In November 1919 the Saturday Evening Post published a short story entitled “Rose Alvaro, Entrante.” It depicts a shy, unsatisfied store clerk named Mayme who desires a drastic life change. “I was sick of myself,” Mayme tells a friend. “I wanted to feel…like a woman that somebody cared about.” So Mayme visits a clairvoyant who summons a helpful Indian spirit guide (“You will be big lady, Laughing Water say!”) who, in turn, puts Mayme in touch with Rose Alvaro, ghost of a Spanish noblewoman. Soon Mayme begins channeling Rose, affecting her archaic speech and footloose lifestyle, seducing a handsome coworker and alarming her friends. Eventually, Mayme’s gal pal confronts her; Mayme admits that Rose was a fake, an alter ego she invented to represent “everything I want to be.”
This story would have passed unnoticed if not for its author, Pearl Curran. A few years earlier, Mrs. Curran achieved a bizarre celebrity as the medium for an author beyond the grave, publishing several novels, a few plays and reams of poetry dictated through an Ouija board. Many believed her, a few bold souls even emulated her; naturally, others dismissed Curran as either perpetrating a hoax or manifesting a personality disorder. Strangely, few contemporaries connected Pearl Curran’s later story with the works of Patience Worth, the Quaker Ghostwriter.
Patience’s career began on July 8, 1913 when Curran and her friend Emily Grant Hutchings sat down to an Ouija board in Hutchings’ St. Louis home. The two had intermittently used it over the past few months, attempting to contact Pearl’s recently deceased father; by Curran’s account, until that night they’d only conjured “silly chatter,” random words and illegible groups of letters they couldn’t decipher. This evening, however, was different, as the board’s planchette began spelling out legible words and phrases. The two women watched their visitor offer a portentous greeting: “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come—Patience Worth my name.”
Eventually, Patience offered a sketch of her background. She claimed to be the daughter of English Quakers, born in 1649 (she later changed it to 1694) and immigrated to Nantucket, only to be killed by Natives shortly afterwards. She described herself as a “goodly dame” with red hair and brown eyes. When the women tried to press her for more detailed information, Patience proved more reticent. “About me ye would know much,” she chided. “Yesterday is dead. Let thy mind rest as to the past.”
Yet Patience proved talkative in her own way, seguing from arcane aphorisms and descriptions of her 17th Century life (claiming she lived in Dorset, England before moving to America) to dictating original stories. First a few verse poems, then wholesale novels and plays. Patience explained she’d been waiting for centuries for the appropriate avatar for her literary ambitions; Pearl described her ghostly inspiration as the moment “when the bolt fell,” redirecting her life towards something productive.
Pearl Lenore Pollard was born in Mound City, Illinois in 1883, to an itinerant father and an unstable mother who suffered a nervous breakdown at age four. Pearl showed a vivid imagination from an early age, writing descriptive letters; a friend recalled she “loved to tell jokes or funny stories about people.” Her mother encouraged her to take singing and music lessons, which Pearl continued until age 13 when she, herself, experienced a breakdown. Not only did her family move constantly as her father shuffled between jobs, she lived periodically with her grandmother in St. Louis, and an uncle in Chicago who headed a spiritualist church. Pearl played piano for her uncle and joined several seances to contact the dead, but claimed “the whole thing was repulsive to me” and left.
Pearl spent several years working at Marshall Field’s in Chicago, hoping to save money for elocution lessons; she’d never given up hope for a musical career. At age 24, now a tall, striking redhead with blue eyes, she met businessman John Curran, a handsome 36 year old widower; the two had a whirlwind courtship and soon married. Moving back to St. Louis, Pearl enjoyed a happy, though childless marriage, abandoning her creative dreams for a modest social life and church activities; occasionally, she also worked as a substitute teacher at a local school. Nonetheless, she retained her adolescent nervousness, suffering from several psychosomatic ailments that led one writer to label her “a classic Victorian hysteric.”
Among her closest friends was Emily Grant Hutchings, the wife of her husband’s business partner. Where Pearl’s creativity languished, Emily found her outlet through writing. She published poetry and short stories in several publications, including The Atlantic and Cosmopolitan. She also dabbled in spiritualism and encouraged Pearl to join her at the Ouija board in 1912. Pearl evidently swallowed her previous repulsion towards conjuring spirits and joined her. In this second heyday of Spiritualism, it seemed a harmless, if extremely popular pastime.
