Posted by: Ticktock | November 17, 2008

Stumped by the Mystery of Patience Worth

Ever the Student

Teach me. Teach me!
Let me never become so old
That my ears are not pits.

Teach me. Teach me!
Let every man become my teacher,
Let every sorrow speak deeply.
Let every joy inscribe me.

Teach me. Teach me!
For if I stop listening,
I shall stop forever!
Yea, the writing of the ages
Speaks eternity as ever
Listening, ever waiting.

Teach me. Teach me!
Let me ne’er forget that I am a child;
That tomorrow is a secret,
A joyful secret, not yet imparted;
That yesterday was a plaything
Which I loved, but left
Upon a pathway within a shadow.

Teach me. Teach me–
That I am a little child!
Let me forever learning,
Ne’er forever yearning!

It might surprise some skeptics that the poem above was written by a supposed spirit called Patience Worth and transcribed via automatic writing by St. Louis housewife Pearl Curran.  Many poems, such as the one above, were carefully and repeatedly transcribed during a twenty year communication on a Ouija board.  To this date, as far as I know, the mystery of Patience Worth has yet to be definitively explained.

Pearl Curran was said to have had a limited education, dropping out of high school early, but the literature she created in the name of Patience Worth was impressive enough to be anonymously published, to impress the critics, and garner comparisons to Shakespeare and the Bible.  In my opinion, her poetry alone is worth it’s weight in gold, and ought to be taught in English classes. Her works of art, including fictional prose, are simply too good to be forgotten, and too mysterious to be explained.

There were skeptics who witnessed “Patience Worth’s” authorship first hand.  These psychologists and doctors reportedly had casual conversations with Patience, and her replies were filled with obsolete dialects and terms; by this, we can be certain that the words were often (but perhaps not always) being channeled and transcribed spontaneously without editing or careful forethought.  This was in the 1920s, however, and I wouldn’t put it past skeptics of the time to be easily fooled by an impressive show.  It’s possible that Patience Worth’s actual poetry and fiction was authored earlier and memorized, but of course, that fails to explain the casual conversations.

There was even an instance where Patience improvised an alphabetized poem based on a skeptic’s suggestion.  Being an improv actor myself, I can say that such a stunt is surprisingly easy for a quick thinking performer to pull off.  Improv requires the balance between left and right brain; the performer must tap into the intuitive mind and let go of any fears or insecurities.  There’s nothing to say that Pearl Curran wasn’t just an adept improviser and talented author, but the mystery would then lie in the inexplicable olde english and anachronisms from Patience Worth, who, despite being coy about her origins, claimed to be an immigrant from “across the sea” (England) living between the years 1649 and 1694.  Rarely, did Patience Worth betray a single word that came after the seventeenth century, something I find extremely difficult to believe.  The first words assigned to the spirit of Patience Worth were:

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.

My first inclination was that the poetry and fiction attributed to Patience Worth may simply be the actual literature of a previously unknown author of unknown origin, to which Pearl Curran somehow had access.  Many of the coversations that Patience had with skeptics were vague; her replies were confusing and hard to penetrate.  It’s possible that Pearl developed a pattern or code that helped her respond to questions using the archaic vocabulary and grammar.  Such explanations seem to over-reach but are within reason.

There’s no hiding from the fact that the words of Patience are of near perfect Anglo Saxon dialect with few modern terms.  I say “few” modern terms, but the very fact that the author failed to perfectly eliminate modern terms means that the work was written by a modern mind, albeit one that had a tremendous mastery of writing in classic style.

Based on appearances, it doesn’t seem like Pearl would have been smart enough to pull off the impressive poetry of Patience Worth, but appearances can be deceiving.  Who knows what books she absorbed from the local library, or maxims and tricks of the tongue she may have learned from her proximity to the Ozarks?

Many have theorized that Pearl Curran was way more intelligent than she seemed.  Historians have said that she didn’t have many books, that she scored low on exams, and that she had a low self esteem.  The last provides a clue that she may have been repressing her intellect.  Perhaps she was held back by a repressive parent, and only by creating an alter ego could she thrive as an author.  This is the most logical of all the answers.  It’s likely that skeptics of the time failed to uncover the full depth of Pearl Curran’s repressed talent, and that if they looked harder, they would have seen she had a keen, yet repressed, interest in classic literature.

There’s one clue that Pearl was scamming everyone.  In the Patience Worth poem The Deceiver, Pearl seems to admit that she is a fraud.  That said, Pearl/Patience was a gifted writer that has since been forgotten by the world.  It shouldn’t matter that she deceived her peers, Pearl Curran as Patience Worth deserves to be recognized along side the great American poets Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.  The story of Patience Worth, no doubt corrupted by near perfect fraud, does not and should not nullify the appreciation we ought to show for the literature.

