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A lollipop is but a breeder of pain. --one of Patience Worth's proverbs
Patience Worth was the name of a character in Mary Johnston's 1900 novel set in colonial America, To Have and To Hold. It is also the name given to an alleged spirit channeled by Pearl Lenore Curran (1883–1937). Worth's spirit was set free from her body in 1694, said Curran, and had been searching ever since for an earthly "crannie" (cranium?) to call home. Pearl's crannie must have had a nice aura about it, because Patience stuck around for about 25 years dictating poems, proverbs, and several novels. As far as I know, Curran hasn't been heard from since her death from pneumonia in 1937, but occasionally a second-rate writer will claim to be channeling the words of Patience Worth.
In the early 20th century, spiritualism was in full bloom. The craze started by the Fox sisters in upstate New York a half century earlier was still flourishing when Curran was introduced to the Ouija board in 1912 by Emily Grant Hutchings, a devotee of spiritualism and a prolific writer.* Within a year, Curran was getting messages from Worth. One of the earliest messages reveals the quality and integrity of the source:
Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth my name. Wait, I would speak with thee. If thou shalt live, then so shall I. I make my bread at thy hearth. Good friends, let us be merrie. The time for work is past. Let the tabby drowse and blink her wisdom to the firelog.
Yes, this 17th century ghost really did begin her venture into the 20th century with "many moons ago." Hey, Worth was killed by Indians in Nantucket, and that's how Indians talked in those days. Never mind that there is no good reason for a woman "from across the sea" (England?) to speak in words her killers would use. Curran's curious linguistic style, a mixture of 20th century mid-America and pidgin Shakespeare, was analyzed by a Professor Shelling, a specialist in the Elizabethan period.
The language employed is not that of any historical age or period; but, where it is not the current English of the part of the United States in which Mrs. Curran lives [i.e., St. Louis], it is a distortion born of the superficial acquaintance with poetry and a species of would-be Scottish dialect. (Christopher 129).
Curran, said the professor, also made up a lot of words. Milbourne Christopher speculates that Curran, like several other 19th and 20th century women who claimed to channel spirits, did so not for the fame and fortune but as a socially acceptable way to express herself. Others considered her a fraud, while still others considered her mentally ill. She did have a mental breakdown when she was 13 and she has been described as "a restless homemaker plagued by nervous ailments."* 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."* Her mother also had a nervous breakdown when Pearl was four years old.
Pearl was introduced to spiritualism early in life. She lived briefly in Chicago with an uncle who was the minister of a storefront spiritualist church and, according to one family member, "an arch faker."* Some, of course, think there really was a person named Patience Worth whose spirit really communicated through Pearl Curran. There is another possibility, however, which I will get to later.
Eventually Curran moved from the parlor performing for neighbors and friends to the stage performing and lecturing for money. After her first husband died and she was desperate for money, Curran became a stage act with her Oujia board. Audiences are likely to get a bit restless waiting for the spirit to spell out words one letter at a time, even rapidly (as Curran did), and eventually she got rid of the board. Even without the board, however, it took some time for her to progress from saying letters, to saying whole words, to dictating entire poems or novels.
Like John Edward and others who claim they are "spirit mediums," Curran claimed to get messages directly from the spirit world. Curran, however, didn't claim to get her messages in garbled snippets that could come from any one of several sources, requiring a guessing game as to which spirit was saying what. She was once asked who wrote the plays of Shakespeare. Her reply: "The word of the skin-shoon man be his." What she meant or why anyone would think she should have any knowledge of Shakespeare is a mystery to me.
Curran's spirit guide wrote several volumes of poetry and fiction. There were critics who found her works amazing and wonderful, but she didn't make much money from the enterprise and her works are of little interest today. In her day, though, claims of spirits guiding one's mouth or hands to author poems, stories, or novels were so common that the practice had a name: automatic writing.
Curran's breakthrough into the big time seems to have come through her connection to a religious editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, one of four daily newspapers published in St. Louis in 1915. Casper Yost's series of articles based on sessions with Curran was published by the spiritualist Henry Holt (Patience Worth: A Psychic Mystery, 1916).* Holt became Curran's publisher when she began writing novels claiming they were dictated by Patience Worth. Unfortunately, the novels didn't make her much money and an ill-ventured magazine published to promote Pearl's work called Patience Worth cost the Currans a bundle.*
After her first husband's death, Curran's literary fortune declined. Curiosity about her centers on what some deem a puzzle. She appeared to be an uneducated homebody who had this other person in her that was worldly, literate, and prolific. She claimed the literate person was a ghost in her head. To some she was a psychic medium or at least she was claiming to be one. When she refused to be tested by James Hervey Hyslop, head of the American Society for Psychical Research (ASPR), Hyslop called her a fraud and deluded. Hyslop earned a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University and was a professor of logic and ethics at Columbia University. He also thought that he could detect authentic spirit communication by comparing cross-references from several mediums unknown to each other who were receiving messages from the same spirit. Hyslop seems to have been cut from the same cloth as Gary Schwartz.
