people have -- but they won't give up what they believe.

I first read about Lily Dale in the New York Times in a little story that told everything except what I wanted to know. The reporter mentioned Lily Dale's 1879 founding, which makes it the oldest Spiritualist community in America and probably the world. He described the community's beginning as a summer camp for well-to-do freethinkers and Spiritualists, and he related stories its residents had told him. His skepticism was not quite hidden between carefully noncommittal lines, and that is a fine way for a reporter to behave in the face of such absurdity as Lily Dale presents -- the only way really. He wrote like a good fact-based reporter living in a scientific age in which provable facts are the only allowable reality. He had no reason to write anything more and all the reason in the world not to. But I wanted more. I wanted to know why this strange little outpost clings to such absurd ideas. I wanted to know who these people are and what makes them tick.

When they remember that New York Times reporter in Lily Dale, they mention how much the community's tatty look dismayed him and what he said to Hilda Wilkinson after she fed him tea and lunch. According to the story, he told Hilda, who first came to the Dale seventy-five years ago, he didn't believe a thing he'd heard. He said he didn't know how anyone could believe such nonsense. And Hilda said, "Well, young man, you just hold on to your beliefs." She paused.

"You just hold on, young man. Until you wake up."

I put the story in a file where it sat for a year. In June, when Dallas temperatures were climbing toward 100 and every reporter in Texas was looking for a story in a cool climate, I showed it to my editors. Within two weeks, I was on a flight to Buffalo.

Covering the God beat, I've met lots of people who believe strange things. I've talked with a voodoo priestess in Cuba who communed with the Virgin Mary. I've interviewed a man walking across America pulling a big wooden cross because Jesus told him to. I've spent all night in Garland, Texas, with a Taiwanese cult waiting for God to come on television and announce the end of the world. They lived in Garland because their leader thought "Garland" was "God-land."

Weird never puts me off. I like it, and usually I understand it. In Lily Dale, some people were nervous about talking to me, but I told them straight out that I had not come to ridicule.

"You're afraid I'm going to write something that will make you seem crazy. Don't worry about that," I told them. "Everybody thinks you're nuts already. So there's no story there."

With regard to talking dead people, I considered myself ambivalent. Compared to most people in Lily Dale, I was a raging skeptic. Compared to most of my colleagues, I was a soft-headed sap. I didn't believe Lily Dale's people could chat with the dead, but I was willing to concede that I didn't know much about cosmic workings. I might be wrong.

And more to the point for a reporter, the Spiritualists were making the biggest brag in modern-day religion. Desperate for civic respectability in the face of science, most religions have pushed far away from the miracles on which they were founded. Not Spiritualism. Believers in this faith hold tight to their miracles, which they don't even think of as miracles actually, but as ordinary, accessible experience. I admired their pluck.

My first night was spent in a room above the old Assembly Hall. The ground floor is a dusty, wood-planked meeting room lined with grim-faced portraits of important Spiritualists from the 1800s and early 1900s. A private bedroom upstairs, with a shared bath, cost twenty-five dollars ...

Lily Dale
The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead
. Copyright © by Christine Wicker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2004

    Well-told story of a unique town

    Journalist Christine Wicker approached both the subject and the town of Lily Dale itself with more than a touch of skepticism. I myself felt the same about the book. I must confess I was left mostly with the impression of a town full of lovable loonies, though it's hard to deny many are psychically gifted. Just how successfully they communicate with the dead remains questionable. However, Ms. Twicker unfolds her tale with heartwarming stories of other women who have approached Lily Dale for answers, and have found them - in one way or another.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2003

    Intriguing, a great read!

    Whether or not you believe in spiritualism, this book is fascinating, and impossible to put down once you begin it. It¿s well written and allows the reader draw his or her own conclusions. Highly recommended!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2003

    A good read

    With all the interest in the likes of John Edward and James VanPraagh, it seemed only a matter of time before someone wrote a book about Lily Dale. I've known about Lily Dale for years, have been there lots of times. Initially I came to find a connection with a dear friend who'd recently passed. I never experienced the kinds of connections others had with their loved ones, but I did come to peace with her passing. Everyone who's ever been there has a story about their Lily Dale experience, I suspect. Is this THE TRUE story of the town that talks to the dead? Well, no. However, it is A TRUE story, Ms. Wicker's story. It's enchanting, intriguing. Sometimes poignant, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, it chronicles her journey, talks about the people she meets. I suspect it's not the end of her journey but just the beginning.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 8, 2003

    It's like really being there!

    Ms. Wicker's book is one I couldn't stop reading. She walks you into the community and before you finish the book you feel like you know all the people there. Excellent material and very well written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2003

    I loved this book.

    When I saw the title of this book - 'Lily Dale: The Town That Talks To The Dead.' - I had to read this book to find out what in the world it was talking about. I was fascinated from the first page to the last. I liked the book on so many levels. I think Lily Dale must be the most interesting town in America. It is clear that the people who live there believe in what they are doing. But I was also struck by the grace and wit with which the author approaches her subject, effortlessly weaving stories of loss, transcendance, psychic events, history and humor. This book has something for everybody: don't miss it.

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