Going to Cassadaga, self-proclaimed “Psychic Capital of the World,” is really like entering another time period. A newspaper article about Cassadaga I had read described the scene when they had last visited, saying a woman riding a horse along the side of the road and smoking a cigarette really set the mysterious tone for them as they entered the town. Sadly, we did not see anything like that, but there’s definitely a strange vibe in the air as you enter the town limits – a hey-we’re-not-in-Kansas anymore type of feeling fills the humid air as you drive past the 1800’s-era homes.
Cassadaga is home to The Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association, which was founded by noted medium George Colby in 1894 and controls about 57 acres of the land around here. Today, it is home to many psychics, mediums, and healers. Two camps seem to have emerged here, one sanctioned by The Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association, which certifies their mediums after a certification process that can take several years to complete - their web site lists 42 certified mediums. The other camp seems based around the Cassadaga Hotel – these are not licensed or affiliated with the camp but they do readings up on the top floor of the hotel.
I had come here to photograph some psychics and mediums for a personal project I’d been working on and had a few appointments set up. However, it quickly became clear that the portrait sessions were not going to happen as one backed out at the last moment. Another, who at first claimed he needed 30 days to decide but then said OK, turned me down on his doorstep saying, almost accusatory, that he had lost his phone and was unable to contact me (never mind that fact that we had emailed the previous afternoon). I went over to the Cassadaga Hotel to inquire about the possibility of a portrait shoot with one of their mediums but was quickly shot down with “I don’t think anyone here would be interested in that.”
Back across the street at the camp’s book shop, the two friendly women behind the counter said there might be – I should look on the white board to see who was available that day and just give someone a call. The first person I called was Rev. Ed Conklin, who said he had seen me earlier that day walking around shooting images of the town. He readily agreed and told me to come down to his place, three doors down from the book shop on the left, where he was waiting for me with a smile.
Ed grew up in New York State and has an academic BA in psychology, MA in Humanities, and a Ph.D. in Religion. He taught at the college and university level at Webster University, University of Central Florida, and Daytona State College, among others. While living in Orlando, a friend introduced him to the religion of Spiritualism at Cassadaga. He moved to Cassadaga in 1992 and his certification process took about five years to complete, a process the camp is hoping to obtain state licensing for in the next few years.
Ed tells me that from about 35 years of age on, he began to have visionary experiences of deceased spirits. He began to take mediumship development classes and his ability increased. He has had a number of spirit guides -an Indian, a Persian, and Zen monk to name a few- and occasionally deceased relatives sometimes act as guides. He believes that many folks have the ability but those who are better at seeing spirits have inherited it genetically or may be the result of karma from past lives. Ed’s ability, he continues, comes from his past karma of at least 17 remembered lives.
I suspect the most popular questions that get asked around here are about Christianity and what exactly their religion is. From what I can gather, and from what Mr. Conklin told me, the religion of Spiritualism at Cassadaga is a distinct religion but some members of the camp tend to also have Christian and New Age views. Spiritualism here is not a theistic religion with a personal god but is more pantheistic. Buddha and Jesus (and other religions’ top figures) are respected as teachers.
It was quiet as we headed out of town, a group of folks walking over to the Cassadaga Hotel with what seemed to me to be the oddest thing I saw there all day: a woman pushing a stroller with her dog relaxing inside, a net protecting her from the elements. It wasn’t a ghost or a woman smoking on horseback, but it would do for now.