You Can Talk to Ghosts at This SouthCoast Spot
Did you know there is a place on the SouthCoast where people not only can talk to ghosts, but where they actually want to?
This past Sunday, the CNN program “This is Life with Lisa Ling” visited Lily Dale, New York, considered the world’s largest community of spirit mediums.
The people of Lily Dale are members of the Spiritualist Church, and it’s their belief that the spirits of the departed are always around us, there to watch over us and offer us guidance that can be learned through the assistance of a medium.
But did you know the SouthCoast was once the home to the world’s second-largest Spiritualist camp?
Anyone who visits Onset is taken aback by its beauty. Alongside its glistening shoreline stand amazing Victorian homes, still as splendid today as they were when they were built more than 100 years ago.
Sporting the Queen Anne-style that was popular during the Victorian age, the homes look like gigantic dollhouses in the middle of a picturesque seaside village. Most visitors to Onset just figure they’re part of the village’s past in which the wealthy and powerful would summer along its bluffs—but there’s something more spiritual to it than that.
In the world of the paranormal, March 31, 1848, is a very important date. It’s when the two Fox sisters—Maggie, age 15, and Kate, age 12—began experiencing strange rappings on the walls of their home in Hydesville, New York. They eventually became celebrated mediums and helped give birth to the Spiritualism movement, in which followers believed the dead could speak through mediums and offer advice from the great beyond. Spiritualism enjoyed a long run from that fateful date until well into the early part of the twentieth century, and it peaked in the late 1800s with more than eight million followers in the United States and Europe.
Many followers of the Spiritualist movement were upper-class citizens, people in high positions and of great wealth. It is rumored that Abraham Lincoln attended many séances around Washington, D.C., and that he allowed his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, to have mediums present in the White House.
In 1877, a group of wealthy businessmen known as the Onset Bay Grove Association saw the resort area that was then known as Pine Point as the perfect place to build a Spiritualist camp. The association had taken its name from Oknowam (another form of Agawam), which was Wampanoag for “the sandy landing place.” The camp was dedicated on June 14 of that year, and became one of the country’s premiere Spiritualist camps, rivaling Lily Dale in New York for its sense of community and Victorian splendor.
However, rising skepticism of the Spiritualist movement soon put a target squarely on Onset. A book called Some Account of the Vampires of Onset, Past and Present, published by the Press of S. Woodbury and Company of Boston in 1892, portrayed Spiritualism in a negative light, attempting to debunk many popular mediums as frauds and many of the cornerstones of the movement as hoaxes. Of course, none of the material in the book is at all directly related to the Onset camp, but that didn’t stop it from tarnishing the camp’s image.
To counteract some of the negative publicity of the book, the Onset Bay Grove Association decided to erect a memorial to the Native Americans whose spirits they believed helped guide them in their lives. In 1894, work was completed on the On-i-set Wigwam, which honors the Wampanoag heritage while offering a place for Spiritualists to convene and worship. A healing pole in the center of the octagonal wooden structure helps cure what ails visitors on a physical, emotional and spiritual level.
More than 100 years later, the wigwam still stands, with the plaque hanging over the entranceway that reads, “Erected to the Memory of the Redmen, 1893. Liberty Throughout the World and Freedom to All Races.” Not far from the wigwam, the First Spiritualist Church of Onset still conducts regular services as part of the more modernized version of the Spiritualist Church.
It’s no surprise that ghosts should be associated with an area where many share a belief system that actually welcomes and invites their presence. So many stories have come out of the cottages that surround the wigwam and the Victorian houses that dot the waterfront, but unlike other ghost stories in which the spirit is a tragic figure, these spectral visitors are considered old friends there to lend a ghostly guiding hand.
*A portion of this piece comes from the author's book Ghosts of the SouthCoast, History Press, 2010.