Politics

This Community Welcomes Mediums, but First You Have to Prove Yourself

Everybody dies. But not in Lily Dale.

Founded in 1879, the hamlet of about 250 residents in rural western New York is a haven for Spiritualism, a religion formed around the conviction that human souls continue living after physical death. “The underlying belief in Spiritualism is that we don’t really die. We pass on, but we carry on in the spirit world, which is exactly like this world, except with less restrictions,” said Mandi Shepp, 38, Lily Dale’s former library director and an archives coordinator at the State University of New York at Fredonia.

But in the physical world, the one we’re in here and now, tension is brewing among the living about who is authorized to contact the dead. In Spiritualist tradition, mediums have the ability to communicate with the otherworldly, and Lily Dale doesn’t let just anyone set up shop here. Upon entering its gates, one will encounter a “mediums directory,” a list of over 30 people who are “the only Mediums certified to give readings on the grounds.”

Three women are suing the Lily Dale Assembly, the nonprofit organization that runs the community and owns all the land. To become Lily Dale-registered mediums, candidates must go through a testing process and their score is determined by how frequently they were able to display that they successfully engaged with the spirit world.

Natalie Scobercea, Barbara Robinson and Linda Struble say they completed dozens of readings and demonstrations in 2022 under the rigorous application process and were told in April that they had failed — a rejection that prevents them from working inside Lily Dale and greatly affects their ability to make a living as mediums outside the hamlet. A medium can charge hundreds of dollars for a single session.

Upon entering Lily Dale’s gates, one will encounter a “mediums directory.”Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Lily Dale has a cottagecore quaintness that makes it feel cutesy, rather than eerie.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The three women say in their joint lawsuit that Lily Dale’s “mediumship guide” stated that one needed a score of 82 percent to pass. Ms. Robinson made an 82.6 percent, Ms. Scobercea got an 83.1 and Ms. Struble scored the highest with 84.2. But the Lily Dale Assembly informed them that a passing score was 85, according to the lawsuit filed in July in New York State Supreme Court.

In a video interview, Ms. Scobercea, 53, said she typically sees between 15 to 30 clients every month. She starts each session, which lasts 30 to 45 minutes and costs $65, with a nondenominational prayer. Clients can then ask questions or request Ms. Scobercea to connect with specific people who’ve passed away (they can also ask her to avoid certain ones, like an ex-husband). Her business is entirely referral only — she doesn’t advertise.

“I need to step outside of the gates to read,” said Ms. Scobercea, who joined the assembly in 2016. “I can do phone, but there’s a very big population that feels like they need to sit with a medium. ”

(Ms. Robinson and Ms. Struble, who live in Pennsylvania, declined to comment.)

Amanda DeShong, the vice president of the Lily Dale Assembly board of directors, declined to answer specific questions about the lawsuit, but said that the mediumship registration process has not been “a problem in decades and decades.”

In a court filing, the assembly admitted “that through a misunderstanding of what was in the updated Mediumship Guide, Lily Dale believed that a passing grade for the demonstrations was 85 when it was in the Mediumship Guide as 82.” But the assembly also denied “that achieving a passing grade on the demonstration evaluations means that the plaintiffs had ‘passed’ the requirements to become registered mediums.”

No Ouija Boards

On paper, Lily Dale is a perfect setting for Halloween. A visit might sound like setting oneself up for the beginning of a horror film — driving to a remote area filled with people who say they can communicate with those who’ve passed away. But it has a cottagecore quaintness that makes it feel cutesy, rather than eerie; Victorian-style homes — many painted off-kilter colors, including pink, purple and green — are adorned with gnomes, witch hats and alien statues. All of it is backdropped by the comfort that the belief in life after death can bring. One sign in the woods reads, “Take a moment to look around at the fallen trees. It is important to leave this forest undisturbed because, in a forest, death creates life.”

But the belief and practices of reaching the otherworldly are more serious than any kitschy décor might suggest. “We don’t use Ouija boards, tarot cards, crystal balls — none of that. They’re all toys, and they get you in trouble,” said Ron Nagy, 73, Lily Dale’s official historian who has lived in the hamlet for 22 years.

