Field Guide Friday – Fairy Lights and Forest Temple: a Look at Lily Dale

A few years ago, Ankhie and her besties roadtripped through New York for a weekend at the renowned spiritualist camp,  Lily Dale.  Located an hour south of Buffalo and a short drive from the shores of Lake Erie, Lily Dale is a world away from the rest of Western New York’s Rust Belt.  Victorian cottages,  fairy lights, and an overwhelming sense that one has stepped back in time – it is, truly, an enchanted place, no matter what you may think about spiritualism and mediumship.

While we were there we enrolled in a workshop on demonology, another on haunted objects, and then enjoyed a fabulous Victorian séance – complete with period entertainment, refreshment and costume. It was a blast! It was there that I first met a very dapper and charming Raymond Buckland (little did I know that a few years later I’d be working with him!) and saw first hand the famous and incredibly creepy precipitated spirit paintings.  At first glance they seem like any other Victorian era portraits, but the longer and closer you look at them, the more unnerving they become. Now, Ankhie here was an art history major – so I’ve looked closely at a lot of paintings, and I cannot for the life of me explain how these portraits were done or why they are so disturbing. You can look at them online or in Ron Nagy’s fabulous book (see link below) but the reproductions do not begin to convey the effect that they have “in person.”  Honestly, I’m getting a little freaked out just thinking about them now.

Here’s what the wise and wondrous Judith Joyce (aka Judika Illes) has to say about Precipitated Spirit Paintings and the enchanted Dale of Lily in The Weiser Field Guide to the Paranormal:

Lily Dale
Sixty miles south of Buffalo, New York is Lily Dale, the largest Spiritualist community on Earth. It is also the oldest Spiritualist community in  the United States and, most probably, in the world. The village of Lily Dale was established on the shores of Lake Cassadaga in 1879 as a summer camp for Spiritualists. At one time, there may have been as many as sixteen Spiritualist summer camps throughout the United States. In  addition to Lily Dale, only a few now survive, including Indiana’s Camp Chesterfield, Wisconsin’s Camp Wonewoc, and Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp in Central Florida.

Lily Dale evolved into and remains a Spiritualist Mecca. Originally nicknamed the City of Light because it was among the first regions of New  York State to have electricity, the moniker eventually came to imply inner light. Many of the most prominent mediums were in residence in  Lily Dale at one time or another, including the Bangs sisters and the Campbell brothers.

Thousands visit Lily Dale every summer during its annual tourist season, which runs from late June until the last Sunday of August. An  extensive schedule of lectures, workshops, and other activities featuring renowned authors, Spiritualist leaders, and paranormal researchers is available. Healing services are offered, as are demonstrations of mediumship. Hotels sell out quickly and must be booked well in advance.  Accommodations are also available in guest houses and campgrounds.

Lily Dale can be extremely cold in the winter, which is why summer is its high season. However, Lily Dale is a year-round residential community of Spiritualist teachers and mediums. An increasing number of activities are available off-season as well.

The residents of Lily Dale are spiritually dynamic, but the very land is also considered to emanate tremendous mystical power. According to legend, Lily Dale was built over a site held sacred by local Native Americans. Many mediums suggest that the veil between realms is especially sheer in Lily Dale, thus facilitating psychic activity and mediumship. Many claim to have witnessed fairies and elemental spirits in Lily Dale’s forests.

The Lily Dale Museum, housed in a one-room 1890 schoolhouse, displays items from the Fox family, including their family bible. In April 1916,  the Fox’s Hydesville cottage was dismantled and relocated to Lily Dale, where it was destroyed by fire in 1955. The peddler’s pack found behind the false partition was rescued from the fire and remains on display in the Lily Dale Museum. The museum also houses an extensive collection of
Spiritualist magazines, newspapers, and pamphlets, as well as precipitated spirit paintings.

Precipitated Spirit Paintings
Also known as precipitated spirit portraits and precipitated spirit art, these portraits of the deceased were produced by spirits facilitated by  human mediums, but without the use of human hands. In other words, precipitated paintings were created by artists who did not actually
touch the canvas. Spirits did more than just guide the medium’s hands, however, as with automatic painting. In precipitated spirit paintings, spirits actually produced the images. A precipitated spirit portrait just manifested.

