Nestled in the heart of Volusia County, Florida is the small, unincorporated town of Cassadaga that is home to the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. Known as the oldest Spiritualist community in the South, the site was originally intended to be a winter camp for the Spiritualists from the Lily Dale Spiritualist Camp in upstate New York, on the shores of Lake Cassadaga. However, in 1894, George P. Colby established the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp saying he was led to that exact spot by his spirit guide, Seneca. Colby purchased a large tract of land and offered it to the newly formed non-profit organization of Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association.
The beginning of Spiritualism is credited to Andrew Jackson Davis, who wrote two books, Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelations and a Voice to Mankind in 1846 and Principles of Nature in 1847. The first book established the principles of Spiritualism, and the second book laid the philosophical foundation for the Spiritualist movement. Spiritualism is made of three parts: religion, science, and philosophy. Spiritual mediums (someone who is sensitive to the vibrations of the Spirit World) are said to be able to contact and deliver messages from the dead. Meanwhile, during the early nineteenth century, the United States was experiencing an outbreak of religious fervor, mainly in western New York. Revivals were being held across the country. Spiritualism gained more popularity after the end of the Civil War because so many people had lost loved ones and they were looking for something, anything to connect them to their friends and family who had died (Wynne and Knetsch).
As mentioned earlier, Spiritualism is made up of three parts: science, religion, and philosophy. Spiritualism is a science because it investigates, analyzes, and classifies facts and manifestations from the spirit side of life. It is a religion because it tries to understand the Laws of Nature which the Laws of God are, too. Spiritualism is a philosophy because it studies the seen and unseen sides of life (Karcher and Hutchinson). Spirit Guides are also a big part of Spiritualism. Spiritualists believe that some spirits return to Earth to help humanity and they believe that everyone has a Spirit Guide. Mediums can help people to communicate with Spirit Guides and people who have passed on. The National Spiritualist Association, USA has a Declaration of Principles to teach the truths and principles expressed by Spiritualism.
Central Florida is well known for its theme parks, but in the late 1880’s and early 1900’s tourism focused more on roadside attractions and luxury hotels on the beaches. Henry Flagler built his Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine in 1888 and Henry Plant built the Tampa Bay Hotel in 1891. Along with the railroads they built, this allowed people to travel from all over the country to visit Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp. The camp itself hasn’t changed very much from the late 1800’s. Historic buildings and greenspaces went in between 1895 and 1945. There are historic cottages as well as Victorian homes that were used for seasonal residence. The homes often had interior spaces designed for readings, seances, and religious activities. The Cassadaga Hotel was built in 1895 but it was destroyed by fire in 1926. The second hotel was finished in 1928 and still stands today. Harmony Hall was completed in 1897, Andrew Jackson Davis Hall was built in 1905, and Brigham Hall was built in 1897. In 1991, Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp was put in the National Register of Historic Places (Guthrie, Jr.).
While Spiritualism has its supporters, there are also many skeptics around, as well. One of the reasons for the skepticism is because of the incredibly long-lived hoax perpetrated by two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox in the 1850’s. It started as a childhood prank where they learned, to make popping, cracking, and thumping sounds; their mother, Mrs. Fox. came searching for the sounds one night and the girls pretended to talk to a “ghost”. Their mother was convinced that there was something preternatural happening and invited neighbors to come experience it for themselves. By the time the girls thought to confess, they were too afraid of getting in trouble and felt that they had reached a point of no return. For forty years, the sisters traveled and held seances, no one could figure out how they were making the noises themselves, so people accepted that they could communicate with ghosts. Finally, on October 21, 1888, Margaret Fox Kane confessed to The New York World that it had all been a hoax. It is said that she and her sister fooled over 8,000,000 people, many of them prominent citizens. However, many Spiritualists denounced her confession and she ended up retracting it later (Karcher and Hutchinson).
Today, Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is a thriving community of living history, encouraging a sense of togetherness using religion, philosophy, and Spiritualism. Church services are held every Sunday along with meetings, healings, and spiritual readings done by mediums.
Karcher, Janet. Hutchinson, John. Spirit Connection: Back to Cassadaga. Spirit Publishing, 2008.
Wynne, Nick. Knetsch, Joe. Utopian Communities of Florida: a History of Hope. The History Press, 2016.
Guthrie, Jr., John J.. Charles, Lucas Phillip. Cassadaga: The South's Oldest Spiritual Community. UP of Florida, 2000.