Lily Dale historian Ron Nagy in the Lily Dale Museum with a séance trumpet.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
“Precipitated spirit paintings” in the Lily Dale Museum.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The lucrative summer season is Lily Dale’s busiest time of the year, with thousands of outsiders flocking to the area for workshops, readings and celebrity lectures — past speakers have included the alternative medicine guru Deepak Chopra and the television psychic personality John Edward. This past summer, Lily Dale held a meditative chanting session with Tibetan monks, a talk on extraterrestrial connections and a workshop titled “fast and easy spirit communication with all your ancestral guides.”

The community’s founding was grounded in religion. Throughout the 1800s, the western and central regions of New York state became a breeding ground for new and nonconforming religious thought and experimentation — including Mormonism, Shakerism, the utopian group the Oneida Community and Spiritualism. The region became known as the Burned-Over District.

Through publicized séances, Margaret and Kate Fox helped popularize Spiritualism. The sisters said they began communicating with a spirit in 1848 at their home about two and a half hours away from Lily Dale. They were children at the time, and 40 years later, Margaret would publicly say it was all a hoax. But the trend had already caught on.

The development of New York’s Erie Canal and railroads helped spread these ideologies across the state and country. “At the time that Spiritualism is being created, you’re also seeing this massive growth in alternative belief systems in that same geographic spread,” said Ms. Shepp.

Another factor helped Spiritualism spread like fire. The American Civil War began in 1861, and people were “dealing with so much death and warfare in unprecedented ways,” Ms. Shepp said. Many turned to Spiritualism to help cope with the mass sense of loss, not dissimilar from belief in ghosts spiking following Covid. “Spiritualism offers this very nice, comfortable ideology that these sons that were lost in battle aren’t really gone forever,” she said.

In the 1870s, Spiritualists and Freethinkers camped out in what would become Lily Dale during the summertime, hosting gatherings with food and lectures. In 1879, the group decided to buy a parcel of land there, the start of Lily Dale’s apparent permanency. Marion and Thomas Skidmore were wealthy benefactors heavily involved in the settlement’s early days. Ms. Skidmore developed the library, which started off under a tent, but is now housed in a brick building, home to a vast collection of rare books on the occult and Spiritualist newspapers.

The former Lily Dale librarian Mandi Shepp, at Inspiration Stump, where some mediums hold services.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
The rise of Lily Dale collided with the women’s suffrage movement. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Women’s Work

The rise of Lily Dale collided with the women’s suffrage movement, which also burgeoned in central New York. Susan B. Anthony even visited and spoke in Lily Dale.

Members of the religion generally welcomed other novel beliefs of the time, including vegetarianism and environmentalism, in addition to women’s rights. There was a synergy between all these movements and new ideologies, helping them all expand.

The pursuit of mediumship was particularly appealing to women because “it was a way for them to create independent careers for themselves and have a job at a time where it wasn’t really seen as a thing you could do,” said Ms. Shepp. Since women were already seen as “the religious center of their household,” becoming a medium was more socially acceptable than following other career paths. Giving readings in public also allowed for women to speak independently and in front of audiences.

Spiritualism is an organized religion — the National Spiritualist Association of Churches has locations in over 20 states — but its followers often come to it after facing discontent with mainstream religions.

The National Spiritualist Association of Churches has locations in several states across the country, including New York, California and Arizona. Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
“I’m very attracted to the idea that mediumship is so normalized here,” said Celeste Elliott, a registered medium and Lily Dale resident.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

And while many Spiritualists were on the forefront of certain social issues, they were also regressive in other ways. “Spiritualism was split by the same issue that affected other American churches, race,” wrote the religious scholar J. Gordon Melton in his “Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America.” As more Black people practiced Spiritualism, the National Spiritualist Association of Churches “moved to segregate them and curtail their participation in the national conventions.” In the early 20th century, Black members who were pushed out formed the separate National Colored Spiritualist Association of Churches.

All of these histories have shaped present-day Lily Dale. Most of the mediums there are still women, and the community is also conspicuously white.

