The American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) is an organization dedicated to education and research in parapsychology. The ASPR was founded in January 1885, in Boston, as a result of a visit to the United States by Sir William Fletcher Barrett of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) of London.
It attracted many eminent scientists and scholars, among them William James. At first the ASPR was structurally similar to the SPR, with committees to investigate thought transference (telepathy), hypnosis, apparitions, Mediumship, and other phenomena then considered paranormal.
An annual series of Proceedings was published. Initially, the ASPR operated independently of the SPR, but financial difficulties forced the society to become a branch of the SPR in 1890. In 1906, the ASPR was re-established as an independent organization, under the direction of James H. Hyslop, and moved to New York.
A journal—fittingly called the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research—was introduced the following year. The Proceedings were continued as a regular publication, devoted to book-length studies. Walter Franklin Prince joined Hyslop at the ASPR in 1917, and when Hyslop died in 1920, Prince took over as research officer and editor of the Journal and Proceedings.
Both Hyslop and Prince were careful researchers, broad minded but not credulous about their work, and together they helped to set a high standard for the study of parapsychological phenomena, especially mediumship and other evidence for survival after death.
ASPR membership was diverse, however, and included a substantial faction of less scholarly bent. Many members were more attracted to Spiritualism than to the serious study of the paranormal, and this group wanted more attention given to the controversial medium Mina Stinson Crandon, better known as “Margery.”
When William McDougall, who had been elected president in 1920, was replaced by the spiritualist Frederick Edwards in 1923, many important members left and set up a new society, the Boston Society for Psychic Research, dedicated to the ASPR’s original principles.
They urged Prince to join them, and when Edwards was elected to a second ASPR term in 1925, Prince did so. “A dark chapter in the history of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR) is being written,” he commented at the time, “and it will be long in retrieving its former reputation.”
In fact, it was not until 1941, shortly before Crandon’s death, that the ASPR changed sufficiently for the Boston Society for Psychic Research to be reunited with it. Under the leadership of psychologist Gardner Murphy, the ASPR turned away from sittings with mediums and took up experimental tests of ESP of the sort pioneered in the later 1920s and the 1930s by J.B. Rhine.
Experimental research characterized the society from the 1940s onward, with investigations such as the connection between creativity and ESP and meditation and ESP, both pet interests of Murphy. Murphy served as president of the board of trustees from 1962 to 1971 and in the late 1960s was responsible for convincing an appeals court to award a substantial part of the estate of James Kidd to the ASPR.
The money went in part to fund research on deathbed apparitions by Karlis Osis, then new to the staff. The ASPR and Osis benefited also from money donated by Chester F. Carlson, the multimillionaire inventor of the Xerox process. Carlson had funded the early stages of Osis’s study of deathbed apparitions and helped to equip the ASPR’s laboratory, later named in his honour. He served on the society’s board of trustees from 1964 to 1968 and took an active interest in its affairs.
In 1966, he helped make it possible for the ASPR to buy a building on the Upper West Side of New York City. When he died in 1968, he left over $1 million to the endowment fund. Research during the 1960s and 1970s reflected Osis’s interest in survival after death.
There was a revival of studying spontaneous cases, although experimental work continued as well. After Murphy’s departure for health reasons in 1975, the ASPR began to decline, a process accentuated by Osis’s retirement in 1983. Osis was not replaced as director of research. The society’s primary mission shifted to education through the Journal, the Newsletter, lectures, and a library.
- American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)Web site. URL: https://www.aspr.com.
- Berg, Arthur S. Lives and Letters in American Parapsychology: A Biographical History, 1850–1987. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1988.
- Mauskopf, Seymour H. “The History of the American Society for Psychical Research: An Interpretation.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)83 (1989): 7–32.
- Osis, Karlis. “The American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)1941–1985: A Personal View.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (SPR)79 (1985): 501–29.