Talking To The Dead

Lily Dale town entrance at night. A 10 buck fee to enter is required.
Some of the religious leaders in stone at Camp Chesterfield, IN

Bored with 24 hour news, politics, and Perry Mason re-runs, I tripped over the laughably named The Learning Channel, and fell into an episode of Long Island Medium. I had seen snippets of the show before, but hadn’t concentrated all that hard at what was transpiring. Apparently a woman who has a typical Longk I-link accent and brassy personality, speaks to dead people. And this is a reality TV show because. . .? Mediumship and Spiritualism seems to have been having a major rebirth, pardon the pun, the last 15 years or so. 9/11, 2 wars, and economic depression  are the perfect ingredients for those who claim to have entrance into the afterlife. The grief stricken, frightened, confused, seek answers and some find themselves making an appointment with a psychic, medium, spiritualist with the idea that they have them.

Spiritualism has been around for a very long time–probably as long as humans could think and feel loss. People need to believe there is something after this hard existence. So, if someone can ‘validate’ this for them, perhaps life won’t seem as pointless or difficult. Books and books and books are written on the subject. Tomes exist from Victorian times, to the usual suspects today, like John Edward. He wrote about how he came to understand mediumship. I remember watching his show and thinking as most do, ‘how does he do that?’ to the point of almost–almost buying into it. So I found his book and tried to read it with an open mind. It closed rather rapidly, as I kept feeling that what I was being told in the pages was pure bull. The way his show worked–a fairly large audience would be sitting in stands like sheep when he would begin with throwing out symptoms and names and then zero in on someone who could claim both. The symptoms are general, the names common–someone in the group had to have a dead relative named John who died of lung cancer, a heart attack, or pneumonia, –any of these will do, precision is ignored. He would then throw the poor widow a bone–‘he wants you to know he’s alright’  blah blah blah. Once in awhile, though,

Theresa Caputo, otherwise known as the Long Island Medium, takes a stand for Spiritualism.

he’d come up with some odd or specific point that only that person could know–such as–you have nutmeg sachet bags in your clothes hamper–‘this is a way your husband wants to validate the session.’  And there is where he confuses the skeptics. Ah, but if one stands back and thinks about it–there are shills in the audience, and if not shills, there’s foreknowledge–gathering info on a person before a session begins. Either way, the cold reading that he usually does probably gets mixed in with a couple of warm or hot readings, which means he investigated and has foreknowledge of people he will read. (My theory? He has people in line with the audience who chats them up, as if they to are there for a reading, and keeps all the lowdown needed for a couple of them for him to proceed with a miraculous dead end contact.)

The Fox sisters back in the 1840s claimed to have communicated to a dead peddler, and the circus began. A series of knocks and sounds would emanate from the girls while in communication with  a spirit, and people believed. To the point of creating a movement based upon the two young girls’ pranks. Because as time and scrutiny advanced, their tricks were uncovered and they were debunked. Spiritualism lived on. And lives on at places like Lily Dale, NY and Chesterfield IN. I’ve been to both. And read their philosophies. My husband and I travel to these places at different times as part of our weird road trips. I find the entire subject of communicating with the dead a fascinating one, and like most, fervently wish it were true, but absolutely believe it’s complete bunk. Reading the history of Lily Dale it struck me that these people really believe they have a gift. That unlike many so called mediums, some really think that dead people communicate with them. And who am I to disagree? When in Lily Dale, I paid for a reading. Knowing how cold readings work, that the medium ‘reads’ the ‘sitter’s’ face, mannerisms, clothing, speech, to indicate class, age, etc, and try to elicit info from the sitter and then reiterate the same info just in a different manner as if they had some insider knowledge of the sitter, I gave no indication of anything. And I mean, no facial expression, nodding, eye movement, body movement, nothing. The poor medium was screwed. She floundered around–guessing my father had passed away-wow–and then going forward with some nonsense about the afterlife not being what he thought it would be within his religious beliefs. As my father didn’t believe in life after death, and had no specific belief system, that fell flat. I

More Bang for your buck.
Native American statue at Camp Chesterfield

was dressed nicely that day–skirt, jewelry, gorgeous hat, so she believed I was monied, I suppose, because she claimed some kind of real estate deal would be occurring before the new year. Oops. I don’t own a house, can’t buy a house or land, so strike two. After this point she muddled around with anything and everything, and mercifully for her and me, the session ended. I have to give it to her though, she never admitted defeat, she was cheerful as she ushered me out the door. As if this weren’t enough, my husband and I attended a mass reading–several mediums took turns doing the John Edward cold reading thing–and sure enough, one zeroed in on me because of my hat, throwing out what she believed would connect. Again, with the real estate! Must be a standard line. She tried for perhaps two minutes to engage me, to hook me, then abruptly gave up, angrily I might add, and wandered off to the other side of the audience.