But Pearl Curran found more than mere entertainment. Instead she found her wings as a medium and a writer. While spirit writing had been known since the days of the Fox Sisters, few talkative ghosts offered more than a handful of cryptic comments. Patience, on the other hand, seemed incapable of shutting up. When engaged in conversation she rambled and dispensed impenetrable aphorisms, sounding more like an Elizabethan fortune cookie than a talkative ghost. “Here be a one who hath ’o a ball o’ twine,” she advised one listener, “and be not a satisfied with the ball, but doth to awish that I do awind it out. List thee, brother, at thy poke aneath the stone! Tis well and alike unto me.”
Patience might have remained a curio if not for Casper Yost, editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and William Marion Reedy, literary critic and publisher of Reedy’s Mirror, who discovered the Curran’s seances and announced them to the world. In a series of articles published in 1915, both men assured readers that Patience “is perhaps the most marvelous psychic phenomenon the world has ever known.” Books by Yost (Patience Worth: A Psychic Mystery) and psychic researcher Walter Franklin Prince (The Case of Patience Worth) offered readers a tantalizing glimpse into Patience’s peculiar provenance.
Book deals followed. Her first work, a play called Telka, attracted little notice; but her full-length novels, particularly The Sorry Tale and Hope Trueblood, were widely published and received glowing reviews. The New York Times branded Sorry Tale “a wonderful, a beautiful and a noble book.” Historian Roland Usher was positively ecstatic, proclaiming Sorry Tale “the greatest story penned of the life and times of Christ since the Gospels were finished.” Her poetry achieved even greater acclaim, with Braithwaite listing five of her poems in 1917 among the best published that year.
Interestingly, Hope Trueblood was published in England without mentioning its ghostly provenance. In contrast to the American rhapsodies, British reviewers were kind rather than ecstatic, with critics assuming Patience was a young English writer making her debut; only one guessed the author was American. That, perhaps, was the ultimate praise.
Contemporary praise for Worth’s writing, even allowing for changing literary tastes, seems hyperbolic if not silly. Her verse is often clever and lively, if not especially innovative. Her most famous poem can stand for the rest, infused as it is with religious allusions, aureate language and elaborate metaphor:
Ah God, I have drunk unto the dregs
And flung the cup at Thee!
The dust of crumbled righteousness
Hath dried and soaked unto itself
E’en the drop I spilled to Bacchus
Whilst Thou, all-patient,
Sendest purple vintage for a later harvest.
But her longer fiction (seven novels, along with plays and short stories) comes in an indigestibly orotund style. The Sorry Tale is very much of a piece with ponderous Biblical fiction like Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur and Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe, stuffed with overwrought prose, pretentious similes and interminable scenery descriptions. “The day whined on, and the streets lay tired beneath the trod of men,” reads one passage. “The doves upon the paves panted and spread their wings to droop, and dogs dropped froths from their oped jaws, and asses sweat, and men sweat, and the sun beat, and Jerusalem lay glistened of heats.”
No wonder Colin Wilson likens the book to “second-rate Biblical pastiches.” Hope Trueblood similarly reads like a parody of overheated Victorian romance rather than a literary masterpiece. Professor Shelling, a contemporary scholar enlisted to analyze this novel, called Worth’s style “a distortion born of superficial acquaintance with poetry and a species of would-be Scottish dialect…the borrowing of some dialect words and the clear misuse, misunderstanding and even invention of many others.” Apparently, Patience’s reviewers confused quantity with quality.
Nor are critics’ claims of extraordinary realism convincing. Irving Litvag make the bold assertion that “even a lifetime of reading all available knowledge of the Holy Land…still would not have given [Patience] the information to produce a book with such verisimilitude.” Unanswered is how a 17th Century Quaker of modest means would obtain such rarefied knowledge – or how, if this verisimilitude were truly unattainable, a mere mortal like Litvag could render such a judgment. Nor does it occur to Litvag that a woman with a sharp memory and vivid imagination might conjure such imagery on her own. Obviously, it’s easier to believe a ghost did it.
