Photos of a Tiny New York Town That’s the World Hub for Spiritualism

The Photo Blog
Oct. 31 2013 12:13 PM

The World’s Hub for Spiritualism in a Tiny New York Town

Shannon Taggart
Medium Gretchen Clark speaks to her deceased brother, Chapman, in Lily Dale, N.Y.

Shannon Taggart

As a teenager, photographer Shannon Taggart was introduced to the world of spiritualism after a medium told her cousin details about her grandfather's death that proved to be true.

The reading had taken place at the Lily Dale Assembly in New York, the world's largest spiritualist community. Curious but with reservations, Taggart headed to Lily Dale to delve into the history of spiritualism thinking she would learn what all the tricks of the trade were, but she didn't end up getting the explanations she thought she would. Instead, she discovered a mysterious world she began to document with her camera.

She certainly wasn’t the first photographer to do this, as spiritualism and spiritualist photography have long been connected. Both surfaced in the mid-1800s in Rochester, N.Y.,—home of Kodak. At the time, spiritualists naturally gravitated toward this new technology in hopes of recording what they had been experiencing. One of the most well-known spiritualist portraits of this era purports to show the ghost of President Abraham Lincoln with his hand placed nonchalantly on the shoulder of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Shannon Taggart
Reverend Jean heals Jennifer in Lily Dale. Spiritualist healing, a form of laying on of hands, is a primary part of spiritualist ceremony and ritual.

Shannon Taggart

Shannon Taggart
A transfiguration séance in Lily Dale. A séance is an attempt to communicate with spirits in an intimate group setting.
There are several types of séance, one being sitting for transfiguration, where a red light is used to see if spirits can be manifested visually.

Shannon Taggart

Shannon Taggart
Janet and a spirit painting of Azur at the Maplewood Hotel in Lily Dale. Spirit paintings are spiritualist relics similar to other religious icons, such as the Shroud of Turin, which are said to have come into existence miraculously, not created by a human painter.

Shannon Taggart

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When Taggart first began taking photos at Lily Dale, she remained an observer. After the first year, she became involved as a student and a participant while continuing her photography. Although at first she had a hard time understanding spiritualism, Taggart was curious and said she has since experienced numerous mysterious experiences that have helped her tap into her own creative process.

One of these inexplicable events occurred during one of her first visits to the Lily Dale Museum. Taggart said that a large purple orb appeared on the shoulder of a woman she was photographing, but she wasn’t shooting into the sun. “When I brought a copy back for her, she calmly said, 'Oh, that's Bob,' her deceased husband. She was thrilled with the picture," Taggart said.

Shannon Taggart
The Women's Day Parade in Lily Dale. The town's parade celebrates Susan B. Anthony and the connections between the women's rights movements and spiritualism. Anthony made her first public appearance in Lily Dale in 1891.

Shannon Taggart

Shannon Taggart
Medium Kitty Osbourne gives a clairvoyant reading in Lily Dale.

Shannon Taggart

Shannon Taggart
Table tipping, North Yorkshire, England. Table-turning or table-tipping is a type of séance in which participants sit around a table, place their hands on it, and wait for movement or rotations.

Shannon Taggart

Taggart was also interested in physical mediumship, which claims to involve perceptible manifestations—such as loud raps or voices—and is practiced outside the New York community. While at Lily Dale, she met a medium who suggested she visit England, where, along with other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe, a "new age of physical mediumship" was happening.

Taggart said one of the strangest things she witnessed happened during the mediumship of Gordon Garforth, a deep trance and physical medium in Stansted, England. Garforth told Taggart that his hands enlarge during his séances. About 20 minutes into one, Garforth’s wife, who operates as his “spirit control,” said that the spirits were going to work with his hands. While seated under a dim red light, Garforth held out his hand to Taggart. “Unbelievably to me, it seemed to effortlessly stretch, and the entire hand became large, instantly. I gasped and yelled ‘Oh my God!’ ” Taggart remembered. She said that the 30 other people in the room also reacted with amazement; she worried the experience was merely “hypnotic” and that her camera, set to one-second exposures, wouldn’t capture the growth. “The photographs made seem to confirm a distorted large hand … I was able to sit with Gordon on two additional occasions and I saw the same thing,” Taggart said.

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Gordon Garforth's enlarged hand during a physical mediumship séance in Stansted, England.

Shannon Taggart

While some of her experiences struck Taggart as downright supernatural, some of her images were more straightforward, including her photo of bent spoons. It may not come as a surprise to learn the spiritualists bend them with their hands as a sort of symbolic connection to what they believe to be possible. "It is taught as an exercise of the power of the mind, a physical example of our ability to do things that seem impossible," said Taggart of her most asked-about image.

Taggart has work in a group show opening on Halloween at MCLA Gallery in North Adams, Mass., and work being published in the Morbid Anatomy Anthology in December.

Shannon Taggart
Anne Gehman's spoon-bending lesson in Lily Dale. Spoon bending is a spiritualist technique used to demonstrate the power of mind over matter.

Shannon Taggart

Shannon Taggart
Spiritualist mediums prepare for a message service, where they will deliver messages from the dead to a crowd of visitors in Lily Dale.

Shannon Taggart

Shannon Taggart
A lesson on how to use a medium's cabinet in Stansted. A medium's cabinet is a tool used by spiritualist mediums to condense energy during a séance.

Shannon Taggart

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