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Ghost Author? The Channeling of ‘Patience Worth’

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 36.3, May/June 2012

Pearl Lenore (Pollard) Curran (1883–1937) (Figure 1), wife of John H. Curran of St. Louis, be­gan in 1913 to receive poems and novels, via Ouija board, from a seventeenth-century Puritan English woman named “Patience Worth.” Patience had supposedly been born in England in 1649 and immigrated to America, where she was slain by Indians at the age of forty-five, although no historical record has ever been found for her.

Some 216 years later, “Patience” made her debut one July evening while Curran and a friend, who was a writer, were playing with a Ouija board. With their fingers pressing on the planchette, it began to spell out a strange message:

Many moons ago I lived. Again
I come — Patience Worth
my name —

Figure 1Figure 1. Pearl Curran channeled “Patience Worth” from 1913 until her death in 1937. (Photo by Joe Nickell from original at Missouri Historical Society)

The message unleashed a flow of Patience Worth writings that eventually filled whole volumes: The Sorry Tale, Hope Trueblood, and The Pot Upon the Wheel were followed soon by Light from Beyond and Telka. By 1918, the phantom writer had her own Patience Worth Magazine, which lasted ten issues (Christopher 1970, 128–30).

Historical Fiction

Curran eventually abandoned the cumbersome Ouija board, discovering that Patience Worth could guide her fingers while she typed and could speak through Curran’s voice while a friend took dictation “at a tremendous speed” (Cavendish 1974). “Go Ye to the lighted hall to search for learning?” asked Patience in a typical communication. “Nay, ’tis a piddle, not a stream, ye search. Mayhap thou sendest thy men for barleycorn. ’Twould then surprise thee should the asses eat it.” And so on, in her quaint, facile manner.

A New York Times reviewer praised her style: “Notwithstanding the serious quality and the many pitifulnesses and tragedies . . . [there is] much humor of a quaint, demure kind . . . [and] the plot is contrived with such skill, deftness, and ingenuity as many a novelist in the flesh might well envy” (qtd. in Christopher 1970, 128).

One Elizabethan scholar, a Profes­sor Shelling, was less impressed. As he stated:

The language employed is not that of any historical age or period; but, where it is not the current English of the part of the United States in which Mrs. Curran lives, it is a distortion born of superficial acquaintance with poetry and a species of would-be Scottish dialect . . . the borrowing of some dialect words and the clear misuse, misunderstanding and even invention of many others. . . . There is an easy facility of phrase almost wholly in our contemporary idiom and showing nowhere the qualities of the language of Elizabeth’s or any previous age. (qtd. in Christopher 1970, 129)

I concur with this assessment.

Moreover, as is now well known, the productions of the Ouija board are actually due to “the involuntary muscular actions of the players”—as the effect was described in toy maker Isaac Fuld’s application for a patent on the device. Although Fuld added, “or through some other agency,” an explanation adopted by Spiritualists and other mystics, the truth can be easily demonstrated (as magician Milbourne Christopher has explained): when the board is out of sight and the alphabet scrambled, only gibberish is spelled out. (Curran rejected such “conditions” [1920, 399].)

Fantasy Proneness

Indeed, I find that Pearl Curran exhibits several traits consistent with having a fantasy-prone personality. Such persons are sane and normal but generally enjoy a rich fantasy life, which may include experiencing a previous lifetime. “While they are pretending,” state Wilson and Barber in their classic study (1983, 354), “they become totally absorbed in the character and tend to lose awareness of their true identity.” They may believe they receive special messages from paranormal entities, possess psychic powers, or the like. A short autobiographical sketch penned by Curran reveals her to have been an imaginative child who played the piano at her uncle’s Spiritualist church. Of her supposed communication with Patience Worth, she wrote: “I am not a Spiritualist, but am in sympathy with the furtherance of psychic facts and believe that the pioneers of today are but groping toward fact. I am not a ‘medium’ in the common sense. Am deeply interested in the study of psychic phenomena, using myself as a study” (emphasis added, Curran 1926, 15).

“Patience Worth” seems to have been, according to philosopher Charles E. Cory (1927, 432), Curran’s “other self,” a form of alter ego. He characterizes the phenomenon as follows (1927, 433–34):

I accept the judgment that Patience Worth is a genius of no mean order. And, perhaps, there is in the genius of this writer a concrete illustration of what freedom a mind may achieve when released from the inhibitions that clog and check the normal consciousness. She is a dissociated self, and this dissociation has taken place in such a way as to free her from the burdens and concerns of life, from all the claims that split the will and bind the fancy. And perhaps in this fact, and all that it implies, lies the condition of her genius. The division of the self has resulted in a division of labor. To Mrs. Curran falls the care of the needs of the body, and the interests of the social life. Their reactions and distractions are hers. . . .

But turn to this dissociated mind and the conditions have changed. The work of adjusting the organism to the environment being left to the other self, the inhibitions which perception places upon the imagination are removed. This sets free and un­fettered the mind of Patience Worth. In the realm of the idea she lives, and there she sustains herself without effort. She acknowledges no tie or bond that might take her out of her dream. She is a dreamer that never awakens. And the conditions of this spell are, in a way, the conditions of her genius. With her our moments of abstraction, moments that life affords us the luxury of thought and imagination, are prolonged indefinitely. They are, in fact, a fixed condition. In other words, she lives only in a world of thought. And so far she has shown no desire to displace the other self, and alternate with her in the role of action. To do so would result in essential modification of her consciousness, and put her under inhibitions from which she is now free.