“The various accounts of Mrs. Curran’s background purporting to show that, as Mrs. Curran, she could not have produced the literary works of Patience Worth are inaccurate,” explains psychologist Leonard Zusne. “As a child, Mrs. Curran was a precocious learner. Her education was good enough to enable her to teach at various public and private schools. She had received extensive tutoring as well as expensive voice and piano training. She played the piano at a church, which happened to be a spiritualist church headed by her uncle, a medium.” All of this taken into account, there’s little reason to think Pearl Curran couldn’t have written Patience’s works herself.
Real or not, Patience became a sensation. And her fame, however strange, appealed to Curran, who called her relationship with the spirit “one of the most beautiful that can be the privilege of a human being to experience.” Soon she began experiencing vivid dreams where Patience came to her, offering life advice and excessively modest prophecies (once predicting that a relative’s gift of pottery would include a cracked piece). Patience also encouraged Pearl to adopt a daughter; the childless Currans happily acquiesced, adopting an infant they christened Patience Wee Worth Curran.
Warming to her celebrity, Curran gave lectures about spiritualism and summoned Patience for celebrities like Ethel Barrymore and Edgar Lee Masters, who came away suitably impressed. When Masters, creator of The Spoon River Anthology, visited Patience, the testy spirit labeled him a “dullard.” Masters forgave Patience the insult, saying afterwards that the spirit “is producing remarkable literature.”
Perhaps inevitably, more distinguished literary spirits jumped on the bandwagon. A Kansas writer, for instance, produced a verse play entitled Hamlet in Heaven, reportedly dictated by Shakespeare himself. William Marion Reedy mocked it as “bastard Elizabethanese” consisting of “awful descents into the banal and the absurd.” His assessment triggered an irate response from the medium, who not only defended his work but advised an ingenious method of proving its veracity. “I urge the invention of machinery…to the intent that communication [with the dead] may be put on a basis that cannot be questioned to his sincerity.” The offended Jayhawk shamed Reedy to “peer in your Mirror and find out what manner of man you really are.”
In 1917 Emily Grant Hutchings, Pearl’s Ouija-mate and an occasional writer herself, presented Reedy with a fresh story satirizing Missouri politics. Reedy praised the work as “a story smacking of the soil, of campaign oratory and even campaign whiskey and printer’s ink.” To his chagrin, Hutchings later admitted that she hadn’t written the story at all; instead, collaborating with another writer, Lola Hays, she’d contacted Mark Twain’s ghost and convinced him to share an unpublished novel.
The result, later titled Jap Herron, received respectable reviews (“it is agreeably readable, whether done by Mark Twain’s spook or mere mortals”). However, Twain’s estate and publisher objected to his spirit breaching their contract, and a lawsuit was threatened; Reedy’s attorney expected the suit to provide “a final ruling on immortality” and even planned to summon Twain to testify, via Ouija board, at the trial. This scheme fell apart when Clara Clemens noted her father vocally disbelieved in the afterlife, and wasn’t likely to return as a ghost. Jap Herron was ultimately published without a credited author, the controversy and poor sales effectively ending Emily Hutchings’ career.
Inevitably, disillusionment with spirit writing set in. Arthur Delroy, a well-known psychic, dismissed Curran as a fraud and compared Patience’s writings to Sunday school blather. Delroy’s words reached the Quaker, who engaged him in a prolonged battle of wits. “Tis fools that smite the lute and set it awhir o’folly song, when sage’s hand do be at loth to touch,” Patience proclaimed testily. Delroy adopted Patience’s own style in response: “Nay, thou puttest me among the nobles. I be not the wise man from the East who wouldst prithee never be the last word, but wouldsy patiently wait, yea, t’ll’st the millionth Patient utterance.” The ghost didn’t deign to respond.
Some writers, of course, merely dismissed Patience as a hoax, or else labeled Curran mentally deranged. Other critiques were more helpful. One writer observed that Patience Worth was the name of a character in Mary Johnston’s 1907 book To Have and To Hold, a romance novel set in colonial America. Patience herself abandoned her bizarre speech patterns in later sessions, addressing her patrons in curiously modern vernacular. Asked why she had bothered with archaic speech patterns, Patience commented it was to protect Curran from accusations of fraud.
