People visit the town of Cassadaga, Florida, to communicate with the dead.
The residents of Cassadaga are Spiritualists who believe that life continues after physical death, and that mediums can be used to communicate with those who have passed on to the Spirit World.
The religion of Spiritualism also embraces a belief in hands-on healing.
Spiritualism was very popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The activities of some fraudulent mediums and unqualified spiritual healers led to a distrust of Spiritualism as a whole in the 1900s.
“Because there was a lot of fakery going on at the turn of the century, a lot of Spiritualists were shut down,” says Kristin Congdon, a professor at the University of Central Florida who contributed to the book Cassadaga: The South’s Oldest Spiritualist Community. “Now in places like Cassadaga, they monitor all of that very carefully and are very concerned about the kinds of people who do readings, who do spiritual counseling, and who address the public, so there isn’t any fakery or forgery.”
To the dismay of the Spiritualists of Cassadaga, groups of tarot-card readers, palm readers, unapproved mediums, fortune tellers, and other psychics have established places of business directly across the street from the entrance to the village, adding to misconceptions about their religion.
“A lot of the people who come here don’t want to tell anyone else that they come here, or that they are Spiritualists,” says Congdon. “There is fear of losing their jobs, there is fear of reprisal. Many people who come here come initially out of curiosity. They want to see what it’s all about. Some people feel standoffish about it like it’s a place for witches, or Satanism. There are stories like ‘birds don’t fly over Cassadaga,’ which of course they do. When you really start paying attention to what the religion is all about, it really isn’t so farfetched at all.”
The certification program for mediums and healers can take four to six years to complete, and to become a minister takes an additional two to four years.
Cassadaga hosts church services on Sundays and Wednesday nights.
“A Spiritualist service is basically the same as an orthodox service except for a few things,” says Reverend Jim Watson. “One is that one of the basic tenets of our religion is that we believe in the Continuity of Life, so during every service that we have, there is always a demonstration of the Continuity of Life, or what we call giving messages. We also do what we call hands-on healing, which is something that you see other religions do, but we take it to a little bit more extreme.”
The residents of Cassadaga, as certified mediums, give private readings to thousands of people every year. In the bookstore and information center across the street from the Cassadaga Hotel, visitors can schedule private readings with available mediums.
Different mediums have different styles of giving readings. One medium in Cassadaga touches the back of a photograph and provides information about the people in it without looking at it. Another does “spirit drawings” which she then interprets. Other mediums go into trances. Some see spirits as themselves, or in symbolic forms such as a feather or a landscape. Special trumpets are used by some mediums to facilitate vocal communication with spirits.
“People who have their readings done, they usually say they are incredibly accurate, and that there’s no way the mediums could have known that information,” says Gary Monroe, editor of Cassadaga: The South’s Oldest Spiritualist Community. “It really surprised me. It’s not just one or two people. I would say eighty-five percent of the people who have readings connect to them. They’re not general readings; they’re rather specific and detailed, which really got me thinking about powers that we all possess, and they fine-tune.”
Cassadaga was founded in 1894 by George P. Colby, who said he was led to the property by his Native American spirit guide, Seneca. The town was originally conceived as a winter residence for Spiritualists from Lily Dale, New York.
Recognized as the oldest religious community of its type in the southeastern United States, Cassadaga is on the National Register of Historic Places.