The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

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Saints, Sinners and Reformers

The Burned-Over District Re-Visited


John H. Martin

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers

Chapter 10

The Fox Sisters

Communicating with the Beyond:
Spiritualism and the Lily Dale Community

The year 1848 was an eventful one in western New York. That year the first Women's Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York; John Humphrey Noyes began his community in Oneida, New York, based on Bible communism and "Complex Marriage;" and Orson Fowler issued his book on octagon houses and built his sixty-room octagonal mansion in Fishkill, New York. That same year a new semi-religious experience welled up in Hydesville, New York, when spiritualism became of major interest to a number of Americans. The "ouija board" of later times grew out of this new spiritualist movement which began in the Burned-Over District of New York since spiritualism and the use of the ouija board purportedly granted one the ability to converse with the spirits of another world.

Spiritualism was not really a new phenomena, since from times immemorial there have been claims that one could converse with those who were no longer alive, and even with angels and other supernatural entities, as various saints and even Jemima Wilkinson had done. Jemima in America was not alone, for in 1827 Joseph Smith claimed to have been visited by the angel Moroni who indicated the location of some inscribed golden tablets which Smith then said he had deciphered by means of magic spectacles given to him by the angel Moroni, who thereafter removed the tablets from this world. Not to be outdone, in 1837 in Niskayuna, just outside of Albany, New York, certain adolescent girls in the Shaker community there took to shaking and whirling and claiming to have taken spiritual journeys to Heaven and to have talked with angels. The following year the Shaker community at New Lebanon, New York, also reported contacts with spiritual beings, ranging from Jesus to Mother Ann, the founder of American Shakerism, to the Biblical apostles, as well as Alexander the Great, George Washington, Napoleon, and William Penn among others.

This incipient spiritualist movement, which could put one in touch not only with one's deceased relatives and ancestors but with great figures of the past, reached a culmination as a mass movement after an unusual occurrence in the family of John D. Fox, a farmer in Hydesville, New York. The eldest of the family's three daughters had married, was widowed, and lived in Rochester where she was a teacher. The two younger daughters, Margarette (Maggie), aged fifteen, and Kate, aged twelve, still lived at home in the small, family farmhouse. To the consternation of their parents, and to the delight of the two young girls, mysterious spirits seemed to have taken up abode in their house, and strange rappings would occur at night. The girls seemed to attract the spirits, for in February of 1848 these strange rappings began to occur, even during the daytime, from the floor, the walls, the furniture—wherever the girls happened to be. The family reaction was mixed: the mother, who was quite superstitious, was frightened, the father was skeptical, and the girls were in ecstasy.

One night Kate, the youngest, called out, "Here, Mr. Split-foot, do as I do." (Split-foot was a colloquial name for the Devil.) Kate rapped a number of times on the floor, and the spirit proceeded to respond with the same number of raps. The excitement in the household over this new development knew no bounds. In time, the mother and the girls were able to work out a system whereby they could communicate with the mysterious spirits. The spirits, through their raps, could answer "Yes" or "No" to questions which the girls put to them, and the spirits seemed to be infallibly omniscient. Soon, under the girls' penetrating questions, the spirit related his history. It turned out that in life he had been murdered and buried in their cellar. Then an excavation of the cellar floor actually turned up some human bones.

In a small town, word quickly spread concerning the mysterious happenings in the Fox household. Soon the girls were being asked by their neighbors to communicate with the spirits in order to obtain answers to various questions. Then, when the revelation of the spirit of the murdered man became known, excitement overwhelmed the community. Their older sister, Leah Fish, hastened from Rochester to act as manager for her sisters and the new phenomenon. Her Yankee sensibilities soon envisioned an opportunity to turn the spirits to pecuniary advantage. Not everyone was convinced that communications with spirits was at work since, as they noted, that the spirits always appeared only at the public meetings which the older sister had arranged, and never on other public occasions. The sister replied, with a great deal of haughtiness, that such public meetings were held only at the insistence of the spirits who wished to communicate with the world but only through her sisters.