Part of the appeal of living in Lily Dale, for many Spiritualists, is that life there is void of any judgment or raised eyebrows in response to their beliefs.

“I’m very attracted to the idea that mediumship is so normalized here,” said Celeste Elliott, a registered medium who has been living in Lily Dale since 2010. Ms. Elliott, 42, lives with her mother, also a registered medium, and the two have reading rooms directly across from each other in the entryway of their home. “Try dating and telling people that your job is a professional medium. If there’s a lull in the conversation, they’ll be like, ‘are you trying to read my mind?’ No!”

The like-minded residents also eschew Hollywood depictions of the paranormal. “They make more money from people being scared,” said Ms. DeShong, 58, the vice president. “Lily Dale is about peace and love and light, it’s nothing to do with a scary element to knowing that our life is eternal.”

A grave marker in the pet cemetery in Lily Dale.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
One sign in the woods reads, “Take a moment to look around at the fallen trees. It is important to leave this forest undisturbed because, in a forest, death creates life.”Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

As one Spiritualist proverb explains, “there is no death, there are no dead.” This is the phrase that Mr. Nagy chose to engrave on his tombstone.

Walking through Lily Dale’s museum, located in what used to be a one-room schoolhouse, Mr. Nagy showed off the various spirit-related paraphernalia and artifacts, including séance trumpets, paintings supposedly made by spirits and silverware bent using mind concentration.

“I’m going to have so much fun when I die. I’m not leaving the museum,” he said. “You can get away with a lot when you’re a spirit.”

The Path to Mediumship

Death isn’t the only thing that doesn’t exist in Lily Dale. Neither do mortgages.

“Purchasing a home in Lily Dale is not a typical real estate transaction,” the website of the Lily Dale Assembly says.

“You can buy your home here, but you don’t own the land,” explained Ms. DeShong.

Instead, residents buying into the community can purchase a leasehold, which grants them the right to live on a specific property for a set number of years. Mortgages aren’t allowed in this process, and to be considered, a prospective resident must be a member in “good standing” with the Lily Dale Assembly. To join the assembly, a person must show that they’ve been part of a recognized Spiritualist church for at least one year, provide letters of reference, pay annual dues and meet with the assembly’s board “to discuss your intentions and interest.”

“You can buy your home here, but you don’t own the land,” explained Amanda DeShong, the vice president of Lily Dale’s board.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Many of the homes in Lily Dale are Victorian style.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of religion, race, sex, disability and more — but there are exemptions for housing operated by religious organizations.

For $5,000 in 2018, Ms. Scobercea purchased a home, which her husband later restored. She was drawn to the hamlet for its peacefulness and the quiet way of life it could provide for her 19-year-old son who has febrile infection-related epilepsy syndrome.

Moving to Lily Dale was a process, of course. It took some convincing from a mentor and past president of Lily Dale for Ms. Scobercea to take the extra step of becoming a registered medium there.

She picked up an application from the office and began the tedious journey.

The New York Times obtained a copy of Lily Dale’s “mediumship guide,” last revised in 2022, when Ms. Scobercea began the process. In addition to three letters of recommendation, proof of training, a letter of introduction and a fee of $150, the application also requires prospective mediums to complete 25 public demonstrations of mediumship and two “Monday Night Circles,” which are ticketed events that a number of mediums provide readings at. After all that, there’s still more. Graded private readings and public demonstrations in front of assembly members are required — scores are based on their engagement with the world beyond the living.

All of this work was unpaid, and Ms. Scobercea, realizing she loved it, went beyond what was required — completing 63 public demonstrations and four Monday Night Circles. Ms. Scobercea estimates she spent over 70 hours in total on this aspect of the application. Yet, she was told she did not pass.

While Ms. Scobercea said she’s not going to retest, she wants to continue calling Lily Dale home. “Beyond what’s happening with this,” she said, pausing, “let’s just call it a kerfuffle, there is a sense of community here. There’s open meditation, there’s a healing temple.”

Ms. Scobercea continued, “It’s quirky and it’s unusual and it’s beautiful. It’s a healing place for people. I would hope that one day I would be able to be of service here.”

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