The Mystery of Patience Worth
Written by John Davis
Where did Patience Worth Come From?
One of the greatest mysteries is with us every day. Trying to understand our own mind is virtually like exploring darkest Africa in the 19th Century. We’ve all read the books or seen movies about strange mental cases. Who can forget British neurosurgeon Dr. Oliver Sachs, who wrote such popular scientific studies as Hallucinations and The Island of the Colorblind, to name but two. Remember the movie Awakenings? But consider a case little known, yet still discussed over one hundred years after it was front page news. Where lies the answer, in science, in spiritual understandings, or perhaps something else? I speak of Patience Worth.
In St. Louis, Missouri, at the turn of the last century lived a middle class homemaker named Pearl Curran. She received a basic education, but was never identified as particularly gifted. She was not from wealth, but had been identified with particular skills in singing, and her parents sent her to Chicago for voice training. Upon her marriage, she settled back in her home city, and raised a family. It was in the course of playing with a Ouija board one evening that a phenomenon started which is still debated to this day.
Pearl began to channel the thoughts of a 17th Century woman named Patience Worth. Her communications were through the board, and were prolific. Patience spoke in a curious dialect of English, and was believed to be from the English countryside, although she never said where with any precision. In time she began to speak in poetry, in prose, and to tell complete stories. Curran’s husband began to write these down, he being able to take shorthand. In time, every day brought a torrent of words. The words were communicated in a literary style that was not only substantive but actually literary. T.S. Elliot came to visit, along with several other noteworthy authors, and proclaimed the writings first rate.
Soon, this being America, the Currans began to invite others to come free of charge and listen, indeed to be astonished. Volumes of prose became books, and the books were published. Patient’s efforts became selected for national poetry awards and collections. Between 1913 and 1937 some four million words were passed along through Pearl. After a while Pearl no longer used the board, but could pass the stories verbally while doing household chores, fixing dinner, or taking care of her children.
Of course, this was also the era of spiritualism, and Patience Worth was quite in line with those who wished to believe her a visitor from beyond. Likewise, this was also the day of debunkers, such as Harry Houdini, who after a career in magic became a famous pursuer of frauds. He and others relentlessly exposed those who used seances to dupe believing people of money. Yet Patience was a different case, a different case indeed.
Patience’s stories were of a dialect not directly identifiable in any English district. Many of her words were from a long lost spoken English however. Some prose, however, seemed from a time well past the 17th century. Attempts to find such a woman in English records, or in North America to which she claimed to have immigrated, proved futile. Yet, despite all the efforts of those who admired, and those who questioned Pearl and her disembodied associate Patience, nothing could be proven either way. She seemed neither fraud nor wholly true Most who saw the volumes of words spewed forth in sensible, rational texts left in wonder.
Pearl Curran’s family never profited from this phenomenon. Indeed, she used to prepare dinner for guests who came to see, and when the dinners reached the thousands, she demurred. Only later, after her husband died, did she travel and tell her story to a broader audience for some consideration.
Enter modern science. It is currently believed that Pearl had a particular mental talent for conveying scenes she described as literally visible to her, but coming from Patience. Was there fraud? Now there is only speculation, but it is conjectured in a magnificent Smithsonian article that Pearl’s experiences were not unlike some great authors. She literally became her subject, as some writers maintain.
Yet, what training, what skills did she formally have? How was memory a part of all this? Indeed where did the language come from? Mystery is our reason for visiting Mysterious Readings. Whether Patience came from beyond, or from Pearl’s own imagination, or somewhere in between, will still be discussed among scholars, scientists, and us for years to come.
~Written by MW Team Writer: John Davis
John William Davis is a retired US Army counterintelligence officer and linguist. As a linguist, Mr. Davis learned five languages, the better to serve in his counterintelligence jobs during some 14 years overseas. He served in West Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands during the Cold War. There he was active in investigations directed against the Communist espionage services of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. His mission was also to investigate terrorists such as the Red Army Faction in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Combatant Communist Cells (in Belgium) among a host of others.
His work during the Cold War and the bitter aftermath led him to write Rainy Street Stories, ‘Reflections on Secret Wars, Terrorism, and Espionage’. He wanted to talk about not only the events themselves, but also the moral and human aspects of the secret world as well.
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