The most damaging criticism came, however, from Agnes Repplier, who issued a damning broadside against spirit writers in The Atlantic in August 1918. “Patience Worth, with the ruthless self-concentration of the author,” she wrote, “is too busy dictating novels and plays to waste a thought upon our assaulted civilization.” She further dismissed Worth’s work as “books as silly as they are dull,” before ridiculing the whole trend of spirit writers. “Spirits soothing as syrup, didactic as dominies, prolific and platitudinous, are dictating books for the world’s betterment,” she mocked, “and never a word which can add to our store of knowledge, or stand the dry north light of intellect.”
Though Patience affected nonchalance towards Repplier’s cynicism (“Ye mouth o’er a wench’s gabbin’!” she chided Pearl), the criticism took hold. Patience continued producing verses, some included in a self-published Patience Worth Magazine, but they played to an ever-shrinking audience of devotees. She published “Rose Alvaro” the following year, whose reception surprised even Pearl. “I got word Saturday that it was sold for FIFTEEN HUNDRED DOLLARS! To the GOLDWYN FILM COMPANY,” Curran gushed. “Oh my dears, can you imagine!” In 1920 the resultant film, What Happened to Rosa? was released, starring comedienne Mabel Normand as Pearl’s avatar Mayme.
Yet success proved fleeting: neither Patience, nor Pearl Curran, could sell books, and Mrs. Curran was reduced to offering medium sessions for profit. Her husband John, a skeptical but steadfast supporter of his wife, died in 1922, and Pearl became destitute. “The next three years were lonely, rather despairing ones for Pearl Curran,” Irving Livtag comments. “No longer a celebrity, largely ignored by the public…periodically in ill health, she was often depressed and morose.” Even a new collection of Patience poetry, published in 1923 by Herman Behr, failed to return her to the limelight. Eventually Curran remarried, then divorced, moved to California with her daughter, remarried again and died at Culver City in December 1937, while preparing a new play.
Decades of writers have tried to “solve” the mystery: Patience Worth’s advocates denigrate Pearl’s intelligence by claiming a mere housewife could have never written such luxuriant books; skeptics accuse her of fraud, madness, even a split personality. Neither explanation seems fair to Pearl Curran, however deceitful her persona may seem. After all, many writers adopt a pen name or alter ego without enduring such accusations (although few claim their muse is a literal spirit). Paraphrasing Rose Alvaro, Patience Worth was the woman that Pearl Curran wanted to be; an identity that embodied her dreams and channeled her talents at a remove from Pearl’s unfulfilling life.
Perhaps there’s another reason why Curran, rather than merely inventing an alter ego, embraced the Ouija board. “Spiritualism was a breakthrough for intelligent women who loathed their role as silent partners deemed by society as unfit to speak in public,” Myra McPherson has noted; hence its popularity with early feminists like Victoria Woodhull and Susan B. Anthony, who found spiritualism a way to speak out, attract the attention of powerful men and network with like-minded women. Thus with Pearl, who used her spiritualist persona to support herself and bolster her writings with people who’d otherwise ignore her.
We need not accept the hyperbolic assessments that Patience Worth, Ghostwriter was a literary genius; if Patience, or Pearl Curran, was ultimately a mediocre writer, she was certainly a prolific, hardworking autodidact, with a gift for colorful phrasing (if not the discipline to hone it). Despite her efforts, however, Pearl became indistinguishable from her creation, and ultimately overshadowed by her. Today the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis contains 29 volumes of her writings and correspondence, all credited to Patience Worth.
Sources and Further Reading:
This article draws primarily on Irving Litvag’s Stranger in the Shadows: The Strange Story of Patience Worth (1972). See also Diana Denny, “Written by Pearl Curran…Or Ouija Board?” (Saturday Evening Post website, online here); Gioia Diliberto, “Patience Worth: Author from the Great Beyond” (Smithsonian, September 2010; online here); Parker Higgins, “How Mark Twain’s ghost almost set off the copyright battle of the century (Splinter News, online here); Joe Nickell, “Ghost Author? The Channeling of Patience Worth” (Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2012; online here); Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, “The Strange and Mysterious History of the Ouija Board” (Smithsonian website, online here); and Colin and Damon Wilson, The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved (2000).