In the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the advent of Spiritualism gave women a voice and returned to them the power to heal during a time when medical education was a privilege enjoyed only by men. The history of the Modern Spiritualist community of Lily Dale, New York emerges in book three of the Orphans and Inmates series, The Seer and the Scholar, during the mid nineteenth century. The ongoing story has opened the door for the introduction of new characters with psychic abilities as the series moved forward, exploring the relationship between highly developed inner senses and insanity throughout A Lifetime Again (book four). The most recent addition to the series, The Girl on the Shore, weaves characteristics from some of the strongest women of the early Modern Spiritualist movement as it takes us on a journey from the banks of Cassadaga Lake in New York, to the shores of a remote island on the west coast of Ireland.
In the United States, the early decades of the Industrial Revolution ushered in a growing wealthy class. Unfortunately, their affluence did not shield them from the high mortality associated with acute infectious disease and war, which characterized the period. With the chores of the household and the raising of children left in the hands of servants, many upper class women had considerable time to dwell on their losses. It is understandable how the idea of being able to communicate with the spirit world would appeal to these women, who did not have the mundane tasks of everyday life to distract them from their tragedies.
The Marion Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York. Photo courtesy of Rosanne L. Higgins
One such woman is Marion Skidmore. She was the wife of a builder and the daughter of William Johnson, one of the first Mesmerists in Laona, New York, where the earliest of the Free Thinkers in the state gathered. Marion lost her only two children, one in infancy and the other as a young woman. After the death of her older daughter, Marion and her husband, Thomas J. Skidmore, became very focused on Spiritualism. They were among the original stockholders of the Cassadaga Lake Free Association, the organization that gave rise to what is now the Lily Dale Assembly. What started out as weekly demonstrations of mesmerism in a small church in Laona evolved into week long camp sessions at nearby Cassadaga lake, where like-minded people came to practice and discuss other forms of mediumship.
Marion Skidmore poured all the love she could not bestow on her daughters into the Spiritualist community in Cassadaga. Under her influence and guidance, the lakeside retreat transitioned from a summer camp to a community of year-round residents. She actively participated in every aspect of its growth from the planting of flowers and trees to the establishment of a public library and school. She was also organizer and President of the Cassadaga Women’s Suffrage Club and was an officer in the Chautauqua County Political Equality Club. In 1894 she represented both clubs in Washington D.C. at the National Women’s Suffrage Association conference.
Early Spiritualists called themselves Free Thinkers, and the members of the Cassadaga Lake Free Association dedicated their camp to free speech, free thought and free investigation. Both men and women believed in the enfranchisement of women. This kind of progressive thinking was unusual for the time period. The woman’s suffrage movement found a home in Lily Dale, and hosted Women’s Days each year which attracted suffragists from all over the country. Leaders in the movement including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Elizabeth Lowe Watson visited there often to participate in these events. These women devoted their lives to woman’s suffrage, the Temperance movement and the abolition of slavery and found thousands of like-minded women warriors in Lily Dale. Elizabeth Lowe Watson gave a speech in June of 1880, opening day, dedicating the grounds to free thought, free speech, and free investigation for all time.
Women's Suffrage Tent, Lily Dale, NY, ca. 1893.
Marion Skidmore holding the banner indicating
that two states had given women the right to vote.
Susan B. Anthony seated in the middle row, third from the right.
Courtesy of the Lily Dale Museum.
Antoinette Matteson. From The Occult Family Physician and Botanic Guide to Healing
available at the Marion H. Skidmore Library, Lily Dale, New York.
The Orphans and Inmates series depicts strong female characters during a time when most women were considered a liability and were passed directly from their fathers to their husbands without any say in the matter. The women of Lily Dale are a refreshing change from the nineteenth century norm and you are likely to recognize many of their extraordinary attributes in the women of The Girl on the Shore!