Gerald N. M. Tyrrell

G. N. M. Tyrrell

Educated at Haileybury and London University. In 1923 he decided to devote himself entirely to Psychical Research. Wrote several highly acclaimed works. Joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1908 and became President in 1945.

The Case of Patience Worth

An Outstanding Product of Automatic Writing

 - G. N. M. Tyrrell -

          IT SEEMS that, if a signal is to be sent from the subliminal self to consciousness, it is probably easier for it to utilise the motor rather than the sensory machinery of the organism. One such motor form of signalling is provided by automatic writing. It is extraordinary how much subliminal activity this simple device can reveal. To obtain automatic writing, the subject holds a pencil lightly on a piece of paper, withdraws conscious control from the hand, and awaits results. A planchette or a ouija board may be used instead of a pencil: it is a clumsier device, but has the advantage that two or more persons can operate it at once. Nothing may happen: or the pencil may make meaningless scrawls and scribbles: or it may begin to write intelligible words. Even then the writing may not contain anything very interesting. Sometimes it appears to act as a vent for psychologically repressed material. Occasionally, however, the writing is of a striking character and may even exceed in quality anything that the conscious mind is capable of. The writing then deserves to be called inspirational.

On p. 36 above, it was suggested that genius consists of genuine inspiration, clothed in a superlative form of expression. I now suggest that the best cases of automatic writing consist of inspiration without the superlative expression; for the part played by the conscious mind is lacking. It is impossible to give examples here of the various products of automatic writing; but two cases of outstanding interest will be quoted. Both contain inspirational material - that is material which the consciousness of the automatist could not have provided.

In the first case, the writing was produced by an American lady, Mrs. John H. Curran of St. Louis Missouri. Besides attracting considerable attention in America at the time, the case was closely observed throughout by a skilled and competent observer, Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, well known for his work as Research Officer of the Boston Society for Psychic Research. He wrote an exhaustive volume entitled The Case of Patience Worth, which was published by the above-named society in 1927.

Mrs. Curran was born of British parents at Mound City, Illinois, in 1883; and, though a normally intelligent girl, she received only a desultory education and left school at the age of fourteen. At the age of thirty-one, she had never left the Middle Western States and had never seen the sea. As an example of her somewhat limited general knowledge, the fact is recorded that she was under the impression that Henry VIII had his head cut off! She was, therefore, not a specialist in history. She was uninterested in spiritualism, her desire being to become a singer: but one day a friend persuaded her to place her fingers on an ouija board. The communications produced by the board were dull, and Mrs. Curran was bored. Then, quite suddenly, on the 8th July 1913, communications appeared from a personality calling herself "Patience Worth." These communications were couched in an "archaic and very distinctive and pungent English style, utterly different from the colloquial American of the Middle West." Patience was a strongly marked character with a caustic tongue and an emphatic will of her own and bore no discernible resemblance to Mrs. Curran. In answer to questions, she admitted (she did not seem to be interested in talking about herself) that she had, either in 1649 or 1694, lived on a Dorsetshire farm in England, had crossed to America and had there been murdered by Indians. She proceeded to give, through the ouija board (later supplemented by spoken words) an enormous literary output, largely consisting of fiction, estimated at something like three million words. It included The Sorry Tale, a novel of the time of Christ; Telka, a tale of the Middle Ages; Hope Trueblood, a nineteenth-century story; The Pot upon the Wheel, and a large amount of poetry (mostly blank verse), impromptu proverbs, prayers, short compositions and conversation. An interesting feature of these works is that they were produced in markedly different types of dialect, but with a tendency towards the archaic. Here are samples of three of them.

From The Sorry Tale. "And his beard hung low upon his breast, and he spake unto the Rome's men: 'The peace of Jehovah be upon you!' And they spat upon his fruits and made loud words, saying: 'Behold, Jerusalem hath been beset of locusts and desert fleas! And Jerusalem's men fill upon this!' And they laughed and went them unto the Temple's steps and stood upon their wet and cried out of the king born of asses and cast stones up unto the Temple's doors. And behold from without the market's spaces swept Jews, and beneath beards gleamed steels, and blades cut the air. And the Rome's men bared their blades and the airs rocked with cries of mock prayers from Rome's lips."

From Telka. "'T'were the God that tireth o' good 'pon earth and fashioneth out a man.'

Friar: 'Aye maid, and fearing lest the good be not 'null, put more and a-fashioned maid.'

Telka: 'Aye, and the devil did laugh, for 'twere the save o' him for fashioning o' hell. Care, Friar, lest ye scorch."

From Hope Trueblood. "'Why does your worthless mother leave you free in night's hour to visit Christian homes? Your feet are upon the ground. Where are your better shoes?"

'I haven't none, thanks. She has promised them at Maying.'"

This seemed to send Miss Patricia into a storm, for she rocked and shrieked and beat her bosom, crying out that the tongues of the village were lashes and that no Christian might dwell among them, stopping only to shout: 'Take her away! Take her away!"'

Each style is maintained consistently throughout its own romance, the archaic dialect in the medieval tale Telka being admittedly artificial. While it smacked of old English it was not an English dialect that has ever been spoken. Patience herself said of it: "Yea, yet look ye into the words o'me, Ye shall find whits o' this and that ta'en from here and there - yet foundationed upon the salt which flavours it o' my ain land." This seems to describe exactly what it was.