Although Curran refused to be hypnotized, and it is said she did not go into a “trance” while writing (Prince [1927] 1964, 428, 431), her dissociated mode is clearly similar to what today would be recognized as “self-hypnosis”—a state she entered and left easily. Therefore she probably would have been an excellent subject had she agreed to undergo hypnosis. Interest­ingly, Curran eventually discovered she could write short stories of her own but emphasized that she could “feel the difference between the conscious effort of the ordinary manner of writing, as against the unconscious manner in which the Patient Worth material comes to me” (1920, 403).

Smoking Gun

But Curran was not just receiving “dictation.” Like other writers (including me) before and since, she embarked on the creative process and was carried to that far-away place in the mind whence inspiration comes, producing things that often seemed quite mysteriously bestowed—as if from one of those goddesses of art in Greek mythology, the Muses. Curran may have simply perceived her muse as a character named Patience Worth.

Figure 2Figure 2. The “Patience Worth” papers at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis are a trove of “automatic” writings.

I have researched the matter over the years. In 2010, after speaking to the Rationalist Society of St. Louis on “Hunting for Ghosts and Spirits,” I was able to study Pearl Curran’s writings at the Missouri Historical Society Archives (which very graciously accommodated me on a day they were otherwise closed). For five hours I pored over the Pearl Cur­ran/“Patience Worth” papers—numerous boxed documents and twenty-nine bound volumes of typescripts (Figure 2). Even though it is known that “Patience” could compose on demand (Prince [1927] 1964, 56, 281–300), I found evidence that some of the writings were the product of the creative process—showing various revisions—rather than, as alleged, mere dictation from the supposed spirit of the nonexistent “Patience Worth” of the seventeenth century.

For example, I found two versions of a 1920 poem, “My Love Is Old.” In the bound typescript, vol. 12, p. 2302, the last line of the poem reads, “Who bending whispers forget, forget.” But there is an earlier loose manuscript of that same page with the typed line originally reading, “Who bending responds forget, forget”—but the word responds has been stricken and the word whispers penned instead.

Several poems had fold marks in the paper, indicating they had been mailed to persons for whom they were written—one “For Grace Parrish,” for in­stance. When that poem appeared in the bound typescripts, numerous changes in punctuation and line divisions had been made, and stanza divisions had been added. More telling is another poem for Parrish containing some very different text in the typescripts, revised wording, a line added, and changes in punctuation and line divisions.

Quite revealing is a typed page of yellowed copy paper with penciled notation (“3 carbons please”) that is rough­ly typed and marked over. A few typed lines have been crossed out (having read, “How could I know until you came how close God was/How could I comprehend the Cross and all the agony . . .”). There are also numerous penned edits and revisions in Pearl Curran’s handwriting, as well as a note to someone addressed as “honey” (presumably a typist) to “break it up—it will look better I think,” apparently referring to the line breaks (see Figure 3).1

Figure 3Figure 3. A few surviving telltale documents like this reveal that Pearl Curran did not merely take spirit dictation but engaged in the revision process—like ordinary writers. (Photo by Joe Nickell at Missouri Historical Society)

I suspect that there were once many more such drafts but that they were subsequently destroyed, replaced by what manuscript experts call “fair copies”—that is, neat, final versions as preserved in the bound volumes.

Conclusions

The weight of the evidence—the lack of historical record for “Patience Worth,” the fantasy proneness of Cur­ran (consistent with producing an imaginary “other self”), the writings’ questionable language, and the evidence of the editing and revision process—indicates that Patience was merely a persona of Curran’s.

I can relate to that: When I visited the archives I was accompanied by a number of my own personas, including paranormal investigator, historical
document examiner, poet, fiction writer, editor, literary critic, forensic linguist, handwriting expert, photographer, and more—all of which played their role in my examination of the manuscripts. The century-old case can now be closed. It is about time.


Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the many people who assisted with my research, including Kath­leen Kelly and Larry Jewell of the Ration­alist Society of St. Louis, the generous staff of the Missouri Historical Society Ar­chives, CFI Libraries Director Timothy Binga, and my assistant, Ed Beck. I am especially grateful to John and Mary Frantz for their crucial financial support.


Note

1. This document is in the third of three folders of loose documents dated September 8–15, 1924, Patience Worth Collection, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Missouri.


References

Cavendish, Richard. 1974. Encyclopedia of the Unexplained. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 278.

Christopher, Milbourne. 1970. ESP, Seers & Psychics: What the Occult Really Is. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 124–31.

Cory, Charles E. 1927. In Prince (1927) 1964, 428–37.

Curran, Pearl. 1920. A note for psychologists. In Prince (1927) 1964, 392–403.

———. 1926. Autobiographical sketch. In Prince (1927) 1964, 11–15.

Prince, Walter Franklin. (1927) 1964. The Case of Patience Worth. New Hyde Park, New York: University Books.

Wilson, Sheryl C., and Theodore X. Barber. 1983. The fantasy-prone personality: Impli­cations for understanding imagery, hypnosis, and parapsychological phenomena. In Imagery, Current Theory, Research and Appli­cation. Anees A. Sheikh (ed.) New York: Wiley, 340–90.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.