Lily Dale, the Town That Speaks to the Dead

billrock54, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
billrock54, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Imagine a town where every house is haunted—on purpose. The Victorian gingerbread cottages of Lily Dale, nestled along the leafy roads on the east side of Cassadaga Lake in upstate New York, are home to hundreds of mediums: people who believe they can communicate with the dead.

Lily Dale, about an hour south of Buffalo, is one of the few remaining outposts of a religion called Spiritualism, which was founded in the 19th century and still attracts followers today. Its story—and the story of Lily Dale—goes back to 1848, when two teenaged sisters, Margaret and Catherine Fox, claimed to hear mysterious loud raps on the walls and furniture of their farmhouse in the village of Hydesville. The girls attributed the noises to the spirit of a murdered peddler they called Charles B. Rosa, whom they said had been buried in their basement. Instead of dismissing their story (or sending them to a psychiatrist, as parents today might do), the girls’ parents sent the pair to live with an older sister in Rochester. There, demonstrations of their "rappings" became popular with a group of local abolitionist crusaders and disaffected Quakers. 

The girls soon found they could produce the raps in a variety of locations, and poor murdered Charles wasn’t the only spirit they claimed to summon. The dead the Fox sisters said they contacted via these rappings were capable of giving messages that ranged from the banal (a direction to "put on as much molasses as he likes" was revealed during one dinner) to more profound accounts of life on the other side. At first, the spirits seemed capable of answering only yes or no questions, but friends later devised a system for rapping out various letters of the alphabet, which allowed the spirits to spell out words. Public demonstrations of the girls’ abilities in Rochester and then New York City spread their fame, especially when New York Herald Tribune publisher Horace Greeley proclaimed himself impressed after his wife, Molly, received messages from their dead 5-year-old son via the sisters. 

The girls didn’t just create fame for themselves, however—they helped birth a major Victorian pastime: communicating with the dead. Copycat mediums sprung up around the Northern and Eastern states, moving beyond communication-via-raps and into techniques such as automatic writing (where the spirits controlled one’s hands to communicate messages), and direct communication via possession experiences. Spiritualists also began to devise an increasing number of gadgets for talking to the dead, such as “spirit trumpets,” which were said to amplify the whispers of spirits controlling the medium’s vocal cords. The best ones glowed in the dark during séances.

By 1855, spiritualism—which was never centralized around one formal doctrine or single church, but often layered over various versions of Christianity—claimed about 1 million adherents. The religion was notable for being open to anyone, and often aligned itself with radical causes of the day, such as abolitionism and women’s rights. In fact, the mediums tended to be young women: perhaps because the Fox sisters were, because of older ideas about an association between young women and magic, or because of an association between spirituality, femininity and the home. Whatever the precise cause, historian Ann Braude notes that “Americans throughout the country found messages from spirits most plausible when delivered through the agency of adolescent girls.” Victorian society allowed few powerful roles for women, and séances likely caught on among women in part as a way to voice otherwise unwelcome opinions. 

Jimmy Emerson, DVM, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lily Dale, formally known as Lily Dale Assembly, was founded in 1879 as the Cassadaga Lake Free Association. (It took its current name in 1906, named for the lilies covering Cassadaga Lake.) The hamlet basically started out as spiritualist summer camp, evolving out of local meetings and picnics held in the grove of a farm belonging to a spiritualist named Willard Alden. The spiritualists began by holding a day-long conference once a year, which expanded into a longer “camp season” of meetings and picnics, and then a permanent settlement of about 20 acres along Cassadaga Lake. A hotel followed in 1880, as did an auditorium that saw grand balls—Susan B. Anthony hosted a few when she came to speak during several summers. 

As the years went on, residents added a billiard parlor, bowling alley, a Ferris Wheel (briefly), a lyceum (named for Andrew Jackson Davis, “The Poughkeepsie Seer” and the founder of the lyceum school system) and several temples. Other modern Lily Dale landmarks include the Inspiration Stump (a grove where mediums give demonstrations of their services), a museum filled with spiritualist memorabilia and artifacts, a library with one of the largest collections of Spiritualist literature in the country, and a pet cemetery. 

But for many years, perhaps the most famous building was the cottage in which the Fox sisters first heard their raps, which was moved to Lily Dale near the beginning of the 20th century. A medium named Miss Flo Cottrell—considered one of the best of her day—gave readings in the cottage for years, using the raps that continued to somehow manifest themselves inside the house. Unfortunately, the cottage burned to the ground in 1955. 

Lily Dale is still going strong, with a year-round population of several hundred permanent residents, many of them mediums and healers offering their services to the public. Approximately 22,000 visitors come each year for classes, workshops, lectures, church services, demonstrations, and private readings and healings. Although the place is open year-round, a high season from June to September sees the most traffic—a reflection of its beginnings as a kind of spooky summer camp.

