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No ghosts, no problem: The medium is the message in Lily Dale, New York.
I can admit now that I went - and dragged my long-suffering husband - to the community of Lily Dale in Western New York because I was secretly hoping for a message from the dead.
Specifically, one from my father, who now is gone six years. The Lily Dale Assembly is the country's oldest continuously operating spiritualist community, founded in 1879. The village, a leafy place lined with Victorian gingerbread cottages and gardens dotted with angel statues, is packed with registered mediums - people who claim they hear and see dead people.
Spiritualism has a long history in the United States, including a 19th-century trio, the Fox sisters, who convinced hundreds that they heard tapping and messages from the spirit world. Even after their claims were debunked and the sisters admitted that they had cracked their toe joints and created contraptions for sounds coming from other rooms, the movement continued.
First lady Mary Todd Lincoln famously cherished a photo that purported to show her assassinated husband standing behind her with his hands resting on her shoulder in a ghostly way.
For people who often lost as many children as survived and who lived through the devastating Civil War, there was something comforting in thinking that the dead stay around, guiding us, watching over us, cheering us on like silent chaperons.
Even today, spiritualism has a place in our consciousness. Think of the popularity of TV shows such as Long Island Medium and Hollywood Medium. Besides the true believers, there probably are even more who would count themselves as spirit-curious, who would like to be persuaded that those who have gone before haven't gone all that far.
These days, Lily Dale's summer high season, which starts at the end of June, draws 30,000 visitors a year, says Lily Dale historian Ron Nagy, who also conducts spoon-bending workshops. The community on Cassadaga Lake houses 55 registered mediums - each in his or her own house - a turn-of-the-century hotel, three cafes, a library and quite possibly the world's most charming pet cemetery. In its heyday, Lily Dale, about 60 miles south of Buffalo, drew as many as 5000 people a day by train, he says.
Today, the town is far quieter than its nearby cousin, Chautauqua, home of the summerlong arts and ideas festival that draws visitors from around the globe.
We visited Lily Dale on the kind of perfect summer day where the sunlight dapples the 100-year-old trees. Cars lined up to pay the gate fee - US$15 a person - with many headed for the daily "inspiration meeting" at Inspiration Stump, in the village. The wide, flat stump, surrounded by a cast-iron fence, is the sacred place where mediums are said to best receive messages from the spirit world. In the past, mediums would stand on the stump. Today, they stand near it.
Besides the daily open meetings, visitors can also get an individual reading from the many mediums registered at Lily Dale, with fees running about US$60 to US$100. On the day we visited, many signs outside the homes of mediums announced that their schedules were full.