Precipitated spirit paintings tended to be large, even life-sized, portraits of someone who was no longer living, although other types do exist. In most, the subject’s eyes gaze out at the viewer. The first recorded demonstration of this phenomenon was by the Bangs sisters in 1894.
Many Spiritualists consider the Bangs sisters and the Campbell brothers to have been the foremost practitioners and masters of this form of mediumship. Although no one is currently creating new precipitated spirit portraits—or at least not bringing them to public attention—the surviving examples remain among the most intriguing and mysterious of the paranormal arts, subject to intense study by researchers.

The process of creating a precipitated spirit portrait was considered a type of séance. A blank, clean canvas or paper was stretched over a wooden frame by the medium. A pot of oil paint was usually present, but no paintbrushes were permitted in the room. Since human hands allegedly did not create these paintings, no brushes were necessary. Present in the room was the medium who facilitated the process, the person requesting the portrait (known as a “sitter”), and possibly other observers. All participants may have rested their hands or fingers on the canvas in the same manner that hands are rested on a spirit board.

The sitter mentally focused on the deceased person they wished to contact, whose identity may or may not have been revealed to the medium. Since spirits hypothetically created the image, it was not important for the medium to know the identity or appearance of the subject of the  hoped-for portrait. The precipitated portrait gradually began to appear on the canvas orpaper, in a manner similar to the gradual development of a Polaroid picture. It usually took between fifteen minutes to an hour for the image to appear fully.

Needless to say, precipitated spirit portraits were extremely controversial. Were the mediums who created them avaricious hoaxers intent on  exploiting the grieving, or were they sincere Spiritualists who sought only to comfort the living and prove the continuity of life? Can spirits  create portraits? Were paintings created in advance and canvases switched using sleight of hand?

Although many assume that precipitated spirit portraits must have been fakes, it wasn’t that easy to fake them. In most of the existing cases,  although not all, no prior photograph of the subject existed. Often, clients desired precipitated spirit portraits specifically because they lacked photographs of loved ones and wished to retain an image. Although lights may have been dimmed, rooms in which the paintings were created were never completely dark. All eyes—and sometimes hands—were inevitably on the canvas.

Whether or not these portraits were crafted by spirits, they are unusual works of art that confound art experts, who have been unable to  determine what medium was used in their creation. Although a pot of oil paints was usually present during the séance, precipitated spirit portraits resemble pastels, or modern airbrush paintings. They closely resemble color photographs, but the most famous of them were created before color photography existed. (Commercial color film was not available until 1907) In general, no brush strokes are visible. Spirit portraits often display a powdery texture described as resembling the powder on butterfly wings. Images sometimes appear to be embedded in the canvas.

Many precipitated spirit portraits radiate a magical quality. Sometimes eyes that first appear closed spontaneously open later. Because most famous precipitated spirit portraits are hauntingly beautiful, many people are captivated and fascinated by them as works of art, whether or not they accept them as authentic spirit paintings. There are precipitated spirit paintings in the collection of the Lily Dale Museum, as well as at Camp Chesterfield, Indiana. Because these portraits were created for individuals, many most likely remain in private collections.

The most famous precipitated spirit portrait preceded modern Spiritualism by centuries. In the mid 16th century, the image of Mexico’s Lady of Guadalupe miraculously appeared on an agave-fiber tilma, a type of indigenous cloak, belonging to a man named Juan Diego. The Vatican has confirmed the authenticity of this miracle.

Scientific analysis indicates that there was some embellishment of the image on the tilma, but the main portion of the image cannot be explained satisfactorily. No signs of human creation appear to exist. The blue pigment used cannot be identified or reproduced. Furthermore, an agave-fiber tilma should have a life expectancy of approximately a decade before it disintegrates. Yet the cloak with its image survives and is currently on display in the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City. For more information, see Ron Nagy’s Precipitated Spirit Paintings (Galde Press, 2006), which includes reproductions of many precipitated portraits by the Bangs sisters and Campbell brothers. Nagy also discusses interesting findings regarding images found within the eyes on some paintings.

from The Weiser Field Guide to the Paranormal, by Judith Joyce

Other resources:

Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead, by Christine Wicker (a great read!)

Lily Dale Assembly

National Spiritualist Association of Churches

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