Cultic Studies Review, 9(1), 2010, 254-257
The Spirit Connection: Back to Cassadaga
Janet Karcher J
Deltona, FL: Spirit Publishing. 2008. ISBN-10: 0615253180; ISBN-13: 978-0615253183 (paperback), $18.50 US. 162 pages.
Reviewed by Joseph Szimhart
“No spirit claims infallibility… Nothing granted via mediumship is intended to replace one’s own best personal efforts.” With these words imbedded without fanfare in the narrative (page 84), Janet Karcher and John Hutchinson speak for all ethical Spiritualists. In this their second book about Cassadaga, the authors offer an update on a small but enduring Spiritualist “camp” founded 114 years ago in Florida, east of Orlando. Since 1992, Cassadaga has been on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the site’s more impressive structures, the Colby Memorial Temple, named after founder George P. Colby, was built in 1923. In their most recent visit in 2007, the authors describe the Temple as recently repainted and “still an uninspiring gray.” There is a casual, old hometown feel to the place by all accounts.
Karcher and Hutchinson’s first book, This Way to Cassadaga, published in 1980, became a popular pamphlet for tourists and anyone else interested in a dispassionate overview of this relatively quiescent yet eccentric community. The current book reports that roughly 100 of the nearly 300 residents are practicing Spiritualists. That census has remained stable for decades. The rest of the residents are mostly older citizens who enjoy living in the town. Among the latter are many who do not like being lumped in with the “witches,” not because they have anything against the Spiritualists, but rather because ignorant outsiders sometimes lump all Cassadagans together as offbeat freaks.
The authors readily dispel the witchy stereotypes with an intimate account that is both informative and sympathetic. There are a variety of mediums at the camp. Through brief interviews and personal histories, we learn of many approaches to spirit contact for information, guidance, and healing. Although sympathetic to the idea, the authors do not cross into devotion; but I did note a sense of cautious endorsement.
The town entertains a steady stream of tourists, mostly on weekends, who range from the merely curious to the true believers. The majority of mediums at Cassadaga are older women, and the majority of customers are adult women. The authors give the potential tourist or client clear instructions about how to approach a reading or session. They say it helps to be open to anything that rings true, yet to remain self-directed about the results.
Because of established rules of conduct among the Cassadaga association, none of the certified mediums sustains exclusive controls over a following. Fees for sessions or readings are modest, ranging for the most part from $45 to $65 a session, up from the $15 to $30 range in 1980.
Throughout the short book, the authors balance promotional and positive testimonies with critical views. To be sure, some of the examples of “readings” have the dramatic and spooky effect of “how could she have known that?” Others are clearly more like what skeptics call a “cold reading” that works by the medium fishing for subtle bits of information and using suggestion. For example, the medium may say, “I am getting a feeling of a new house connected with something or a person in blue. Does that mean anything to you?”
The final chapter covers how Spiritualism survived decades of exposures of actual fraud, especially during the heyday of “phenomena.” Those were the days of spiritual performances or “physical mediumship” that required séances with partitioned closets, floating trumpets, tilting tables, wispy white clothing, and confederates posing as spirits. The authors recount the infamous story of the Fox sisters, credited with kick-starting the spirit-contact rage in 1848. Of interest is that Margaret Fox returned to her Spiritualist performances shortly after her confession and explanation of the fakery in 1888. Those who believed she was lying about faking were happy to see her back in action. After all was said and done, she still had to make a living.
Although you might find a good introduction to the world of Spiritualism here, do not expect this book to be more than that. And the only time the authors mention “cult” is in regard to troublesome agitators who defaced the cemetery and stole part of a skull (page 11).
There is no index or list of sources. What references the authors use are sparse and within the chapters. In many instances, I had no idea of where the authors gathered their information or facts, although they made many allusions to their first book about Cassadaga. They present a sense of the place with a section about the buildings, when they were built, and who resides in some of them. Many interesting black-and-white photos of the buildings and residents from both years gone by and today illustrate the narrative. The authors include a photo of street signs at “Spiritualist St. and Mediumship Way.”
In chapter Five, “Decoding Spiritualism,” the authors lay out the Seven Principles of Spiritualism, based on what the sect calls Natural Law, or “a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct” (page 59). Yet the authors state that “Spiritualism has no creed; no rituals; no dogmatic belief” (page 63) while they also claim it to be a science, a philosophy and a religion. It is a science because it investigates, analyzes, and classifies spirit contact through observation and demonstration; a philosophy because it studies the laws of nature, both on “seen and unseen sides of life”; and a religion because it strives to comply with the physical, mental, and spiritual laws of nature. The chapter goes on to define, for example, Spirit Guide, mediumship styles and approaches, clairvoyance, mental healing, telepathy, and precognition. Most of Western spiritualism springs from a Christian view, with nearly seventy passages from the Bible cited as evidence on page 71.
Chapter Six—“Medium? Psychic? Astrologer?”—defines the three main types of Spiritualist at Cassadaga. Good examples help the reader grasp that a medium speaks for or translates what a spirit or discarnate being wishes to communicate; a psychic uses innate powers to offer spiritual advice; and an astrologer, of course, relies on a map of the “stars” to interpret character and fate. Chapter Eight discusses “Spiritual Phenomena” that include manifestations and psychic healing, as well as “Ground Rules for a Séance.” I found it odd and unfortunate that the authors cite Reverend C. W. Leadbeater and his book Spiritualism and Theosophy (1928) rather extensively in this chapter. The unreliable Leadbeater was notorious for his moral lapses, narcissism, and eccentricities as a Theosophist. Ruth Brandon (1983), in her well-researched history The Spiritualists, does not mention him. Brandon instead goes to Leadbeater’s mentor and predecessor Madame Blavatsky as a significant character and player in the history of Spiritualists.
If you seek a more scholarly approach to this community, turn to Cassadaga: The South’s Oldest Spiritual Community, edited by John J. Guthrie, Jr., Phillip Charles Lucas, and Gary Monroe (2000); this text includes chapters by eight different authors (see my review at http://icsahome.com/infoserv_bookreviews/bkrev_cassadaga.htm). For a critical history, I would also recommend the aforementioned The Spiritualists by Brandon.
Brandon, Ruth. 1983. The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Guthrie, John J., Jr., Lucas, Phillip Charles, and Monroe, Gary (Editors). 2000. Cassadaga: The South’s Oldest al Community. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
Cultic Studies Review, Vol. 9, No.1, 2010, Page