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Sunday, June 6, 2010


Spiritualism Image

SMITHSONIAN.COM, By Gioia Diliberto, Photographs by Douglas Smith, Smithsonian magazine, September 2010

Pearl Curran began channeling messages from Patience

Worth in 1913 by means of a Ouija board.

One cool autumn evening in 1919, a crowd of prominent New Yorkers jammed the parlor of an East Side town house to meet a writing prodigy named Patience Worth. A prolific charmer who was known for her flashy verbal stunts and quick wit, Patience dictated two original poems-about Russia and the Red Cross-in rapid succession, followed by a lyrical tribute to an editor friend. Though she seemed to compose the works on the spot, her words flowed with the quality of messages punched out by teletype. Poet Edgar Lee Masters was among the astonished guests. "There is no doubt...she is producing remarkable literature," the author of Spoon River Anthology told a reporter, though "how she does it I cannot say." Nor could he say how Patience looked, though she was thought to be young and pretty, with wavy red hair and large brown eyes. No one, however, actually saw her. She wasn't real. She was an ambitious, hard-working spirit.

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Speaking through a Ouija board operated by Pearl Lenore Curran, a St. Louis housewife of limited education, Patience Worth was nothing short of a national phenomenon in the early years of the 20th century. Though her works are virtually forgotten today, the prestigious Braithwaite anthology listed five of her poems among the nation's best published in 1917, and the New York Times hailed her first novel as a "feat of literary composition." Her output was stunning. In addition to seven books, she produced voluminous poetry, short stories, plays and reams of sparkling conversation-nearly four million words between 1913 and 1937. Some evenings she worked on a novel, a poem and a play simultaneously, alternating her dictation from one to another without missing a beat. "What is extraordinary about this case is the fluidity, versatility, virtuosity and literary quality of Patience's writings, which are unprecedented in the history of automatic writing by mediums," says Stephen Braude, a professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a past president of the American Parapsychological Association, who has written widely on paranormal phenomena.

Almost overnight, Patience transformed Pearl Curran from a restless homemaker plagued by nervous ailments into a busy celebrity who traveled the country giving performances starring Patience. Night after night Pearl, a tall, blue-eyed woman in a fashionable dress, would sit with her Ouija board while her husband, John, recorded Patience's utterances in shorthand. Those who witnessed the performances, some of them leading scholars, feminists, politicians and writers, believed they'd seen a miracle. "I still confess myself completely baffled by the experience," Otto Heller, dean of the Graduate School at Washington University in St. Louis, recalled years later.

Through Pearl, Patience claimed to be an unmarried Englishwoman who had emigrated to Nantucket Island in the late 1600s and been killed in an Indian raid. For three centuries, she said, she'd searched for an earthly "crannie" (as in "cranium") to help her fulfill a burning literary ambition. She'd found it at last in Pearl


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