The invocation of the spirits had become a good thing, but it could be made better. Therefore the family turned to E.W. Capron of Auburn, New York, a spiritualist and a medium. Maggie and Kate were now trained as professional mediums, individuals who could receive messages from a world beyond this one. Public meetings were organized to introduce the phenomenon to a wider audience, and fees were charged for such occasions. The gullible flocked in—as did the money. Naturally, the skeptics among New York Yankees began an attack on what they considered to be irrationality. Let no one think that the Burned-Over District was filled with devout religious seekers alone since skeptics as well as the credulous as well as religious devotees formed the populace of western New York. Verbal attacks by unbelievers were soon followed by investigations of the phenomena. While such attacks may have convinced many people of the spuriousness of the sessions, the attendant publicity helped the business of spiritualism no end.

It is an old adage that one cannot have too much of a good thing, and thus other mediums sprang up throughout the country. Spiritualist circles formed in every village and town, and contact with another world flourished. No doubt competition leads to improvement of one's business or product, for that is the basic law of the American economic spirit, and this rule seems to have applied in this realm of spiritualist religion as well. New techniques developed rapidly for the Fox girls under the tutelage of their sister, Mrs. Fish. Soon the spirits were responding in small paid sessions called sťances, and before long the spirits were demanding darkness during sťances since they could manifest themselves more readily when freed from light.

When other spiritualists discovered the virtue of darkness, the Fox sisters proceeded to uncover the depth of the innovative abilities of the spirits who now worked by means of the mysterious moving of the sťance table around which were seated those wishing to communicate with the spirits. Then spirit writing, and, to the thrill of the participants, cold, ghostly hands moved into the charmed circle of seekers about the table. Soon speaking in tongues developed among some of the participants, and even the involuntary operation of musical instruments became commonplace.

Mesmerism was another aspect which crept into spiritualism since mesmerism, or hypnotism, according to its proponents, enabled one spiritually to divest the body of its material elements. While in a trance, one was in touch with the spiritual nature which inhabits the body free of the corporeal matter of one's physical being. Thus this spiritual nature can be in touch with other spiritual natures in the universe, even spirits of the past. As a result, the spirits of the past were soon offering sermons, a favorite intellectual form for many individuals who had been converted to spiritualism. It seems that among those wishing to be heard were Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish mystic; George Fox, the Quaker leader of the seventeenth century; and even George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, deists who were not normally given to offering sermons.

By 1857, sixty-seven spiritualist journals were on the market and making money. Camp meetings, such as were previously used by revivalists, were occurring among spiritualists from the Atlantic to the Ohio. It is estimated that there were one to two million believers in spiritualism by 1855. After the disappointment over the failure of the Millennium to arrive on time some dozen years previously, this communication with the dead was more sensational and perhaps even more satisfying than the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. Interestingly, there were twice as many adherents to spiritualism in New York State than elsewhere, and the movement flourished in stable communities rather than in isolated areas of recent settlement.

The following for spiritualism soon numbered eminent men among the believers. Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune took the Fox girls into his house on one of their tours, and he was soon defending them and spiritualism in the columns of his newspaper. Judge Edmonds of the New York Supreme Court investigated the movement, and was won over. In 1853 he published a treatise on spiritualism, and the popularity of the movement increased. Respectability was totally insured when ex-Governor Talmadge of Wisconsin, and then an elderly scientist by the name of Professor Hare, joined the band wagon. Soon a group of Christian ministers were converted to the movement and thereby gave it religious significance, turning it into a cult, if not another branch of Christianity. Prior to the Civil War, however, no solid spiritualist organization developed despite the hundreds of mediums and spiritualist circles which flourished between 1848 and 1865. No doubt the spirits were far too individualistic and too busy to agree upon a constitution and by-laws, let alone have time to develop a theology.

Eventually the Fox sisters fell to quarreling, as often happens in any flourishing family business. By 1853 a petition to Congress with fifteen thousand signatures asked for a Federal investigation of the spiritualists' claims. Then a committee came from Buffalo to investigate the phenomenon, and Katie recanted and admitted that spiritualism was a fraud. The rappings were caused by the cracking of the joints of the girls' big toes and knees, she averred. Once a religion begins, however, it seldom fades away. The confession of the Fox sisters had little detrimental effect on spiritualism. Those who believed in the spirits were completely convinced that the recantation, not the toe cracking, was the fraud. Both sisters before their deaths re-iterated that it all had been a hoax which they had perpetrated, in part at first merely to arouse their excitable mother.

