“Upon a July evening in 1913 two women of St. Louis sat with a ouija board upon their knees.”
The magical talking board conveyed something memorable that night. So memorable, in fact, that books, websites and magazines are still mulling over the event 100 years later.
And although many journalists and skeptics investigated the phenomenon (the quote above is the first line in a 1916 book by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat’s Casper S. Yost), that Ouija board message still resonates for some as a link with the spirit world.
As their husbands played cards, Pearl Curran and Emily Grant Hutchings read the message: “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come — Patience Worth my name.”
And once Patience introduced herself, she was rarely at a loss for words. Over the next quarter-century, the disembodied Puritan — who said she died from an Indian arrow — was credited with writing several novels and hundreds of lines of poetry through her medium, Pearl Curran.
Although many St. Louisans are unaware of “Patience Worth,” she was once a paranormal superstar, a national celebrity who captivated other writers and even movie stars. Some of her novels are available as paperbacks or ebooks, and her poetry is found at patienceworth.com.
She also spawned at least one namesake: Pearl Curran said Patience told her to adopt a baby. So Curran did and named it for the famous ghost.
“Pearl could pull things up that she didn’t know were in her,” says Daniel B. Shea, who late last year published “The Patience of Pearl: Spiritualism and Authorship in the Writings of Pearl Curran.”
Shea doesn’t believe in Ouija-capable ghosts. But his book neither calls Pearl Curran an out-and-out fraud nor does it argue that she had multiple personalities.
“Patience Worth is a fiction talking through her brain. What we don’t know is exactly how the brain works,” Shea says.
So plenty of mystery is still associated with those messages and the spirit who was once considered St. Louis’ most famous writer.
“Pearl didn’t know all of what was going on in her brain,” Shea said in a recent interview. “I think she thought, at least some of the time, that she was talking to a spirit.” A professor emeritus of English at Washington University, Shea, 76, is also the author of “Spiritual Autobiography in Early America.”
He worked for years reading the Patience Worth books and now puts our famous literary spirit and medium into the cultural milieu of the early 20th century.
Although “The Patience of Pearl” is a dense book full of academic buzzwords, it helps demystify Pearl Curran, who always said that she had too little book-learnin’ to make up the archaic language and exotic foreign details spouted by “Patience Worth.”
WHO WAS PEARL?
An early photo of Pearl Curran, wife of the Missouri immigration commissioner, John Curran, shows her as an attractive woman with a Gibson Girl pile of hair. Born in Mound City, Ill., in 1883, Pearl Pollard Curran has always been portrayed as a middle-class housewife with limited education and talent.
Shea, who says Pearl studied through the ninth grade, writes that commentators described Curran along an “intellectual continuum from plain-minded to ignorant.”
Those commentators included the famous editor William Marion Reedy, who initially called Curran and company a “lot of daffy spook-spielers.”
But after meeting the Currans and recounting his own “flirtation” with the ghost Patience, the editor of Reedy’s Mirror was more impressed, exclaiming that Worth’s writing had “passages of bewitching beauty” — although he said Pearl herself was “not at all a highbrow.”
In fact, Curran, who was 30 years old in 1913, convinced many skeptics. She allowed thousands of visitors to come to her home to ask Patience questions — and never charged them fees. She denied she was a Spiritualist, was affiliated with any cult or could predict the future. Curran refused to try to contact dead relatives, and in the short-lived Patience Worth’s Magazine, issued a disclaimer that said, in part:
“The sole purpose of this publication is to spread and interpret the words of Patience Worth. It is not a medium of occultism nor of psychical research. It will not concern itself with kindred phenomena of any character. ...”
But Shea’s research shows that Curran’s background may, in fact, have helped prepare her to write the mishmash of old vocabulary and dialect that made up much of “Patience Worth’s” output:
• Curran was exposed to spoken poetry, theatricality and Spiritualism. At 18, she briefly played piano at her uncle’s Spiritualist church in Chicago.
• Pearl’s demanding mother pushed her to study music, elocution and performance. She also attended at least a few Shakespeare plays. (Later, “Patience Worth” would snap back at Mary Pollard, “Wilt thou but stay thy tung (tongue)!”
• Pearl’s father read Dickens to her and made a name for himself creating folksy characters for humor writing published in Ozarks newspapers. When George Pollard died in 1912, an obit called him a “versatile writer of verse and prose.”
• Pearl’s reading was deeper than she usually let on. Shea notes that she could identify titles by Alexander Pope and enjoyed such 19th-century works as “Hiawatha,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and novels by Louisa May Alcott. That ninth-grade education may have been better than today’s readers assume.
Soon after “Patience Worth” began talking to Curran, Hutchings and Mary Pollard, Curran and Hutchings had a falling out. Hutchings, an experienced writer from Hannibal, would move on to a Ouija board relationship with the deceased Mark Twain, saying that he transmitted to her a novel called “Jap Herron.” (It was not well-reviewed.)