The Fox Sisters, however, fared less well. Although the girls enjoyed a few years of touring the world with their demonstrations of supposed spirit communication, their lives were difficult, unstable, and increasingly troubled by alcoholism. During a particularly low period in 1888, one reporter offered Margaret and Kate $1,500 if they would reveal their methods. On October 21, 1888, Margaret appeared at the New York Academy of Music and showed the audience how she was able to crack the joints of her toes to produce the raps. Margaret retracted her confession the following year, but the damage was done. Both sisters died within the next few years, and were buried in paupers’ graves at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Cemetery.

Texas’s Magnolia Hotel—a Reputed Paranormal Hotspot—Will Be Opening Its Doors to Overnight Guests

iStock/THEPALMER
iStock/THEPALMER

Those who view The Shining’s Overlook Hotel as a desirable vacation spot now have the chance to make their spooky dreams come true. The Magnolia Hotel—supposedly haunted by a total of 13 ghosts—will soon open its doors to overnight visitors.

Located in Seguin, Texas, the hotel’s history can be traced back to 1840, when Texas Ranger James Campbell first constructed a log cabin on the property. The cabin later expanded into a hotel, which saw some success in the mid-1800s and early 1900s. Unfortunately, the hotel was then abandoned for many years, and was almost lost to extreme disrepair. In an effort to save it, members of Preserve Texas placed the building on the organization's Most Endangered Historic Places list along with several other sites. It eventually captured the attention of current owners Jim Ghedi and Erin Wallace Ghedi, who bought the Magnolia Hotel in March 2013.

It didn’t take long for the Ghendis to realize something strange was going on. According to Country Living, the couple began experiencing supernatural events as soon as repairs commenced. Photos showed strange figures climbing out of mirrors; doors would be heard slamming by unknown forces; and shadowy outlines could be glimpsed hovering in doorways.

It’s no surprise the Magnolia Hotel is haunted given its gruesome history. Not too long after he built the original log cabin, James Campbell was reportedly killed by Native Americans during a trip to San Antonio. Three decades later, notorious Texan serial killer Wilhelm "William" Faust traveled to the nearby town of New Braunfels in order to kill his wife. He instead mistakenly butchered Emma Voeckler—the 12-year-old girl who was unfortunately sharing a room with his wife at the time—and fled to the Magnolia Hotel before his arrest. Some claim one of the ghosts is poor Emma, eternally bound to the area where her killer hid directly after her death.

The hotel’s website states that overnight reservations will open on August 12 on a first-come, first-served basis. Accommodations include fully restored suites consisting of two bedrooms, a full bath with a walk-in shower, and a non-cooking kitchen. Guests and non-guests alike can also partake in the hotel’s guided ghost tours, which the site warns are “not for the faint of heart.”

8 Facts About Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Kevin Thackwell, also known as Clothes Pin Man, shows his unique talent on Ripley''s Believe It or Not!
Kevin Thackwell, also known as Clothes Pin Man, shows his unique talent on Ripley''s Believe It or Not!
Getty Images

For more than a century, people have considered the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise synonymous with facts, figures, and people too bizarre to be true. But the brand—which was conceived by cartoonist Robert Ripley in 1918 and originally took the form of a newspaper strip before being adapted into other media—prided itself on presenting spectacular stories of the world’s hidden wonders that held up to scrutiny. At one point, 80 million people read Ripley’s strip, which was syndicated to 360 newspapers around the world. The franchise has since grown to include television series and specials, museums, books, and even aquariums.

To commemorate the new Ripley’s Believe It or Not! television series hosted by Bruce Campbell currently airing Sundays at 9 p.m. on the Travel Channel, we’ve rounded up some of the more intriguing trivia behind the original fun fact gatherers of the 20th century.

1. Ripley’s Believe It or Not! was originally titled Champs and Chumps.

Robert Ripley's art for his 'Champs and Chumps' cartoon from December 19, 1918 is pictured
Ripley's Believe It or Not!

From the time he was a child growing up in Santa Rosa, California, Robert Ripley—who was born 1890—wanted to be an artist. He contributed cartoons to his school newspaper and yearbook before making his first professional sale to Life magazine in 1908. The following year, he moved to San Francisco, where he secured a job as a sports cartoonist for local newspapers. Urged on by sports writers like Jack London (Call of the Wild), Ripley decided to head to New York and take a job at the New York Globe, where his sports cartoons received both local and national attention in syndication.

During one slow sports news day, Ripley decided to dash off an illustration detailing unusual human feats he had read about, including a man who had held his breath for over six minutes; he called it Champs and Chumps. He revisited the idea again in 1919 and once more in 1920 with a new name: Believe It or Not. The Globe also sent him on trips to the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp as well as around the world, the latter resulting in a strip he dubbed Ripley’s Rambles ‘Round the World. In 1926, he was working at the New York Evening Post when he decided to resurrect the strip. This time, it stuck around. Readers became fanatical about Ripley’s odd collection of arcane facts and both the syndicated strip and its author grew into worldwide sensations.