The heritage of the Fox sisters lives on in Spiritual Circles still. Lily Dale, New York, sixty miles below Buffalo and not too far north of Jamestown, New York, and Lake Chautauqua, remains the center of organized spiritualism in the United States as it has been ever since its founding in 1878. It boasts allegiance from Canadian spiritualist groups as well. There is even a Florida community to which the spiritualists migrate in winter. As Rome has its tomb of St. Peter, and London has the Stone of Scone to verify their claims to their respective traditions, Lily Dale had the Fox's family home which was moved here from Hydesville. New York, a town which obviously lacked the respect due to the farmhouse. There the house still stands, albeit it did burn to the ground in 1955. There is an inspirational garden next to it, with the appropriate plaque to identify the sacred unit.

The village of Lily Dale, which is at heart a camp ground rather than a village, boasts two hotels, tourist homes with bed and breakfast, a cafeteria, a shop, several spiritualist churches, as well as summer and year-round cottages for resident mediums whose shingles hang from their houses announcing their availability. There is a trailer camp for peregrinating spiritualists and these can also house mediums in temporary residence. Visiting mediums by town decree, however, may not operate from their hotel rooms. Many of the cottages at Lily Dale rent rooms to visitors, and one can always choose between those which have a plaque in the window and those which do not. Those with a plaque indicate that "This is a house protected by angels." It is obviously a better protection than anything guaranteed by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company or the local constabulary. Such plaques are also available in the camp-ground's shop should one have trouble with one's local home insurance coverage.

Since the Fox sisters' day, contact with the Beyond can be made through mediums as well as through various innovative techniques not known to the Fox girls. These include: dowsing (using a rod, such as when searching for water); "other than conscious communication"; the use of parables and metaphor for personal transformation; the use of gems or crystal for spiritual evolution and healing; aromathy through natural perfumes; the use of touch in healing; and the use of healing breath and hypnosis for personal transformation. While Lily Dale as an organization attaches a disclaimer to these techniques, they are all listed in a pamphlet freely available on the camp grounds, together with information for those who wish to pursue a particular selection from the possibilities available.

The School of Spiritual Healing and Philosophy on the grounds offers brochures on the above techniques for Spiritual Realization, and it provides programs which can lead to certification in spiritual healing, clairvoyance, clairaudience, and clairsentience. One can obtain certification and an option for an Associate Minister's Ordination, and this can lead to full Ministerial Ordination. There are also graduate programs for Advance Mediumship and Prophecy where Psychic and Kything skills (a form of spiritual communication) can be honed. One can also experience the "100th Monkey" effect through the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita, the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, and the Christian mystics. There is even instruction in the unlocking of mystical and metaphysical meanings in the Christian and Jewish scriptures.

A few words should be said about Andrew Jackson Davis for whom the Lyceum (meeting hall) at Lily Dale is named. He was known as the "Poughkeepsie Seer" who was born in 1825 in Poughkeepsie, New York, and grew up with little education. In 1843 a lecturer hypnotized him, and Davis decided to become a professional medium since he realized that he had clairvoyant abilities and could diagnose and prescribe for disease. He is said to have wandered off in a self-induced trance, and after one year he returned claiming to have spoken with Emanuel Swedenborg, long deceased, who had instructed him as to how to contact the supernatural. Soon a doctor and a minister helped to guide his talents, and he produced a book with their help entitled Harmonial Philosophy which went through thirty-four editions in thirty years. Thus it is only appropriate that a Lyceum or meeting hall for educational lectures would be named after him.

