When my dad took a 23andMe DNA test in 2018, we expected nothing more than the confirmation that he was German. But when I got his results back, I immediately knew something was wrong.
Looking at the list of his DNA matches, I didn’t recognize a single name — there was not a Schlott to be found. Suddenly, I started to wonder: Could my dad have been adopted?
Neither of my dad’s parents, who were long deceased nor anyone in his family had ever even hinted at anything of the sort. But still, I had to ask.
“Dad,” I said to him one day as we sat in our living room at home in New Jersey. “Do you think you might have been adopted?”
Dad shot me a shocked look. “No way,” he said.
But my curiosity got the best of me. I continued to examine his DNA results, and my suspicions only grew. I asked my dad if I could apply for his adoption records. I told him if nothing came back, then we could put the matter to rest, and he agreed.
A few weeks later, a letter arrived from New York State. When I opened the envelope, my heart nearly stopped. Sure enough, the state confirmed it had a sealed adoption record for my father.
That afternoon, over lunch, I told my dad the news. This time, he listened and nodded, and let it all sink in. And his response surprised me.
“I guess I always had a feeling,” he told me. “Someone once pointed out that my parents’ eyes were blue but mine were brown.”
Later, when he had more time to process, he said he was disappointed in his parents for never telling him, but “I grew to understand it was because of the times. Adoption was taboo back then.”
Eventually, he gave me his blessing to go on a hunt for his birth family. “The more we found out, the more I wanted to know,” he said.
We didn’t have much to go on. Though I was a senior in high school at the time, my dad was 80 years old, and the parents who raised him were long gone. I had never even met them.
Using genealogy records, I found possible relatives and got them to agree to take their own DNA tests. Their information led me to unearth an even more shocking secret: my dad was descended entirely from psychics who believed they could talk to the dead.
My dad’s mother, it turned out, was named Violet Krech. Her mother, Bertha Krech, was the preacher at the Plymouth Spiritualist Church in Rochester, NY, from the 1920s to the 1940s. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Spiritualism was a strong religious movement, whose practitioners were all mediums who felt they could communicate with the spirit world. The highest-ranking members were seen as particularly attuned to the afterlife.
My grandfather was a man named Walter, who was the treasurer at the Plymouth Spiritualist Church. He was married to another woman when Violet became pregnant at 19. Likely to avoid scandal, Violet was sent to a maternity hospital to give birth in secret, and my dad was put up for adoption at three months old. Walter died in the ’70s, and Violet never married or had any kids ever again. Instead, she worked as a seamstress and was an active member of the church, living in Rochester until her death at 87 in 2004. I was four years old when she died and struck that our lifetimes had overlapped.
One of my cousins told me stories about growing up in the Krech family. She remembers going to the church as a young child and watching Bertha — my great-grandmother — give a lecture about Spiritualism and afterward relay messages from the dead to her large flock. Bertha would go into deep trances while contacting the spirit world.
“Grandma’s trances were powerful,” my cousin said. “Sometimes she would start speaking in tongues or it would sound like someone else’s voice was speaking through her. And she had a big following. The congregation was impressive for the time.”
But the readings from the spirit world frightened my cousin when she was young.
“To be honest, it scared the bejesus out of me,” she said.
I also learned that Violet and her parents drove from Rochester every year to summer in a town called Lily Dale about two hours away. For nearly 150 years, Lily Dale has been a congregation point for Spiritualists — a psychic mecca where every single owner of the 169 homes is a member of the Spiritualist church.
My dad and I needed to learn more. So, earlier this month, we hopped into my car and headed to Lily Dale to trace my ancestors’ footsteps.
Lily Dale is a small hamlet of colorful Victorian-era homes tucked onto the coast of Upper Cassadaga Lake. Talking to the dead has been a requirement for owning property within the community’s gates since it was established in 1879.
When we pulled into the gates, I immediately got goosebumps. Lily Dale is a ghost town in the off-season — both literally and figuratively — with only 250 residents weathering the winter there. That weekend, my dad and I were the only guests at the Amber Tree Inn, a cozy family-owned bed and breakfast teeming with crystals and books like “Fairies 101.”
My first stop was the administrative offices, where Lily Dale Assembly President Joanne Mansfield greeted me with a warm hug.
Since Joanne was appointed president in September, she’s worked tirelessly to maintain the town. “I guess I’m like a mayor,” she told me. “What motivates me is the people, the energy, the peace — and wanting to enlighten Lily Dale and sustain it so that we can continue what we are doing to serve.”
