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North Dakota’s Joseph Kennedy and Psychical Research

Yesterday my History 240 class spent the afternoon at the Elywn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections.  This is always a good time for me because not only do I get to enjoy the University Archivist, Curt Hanson’s, sense of humor, but I also get to root around in special collections.  Yesterday, I decided to read a Merrifield Award Winning Essay by a former Department of History Doctor of the Arts student, Ken Smith who now teaches at Trinity Bible College in Ellendale, ND.  I had a chance to meet Ken at the Northern Great Plains History Conference last week, and our brief chat reminded me to check out his essay.

The essay is entitled: “UND’s Joseph Kennedy and the Allure of Psychical Research”, and it provides a fascinating (and creepy!) insight into the early 20th century interest in psychic and paranormal research. Kennedy was a member of the “second Merrifield Faculty” who was hired during Webster Merrifield’s term as university president in 1892. He followed Horace B. Woodworth as the main faculty member responsible for teaching philosophy and education and in 1901 he became the Dean of the Normal College. He remained in this position until his retirement in 1928.  While his primary area of expertise was education – particularly secondary and rural education, he was influenced heavily by the psychological and philosophical works of William James.

According to Smith’s work, Kennedy’s interest in James paved the way for his critical interest in psychical research.  This interest culminated with a visit to Dr. James H. Hyslop in Boston.  Hyslop was the director of the American Society of Psychical Research which was a group founded by Richard Hodgson who was a colleague and correspondent of William James.  During Kennedy’s visit to Boston, Hyslop arranged for him to meet with a medium named “Mrs. Chenowith” who apparently sought to contact Kennedy’s family and friends who had passed to the other side. Unlike many mediums of her day, Mrs. Chenowith wrote out the messages that she received from the other side.

Apparently the messages that Mrs. Chenowith communicated to Kennedy exist in the UND archives, although I have not yet had a chance to find them.  Kennedy struggled to understand and interpret the messages and initiated an almost two decade correspondence with Hyslop in the process.  As Smith points out, the correspondence, while always cordial, were not without tension.  Kennedy found the work of the medium unconvincing and Hyslop was not necessary amendable to that interpretation.

Kennedy remained critically agnostic about the possibilities of parapsychological and spiritual phenomena his entire life.  He was open to the ideas enough to conduct his own research, but critical enough to probe ideas and occurrences quite deeply. Smith, for example, recounts an episode when Raymond Hitchcock, a professor of Mathematics, sought Kennedy out to analyze a lucid dream.  In the dream, Hitchcock saw a home that he then encountered in real life some time later. Kennedy resisted the temptation to attribute the dream to psychical phenomena attributing it instead to the power of the unconscious mind (although he stopped short of seeing the dream as an expression of an unfulfilled wish in a Freudian sense).

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