It’s unlikely you’ve ever heard of Patience Worth, but for a while in the early part of the twentieth century she was quite the literary star. She wrote poems, short stories and novels which were quite popular and critically acclaimed. She often attended parties where anyone who was anyone showed up to challenge her quick wit by asking her to make up poems or stories on the spot. Although her writings are out of print today, at the time her books sold like hotcakes.
There’s just one thing about Patience Worth and her writings; you see, Patience had been dead for several hundred years when she wrote her novels, stories and poems. Patience Worth is the name of a spirit that dictated her work through a housewife named Pearl Curran, and to this day her writings are one of the most mysterious curiosities of literature.
Pearl Curran was a Chicago housewife in 1912. She had no particular literary background, was not well read, and generally was as average and normal as a person can be. Her husband, John Curran, was also an average man, and neither of them had any particular interest in the supernatural. Then one day in July, Pearl and a couple of her friends tried out a Ouija board.
In the early 1900s, Spiritualism was a sweeping sensation in the United States. Seances were as common as cocktail parties today, and Ouija boards were the new fad. Pearl didn’t particularly want to try one out, but her friend Emily Hutchings convinced her to give it a try. Usually a Ouija session would lead to nothing but some gibberish, but with Pearl, something strange happened. The board began spelling out actual sentences. It became clear that the ladies were being contacted by a spirit that called itself Patience Worth. Patience claimed to be from “across the sea” and had lived somewhere around 1649 to 1694.
Thrilled with their contact, the ladies continued to meet and call up Patience, but it quickly became clear that Pearl was the focus of Patience’s attention, and the only means of contacting the spirit was having Pearl at the board. Soon, Pearl was able to use the board all on her own, spelling out long messages from Patience. This quickly led to Pearl no longer needing the board, and she first dictated what Patience was saying, and eventually began typing or writing it out herself.
It would be easy to dismiss Patience as just a hoax, but there were compelling reasons to believe that it wasn’t Pearl producing the stories and poems. There were differences in language that Pearl had no way of knowing, and descriptions of events she couldn’t have produced. It became apparent that Pearl was a Medium, and through her Patience was able to communicate.
As I said above, she quickly became famous, and her novels were critically acclaimed. Some critics even said that they were at a loss for how she was able to produce such vivid descriptions of ancient events. At parties, famous poets challenged Patience (through Pearl) to make up poems about random topics, which she did without hesitation and in a way that the poets found impossible. She needed no time or preparation to quickly provide a well written poem on any topic. One poet challenged her to produce two poems, at the same time, on two topics. She did so, alternating lines, producing two poems for the challenge, though afterward Pearl said her head felt quite fatigued.
Of course, there were plenty of skeptics, but unlike most “Mediums” of the early twentieth century, Pearl never attempted to cash in on her fame. She did submit the stories and poems for publication, but she didn’t make a lot of money from them, and she did not “perform” for money, only in friendly parties. She published a number of novels, including The Sorry Tale, Telka, and Hope Trueblood. Her novels spanned different time periods and even different languages, with Telka being written in a middle English dialect.
Patience and Pearl also didn’t always get along. Patience was critical of Pearl, and on a number of occasions referred to her host in quite condescending words. Pearl also didn’t allow Patience to intrude upon her private life, and kept the spirit’s communication contained to periods of her choosing. The relationship between the two eventually became more like a partnership, and Pearl would continue to act as Patience’s Medium for many years.
Late in 1937, Pearl told a friend that “Patience has just shown me the end of the road and you will have to carry on as best you can.” It seemed that Pearl was not long for this world, and indeed two months later, she died from pneumonia.
One of the most fascinating bits of this story is that no one has even proven that the spirit didn’t exist and didn’t dictate the stories through Pearl Curran. One theory holds that Patience was a separate personality, and that Pearl had multiple personality disorder, but that’s unlikely as she exhibited none of the other symptoms. Additionally, there wasn’t the usual trauma that goes along with MPD. Several highly successful skeptics tried to debunk Pearl’s connection to the spirit of Patience Worth, but none ever succeeded and more than a few gave up and took her for real proof.
From time to time after Pearl’s death, people have claimed to have been contacted by Patience Worth, but there’s been little proof that the spirit has returned to continue her work. Perhaps she’s too busy now, sitting with her old friend and talking of days gone by.