PALMYRA — Sybil Phelps may have died 37 years ago at the age of 81, but that didn’t keep her from attending her 108th birthday party at the family-owned business, the Phelps General Store, on Market Street in Palmyra last week.
At least that’s what some who came out for her birthday party last week claimed.
Psychic mediums gathered with other guests at the store-now-museum that was also Sybil’s home up to and, by some accounts, even after her death on Dec. 7, 1976. Historic Palmyra, under the direction of Executive Director Bonnie Hays, hosted the event with an array of treats, soup, mac and cheese, cake, punch and candy corn — “comfort food,” Hays said. Party guests were then treated to an individual psychic reading by one of six mediums who shared their interpretations of the energy they claimed they sensed surrounding each person. The party culminated in a group reading at the Alling Coverlet Museum on William Street with Carol Cielinski.
Guests connected with loved ones from the past were given clues to the past and future, and many said they left with a sense of peace and well wishes from the other side. Many party-goers said they were astounded by the accuracy of information provided during their readings from mediums who were complete strangers but knew things that they themselves had long forgotten.
The lively crowd may not have been the only guests at the party, some suggested. Mediums said they sensed the energy of the entire Phelps family, including a few of Sybil’s feline friends.
Disembodied voices, footsteps, cat sightings and the tinkling of piano keys upstairs have been reported by many visitors and volunteers at the museum throughout the years. It is said that the active history of the building left its energy behind, and the family who made their livelihood selling groceries and necessities, the Phelps family, still call it home.
The building was built in 1826, a two-unit rental property along the booming original Erie Canal, which at that time, was just across Canal Street. The downstairs was home to many retail businesses throughout the years, from bakeries to taverns to grocery stores — most notably the William Phelps General Store — selling the wares delivered on boats coming down the canal. The upstairs served as a boarding house.
“It was a place where wayward folks came,” Hays said.
In 1868, William and Catherine Phelps purchased the building, bringing their son and future store owner, Julius, who was but 17 days old. They opened the store downstairs and turned the upstairs into their home, where they stayed until their deaths in the mid 1900s.
Still living in the home and running the store, Julius married Mary Aldrich, better known as Mayme, and the couple had one child, a daughter, Sybil, born on Oct. 10, 1895. Hays described Sybil as an eccentric, talented young woman with dreams of becoming a famous actress. She was an accomplished pianist, organ player and guitarist and enjoyed singing. But her heart was on stage. Much to her parents’ chagrin, Sybil attended the Eastman School of Music in 1921 and then left to travel to New York City to attend an acting school. She returned home penniless in 1926 when the school closed during a tumultuous time with the end of World War I, the start of the Great Depression and a flu epidemic.
Times were tough for the Phelps family, Hays said, and the family “lived by the skin of their teeth” after losing all their money during the Depression. More devastating for Sybil was the death of her dream to perform. It was then she found modern Spiritualism, whose birthplace was in Arcadia by the Fox sisters, who claimed to hear rappings from the world beyond.
“I think that was where she found her solace,” Hays said. “She was an excellent Spiritualist.”
Said to even have a crystal ball, Sybil seemed more content conversing with spirits than sharing life with the living. She became a recluse, and for the local children, she was believed to be a witch and someone they feared. An animal lover, she surrounded herself with furry friends, reportedly having up to 15 cats at one time.
“I think she was sad,” Hays said of Sybil. “She had a dream to be a star. She wanted to go on stage.”
Mediums attending Sybil’s birthday party last week said they could sense her and her family still roaming the halls of the old building. Voices caught on tape, called electronic voice phenomena or EVPs, revealed hints of the family’s presence in the museum, said those running the equipment. One EVP purportedly welcomed visitors to the home.
Rev. Lyn Dennie from Angel Heart Chapel of Newark was among the mediums at the party. She recalled her first readings at the museum in Julius’ bedroom and the distinct impression of him pacing back and forth and wondering in frustration who these people were invading his home and room. Spirits are energy, Dennie explained. A living being is made up of energy, she said, and “when they die, the body gives out, but the energy never stops.”
Dennie said she could feel Sybil in the museum stepping back away from the strangers filling her home. Despite her passion for speaking to the dead, Sybil is ironically a quiet presence in the museum, say mediums. But Hays said it’s not really all that ironic.
“Sybil never wanted attention,” Hays said, although she reports they have a couple of EVPs that are distinctly the voice of Sybil asking, “Can you tell me who else has died?”
Finding Sybil in the museum is not surprising to Dennie.
“I think Sybil spent so many years in this place, her energy is embedded here,” she said. “This was her life. It’s her home.”
Julius and Mayme Phelps and their daughter, Sybil, will be in attendance at the Historic Palmyra Cemetery Walk Friday and Saturday, Oct. 18 and 19. Well, this time in the form of actors, not the spirits. Walkers can learn more about many of the people — famous and not-so-famous — who once lived in Palmyra, including the Phelps family. Call 597-6981 for tickets and information.