2. Most of Robert Ripley’s facts were discovered by one man in New York.

The cover to a 'Ripley's Believe It or Not!' book is pictured
Amazon

Although Ripley lived up to his reputation as a globetrotter, traveling everywhere from Tripoli to India to Africa, many of the facts presented in Ripley’s Believe It or Not! were not the result of his expeditions but of one man combing through books in the New York Public Library. In 1923, Ripley met Norbert Pearlroth while searching for someone who could read articles and journals in foreign languages. Eventually, Pearlroth—who was fluent in 14 languages—spent upwards of seven days a week at the library excavating details for Ripley to use in his strip or information he could take with him during a fact-finding mission. He was so relentless that library officials sometimes had to ask him to leave at closing time. Pearlroth worked for the Ripley’s brand as its sole researcher for an astounding 52 years before retiring in 1975. He died in 1983 at the age of 89.

3. Ripley discovered "the Star-Spangled Banner" wasn’t actually the national anthem.

Robert Ripley's art for a November 3, 1929  'Ripley's Believe It or Not!' cartoon depicting the origin of the 'Star-Spangled Banner' is pictured
Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Always invested in semantics, in 1929 Ripley discovered that "The Star-Spangled Banner” had never actually been formally adopted as the country’s national anthem. That fact had merely been assumed, never confirmed. The ensuing outrage led to 5 million people signing a petition that was forwarded to Congress, who finally recognized the song in an official capacity by introducing a bill President Herbert Hoover signed into law in 1931.

4. Ripley became one of the most successful cartoonists of his era.

Robert Ripley poses for a photo in front of his drawing board circa the late 1940s
Cartoonist Robert Ripley poses for a photo in front of his drawing board circa the late 1940s.
Ripley's Believe It or Not!

The wide appeal of Ripley’s work wasn’t lost on the media. Following the 1929 publication of a book that compiled both new and original strips, Ripley was inundated with offers. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst hired him for his King Features Syndicate label at a salary of $1200 plus profit-sharing, which amounted to over $100,000 a year. Radio shows, books, and lectures added to the total. Ripley was earning over $500,000 annually in the 1930s and at the height of the Great Depression. In 1936, a newspaper poll found that Ripley was more popular among Americans than actor James Cagney, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or aviator Charles Lindbergh.

5. Ripley was a rather unusual man.

Robert Ripley poses with two Balinese dancers
Robert Ripley poses for a photo with two Balinese dancers.
Ripley's Believe It or Not!

Befitting his curious nature, Ripley himself was a bit of an anomaly. While researching a 1940 profile of Ripley for The New Yorker, writer Geoffrey T. Hellman jotted down various observations in his notebook. Among them: Ripley was found of working in only his bathrobe and wearing his dead mother’s wedding ring; he owned a fish who could only swim backwards, a shrunken head from Tibet, and a whale penis; he could not drive; and he seemingly amassed a number of women from around the world to live with him in what might be described as a harem. At one point, Ripley’s housekeeper observed that of everything in Ripley’s Mamaroneck, New York mansion, “The most unusual thing in the house is Mr. Ripley.”

6. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had his first published work in the Ripley’s strip.

Wall art featuring 'Peanuts' characters Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Linus are pictured
brian kong, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Before Charles Schulz found acclaim in newspaper pages for his Peanuts strip, he got his start in Ripley’s strip. In 1937, when Schulz was 15 years old, he submitted artwork featuring his dog, Spike, claiming that the canine could eat unappetizing fare like pins and tacks. The strip credited Schulz as “Sparky,” his nickname. Spike also bore a passing resemblance to another, more well-known pet: Charlie Brown’s pet Snoopy.

7. You can visit a number of Ripley’s Odditoriums across the globe.

Magician and escape artist Albert Cadabra performs at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium in New York in 2013
Robin Marchant, Getty Images

In 1933, Ripley displayed some of his more sensational artifacts for crowds at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. Though the exhibit of human marvels—including a live demonstration of a man who could blow smoke out of his eyes and another who could turn his head 180 degrees—was temporary, a permanent location debuted in New York in 1939. Since then, a number of Ripley Odditoriums have opened in San Francisco, Ontario, and Baltimore. There are currently over 30 locations in 10 countries worldwide.

8. Ripley died a somewhat ironic death.

A bust of Robert Ripley sits on display at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium in Grand Prairie, Texas
A bust of Robert Ripley sits on display at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium in Grand Prairie, Texas.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Many people recognize the Ripley’s brand from a series of television shows, including versions hosted by Jack Palance, Dean Cain, and now Bruce Campbell. But Ripley himself was the host of the first iteration, which debuted in 1949 to great success. While taping his 13th show, the cartoonist suddenly fell over on his desk, dead of an apparent heart attack. The show’s topic? The history of the military funeral anthem “Taps.” Believe it or not.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER