A Nickell’s Worth

Wizard of OzTwo resources often used by pseudo-skeptics to debunk the Patience Worth case are Joe Nickell and Joseph Jastrow. I’ll get to Joe Jastrow later but now let’s start with Joe Nickell who describes himself as “the modern Sherlock Holmes: the “real-life Scully: (from X-files).”  He says that, “I believe that mysteries should actually be investigated….”  He considers himself
the “world’s only full-time professional paranormal investigator – – – the ‘Investigative Files’ writer for Skeptical Inquirer science magazine who travels around the world investigating strange mysteries at the very fringes of science.” He claims a Ph.D. in English, focusing on literary investigations and folklore, and author of two dozen books. Apparently he is an extraordinary individual with many careers which I quote from his web site to include; paranormal investigator, private investigator for a world-famous detective agency, historical document examiner, poet, fiction writer, editor, literary critic, forensic linguist, handwriting expert, photographer, stage magician, blackjack dealer, riverboat manager, and sign painter among 1,049 other ‘personas’ which he lists.  (You’ve gotta see this!)

Now that you understand Nickell’s self-described attributes, let’s consider his article about Patience Worth titled “Ghost Author? The Channeling of ‘Patience Worth’” In the article he states that he ‘…was able to study Pearl Curran’s writings at the Missouri Historical Society Archives . . . .”   “For five hours I pored over the Pearl Curran/’Patience Worth’ papers —numerous boxed documents and twenty-nine bound volumes of typescripts.”

(Just so you know, the definition of ‘pored” is “to read or study carefully” or to meditate deeply or to ponder.)

I have ‘looked at’ the Patience Worth records in the Missouri Historical Society’s archives for a few hours and one would have to indeed have a brilliant mind to pore over the numerous boxed documents and twenty-nine bound volumes of typescripts in five hours.  After this five-hour study of the records, Nickell doesn’t always provide accurate information. He says that Patience Worth was slain by Indians at the age of forty-five.  Now, I have looked and looked and cannot find any evidence that Patience Worth was forty-five years old when she was killed. It would be interesting to know how Nickell found out that Patience Worth was 45 years old when she was killed.  The record doesn’t state how old she was when she died.

He quotes, “One Elizabethan scholar, a Professor Shelling” for whom no other identifiers are provided. He uses as his reference for Shelling,  magician Milbourne ‘Christopher 1970, 129’ but the exact quote as used by Nickell was quoted long before in a 1935 book Wish and Wisdom by Joseph Jastrow ( whom I will discuss later) and attributed to Professor Schelling. Jastrow informs us that, “On such matters an expert opinion is decisive. Professor Schelling, eminent Elizabethan scholar, to whom I submitted the “case” kindly sends me this definitive verdict:. . . ” Jastrow also does not explain Professor Schelling’s academic credentials nor is a bibliography included in Jastrow’s  book.

Nickell states that Patience Worth “. . . . could speak through Curran’s voice. . . .” Well, that ‘s somewhat misleading. Pearl Curran stated that she heard Patience’s voice in her head and repeated what she said for transcription. Pearl Curran could often carry on conversations with other people at the same time she received communications from Patience Worth. I have found no evidence that Patience Worth used Pearl Curran’s voice box as is implied by Nickell’s statement.

Another statement by Nickell: “Moreover, as is now well known, the productions of the Ouija board are actually due to ‘the involuntary muscular actions of the players’. Apparently this opinion was in Isaac Fuld’s application for a patent on the Ouija Board. I don’t know if that is true or not.  Maybe in some cases it is.  (See here and here.)

In his book Singer in the Shadows, Irving Litvag quotes Pearl Curran from an article in Patience Worth’s Magazine in which Mrs. Curran discusses the role played by the ouija board in the Patience Worth affair.  In the article, Mrs. Curran declared that the only value of the board for her had been to serve as a “thought dispeller,” enabling her “to put my own thoughts away for the moment.  As soon as this happens.  .  .  the dictation of Patience Worth begins.  .  .  .  It is I who moves the board, in response to the subconscious or conscious impulse.  There is no mystery in the movement;  the mystery, if any, is in the source of the impulse.”  The Ouija board, she said bluntly, “is just a piece of dead wood, nothing more.”

Continuing,  Joe Nickell found Pearl Curran ‘fantasy prone’, that she “exhibited several traits consistent with having a fantasy prone personality.” Such persons “enjoy a rich fantasy life, which may include experiencing a previous lifetime.” Just what are those ‘traits’ that Pearl Curran exhibited Mr. Nickell?  The following is a quote from Pearl Curran concerning her ‘fantasy life.’

“I never heard ‘voices’ before 1913, and that of Patience Worth developed slowly.  Never saw an apparition.  When about eight I used to poke among the coals in the kitchen stove thinking I might see something interesting, but I never did.  That is about the most vivid fancy I remember.  No, I never had any ‘invisible companions.’  I sometimes talked to myself when I had no one to play with. I was never of a melancholy bent, and being introspective was not my style.  It is odd, but I never gave names to my dolls or pets.  Philosophical questions never entered my mind.  On the whole, my childhood was happy.”

Now how did Nickell know Pearl Curran had a rich fantasy life? He quotes Wilson and Barber who determined that people with a fantasy life “. . . . become totally absorbed in the character and tend to lose awareness of their true identity” Well, where is the evidence that Pearl Curran ever lost awarness of her true identity? As studied by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince and many family members and friends Pearl Curran was as normal as any other woman of the time. She never lost awareness of her true identity. The identity of Pearl Curran was never displaced by the identity of Patience Worth.

It may be that at times Pearl Curran was somewhat distracted as she channeled Patience Worth but she never displayed typical signs of dissociation or multiple personality as defined in psychiatric diagnostic manuals. Nickell says that Curran’s “. . . . dissociated mode is clearly similar to what today would be recognized as “self-hypnosis”  (big difference, Mr. Nickell) —a state she entered and left easily. “”. . . .she probably would have been an excellent subject had she agreed to undergo hypnosis.” How does Nickell know this? Apparently he doesn’t really know what dissociation is! I have practiced self-hypnosis and am a licensed Hypnotist,  and hypnotic states are not that easy to enter or leave unless a post hypnotic suggestion has been given by a hypnotist. Pearl Curran was not self-hypnotized when she transmitted writing from Patience Worth. She is reported to have chatted freely with other sitters around the Ouija Board, smoked, acknowledged people entering and leaving the room and stopping at times to attend to some other business. These are not clinical signs of a dissociated personality or a self-hypnotized person.

Here are Pearl Curran’s own words about her state of mind when she communicates with Patience Worth.

“Very early I began to notice that even while I was carefully spelling a poem, I was keenly conscious, even with an added keenness, of everything about me and of anything regarding my person at the same time.  I could feel my nose itch and scratch it, note an air of criticism on the face of one of the company, and the worshipful expression of another, think what I was going to have for midnight lunch after they had gone, and write right along on the poem, understanding it as it came, and wondering at its beauty and strength, calling the letters, then the words, pausing to let Mr. Curran catch up with the writing.”

Nickell references Pearl Curran’s short autobiographical sketch saying that it revealed her to have been an imaginative child who played the piano at her uncle’s Spiritualist church. Well he is spanning a lot of years in that sentence. Pearl’s short autobiography shows her to be a normal little girl in Texas and Missouri, somewhat alone and feeling neglected but she also said that she was “. . . . spoiled by too much grown-up association.” She was mischievous and disinterested in learning in school and subsequently dropped out at about 14 years of age. She did play the piano as a grown woman at her uncle’s church in Chicago but she didn’t like what was going on there and because of her surroundings she returned home after a little over a month to the small towns in Missouri. I don’t know what Nickell is implying by that statement but he neglects to truly represent Pearl Curran’s account of her girlhood life in Texas and Missouri and her life as a young woman in Chicago.

Here is what Pearl Curran says about her contacts with spiritualism.

“My early contacts with Spiritualism?  Well, you know of that uncle who was a medium.  He was supposed to foretell things—-I don’t know if true.  I never knew him until I was thirteen.  When I was in Chicago, at eighteen, I played the piano in his church about a month and a half.  I didn’t like the crowd that came, and the whole thing was repulsive to me.  Since then I have had no contacts apart from Patience Worth.  I never in my life attended any meetings or séances save those I have referred to.  I had read, before 1913, no books on psychical research or Spiritualism whatever.  My first was ‘Cosmic Relations,’ which Mr. Holt sent me after he printed the first Patience Worth book.  Nor did the Ouija board experiments interest me until Patience Worth came.”

