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Pearl Curran began channeling messages from Patience Worth in 1913 by means of a Ouija board. (Douglas Smith)

Patience Worth: Author From the Great Beyond

Pearl Curran, a St. Louis housewife, channeled a 17th-century spirit to the heights of 20th-century literary stardom

In 1915, Casper S. Yost, the frail, deeply religious editorial page editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, persuaded the Currans to let him write about some sessions he had witnessed. His series of articles became the basis of a popular 1916 book, Patience Worth: A Psychic Mystery (published by Henry Holt, who was himself a spiritualist). Appearing at the height of a war-inspired fad for books by and about spirits, it featured a hearty sampling of Patience’s poetry, aphorisms, proverbs and conversation, and it turned Patience and Pearl into celebrities. “Patience Worth[’s] messages out of the darkness never sink to the commonplace level, but always show high intelligence and sometimes are even tipped with the flame of genius,” said the New York Times, echoing other newspaper reviews across the country.

Yost’s book was followed in 1917 by Patience’s first novel, The Sorry Tale, also published by Holt. The story of one of the thieves crucified with Jesus, it received rave reviews. The next year, the Joint Committee of Literary Arts of New York named Patience one of the nation’s outstanding authors. That May, Holt published Patience’s second novel, Hope Trueblood, the tale of a fatherless girl in Victorian England. It was written in a 19th-century voice dramatically different from The Sorry Tale, a fact that Pearl explained by Patience’s urge to widen her audience. But by then the spirit-author fad had begun to fade, and Hope Trueblood received mixed reviews. The esteemed Atlantic Monthly essayist Agnes Repplier delivered a general condemnation of Patience and her otherworldly ilk as “authors of books as silly as they are dull.”

But who was Patience? A fraud? A spirit? The product of Pearl Curran’s subconscious mind?

No sooner had she appeared than an uproar ensued in the press, as a variety of experts—philosophers, psychiatrists, neurologists, historians, semanticists and literati—began weighing in from around the nation, Canada and Britain. Psychoanalyst Wilfrid Lay, writing in the literary journal The Bookman, insisted that Patience’s writing was merely “the automatic activities of [Pearl’s] Unconscious.” Writer Mary Austin in the Unpartizan Review attributed Patience to “an excessive discharge of phosphorus” in Pearl’s brain. Other observers explained the phenomenon as the result of inherited “nerve cells” or a “talent that has been transmitted over the heads of [Pearl’s] ancestors to her.”

Pearl steadfastly refused to cooperate with the psychologists who wanted to study her, but that didn’t stop Charles Cory, chairman of the philosophy department at Washington University, who’d been present at several Patience Worth sessions, from claiming to have solved the mystery. In a long article in the Psychological Review in 1919, Cory argued that the case could be explained by multiple personality. Though Cory was confounded by Pearl’s ability to remain herself while Patience dictated to her—multiples usually inhabit only one personality at a time—he concluded that while Pearl went about her housework during the day, her “other self” composed her novels and poems.

Investigators into the “supernormal” powers of the human mind had recognized the importance of the subconscious long before Freud did. Some of the most brilliant men of the day were associated with the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), including the founder, Harvard psychologist William James (brother of novelist Henry), historian Francis Parkman and Theodore Roosevelt. By the early 20th century, however, the field had become rife with cranks and crackpots whose insistence on scientific objectivity belied their secret beliefs in magic.

James Hervey Hyslop, head of the ASPR from 1905 until his death in 1920, was typical. After earning a PhD in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Hyslop had joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1889 as a professor of logic and ethics, but by the early 1900s he had given up his post to devote himself to psychical research. He claimed that he could determine the authenticity of spirit communication through a system of “cross references,” whereby several mediums who were unknown to each other would receive related messages from a spirit. As soon as he heard about Patience Worth, he wrote to the Currans, urging them to submit to his cross-reference test. They refused. Anger at their rejection may have been behind the attack he launched in the April 1916 issue of the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. The case of Patience Worth was “a fraud and a delusion,” he wrote. “Notoriety and making a fortune were the primary influences acting on the parties concerned.”

A decade later, Hyslop’s judgment was emphatically contradicted by his successor at the ASPR, Walter Franklin Prince. A one-time Episcopal and Methodist minister and amateur magician who had a PhD in psychology from Yale, Prince had grown up with a passion for puzzles. He became fascinated by abnormal psychology after he and his wife adopted a girl diagnosed with multiple personalities. This led to an interest in the psychology of mediums. Some of Prince’s research was published in the Journal of the ASPR, and soon Prince became the society’s chief investigating officer, working with Harry Houdini to expose fake mediums, who “came to fear him like the plague,” according to a friend.

Pearl, however, showed no fear. After turning down all similar requests over the years, she welcomed Prince into her life for reasons that remain unclear, and he spent several weeks in St. Louis reading over the entire Patience Worth record, interviewing Pearl, her stepdaughter and her friends and sitting in on long sessions with Patience. In 1927, he published his findings in a 500-page book, The Case of Patience Worth, in which his admiration for Patience’s “marvelous imagination...gift of poetic expression...singular wisdom and spirituality” shines from every page.

Finding no evidence that “ordinary” Pearl had produced the Patience Worth material either consciously or unconsciously, Prince concluded that “some cause operating through but not originating in...Mrs. Curran must be acknowledged.”

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