Even though there seem to be no answers to the mystery of Patience Worth, people should not default to an extraordinary answer of supernatural explanation.  Sometimes life’s mysteries don’t get solved in quick and easy ways, but that does not mean that we should all go out and buy a ouija board to tune into our past lives.  No, we should instead accept it as a genuine mystery and maybe even admire the cunning of those masterminds who perpetually fooled us all.

Below are Pearl Curran poems that I feel deserve recognition.  I encourage everyone to check them out, and to share them with your friends and to even read them to your children.

Heart of Mine

Let Me Believe in the Instant

My Beauteous Script

The Singer of the Night

The Toad and the Fly

Who Said That Love Was Fire?



  1. Interesting stuff. I had never heard of Pearl Curran before – I’ll have to see what part of the Ozarks she was from, as it may be near where we are living now.

  2. I am glad to see that others appreciate the work of Patience Worth. Thank you for your web page. I totally agree that the poetry and novels of Patience Worth should be taught in English classes. It is every bit as good or better than the work of other writers currently revered. At least she should be included on web pages of American poets. Unfortunately I have not seen that she is included on any of those web sites.

    So far, no explanation of the Patience Worth/ Pearl Curran phenomenon is satisfactory to me. I agree that the poem “The Deceiver” is disturbing but It think one needs to know the context in which it was given before one draws the conclusion that the poem is an attempt by Patience to explain herself. There are several explanations of the phenomenon by people with respectable education and position that claim Patience Worth was really Pearl Curran’s dissociated self. The most assinine one is the Phd. dissertation by Ms.Grandolfi-Wall which uses a short story by Pearl Curran in the Saturday Evening Post to explain away Patience Worth when more learned people could not. Professor Stephen Braude in “Immortal Remains” also makes a feeble attempt to chalk the whole thing up to “Multiple Personality Disorder” or “Dissociation”. Even though I respect his opinions highly, I think his write-off of this phenomenon is poorly thought out.

    I have studied the work of Patience Worth for many years now and I still am amazed at the depth of philosophical thought and beauty of her work. It may not be as good as Shakespeare but it is so much better than many of the other respected American poets. – Amos Oliver Doyle:

  3. The “Deceiver” always struck me as poem about Patience’s characterization or caricaturization of those who take a “worldly” or materialistic view regarding spiritual matters (you are the me the WORLD knows), especially as it relates to Worth herself. Your belief that she is a fraud is a case in point. Thus, the poem continues to be prophetic.

  4. Um, as to her “near perfect English”…

    “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. ”

    And if “The Deceiver” isn’t enough of a confession, what about this?

    “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. “

  5. Well, “Impatience Worthless” (with emphasis on the “worthless”!) What is your point? Your comment is just a copy of a couple of paragraphs in and The Smithsonian Magazine. Don’t you have any thoughts of your own? Diberto’s report of the Rosa Alvero theory is a tired, worn-out idea that can’t be substantiated. It is just one of many opinions about Pearl Curran/Patience Worth. The article, written by skeptics and which you copied, trivializes this case and reveals to any intelligent person who has studied it that whoever wrote the review (as well as those who pass it along) had read few or none of the writings of Patience Worth nor have they researched any of the life of Pearl Curran. This case is not one to just toss aside. Those who study it carefully know that it reveals something more than Pearl Curran faking it!

  6. I’m puzzled as to why some make declarations about the Patience Worth phenomenon on the basis of her inconsistencies of diction and syntax. Were she the spirit of a person who’d been floating around for centuries, would the language with which she communicated to people in the early 1900’s never deviate from the idioms of the 17th Century? Is the spirit world peopled with strict grammarians?

    • I agree with Michelle’s comment. The crux of the Patience Worth case is the language and of course the many different ways that she uses it. Patience stated that she didn’t want to be tied to any one place or time. She said that she picked words from here and there to reflect the flavor of her land, that is, England. As I have become somewhat familiar with a few of the dialects of English shires, I have come to realize how varied and truly different they are. Patience’s language seems to be a mix of many English dialects. Language of 17th century England was very fluid with no strict rules as we would like to think exist today. Of course she was also able to write in modern English as one might find in a Victorian novel. (See Hope Trueblood)

      I also think that the real power and message within the Patience Worth works was her ability to write major works in different language styles, some authentic and perhaps some made up. I have recently reread “The Elizebethan Mask”, an unpublished play by Patience Worth. I am amazed at how different the language is in this play. She writes it in a style reminescent of Shakespeare with rhyming couplets, something she rarely did in her other works. I doubt that any other author of merit has been able to write a volume of work in archaic and modern language to the extent that Patience Worth did.

  7. Michelle,
    I got your email but I have had very bad luck responding to it. I tried 2 times and both responses just disappeared. I tried again tonight and your email message disappeared. Nevertheless, I have very little information about Emily Grant Hutchings. She was still alive in 1956 when Irving Litvag interviewed her when she was about 80 years old. Apparently Emily had no children. I think Emily was everything that Pearl Curran wanted to be.

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