Nickell cites Charles E. Cory’s critique of the Patience Worth phenomenon and I refer the reader to Walter Franklin Prince’s excellent rebuttal to Cory’s comments in The Case of Patience Worth available from Internet bookstores.

I must say that I enjoyed Professor Cory’s comments about the Patience Worth case, acknowledging that in the third paragraph of his article he quickly reveals his bias.  In discussing the case he states at the onset “.  .  .  it will make for clearness if the reader will understand that Patience Worth, the writer, is a subconscious personality of Mrs. John Curran, of St. Louis.”   Well, I don’t think he could make his bias any clearer than that!   Unfortunately he provides no real evidence of that fact, simply wishing that hypnosis could have been used on Mrs. Curran for it surely would have discovered the subconscious personality.

Dr. Prince’s response was 3 times the length of Cory’s remarks and I found it to have a  defensive tone. ( Not unexpected, considering Dr. Prince’s predisposition to regard Patience Worth as a distinct entity separate from Pearl Curran.)  Dr. Prince ends his rebuttal by commenting that Cory’s “.  .  .   article keeps adding tributes to the literature and to the mentality which creates it.  ‘No trace of abnormal tendencies,’ ‘abundance of fine and wholesome humor,’  ‘her general sanity, her mental poise,’  ‘the dimensions of her mind, its moral security, and dramatic power.’  We  must share in the professor’s wonder that such a mind should be ‘in error regarding its own origin and history.’  We are not declaring that it is not in such error, {that Patience Worth did not recognize that she was a subconscious personality of Pearl Curran}  but its existence in the shape of a delusion cherished by a mind admitted to be otherwise sane, powerful, brilliant and morally superior, is an astounding anomaly.”  Prince continues by stating that,   ” I, for one, am grateful that he has made an attempt to furnish an explanation in the terms of abnormal psychology  If I have criticized his argument, it was not from any captious or inimical spirit, but in that of calm academic discussion.”

The following is a quote from Cory’s article which admittedly I cherry-picked, but it is an example of the tone of Cory’s comments which I thought was not at all abrasive.

“A thing  that gives special interest to the literature  {of Patience Worth} is that most of it reflects the life and manners of other times, and this it does with an intimacy that astonishes the reader.  They presuppose upon the part of the author, a wealth of information, a richness in contact that is normally secured only through a prolonged study.  “The Sorry Tale” is a large and intricately woven novel dealing with Jewish and Roman life at the beginning of our era, involving an enormous mass of knowledge of the life and customs of that time.  It is a powerful drama, full of subtle humor and seasoned wisdom.  “Telka,” an unpublished poem of seventy thousand words, has an English background.  The language used is unlike that of her other works.  It is an archaic English of different periods, and various localities.  It is difficult to understand how it could be used as a medium of poetry by a modern writer.  And the source of this language is a part of the general problem.  “Hope Trueblood” has an English setting of the early mid-nineteenth century.  “The Merry Tale” goes back to the days of the cross-bow.  It is a humorous tale of rough tavern life.  The language is not modern, and the general reader would find it difficult.  Only a reading of the million and a half words that have been written can give an adequate idea of the great reservoir of knowledge that is accessible to this secondary personality.  A careful survey of Mrs. Curran’s reading from childhood leaves the problem of its source largely unsolved.”


Nickell’s ‘smoking gun” is that Pearl Curran proofed the writings of Patience Worth, implying that she changed them as she saw fit. Emily Grant Hutchings may have done this (See this) but Pearl Curran did not. Pearl Curran edited them, parsed them and corrected typographical errors prior to publishing. Please see my post here regarding editorial proofing by Pearl Curran and others of the writing of Patience Worth.

I think the most galling part of Nickell’s article about Patience Worth is his unsupported conclusion of a simpleton which I quote:

“The weight of the evidence—-the lack of historical record for ‘Patience Worth’,  the fantasy proneness of Curran (consistent with producing an imaginary ‘other self’), the writings’ questionable language, and the evidence of the editing and revision process—-indicates that Patience was merely a persona of Curran’s. . . . . The century-old case can now be closed. It is about time.”

