Exploring the collections of the Mercantile Library:

St. Louis’ “Psychic Mystery”:
The Story of Patience Worth

By Alyssa Persson, Aubash Collections Access Librarian
“Call her what you will, Patience Worth is creating a mighty stir among men and women of solid thinking capacities, serious-minded folk who seek to dig to the roots of problems. She has put St. Louis definitely upon the mystery map. She has set substantial minds here and elsewhere to thinking more deeply than ever before upon life, death and immortality; upon the things that appertain to the soul- life particularly; upon the unsolved mystery of supposable existence not of this material world.”
- St. Louis Republic writer Robertus Love, October 31st, 1915
Patience Worth made quite a splash in St. Louis during the 1910s. She was a prolific writer whose works included a six-act drama, several novels, and hundreds of poems and parables. In 1918, she was named one of the outstanding authors of the year by the Joint Committee of Literary Arts of New York. She was a national celebrity, captivating audiences across the United States. Patience Worth was also the subject of investigation for philosophers, psychiatrists, neurologists, historians, and psychical researchers – because, according to St. Louisan Pearl Curran, Patience Worth was a spirit conjured through her Ouija board.

On the night of June 22nd, 1913, Pearl Curran and her friend Emily Grant Hutchings sat at the Ouija board for some casual amusement. The Ouija board was born out of the 19th century American fascination with spiritualism, the belief that the living could communicate with the dead, and was originally regarded as an innocent parlor game prior to gaining a more sinister reputation during World War I. The two friends’ board spelled inconsequential things at first, and then this message:

“Oh, why let sorrow steel thy heart?
Thy bosom is but its foster-mother, the world
its cradle and the loving home its grave.”
Robertus Love wrote that Mr. Chapin, the illustrator, drew Patience Worth here according to instructions given by the ghost herself. Collection of the St. Louis Mercantile Library
Robertus Love, a St. Louis Republic columnist, spent substantial time in Pearl Curran’s home following her rise to fame and wrote a full front-page article about Patience Worth published on Halloween Day, 1915. Love described frequent evenings spent at the board following the first conjuring. Two weeks after the initial communication, the women received this 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 by thy hearth. Good friends,
let us be merry. The time for work is past.
Let the tabby drowse and blink her wisdom to the firelog.”

They asked when she lived; from the board came the answer, which was either 1649 or 1694. Mrs. Hutchings asked Patience where her home had been. The answer came: “Across the sea.” “In what city or country?” inquired Mrs. Hutchings.

“About me you would know much. Yesterday is dead. Let thy mind rest as to the past.”
Word spread quickly through the city of St. Louis about the spirit conjured from the Ouija board. Over the following years, hundreds of St. Louisans visited Pearl Curran to place their fingers on the Ouija pointer for a chance to witness Patience Worth through her mediumship. “In the case of Patience Worth it matters not who sits at the board opposite Mrs. Curran,” wrote Love. “About 200 persons in turn have occupied that position, from a child of 4 years to an octogenarian.” Pearl Curran began transcribing what she claimed were Patience Worth’s literary works, writing millions of words and garnering national acclaim. In the 1915 Republic article, Love wrote that the following Tuesday, there was to be a “Patience Worth evening” in the American Annex banquet hall of the Papyrus Club in St. Louis, with about 200 guests. Love related the intellectual curiosity about Patience:
“Psychologists of note, such as Dr. E. H. Lindley of Indiana University, have visited the Curran home to see for themselves the method of taking the communications and study the matter at first hand... it is said that eminent professors at Harvard University have expressed an eager desire to meet Mrs. Curran and become further acquainted with the Patience Worth manifestations. The Currans, however, say that they are going East just for a vacation visit and that they have no desire to be ‘dissected’ at the hands of psychologists, though they have no objection to answering any questions regarding Patience which they may be able to answer.”
Casper Yost, longtime editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, was captivated by Patience. In 1916 he wrote Patience Worth: A Psychic Mystery, which spread news of the specter nationwide. Yost was a major supporter of Pearl Curran for years, publishing Patience’s writings in the Globe-Democrat and even publishing a magazine in partnership with the Currans for a time. Although many “learned men” were eager to expose Pearl Curran as a fraud, none were able to do so. Patience Worth’s writings baffled them, as detailed by Robertus Love:
“… There is nothing in literature with which it may be compared as to style. Patience has a writing style distinctly of her own, and in nearly all of her sayings and her stories and poems she employs it... Patience Worth, whatever she may be, is an intelligence, and one of a high order. She is apt and smart in repartee, loves life and loving, is interested in the present as in the past, and is altogether an entertaining lady-once you get the hang ‘o her. No explanation of Patience Worth is offered here... nobody can explain her – at present writing, at any rate. This, however, may be said: Every person who has been present when these communications come through the mediumship of Mrs. Curran admits that the thing is a most remarkable mystery, and there is no indication of fakery. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Curran, nor, for that matter, any scholar or college professor in St. Louis possesses the acute and intimate knowledge of this simple and antiquated English in which the personality ‘weaves and puts.’”
While no one was ever able to prove Pearl Curran a fraud, unsurprisingly no one was able to prove Patience Worth’s true existence, either. Personally, I believe that Pearl Curran was secretly a talented but stifled writer who saw in Patience a channel to release her hidden literary talents. Until her death in 1937, Pearl Curran maintained that Patience was just as much a mystery to her as she was to everyone else. Curran told Robertus Love, “While I do not understand this at all, I feel that since these communications began to come through me something new and beautiful has come into my life, and I am a happier woman.”

Perhaps Robertus Love had the right idea when he said, “You’ve got to be open-minded, agnostical in a way, if you hope to enjoy and appreciate Patience.” Happy Halloween, everyone!
Two of Patience Worth’s novels are held in the Mercantile Library
Special Collections- The Sorry Tale and Hope Trueblood.

Casper Yost’s novel Patience Worth: A Psychic Mystery is also in the Mercantile’s Special Collections.
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