Another psychic investigator, however, found Mrs. Curran and her alter ego to be neither fraud nor deluded. Dr. Walter Franklin Prince considered Patience Worth to be a riddle. Prince succeeded Hyslop as president of the ASPR. He, too, had a Ph.D. (from Yale). Prince also had an adopted daughter with multiple personalities and wrote about his curing Doris Fisher of her multiple personality disorder. It was natural that Prince would think Pearl Curran might be a person with plural personalities. He spent several weeks going over the works of Patience Worth. He interviewed Pearl, her stepdaughter, and her friends. He sat in on sessions with Patience. In 1927, he published The Case of Patience Worth. Prince thought she had a “marvelous imagination...gift of poetic expression...singular wisdom and spirituality."* Prince was baffled. He didn't think the works of Patience were coming from the unconscious mind of Pearl. Nor did he think that Pearl was consciously producing Patience and her words. Perhaps because his only acquaintance with people with multiple personalities involved mentally troubled people, Price didn't consider that Pearl could be consciously creating Patience without thinking of herself as being a fraud. She may well have believed, even known, that she was both Pearl and Patience. The idea that a plural personality could be a "normal" person in all other respects was not, and still is not, an idea that many people are willing to accept. But it ought to be considered. Prince concluded that "some cause operating through but not originating in...Mrs. Curran must be acknowledged." Prince's claim tells us more about his ignorance than about the source of Curran's words.
Today, some might call Curran a fantasy-prone personality. Others might diagnose her with bi-polar disorder.
Gioia Diliberto thinks Curran may have given us the key to the puzzle in a short story Curran wrote under her own name and published in 1919 in the Saturday Evening Post:
In that story, “Rosa Alvaro, Entrante,” Mayme, a lonely salesgirl in a Chicago department store, is told by an obviously fraudulent fortuneteller that Mayme has a spirit guide, a fiery young Spanish woman named Rosa Alvaro. Mayme begins slipping in and out of Rosa’s persona and eventually confesses to a friend that she purposefully adopted it to enliven her drab life: “Oh Gwen, I love her! She’s everything I want to be. Didn’t I find her? It ain’t me. It’s what used to be me before the world buried it.”
Daniel Shea, a professor emeritus of English at Washington University, has studied the case. He thinks fraud may have been involved and that Curran may have written "Rosa Alvaro, Entrante" to assuage her guilt.* It doesn't require too much imagination to think that a woman might do more reading and have more knowledge than she's given credit for by others. Nor does it stretch the boundaries of credulity to imagine someone with no status pulling off a clever hoax on many eminent people stuffed with self-importance. The fact that she baffled many eminent men would not surprise anyone familiar with the history of psychical research.
Parapsychological investigator Stephen E. Braude has studied the Curran case and concluded that Pearl Curran was probably a highly gifted child with a talent for writing whose mother forced her into a singing and musical career. Pearl created the alter ego of Patience Worth to maintain personality traits and talents that had been repressed.* Whatever the truth about her motivation, the case of Patience Worth is certainly interesting, but it hardly deserves to be called "one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time."* There were efforts to track down a Patience Worth who lived in England in the 17th century, but aside from a few vague concordances with ancient churches and such, there is no verification that such a person ever lived, came to America, and was killed by Indians.
I think Gioia Diliberto exaggerates when she calls the Patience Worth case "one of the most tantalizing literary mysteries of the last century." It is unlikely that Curran's work as Worth remains out of print only because people suspect she was a fraud. There may have been some who thought her work had high literary merit, but the fact that she was a shooting star whose fame burned out early is a testament to the likelihood that her work was little more than a curiosity. Kudos to her for getting the attention she did, but let's not overestimate her importance. On the other hand, let's not underestimate the stifling effect on talent and personality that pushy parents and arrogant academics and authorities can have. Nor should we underestimate the liberating effect of freethinking and unconventional friends and strangers.
We certainly shouldn't feel smug about what might be seen as the gullibility of an earlier time. Spiritual thirst and a taste for pabulum packaged as wisdom have never been greater than in our day. Witness the phenomenal popularity of Sylvia Browne, Rick Warren, and Rhonda Byrne. Who knows what Pearl Curran might have accomplished had she lived in an era of television, mass media pulp, and the Internet.
Finally, Diliberto writes:
A long list of psychical sleuths, psychologists and other skeptics tried to debunk Patience and prove that Pearl was a fraud. No one succeeded.
This is true only because there is no way to prove a person is lying about channeling a ghost. I could burp and claim that Patience Worth was burping through me and even a modern Houdini couldn't prove I was lying. That is why the psychic medium continues to be one of the safest cons there is.
Pearl Curran (Patience Worth) and the Fantasy-Prone Personality Label by Robert Todd Carroll
Braude, Stephen E. (2003). Immortal Remains. The Evidence of Life after Death. Rowman & Littlefield.
Prince, Walter Franklin (1964). The Case of Patience Worth. University Books, Inc.
An epidemic of ghosts - Mind Hacks "...a team of medical scientists have just published the first large scale epidemiological study on spirit possession and its link to mental and physical illness in post-civil war Mozambique."