The all-powerful all-knowing wonderful Wizard of Oz has made his decision and closed this century-old case.  It’s ironic, isn’t it that this evaluation of the Patience Worth Case is from an individual who claims at least 1,049 personas himself. If anyone should know about dissociation and multiple personalities, Joe Nickell should!

9 thoughts on “A Nickell’s Worth

  1. Guy Lyon Playfair

    If the Wizard of Oz really is the ultimate expert on practically everything, can he explain where Pearl Curran did all her research e.g. into 1st century Jerusalem and 18/19th century rural England, or how her vocabulary includes several words only to be found in the complete Oxford Eng. Dictionary (some which a Prof. of English I consulted had never come across and didn’t know what they meant,) or how P. Worth managed to write such magnificent poetry and prose whereas Curran’s efforts such as Rosa Alvaro are toe-curlingly awful? Nickell, as far as I know, made no attempt to explain that. It seems to me undeniable that PW had access to information to which PC did not have access. He doesn’t explain that either except by his usual empty generalisations and sweeping unsourced statements.

  2. Amos Oliver Doyle

    Guy Lyon:
    I do not know Joe Nickell but since my interest is in Patience Worth I feel a sense of duty if you will to defend her and in my opinion Nickell gives Pearl Curran and Patience Worth short shrift. His credentials include a M.A. and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky but he apparently has no academic training in biology, physics, or psychology, about which he routinely expounds as an expert. After fleeing to Canada as a draft dodger from the Viet Nam war he worked as a magician and taught technical writing for several years before undertaking paranormal investigations in 1969, claiming that he has worked as a full-time paranormal investigator for 40 years. He picks the most flamboyant “paranormal” events to investigate, e.g., weeping statues, images of Jesus in burnt toast, Loch Ness monsters, UFOs and anything else that will give him good media exposure for his books. I think he talks a good show about his belief in the “real natural world” and “that’s what science is about” but science is moving on to quantum physics, mind-body relationships brain-as-receiver investigations and consciousness separate from the brain leaving Joe Nickell far behind in a materialistic belief system of 50 years ago.

    Nickell does not provide any evidence to explain anything about the Patience Worth/Pearl Curran case. As in his other investigations his comments are broad generalizations, guesses and his opinions. His five hours at the Missouri Historical Society “poring” over boxes and 29 bound volumes of Patience Worth materials are barely enough time to skim through the 640 pages of Patience Worth’s novelThe Sorry Tale . I hope, as an academic in English he eventually gets around to reading it. and the other novels, plays and poems of Patience Worth. It might help if he read all of Dr. Prince’s study of the case also. After he has done this due diligence, then, I might be interested in his opinions of the case. Until then, he’s just another pseudo-skeptic debunker giving opinions about something about which he knows very little.

  3. Christine

    Hi! I found this blog while reading Michael Prescott’s. Sorry to be a little late but wanted to add that back when I was a skeptic, I became disillusioned with Nickell when he wrote that Bernardette of Lourdes had decanted her claim that the Virgin Mary had said “I am the Immaculate Conception” at Lourdes. Well, even though I was a skeptic, I was a lifelong Catholic and I knew that was not true! Yes, the Church officials had pressured her to recant ht she stuck to her guns and insisted that’s what the Lady said. And that’s the statement that’s on all the religious medals from Lourdes today. After reading his stupid statement I lost respect for him.

  4. Amos Oliver Doyle

    Hi Christine,
    I am glad you found this site about Patience Worth. Joe Nickell has made a career out of debunking claims of the paranormal. I wouldn’t want to deny him a way to make a living. Those who are knowledgeable about the many evidential paranormal cases over the past 150 years will just smile and move on. – AOD

  5. Steve Weinstein

    Joe Nickell has been proven wrong many times in his career, sometimes even by his fellow skeptics! First, his work attacking the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin has never been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. When asked if he even bothered to submit it to such, Nickell didn’t answer. Needless to say, his anti-Shroud work is not accepted by scientists. He once accused the late John Demjanjuk of Ohio of being a notorious concentration camp guard nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible.” Israel’s High Court found Demjanjuk innocent of the charge. Skeptic Martin Kottmeyer has debunked Nickell’s own work on flying saucers.


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