Each summer there is the yearly "Lily Dale Assembly" at which speakers provide instruction and inspiration in the Andrew Jackson Davis Assembly Hall and in the sacred wooded grove. Such sessions often begin with a hymn whose words state, "We are waiting, we are waiting for words of wisdom from the Great Beyond." There are some forty to one hundred and fifty mediums present each summer, many of whom go into a trance in order to communicate with the Great Beyond. A theology has developed in which God is not be seen as created in man's image, despite what Michelangelo and other noted depicters of religious individuals and scenes have created, especially the Victorians whose sentimental images of Jesus are still very popular. God, for the Spiritualists, is infinite intelligence, and intelligence continues both in life and in death, since life and death are but one. There are variations of belief among the converted, but all would agree that human personality is a passing manifestation of an ongoing spirit that goes through many transformations and partakes of the divine. Thus death is but a transformation back to the original Spirit, not the end of existence. A medium can therefore put one in touch with the dead who continue to live, but in an altered state.

The summer assembly meets in the tree-girt camp with its two hundred buildings on one hundred and seventy-two acres at the side of Lake Cassadaga, the village's narrow streets lined with houses of a vintage of the late nineteenth century. As with camps of a revivalist past, there is a Forest Temple set among the trees, a path leading through a small forest of majestic birch and hemlock trees, some more than one hundred feet tall. The path leads to a clearing in a glade where benches face a huge stump, the Inspiration Stump, which speakers can mount by means of steps to provide inspirational talks near the healing tree in the Leolyn Woods. Later in straight-backed chairs in the sprawling timber Assembly Hall, it is possible to listen to Psychics whose lectures offer information on altered states of consciousness and other esoterica concerned with Spiritual Intelligence. Later, after lectures, healings are ministered in the Healing Temple to those with spiritual or physical ailments while hands are placed on the afflicted one's head, face, back, and chest to the sound of gentle organ music.

Christianity centuries ago split into various major units, and the same is true at Lily Dale. In 1977 a group broke off from the parent "National Spiritual Association" which has its headquarters here, and the new group formed the "Christian Order of Spiritualist" reputed to have some one hundred members.

What historically was the importance of the rise of Spiritualism? Spiritualism was the last great religious excitement before the American Civil War. Thereafter the United States became industrialized and more materialistic in its outlook, and religious and spiritual outbreaks no longer took place with the energy and excitement with which such occasions had previously been marked. Changes were to occur within the Burned-Over District as well, since it was no longer purely Protestant after 1865. Now, with a small Jewish and a much larger Roman Catholic population, and with a more materialistic outlook on life, the fires have gone out in the Burned-Over District.

Revivalism continues, of course, but in a much weaker form than in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It does not attract the mass of the population, no matter what the more conservative religious leaders would have one believe today. If nothing else, the revivals did lead to a fracturing of American Christianity and to the creation of hundreds of new units calling themselves Christian. Does this proclivity of churches and faiths to split and to increase mean that the revivals of the Burned-Over era made America more religious? That is one of the questions impossible to answer, although most non-denominational surveys seem to indicate that only between 30% to 40% of Americans faithfully go to church today, despite the overt nature of public religiousness in American life.

On the other hand, the revivals of the past did accomplish one thing. The revivals washed out the differences in Christian theology. Few Presbyterians are any longer Calvinists believing in pre-destination. The washing out of theology as a major concern in life can be seen in the fact that those who do go to church often change denominations when they move to another town, the choice often based on social rather than theological reasons. Spiritualism continues to exist as a religious option, with some four hundred such churches alive today, but, along with Christian Science, there is not the growth for these two nineteenth-century faiths which their expectations once engendered.

Further Reading

Barkun, Michael. Crucible of the Millenium: The Burned-Over District of New York in the 1840s. Syracuse University Press. Syracuse, New York. 1986.

Cross, Whitney R. The Burned-Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiatic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York. 1950.

Sweet, William Warren. Revivalism in America It Origin, Growth, and Decline. Scribner. New York. 1944.

Sweet, William Warren. The Story of Religion in America. Harpers. New York. 1950.

Tyler, Alice. Freedom's Ferment: Phases of American Social History until 1860. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, Minnisota. 1944. (The fullest account of the Fox sisters.)

Weisberg, Barbara. Talking to the Dead. Harper Collins, New York, 2004.

Wicker, Christine. Lily Dale: The Story of the Town That Talks With the Dead. Harper Collins. New York. 2003. (Accounts of interviews with individuals at Lily Dale today.)

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers
© 2005, John H. Martin
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