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.

Amazon's Best Cyber Monday Deals on Tablets, Wireless Headphones, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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9 Things Invented By Accident

These sugary summer treats were an accidental invention.
These sugary summer treats were an accidental invention.
Daniel Öberg, Unsplash

Not every great invention was created according to plan. Some, in fact, were the result of a happy accident. In November 2020, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca announced that the COVID-19 vaccine it had developed in partnership with Oxford University was 90 percent effective when administered in a dosing regimen they had discovered thanks to some “serendipity.” This wasn't the only unintentional discovery in history, of course. From penicillin to artificial sweeteners, all nine of the everyday items below were invented entirely by accident.

1. Penicillin

On September 28, 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming discovered that a petri dish of staphylococcus bacteria that had been inadvertently left out on the windowsill of his London laboratory had become contaminated by a greenish-colored mold—and encircling the mold was a halo of inhibited bacterial growth. After taking a sample and developing a culture, Fleming discovered that the mold was a member of the Penicillium genus, and the rest, as they say, is history.

2. Corn Flakes

The two Kellogg brothers—Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother (and former broom salesman) Will Keith Kellogg—worked at Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, where John was physician-in-chief. Both were strict Seventh-day Adventists, who used their work at the sanitarium to promote the austere dietary and moralist principles of their religion (including strict vegetarianism and a lifelong restraint from excessive sex and alcohol) and to carry out research into nutrition, and the impact of diet on their patients. It was during one of these experiments in 1894 that, while in the process of making dough from boiled wheat, one of the Kelloggs left the mash to dry for too long and when it came time to be rolled out, it splintered into dozens of individual flakes. Curious as to what these flakes tasted like, he baked them in the oven—and in the process, produced a cereal called Granose. Some later tinkering switched out the wheat for corn, and gave us corn flakes.

3. Teflon

Polytetrafluoroethylene—better known as PTFE, or Teflon—was invented by accident at a DuPont laboratory in New Jersey in 1938. Roy Plunkett, an Ohio-born chemist, was attempting to make a new CFC refrigerant when he noticed that a canister of tetrafluoroethylene, despite appearing to be empty, weighed as much as if it were full. Cutting the canister open with a saw, Plunkett found that the gas had reacted with the iron in the canister’s shell and had coated its insides with polymerized polytetrafluoroethylene—a waxy, water-repellent, non-stick substance. Du Pont soon saw the potential of Plunkett’s discovery and began mass producing PTFE, but it wasn’t until 1954, when the wife of French engineer Marc Grégoire asked her husband to use the same substance to coat her cookware to stop food sticking to her pans, that the true usefulness of Plunkett’s discovery was finally realized.

4. Slinky

In 1943, naval engineer Richard T. James was working at a shipyard in Philadelphia when he accidentally knocked a spring (that he had been trying to modify into a stabilizer for sensitive maritime equipment) from a high shelf. To his surprise, the spring neatly uncoiled itself and stepped its way down from the shelf and onto a pile of books, and from there onto a tabletop, and then onto the floor. After two years of development, the first batch of 400 “Slinky” toys sold out in just 90 minutes when they were demonstrated in the toy department of a local Gimbels store in 1945.

5. Silly Putty

At the height of World War II, rubber was rationed across the United States after Japan invaded a number of rubber-producing countries across southeast Asia and hampered production. The race was on to find a suitable replacement—a synthetic rubber that could be produced inside the U.S. without the need of overseas imports, which eventually led to the entirely unexpected invention of Silly Putty. There are at least two rival claims to the invention of Silly Putty (chiefly from chemist Earl L. Warrick and Scottish-born engineer James Wright), both of whom found that mixing boric acid with silicone oil produced a stretchy, bouncy rubber-like substance that also had the unusual ability of leaching newspaper print from a page (an ability that changing technology has now eliminated).

6. Post-It Notes

Pexels, Pixabay

In 1968, a 3M chemist named Dr. Spencer Silver was attempting to create a super-strong adhesive when instead he accidentally invented a super-weak adhesive, which could be used to only temporarily stick things together. The seemingly limited application of Silver’s product meant that it sat unused at 3M (then technically known as Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing) for another five years, until, in 1973, a colleague named Art Fry attended one of Silver’s seminars and struck upon the idea that his impermanent glue could be used to stick bookmarks into the pages of his hymnbook. It took another few years for 3M to be convinced both of Fry and Silver’s idea and of the salability of their product, but eventually they came up with a unique design that worked perfectly: a thin film of Spencer’s adhesive was applied along just one edge of a piece of paper. After a failed test-market push in 1977 as Press ’N Peel, the product went national as the Post-It note in 1980.

7. Saccharin

In 1878 or '79 (sources differ), Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist studying the properties of oxidized coal tar at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, discoveredwhile eating his meal one evening that food he picked up with this fingers tasted sweeter than normal. He traced the sweetening effect back to the chemical he had been working with that day (Ortho-sulfobenzoic Acid Imide, no less) and, noting its potential salability, quickly set up a business mass producing his sweetener under the name Saccharin. Although quickly popular (and equally quickly controversial), it would take the sugar shortages of two World Wars to make the discovery truly universal.

8. Popsicles

The first popsicle was reportedly invented by 11-year-old Frank Epperson in 1905, when he accidentally left a container of powdered soda and water, with its mixing stick still inside, on his porch overnight. One unexpectedly cold night later, and the popsicle—which Epperson originally marketed 20 years later as an Epsicle—was born.

9. Safety glass

Safety glass—or rather, laminated glass—was accidentally discovered by the French chemist Édouard Bénédictus when he knocked a glass beaker from a high shelf in his laboratory and found, to his surprise, that it shattered but did not break. His assistant informed him that the beaker had contained cellulose nitrate, a type of clear natural plastic, that had left a film on the inside of the glass. He filed a patent for his discovery in 1909, and it has been in production (albeit in various different forms) ever since.