At the beginning of the 20th century, a woman named Patience Worth made a literary splash with her novels and poems, several of which were anthologized as some of the best of the year. She produced seven books, short stories, plays, and hundreds of other literary works. The curious thing is that Patience Worth was, er, a 17th-century spirit who was being channeled by a St. Louis housewife wielding a Ouija Board. Smithsonian has the whole fascinating tale from the heyday of spiritualism. From Smithsonian:
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....
A long list of psychical sleuths, psychologists and other skeptics tried to debunk Patience and prove that Pearl was a fraud. No one succeeded. Scholars who examined Patience’s work marveled at her deep knowledge of the plants, customs, clothing and cuisine of several historical epochs, stretching back to the ancients, and at her ability to draw on this vast knowledge without hesitation. “Maybe there was some preparation going on during the day, yet that alone cannot account for the material Pearl was producing,” says Daniel Shea, professor emeritus of English at Washington University, who has studied the case and believes it can be explained without citing supernatural forces.
The Patience Worth case remains one of the most tantalizing literary mysteries of the last century, a window onto a vanished era when magic seemed to exist because so many people believed in it. In the decades since Pearl Curran’s death, in 1937, no one has explained how she produced Patience’s writing. Combing through the voluminous archives, however, a modern sensibility starts to see clues and patterns that may not have been apparent at a time when science was just starting to explore the far reaches of the human mind.