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Joy Lanzendorfer
Joy Lanzendorfer's work has been in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Smithsonian, Tin House, The Guardian, NPR, Poetry Foundation, and many others.

Ghost Writer: The Story of Patience Worth, the Posthumous Author

Original Parker Brothers Ouija Board elements from Dave Winer/Flickr CC, Illustration by Katie Kosma

Joy Lanzendorfer | Longreads | June 2018 | 18 minutes (4,948 words)

One day in 1913, a housewife named Pearl Curran sat down with her friend Emily Grant Hutchings at a Ouija board. Curran’s father had died the year before, and Hutchings was hoping to contact him. While they’d had some success with earlier sessions, Curran had grown tired of the game and had to be coaxed to play. This time, a message came over the board. It said: “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come — Patience Worth my name.”

This moment was the start of a national phenomenon that would turn Curran into a celebrity. Patience Worth, the ghost who’d contacted them, said she was a Puritan who immigrated to America in the late 1600s. Through Curran, she would dictate an astounding 4 million words between 1913 and 1937, including six novels, two poetry collections, several plays, and volumes of witty repartee.

The work attracted national headlines, serious reviews, and a movie deal. Patience Worth’s poetry was published in the esteemed Braithwaite’s anthologies alongside writers like Edna St. Vincent Millay. In 1918, she was named an outstanding author by the Joint Committee of Literary Arts of New York. Her novel, The Sorry Tale, was a bestseller with four printings. The New York Times said her poetry was a “high level of literary quality” with “flashes of genius.” Harper’s Magazine said that the “writings attributed to Patience Worth are exceptional.” The New Republic added: “That she is sensitive, witty, keenly metaphorical in her poetry and finely graphic in her drama, no one can deny.”

Literary Digest summed up the critical interest by writing: “It is difficult not to take Patience Worth seriously.” Read more…