Lily Dale boasts the world’s largest Spiritualist community (believe it or not, there are others in Florida and Indiana), with four churches, an outdoor worship center, and a massive assembly hall for lectures. Every summer, around 20,000 to 30,000 paranormally-inclined visitors make a pilgrimage here for a reading or to hone their own ability to talk to the dead.
Occasionally members of a local fundamentalist church show up to picket against what they consider unholy practices at Lily Dale. But Joanne slaps down accusations of witchcraft, fortune telling, and satanic worship.
“Some people just don’t understand what Spiritualism is,” she said. “It’s a religion of free thinkers. We do believe in God, and we believe that everybody has the choice to worship the God of their choice.”
All Spiritualists think death is merely a “transition,” and that spirits are able and willing to speak to the living, giving us advice and insight into the universe. Spiritualists believe that all of us, with enough attention and practice, can be conduits to the spirit world.
Joanne and two local mediums, Bobbie Caswell and Celeste Elliott, guided me on a tour of Lily Dale. “It’s sacred ground, and it’s very healing,” Bobbie, who moved there in 2015, told me.
We stopped into an old single-room schoolhouse which now serves as Lily Dale Museum. Every nook and cranny is filled with newspapers, pamphlets, black and white photos, and artifacts of the town’s earliest days. The snug display is overseen by Ron Nagy, a former prison guard, and Air Force veteran, who moved to Lily Dale 21 years ago after a psychic medium relayed a message to him from his late grandfather, giving him an “awakening.”
He filled me in on the history of Spiritualism.
It all started in 1848, when 11-year-old Kate and 14-year-old Maggie Fox, two sisters from Hydesville, NY, began hearing unexplained rhythmic tapping sounds on the walls of their home, which they claimed were ciphered messages from the dead. Soon, crowds of neighbors crammed into their bedrooms to watch the spectacle.
And, just like that, a new religion was born.
Northern and Western New York was the perfect place for an unconventional faith like Spiritualism to take hold. It’s often referred to as the “burned-over district,” where economic downturn and social fatigue in the 19th Century made the region fertile ground for burgeoning movements, like utopianism, socialism, and Mormonism.
Spiritualism proved especially appealing to the progressives of the area, perhaps for its less rigid customs and egalitarian belief that any person — especially women — can tap into the spirit world. Abolitionists and suffragists like William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe all attended seances. Susan B. Anthony herself frequented Lily Dale, where she spoke to crowds of thousands.
Although I was surprised to learn my great-grandmother led a congregation while many faiths still forbade women from speaking in church, Spiritualism has always been female-dominated. Today, 32 of Lily Dale’s 37 registered mediums are women.
“Right from the beginning, women were being ordained,” said Celeste. “It’s like we had an equal voice from the beginning. That’s really, really unique. It’s amazingly progressive even for today.”
By the turn of the 20th century, an estimated 8 million Americans considered themselves Spiritualists. “Back then, Spiritualism was just so well accepted,” Ron told me.
Prominent followers included “Sherlock Holmes” author Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited Lily Dale, and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who was so grief-stricken by the death of her teenage son, she even hosted seances in the White House’s Red Room.
Today, the faith is far less mainstream, but Lily Dale’s residents find solace in each other’s company.
Celeste moved there 11 years ago, just before her 30th birthday. “It’s just like a neighborhood of people who all know each other, and look out for each other, and never miss an opportunity for a potluck,” she said.
For pilgrims who come to Lily Dale every summer, the town is a unique portal to another dimension, a sacred ground where spirits rule. But for me, it’s a fascinating portal into my past — and the last place I expected my family tree to take me.
On our journey back home, my dad and I made two stops. The first was to a Cracker Barrel for the biggest breakfast of my life. The second was to my grandmother Violet’s grave in a beautiful cemetery just outside Rochester. On the ground, amid piles of leaves, we found a plaque bearing the inscription: Violet P. Krech, Daughter, 1917-2004.
Seeing her marker there, four years after I first found out my father was adopted, I suddenly burst into tears. Maybe it was the Spiritualism rubbing off on me, but I was filled with emotion, having connected with a grandparent who I would never have known existed if it wasn’t for a DNA test.
As we held hands at her grave and stood there together — Violet’s only child and her only granddaughter — I like to think she was up there somewhere looking down and smiling.