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Living With Patience

Posted Feb 23 2009 10:13pm

It's still not certain how " Patience Worth" came into Pearl Curran's life.

Born Pearl Lenore Pollard in 1883, her childhood seemed normal enough. By all accounts, she was extremely sensitive about her appearance and wished that she were more attractive. While not a good student (who eventually dropped out of high school), she had a passion for singing. Pearl's parents arranged for voice lessons and she eventually moved to Chicago to continue her voice training. To support herself, she worked in a music company and taught music herself.Whatever dreams Pearl had for a career as a singer or actress ended when she married John Howard Curran at the age of 24 and settled down to be a housewife in St. Louis, Missouri. While John wasn't wealthy, he made enough for Pearl to have a comfortable life, a maid to do the housework, and a fair sized home. The first seven years of marriage seemed happy enough.

Except...

Spiritualism was tremendously popular during the early years of the twentieth century with countless occult believers across most English speaking countries. Mediums like Eusapia Palladino and Helene Smith regularly conducted seances for the rich and not-so-rich alike and news of "spooky" happenings definitely sold newspapers. While Houdini's anti-spiritualism crusade helped deflate spiritualist claims, there was still enough interest for ouija boards to be a common item in many homes.

Which brings us to Pearl Curran having a quiet tea with her mother and a family friend at her home in 1913. Pearl was reluctant about using the ouija board that the friend had brought to her home but, after some initial success with messages from "Pat-C", the three of them decided to keep trying. On July 8 of that year, they received the following message: "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."

The "entity" in question identified herself as Patience Worth who had lived in one of the American Pearlcurran[1] colonies between 1649 and 1694. Pearl seemed to be the main target for the messagesand she stopped using the board when she realized that the sentences were "forming" in her mind at the same time that they were being spelled out. While she would hire a secretary to keep track of Patience's messages, Pearl later just wrote them out herself.

According to Patience, she was born "across the sea" (later identified as Dorsetshire in England) and made an Atlantic crossing in a three-masted schooner to live in one of the American colonies. The details of Patience's life (and her violent death by natives) tended to be sketchy with no real details that could be independently verified. Despite initial skepticism, Pearl (and Patience) were able to gain a considerable following. During the next 25 years, "Patience Worth" would dictate an estimated 400,000 words including 5,000 poems, a play, various short stories and four novels.

The controversy over Pearl Curran and her writing quickly polarized into two camps. On one side, the skeptics picked up on the various inconsistencies of her story. Not only was there no evidence that Patience Worth had ever existed but at least one of the novels was set in Victorian England,long after Patience "lived". On the other side, Pearl's supporters stressed her limited education making it unlikely that she could have written everything on her own.

One researcher in particular who took an interest in Pearl's case was Walter Franklin Prince (who had already made a name for himself through the Doris Fischer multiple personality case). He first began studying Pearl Curran in 1926 and, after a thorough investigation, published The Case of Patience Worth in 1927. Prince described the case as representing "an unexpected display of literary genius, ability to carry on complex mental operations, together with apparent divination of other minds". While he was ambivalent about whether Pearl Curran was actually "channeling" Patience, Prince wrote an article that was published in the 1926 issue of Scientific American titled The Riddle of Patience Worth. In the article, he specifically asked anyone with information that could related to the case to come forward. Nobody took him up on the offer.

Whatever reservations John Curran had about his wife's link to a long-dead women, he would keep careful records of the sessions until his death in 1922. Afterward, Pearl supported herself and her family through lecturing and financial help from friends but the sessions went on. She received her final communication from Patience in November, 1937, a little more than a month before Pearl's death from pneumonia (which Patience reportedly predicted). While later mediums would claim to receive messages from Patience over the years (Pearl didn't seem inclined to make contact herself), nobody would ever match the quality of the original writing.

Although Patience Worth is still considered to be a genuine example of spirit writing by true believers, skeptics tend to regard the case as being an example of dissociation (if not an outright hoax). Although automatic writing has long been recognized as a clinical tool by Freudian psychoanalysis, its value has been hotly disputed by other clinicians. Research into automatic writing tends to be limited although the phenomenon has been linked to hypnosis and suggestibility. There have been more recent examples of literary works being produced through automatic writing but the case of Pearl Lenore Curran is still the most well-known of its kind.

In the meantime, ouija boards continue to be sold (Parker Brothers still owns the trademark) but they're not as common as they used to be. Fledgling writers hoping to get published would probably be better off with a good writing class.

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