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The Agony and the Ecstasy of James Kennard Jr


The devil’s leg

Although an avid reader, young Jim Kennard was more active than studious. His father, a ship captain, was often away from home. At 15 James took a job as a junior clerk in a local dry-good store, but within a year his right knee grew stiff and lame. With an "invincible desire" to see Florida, James finally convinced his parents to let him travel south to Jacksonville and later South Carolina in hopes of a cure. It was here that he saw the horrors of slavery. The climate seemed to help, but when he returned to Portsmouth, the pain in his leg grew worse. James wrote to a friend that "dark visions of amputated limbs and cork legs haunted me, both asleep and awake".

kennard02While a patient at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1837, James and his doctor decided that the only release from constant pain was to remove his leg. Once the decision was made, James found himself filled with inner peace. "I feel no fear at all at the prospect before me." he wrote home. "I have no wish to put off the evil day."

Fearing that his parents might be overly stressed by his coming operation, James moved his surgery date forward a week without telling them. Rev. Andrew Peabody, minister at Portsmouth’s Unitarian Church, penned a dramatic memoir of his friend’s life. At this point, Peabody says: "He then took his last walk with the doomed limb, and quietly submitted to the knife." When the operation was over, he notified his family.

In a short story simply called "My Leg", James Kennard wrote about a young lame man being tempted by the devil. The character comes very close to selling his soul in exchange for release from pain. But as the story ends, the narrator cuts off his own leg and casts it away -- casting out the Devil in the bargain.

A life of constant pain

"I think the knee has been of service to me in many other ways," James wrote in a letter. "It, at least, has kept me from a deal of wickedness and dissipation, has given me time to reflect, and to form serious resolutions. I am content. "

There was a brief respite, even a burst of hope. After returning to Portsmouth, James decided to become a doctor. To be "useful" to society, he contributed weekly essays and poems to his friend Charles Brewster, editor of the Portsmouth Journal, but always under a pseudonym. One anonymous poem entitled "What Shall I Ask in Prayer?" was so popular it was circulated nationally. A literary magazine in Boston began publishing his work regularly. A career was born.

Then his left leg went lame and the devastating pain returned. James lost the use of his elbows and wrists and became so sensitive to the pain that he could no longer ride in his "wheeled chair" or be carried up and down stairs at home. Confined to his "couch of pain" he read, consumed volumes of literature, and wrote. With only the use of two or three fingers in his right hand, he wrote essays and poems and letters and prayers --- until his eyes went. First one eye, then the other became so sensitive to light that the young author had to live in almost total darkness in his upstairs room. Friends helped out willingly, his mother and his sister too, reading and transcribing his work. And then it was his ears, stinging so badly that any voice above a whisper was like the crash of the North Church bell. The sound of carriages passing by on the street below was almost more than he could bear. "To see how I live," he wrote to a friend, "Just shut up your eyes, chop off your hands, and try it."



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