Pearl Curran, meanwhile, moved on to more success, with Reedy saying that “more people of importance and distinction from the world outside Saint Louis visit the Curran home on Cates avenue than any other house of any institution in the city.”
WHO WAS PATIENCE?
They came not to visit with Curran, but to talk to Patience Worth.
The Missouri History Museum has 29 volumes of records of the Patience Worth sessions — who was there, what questions were asked, etc. Among the recognizable surnames of visitors were Danforth, Schlafly, Hadley and Chouteau, Shea writes. Former Gov. David R. Francis came, as did writer Fannie Hurst.
The spirit known as Patience evolved over time, according to Shea. Pearl realized that “sitting back and letting it happen” was the best way to enable Patience Worth, who could dictate thousands of words a night (John Curran acted as stenographer).
Patience was relatively vague about her own history. Eventually, she indicated she lived in the mid-17th century in Dorsetshire, England, and immigrated to America (two women named Patience Worth were found in New England genealogy files, but neither was the St. Louis spirit). She’d had red hair and was buried on Nantucket.
Early stories credited to Worth were published in 1914-15 in the Globe-Democrat. The stories had “vaguely Arthurian-medieval” settings, Shea writes. In 1916, the paper’s editorial director, the religious Casper Yost, helped publicize the writer by publishing the book “Patience Worth: A Psychic Mystery.”
Worth’s own acclaimed first published novel, “The Sorry Tale: A Story of the Time of Christ” was published by Henry Holt in 1917. When a publisher asked if Curran’s photo should appear in the book, Patience replied, “She be but the pot.”
According to an article this summer in The Journal for Spiritual and Consciousness Studies, Washington University professor Roland Usher once called “The Sorry Tale” “the greatest story of Christ penned since the Gospels were finished.”
Contemporary readers, though, may have trouble following the story, which begins, “PANDA, Panda, tellest thou a truth? Panda, thou whose skin is burned to saffron from desert’s blaze, look thou, and tell but truth! ‘Tis Theia who wearyeth.”
In 1918, Worth communicated to Curran an easier-to-read Victorian-style novel, “Hope Trueblood.”
In one year, Patience Worth fans were told, the spirit had written about 425,000 words. Shea writes: “On many evenings fictions were delivered at the rate of 2,000 words per hour.”
Shea says that 21st-century neuropsychologists would explain the phenomenon as a combination of unconscious memory and automatic writing.
In 1919, Curran actually published a story under her own name in the Saturday Evening Post. “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante” capitalizes, Shea writes, on “trends in parlor spiritualism that would peak in the 1920s.” It’s the story of a drab salesgirl who encounters a comical clairvoyant. The young woman spices up her life when she takes on the personality and accent of a Spanish dancer. Two years later, the story was released as a movie, “What Happened to Rosa?”
Curran, thrilled that she had sold the story to Goldwyn Pictures for $1,500, admitted that she must remember “that God gave me an angel to help me.”
TWO MOMS AND A BABY
For 21st-century readers who are interested in neither the paranormal nor Worth’s poetry, the Patience/Pearl story has yet another outrageous element.
In 1916, Patience Worth decided that Pearl and John Curran should adopt a baby and that she, the spirit, would be its godmother. She urged the Currans to find a baby in need, and the story went that a poor, pregnant widow agreed to give up her infant (one gossip, however, later claimed that John Curran’s daughter, 16, gave birth in secret).
Known as the “Ouija-board baby” and “Patience Wee,” a photo of the lass in a “Puritan” bonnet and ruby cross was published in 1917. Patience had ordered that the baby be “spinster-prim” (though Shea says no Puritan would have worn a cross, let alone a ruby one).
A St. Louis newspaper reported in 1917 that Patience Wee was given many presents, including a shawl “from the Orient” and a French war orphan, whose care was paid for for two years in Patience Wee’s name. The story noted that Patience Worth wrote verses for the tot, and “no real flesh and blood mother could express more devoted sentiments.”
Yet another curious addition to the family appeared six months after John Curran died in 1922. After years of childlessness, and with Curran on his deathbed, Pearl conceived at age 39. Shea, through close reading of the Patience Worth records, indicates that the real father of baby Eileen may have been a prominent lawyer, John Cashman.
Sisters Patience Wee and young Eileen would end up moving to California with Pearl, who would marry twice more. Their lives didn’t necessarily calm down: While Curran’s fame had diminished, she still talked to her spirit for the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
Eventually, Eileen became a caretaker for Patience Wee, now called Patty, and Patty’s husband. Both apparently were alcoholics and Patty was found dead at age 27 after drinking and taking sleeping pills.
Curran died in 1937 at age 54. Obituaries said she never became wealthy, despite Patience Worth’s fame. She was not the best or last poet to channel spirits. Others included William Butler Yeats, Sylvia Plath and James Merrill.
But unlike those respected poets, the Patience/Pearl case is unique in that the invisible spirit, rather than the earthly writer, remains the literary star.
‘The Patience of Pearl’
By Daniel B. Shea
Published by the University of Missouri Press, 283 pages, $60