At the time, Ouija boards—parlor toys that supposedly facilitated contact with the dead—were a national craze. Pearl Curran, though, claimed to have no interest in such nonsense. Thirty years old in 1913, she was pretty, though exceptionally thin, with thick ginger hair piled on her head in a Gibson girl topknot. Childless—and heartbroken over it—she had little but housework and cooking to occupy her days. She sang in the church choir, entertained, played cards and went to the movies with her husband. One acquaintance described her as a classic Victorian hysteric, plagued by phantom ailments—“a prospective visit of the stork, a tumor, consumption, which all failed to materialize.”
Other than her mother, who lived with the Currans, and a teenage stepdaughter, Julie, Pearl’s chief companion at this time was Emily Grant Hutchings, the wife of one of John Curran’s friends. A robust, black-haired devotee of spiritualism, Emily was also a prolific writer whose poetry, stories and art criticism appeared in many publications, including Cosmopolitan, the Atlantic Monthly, McClure’s and the Mirror.
In the fall of 1912, soon after Pearl’s father died, Emily suggested that she and Pearl try to contact him through Emily’s Ouija board. Twice a week, while their husbands played pinochle in the next room, Emily and Pearl sat facing each other on stiff-backed chairs in Pearl’s parlor, the board balanced on their knees and their fingers placed lightly on the heart-shaped planchette. Guided supposedly by supra-normal forces, the pointer spelled out messages by alighting on the letters of the alphabet printed on the board. Though occasionally the board spelled out intelligible words—usually family names—it gave up mostly gibberish. To Pearl it was all “silly chatter,” a kind of fortuneteller’s babble, she recalled in a 1915 interview with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Then on the evening of July 8, 1913, no sooner had Emily and Pearl placed their fingers on the pointer than it raced to the letters M, A, N and Y. Within minutes the women had this message: “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come—Patience Worth my name.” Emily was immediately convinced they’d made contact with a spirit and took control of questioning Patience.
Emily: Where was your home?
Patience: Across the sea.
Emily: In what city or country?
Patience: About me ye would know much. Yesterday is dead. Let thy mind rest as to the past.
Over the next weeks it became clear to Pearl that she, not Hutchings, was the spirit’s medium. She said she was astounded by the pictures and words that played through her mind like a movie as soon as she sat at the Ouija board. Pearl described this realization as “when the bolt fell.” News of the phenomenon traveled quickly through the Currans’ middle-class neighborhood, and they were deluged with requests to witness Pearl communing with Patience. In no time large groups of people were gathering regularly in the Currans’ home. These evenings had the atmosphere of church suppers, with a buffet on the dining table, children running about and a few men smelling up the parlor with cigars. There were no dimmed lights, burning candles, chanting or any other trappings of the occult.
One by one, visitors would be called to sit with Pearl, who would let them question Patience or request a poem on a specific topic. Sometimes, when Patience used a particularly odd word, John Curran would interrupt his note-taking to look it up in an encyclopedia. Invariably an impulse to write would seize Patience, and she would announce that it was time to work on one of her novels or plays. Then the pointer would fly around the board and Pearl would call out words at the rate of 1,500 or so an hour, with “never a second’s hesitation [and] never an alteration,” noted a social worker who attended a Patience Worth evening in 1918.
Though Patience sometimes showed an uncanny knowledge of what was going on in her guests’ lives and thoughts, she refused to predict the future and only occasionally settled burning historical questions. When William Marion Reedy, for example, asked her who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, Patience replied, “The word of the skin-shoon man [the actor] ...be his,” a cryptic answer but one reasonably interpreted as affirming Shakespeare’s authorship.
At first Pearl spelled out every letter with the Ouija board, but as time passed, the mere touch of her hand on the pointer loosed a flood of spoken words. Eventually, she abandoned the board entirely; a feeling of slight pressure in her head would announce Patience’s arrival, and Pearl would begin reciting.
While Pearl recited, she behaved normally, with her eyes open and her senses alert to the faces and noises around her. “Sometimes, she looks over to a guest while writing and asks some question entirely foreign to what she is spelling out; again answers the telephone or inquires what the message was; exchanges a few words of greeting to late visitors as they enter and goes on with the work without a moment’s hesitation,” recalled a visitor. Occasionally, she’d even smoke a cigarette.