Lily Dale was a hive of sophistication compared to the lifeless Chesterfield Camp in OH. Visiting this past summer,  the town and dwellers seemed as dead as the spirits they communicate with. The gift store was open though, and we wandered around. Book upon book decried some oddball philosophy. Astral projection, intuitive readings, and my very favorite, spiritual painting. I should have bought the book about the two sisters who would go into a trance, naturally behind a black cloth,  and some time later reveal a formerly blank canvas now a fully painted portrait of a dead person. I mean, wow. The skill it took to be able to create that carny show! They had to have rudimentary skill as artists, pre knowledge of the deceased–not very hard to achieve–and time  beforehand to paint the portrait. Then, they had to figure out how to switch the blank canvas with the painted one, surreptitiously enough that the curious couldn’t see if they peeked behind the curtain. I would have loved to have witnessed a show! Naturally, this occurred long before cell phone photos, movie cameras, and well, decent cameras.

It’s surprising how many novels have mediumship and spiritualism as subject matter. One of my 100 Best Mysteries of All Time takes place in Lily Dale with a mother and daughter who have the gift. After Life, by Rhian Ellis is an incredible read. I also read a juvenile book about Lily Dale–one in a series written by Wendi Cori Staub. It was fun and interesting, but my non belief in talking to the dead remains.

Detective fiction has its share of spiritualism titles. In one of Roberta Rowgow’s books, lead character, Arthur Conan Doyle, a well know believer in the afterlife, encounters spiritualism. Peter Lovesy’s early series with Sergeant Cribb has an excellent book, and TV episode debunking the medium in a very clever way. Daniel Stashower’s series starring Houdini and his brother would have been remiss if he didn’t utilize Houdini’s life long obsession with exposing crooked mediums who lived off the grief of parents and the widowed. Although these are historical mysteries, I have no doubt that a good writer could pen a novel with today’s kind of TV extravaganza and expose the secrets and tricks they use to fraud millions of viewers.

In researching I came across some novels that sound very intriguing, and think I may delve into at some point. Captivity by Deborah Noyes is one of the novels about the Fox Sisters and their journey into and out of spiritualism. Affinity by Sara Waters seems particularly up my alley–Victorian prisons, insane asylums and mediums–you want more?? A crime fiction title I wasn’t aware of–The Spiritualist by Megan Chance got nice reviews at Goodreads. John Harwood’s The Seance rolls out the typical mysterious gothic mansion–again, Victorian style. Happily, Inamorata takes place in the 1920s. The title by Joseph Gangemi is reputed to be based on true events and involves a journalist out to debunk a happening. Hilary Mantel seems to have written a seriocomic book about a traveling medium and her obnoxious assistant in Beyond Black.

Non fiction abounds–and several appear worth checking out–in particular a biography of a woman who embodies everything a Victorian lady shouldn’t be–Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, a Wall Street financier, newspaper owner, and depicted quite often in cartoons of the time, as the Devil. She had ties to spiritualism as many women who fought for an end to slavery and women’s rights did at the time. Notorious Victoria, The Life of Victoria Woodhull (Uncensored) The uncensored part is what nabbed me. There are real bios of the Fox Sisters, histories of Spiritualism, and the book I read–Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead. And not to leave out those painting wonders, The Bang Sisters and Their Precipitated Spirit Portraits is available. A side note-a medium we met at Camp Chesterfield briefly told us they were never debunked, no one could find trickery. If so, they were probably the only spiritualists that could claim that.

Here’s a question. When mediums die, do they talk to living mediums? And if so, could they give a little more info other than Uncle Ted died of a chest cold, or cousin Mona loved collecting tea cosies?  What I’ve never understood,  why if one can chit chat with the other-side, one doesn’t ask real questions, meaningful things like–is it cold over there? Are clouds assigned or do you get to chose firm or soft? Is Hitler hanging around too? Are there no consequences for bad behavior—because we’ve been sold on loads of circles of hell, and if there’s no punishment–why shouldn’t we live it up while we can? And if the after life is so fab, why shouldn’t we all commit suicide to transition? If dead people can protect the living–where does God enter in? And if there is a God–male or female? And most important–are we allowed to chose what age we look like for eternity? I think I’ll go with 25.

Whenever I weaken on the question of whether someone can honestly speak to the dead, I remember Houdini’s promise–that if it were possible–absolutely possible–he would return in a specific way to tell everyone the news. His widow waited every Halloween for some sign, and none ever came. Now I ask you–a showman like Houdini would never ever miss the opportunity of such an entrance, would he?

Come back, Houdini! Tell us about the after life!