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

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

(Continued from page 4)

Among the Currans’ neighbors and friends in St. Louis, opinion divided along gender lines. Irving Litvag, author of Singer in the Shadows, a 1972 book on the case, interviewed several women who’d witnessed the Patience sessions and found “complete unanimity of opinion among them: They regard the Patience Worth case as the most remarkable activity in which they ever participated; they considered Mrs. Curran to be completely honest; they remember her as an exuberant, witty, ‘cut-up’ type of person; [though] their husbands, to a man, never were convinced of the genuineness of the phenomenon.”

Indeed, some of these men thought Pearl was unbalanced. “I wonder if John H. Curran ever gives a thought to the psychological and pathological aspect of Mrs. Curran’s condition? He better,” William Clark Breckenridge, a St. Louis businessman, wrote to a friend.

Those who disdained spiritualism grasped at any evidence that Pearl was a fraud. A reader of the Mirror, for example, pointed out that Patience Worth was the name of a character in To Have and To Hold, a popular 1900 bodice-ripper by novelist Mary Johnston set in Colonial America. Pearl said that she hadn’t read the novel until after her own Patience Worth appeared.

On the other hand, those who believed that Patience Worth was a spirit struggled to prove it. In 1921 Casper Yost made the journey to Dorsetshire, England, Patience’s alleged birthplace, and tracked down scenes she’d described, including a monastery and a village church. He came back with pictures of some ruins dating from the 17th century but no hard evidence that tied them to a real person, as he had hoped.

By the 1920s, the fame of Patience and Pearl had begun to dim. The literary landscape was being reshaped by the likes of Hemingway and James Joyce, and the flapper was the new feminine ideal. Patience came to seem a throwback to an outworn era of table rappings and séances, of sentimentalism and blind faith in God.

Though the Currans apparently shared some of the proceeds from Yost’s book—enough to finance their adoption of a baby girl in 1916—they remained beset by financial problems. They had made no money from Patience’s novels and, according to John Curran, lost $4,000 (about $51,000 in 2010 dollars) from Patience Worth magazine, an erratically published journal the couple established to promote Patience’s writing. “And in figuring that expense we haven’t counted the cost of entertaining 8,000 persons at our home,” he told a reporter.

Pearl’s situation became desperate in 1922: John Curran died after a long illness at the age of 51, and the couple’s biological daughter, Eileen, was born six months later. Pearl, who’d thought she was infertile, suddenly found herself with two small children and no job. To supplement a $400 monthly allowance given her by Herman Behr, a wealthy fan from New York City, she began traveling around the country giving demonstrations with her gilt-lettered green Ouija board. She appeared before large crowds in public auditoriums and small groups in private homes, sometimes dressed in a flowing white gown, a lace handkerchief in her right hand that she occasionally dabbed to her brow. At one gathering in New York, the actress Ethel Barrymore showed up. In Hollywood, she conjured Patience at the home of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

In 1926, Pearl married Henry H. Rogers, a physician and considerably older widower, but the marriage lasted only a few years. After their divorce, Pearl moved to Los Angeles. At a party, she encountered a businessman named Robert Wyman, to whom she had been briefly engaged as a teenager in Missouri. In 1931 he became her third husband. In California Pearl was the idol of a group of artsy women who maintained the belief that spiritual visions were sources of female power. Though her celebrity had deserted Pearl, Patience never did. Pearl received messages from Patience until a week before her death, from pneumonia, at age 54, on December 3, 1937.

In the years since Pearl Curran’s death, neuroscientists have attempted to explain the abilities of savants, including autistic and brain-injured people who occasionally display astounding skills in mathematics, music and art.

Writing prodigies like Pearl, however, are rare, and rarer still are people of ordinary intelligence who display prodigious feats of memory. Several years ago, researchers at the University of California at Irvine studied Jill Price, a middle-aged one-time secretary who could recall every moment of her life, including the exact dates of myriad news and cultural events. Neurobiologist James L. McGaugh, who determined through an MRI that parts of Price’s brain were larger than normal, refers to her condition as “super autobiographical memory.” McGaugh said he and a co-investigator were preparing a paper on the case for publication later this fall.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus