Literature from Another World

The Amazing Gifts of Patience Worth

The Los Angeles Times called her 1918 book, Hope Trueblood, a “masterpiece.” The Chicago Mail said that the reader “will wonder at the sheer beauty of the story’s thought and diction,” calling the author a “master word builder.” The New York Tribune referred to it as “a work approximating absolute genius.” Lady’s Pictorial, of London, said that the book “will stand as a landmark of fiction by a new writer, who will take a prominent place among great writers.”

Over a period of some 24 years, from 1913 to 1937, Patience Worth, the author of Hope Trueblood, would produce approximately four million words, including seven books, some short stories, several plays, thousands of poems, and countless epigrams and aphorisms. She would be acclaimed a literary genius—her works compared with Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Spenser. She was called a wit, a poet, a dramatist, and a philosopher.

It was 100 years ago, on July 6, 1913, that Patience Worth first announced herself to three St. Louis, Missouri, women—Pearl Curran, Emily Hutchings, and Mary Pollard, who were operating a Ouija board as their husbands played pinochle in another room. “Many moons ago I lived,” the board spelled out. “Again I come, Patience Worth my name.” The women had been dabbling with the occult instrument for nearly nine months, receiving a few words here and there, but there was very little that was meaningful until Patience Worth began communicating.

The three women pressed for a more complete identity, but Patience did not want to talk about herself. Rather, she wanted to provide wisdom. When Pollard jokingly commented about Patience’s reluctance to tell more of herself, Patience responded: “Wilt thou but stay thy tung! On rock-ribbed shores beat wisdom’s waves. Why speak for me? My tung was loosed when thine was yet to be.” And when Pollard said something to the effect that Patience was unfriendly, Patience replied: “Too much sweet may spoil the shortbread.”

Pollard commented that the world is crying for proofs of immortality, to which Patience replied: “To prove a fact, needst thou a book of words, when e’en the sparrow’s chirp telleth thee more? A tale unfolded by the Bishop’s drudge may hold the meat for thousands, while dust and web are strong on his Eminence. The road to higher plains leadeth not along the steeple. Drop ye a coin and expect the gods to smile. Chant ye a creed and wordy prayer, reeking with juice queezed from thy smug fat store of self-love, expecting favor from the God who but enjoys the show…”

At some point, however, Patience hinted that she was born in England, saying she came from “across the sea,” and on another occasion offering, “England be the stem upon which I bloomed.” She further said that she migrated to America as an adult and was killed by American Indians. She gave her years in the Earth life as 1649 to 1694.

It was not long after that first communication in 1913 that it became clear that Pearl Curran was the medium. Called by Patience Worth her “harp,” Curran was, at the time Patience started communicating, a 31-year-old housewife who, following a nervous breakdown, had dropped out of school at age 13. Inspired by her mother’s love of music, she became a piano and voice teacher until, at age 24, she married John Curran, a businessman 12 years her senior.

Until the arrival of Patience Worth, Pearl Curran had no real interest in mediumship. In fact, Mrs. Hutchings and Mrs. Pollard had to persuade her to continue with their Ouija board experiments when, before Patience announced herself, Curran seemed bored with the whole thing and wanted to do something else to pass the time. However, once her gift was recognized, she gradually moved from the Ouija board to automatic writing, and then to clairvoyantly seeing the letters in her “mind’s eye.” In November 1919, she began to see whole words. In one test of her ability by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, investigating for the American Society for Psychical Research, Curran (or Patience) dictated a poem while she was writing a letter to a friend. In another test, she dictated four different stories, going from one to the other, the breaks between the stories fitting so closely that one character in one story seemed to reply to the character in another story.

In the October 1, 1915, issue of Reedy’s Mirror, a highly regarded literary journal, William Marion Reedy told the world of his “flirtation” with Patience Worth. He explained that he had had many sittings with Mrs. Curran and that he had absolutely no question as to the integrity of the parties involved. He further noted that Curran did not always understand his questions or the responses by Patience Worth. He called the spiritual content of Patience’s poetry “an archaic Wordsworthianism, with a somewhat of Emersonism.” He described Patience as piquant in the extreme, witty and aphoristic in a homely way, and saucy but never rude. “She will not answer personal questions about herself or tell you the usual stock things of so many spirit communications,” he wrote, “about lost jack-knives in the distant past, or when your wealthy grandmother is going to die… None of that stuff goes with Patience… She is ready with repartee and she says things that probe the character of her questioners.”

Reedy rejected the idea that Patience Worth was a spirit, stating that he simply could not believe it possible for the dead to talk to the living. He subscribed to the generally accepted theory that Patience Worth was a secondary personality surfacing from Mrs. Curran’s subconscious, though, like others, he had no idea how all that information got into her subconscious.

Patience’s most celebrated work, The Sorry Tale, a 644-page, 325,000-word novel about the last days of Jesus, was released in June of 1917. As journalist Casper Yost, who was present when much of the book was dictated, one letter at a time, explained, the story was begun without any previous knowledge on the part of Pearl Curran of the time and conditions of Palestine beyond what is revealed in the New Testament. Yet, the story goes far beyond what might be gleaned from the New Testament. “In one evening, 5,000 words were dictated, covering the account of the crucifixion,” Yost reported.

In its review of the book, The National wondered how the mysterious storyteller became familiar with the scent and sound and color and innumerable properties of Oriental marketplaces and wildernesses, of Roman palaces, and halls of justice. The New York Globe stated that it exceeded Ben Hur and Quo Vadis as “a quaint realistic narrative.” The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio) opined that no other book gives one so clear a view of customs, manners, and character of the peoples of the time and place.

Professor Roland Greene Usher, dean of history at Washington University, called The Sorry Tale “the greatest story of Christ penned since the Gospels were finished.” He pointed out that the book was written in seventeenth-century English with no anachronisms. It was noted by Prince that Pearl Curran was not raised in a religious family, and although confirmed in the Episcopal Church, she claimed that she had never read the Bible through and through.

Curran’s limited education and travel were totally inconsistent with theories of conscious fraud or subconscious memories. English scholars struggled with some of the archaic Anglo-Saxon language. In one of her novels, Patience dictated, “I wot he fetcheth in daub-smeared smock.” Even in the early 1900s, the word “fetch” was rarely used, but when used it meant to “go and get” someone or something. Patience used it as synonymous with “came” or “cometh,” which philologists confirmed as the word’s original meaning.

W. T. Allison, professor of English literature at the University of Manitoba, observed that Patience Worth dictated words found only in Milton’s time and some of them had no meaning until researched in dialectic dictionaries and old books. Allison, who closely observed Curran, reported that in one evening, 15 poems were produced in an hour and 15 minutes, an average of five minutes for each poem. “All were poured out with a speed that Tennyson or Browning could never have hoped to equal, and some of the 15 lyrics are so good that either of those great poets might be proud to have written them,” Allison offered. He went on to say that Patience Worth “must be regarded as the outstanding phenomenon of our age, and, I cannot help thinking, of all time.”

But not all of her writing was archaic. She sometimes communicated in more modern English. When a philologist asked Patience how and why she used the language of so many different periods, she responded: “I do plod a twist of a path and it hath run from then till now.” When asked to explain how she could dictate responses without a pause, she replied: “Ye see, man setteth up his cup and fillet it, but I be as the stream.” One researcher asked Patience if she prepared the material in advance before passing it through Mrs. Curran. “Think ye that a goodish wench bakes a bannock without a dreamin’ o’ its brownin’ and plumpin’?” she curtly replied.

Prince observed that the writing became less archaic as time went on. “But if she chooses a dialect,

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let me call it, for a particular work,” he explained, “that dialect is consistently maintained to the end, however long the work may be; and no matter what form of speech her purpose or her mood suggests, it is poured out with unvarying ease and sureness. Often she has dictated parts of two books of widely different dialects and conversed freely in a third in a single hour, without the slightest confusion. Her knowledge of the English of all times and the extent of her vocabulary is equally amazing. Without burdening her works with wholly obsolete words she often gives to common words meanings that reach back into Saxon times and were obsolete in such senses long before the seventeenth century.”

Numerous questions were put to Patience by various people, including investigators, to which Patience responded without hesitation. When asked if the spirits of our friends are around us, Patience answered, “Yea, yea, the Here lappeth thy lands even as the young waves lap the shore.” When asked if we should make efforts to communicate, the answer came, “It shall be that the heavens shall give up unto the earth that that shall ope their blinded eyes more, more, more. ‘Tis well; thou shouldst call.” Asked if there is a concerted movement on her plane to communicate with Earth, Patience responded, “Ne’er, ne’er, shalt heaven ope to earth. The seed ahead be but seed.”

Patience Worth continued to dictate until Thanksgiving Day, 1937, when Pearl Curran caught a cold. Pneumonia developed, and she died nine days later. During nearly a quarter of a century of dictation, Patience Worth was investigated by numerous scholars and scientists. Many of them leaned toward the subconscious theory, but none was able to explain how the information got into Mrs. Curran’s subconscious, other than suggesting she must have spent a lot of time at the library. Prince summed it up this way: “Either our concept of what we call the subconscious must be radically altered, so as to include potencies of which we hitherto have had no knowledge, or else some cause operating through but not originating in the subconsciousness of Mrs. Curran must be acknowledged.”

No records could be found of a Patience Worth from seventeenth century England, but incomplete census records revealed at least two women named Patience Worth living in New England during the seventeenth century. There was no way to confirm that Curran’s Patience Worth was one of them. The name Patience Worth did turn up as a minor character, that of a maid, in a 1900 novel, To Have and to Hold, by Mary Johnston and, although Pearl Curran declared that she had never heard of the book, it was theorized that she had read the book and forgot about it, while storing the name away in her subconscious. However, if Curran’s “secondary personality” adopted the name from the novel, it still doesn’t explain how all the archaic speech, intelligence, creativity, wisdom, wit, and knowledge got into her subconscious. Moreover, Prince mentioned that both “Patience” and “Worth” were fairly common names in seventeenth century England and in early Massachusetts.

Amos Oliver Doyle, who manages a website about Patience Worth (PatienceWorth.com) and is possibly the foremost living authority on her, feels that few people today are able to fully appreciate her writing. “As someone who is interested in writing, I don’t believe that I have seen an equal to the creative intellect of Patience Worth,” Doyle offers, adding that in this day of computers, iPhones, surround sound and 10-second TV blurbs, few people are able to settle down to absorb the writings of Patience Worth. In other words, people today don’t have the “patience” required to dwell on the “worth” of her words and appreciate them.

Now, one hundred years after Patience Worth announced herself, science seems no closer to understanding her than it did then. Nor does science appear to care. But we do have Patience’s answer to William Marion Reedy, when he asked her if she and Mrs. Curran were the same person—“She be but she and I be me.” And there is absolutely nothing to suggest that Patience Worth was a liar.

When asked by one sitter if all that she says is truth, Patience replied: “This be not the pratin’ o’ thy handmaid. I say me naught, of my brothers. The thing that I utter is truth. Take the stuff of the weavin’ of these and smite it. If its metal ringeth true, then is it truth. Or if it crumbles into naught by the quirt of thy wit, then ‘tis folly.”

By Michael Tymn