Mr. Caspar S. Yost. editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, in a book entitled, Patience Worth: a Psychic Mystery, undertook an analysis of the language in Telka. He found that about 90 per cent of the words are Anglo-Saxon, 10 per cent Old French, with an occasional Scandinavian word, and rarely one of direct Celtic or Latin origin. No word, he says, is used which came into use later than the middle of the seventeenth century. The basis, or "flavour" is seventeenth-century English; but one must go back to the time of Wyclif to get this preponderance of Anglo-Saxon words. It is certain that the language of Telka was never a spoken dialect. The feat of writing different stories in these different dialects without ever confusing them is no mean one.

From the subjective point of view, it is interesting to note that, so alien is this forceful and sharp-tongued Patience Worth from Mrs. Curran, that the latter has actually been educated by her. "Six years ago," says Mrs. Curran, "I could not have understood the literature of Patience Worth had it been shown to me." It would not have interested her. "The sensation of the presence of Patience Worth is," she says, "one of the most beautiful that it can be the privilege of the human being to experience." Through it she said that she had been "educated to a deeper spiritual understanding and appreciation than I might have acquired by any study I can conceive of." One seems to catch here a faint reflection of mystical experience on a much lower plane. As the writing developed, illustrative pictorial visions accompanied the script. "When the stories come, the scenes become panoramic with the characters moving and acting their parts, even speaking in converse. The picture is not confined to the point narrated, but takes in everything else within the circle of vision at the time. For instance, if two people are seen talking on the corner of the street, I see, not only them, but the neighbouring part of the street, with the buildings, stones, dogs, people a all, just as they would be in a real scene. (Or are the scenes actual reproductions?) If the people talk a foreign language, as in The Sorry Tale, I hear the talk, but over and above is the voice of Patience either interpreting giving me the part she wishes to use as story."(1) "When I became curious to ascertain, for instance, what sort of fruit a market-man was selling, or the smell of some flow or the feel of some texture which was foreign to my experience, this tiny figure of myself would boldly take part in the play, quite naturally perhaps, walking to the bin-side of a market-man and taking up the fruit and tasting it, or smelling the flower within a garden, or feeling the cloth, or in any natural way attending to the problem in hand. And the experience was immediately my property as though it had been an actual experience; for it was a real to me as any personal experience, becoming physically mine, recorded by my sight, taste and smell as other experiences. Thus I have become familiar with many flowers of strange places which I never saw, but know when I see them again in pictures. I have shuddered at obnoxious odours, or have been quite exalted by the beauty of some object, or filled with joy at beholding some flow which I had never seen before. It is like travelling in new and unknown regions..."(2)

(1) "The Case of Patience Worth", p. 394-5

(2) Ibid. pp.394-5.

The major problems presented by Mrs. Curran's automatism are these. 1) Where did the knowledge shown in the writings come from? 2) Was the literary skill manifested beyond the competence of the normal Mrs. Curran? 3) Who, or what, was Patience Worth?

1) Dealing with the question of knowledge, we have in The Sorry Tale a story, with a historical background, which is avowedly fiction. Since it is fiction, the question of historical accuracy does not strictly arise; but the story shows a great amount of knowledge of the circumstances of the period, while the local colour and details of the setting, besides being extremely vivid, seem to be extraordinarily true to fact. It is all drawn with a sure touch, and was reproduced at high speed without any hesitancy. The story is built upon a striking conception which makes one of the thieves on the cross, a son of the Emperor Tiberius by a reek slave-girl. Cast aside by Rome, she bears her son near Bethlehem at the time of Jesus' birth - a spirit of hate representing the sins of ancient humanity, which Christ, the spirit of love, is to expiate, and, in the end, to drive from world. By means of this conception, Rome, the incarnation of wrong, is made a living actor in the Christ story. The chapter describing the crucifixion - a chapter of 5,000 words which Mr. Yost says was dictated in a single evening, is a composition of appalling force and vividness, and interpretation upon a high and sincere plane. I, for one, own myself converted by this story from a mood of languid curiosity about an odd 'psychic' phenomenon to a state of lively interest in the future published work of the powerful writer who, whether in or out of the flesh, goes by the name and speaks with the voice of 'Patience Worth.'"(3)

(3) Ibid. p. 67.

With regard to the knowledge shown in The Sorry Tale published by Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1917), Mr. Caspar Yost, who analysed these writings, wrote as follows: "As to Rome, it presents the characters of Augustus and Tiberius with fidelity, though it makes that of Tiberius accord with the records of Tacitus and Suetonius rather than with the views of modern historians. It shows an understanding of the relations between Augustus and Tiberius, domestic as well as political. Knowledge of the broad sweep of the Roman Empire and the extent of its commerce, the social relations and customs of Rome, the slavery system, the luxury of the Imperial Court, garb and weapons of the soldiers, the contests of the Arena, games and many other details of Roman government and life, is indicated in the allusions of the story... An acquaintance with the political relations of Rome to the Jews and with the form of Roman government in Palestine is shown. The situation of the Herodian dynasty is evidently understood and the time and the circumstances known. The character of Herod is revealed in a few lines that indicate information derived from Josephus or some unknown source. The situation of the Jews under the Roman Procurators, the contempt of the Romans for the religious exclusiveness of the Jews and of the Roman soldiers for the Jewish people, the hatred of the Jews for the Roman breaking out occasionally in sedition, the life of the Jews in the home, in the market, in the villages and fields, their religious observances and regulations, and the relation the Temple to their faith, their Messianic hopes, the sectarian divisions, their costumes and customs, the geography and topography of Palestine, the topography in particular of Jerusalem, the architecture of the Holy City, its walls, its palaces, its market-places, its pools, all of these and more seem to be intimately familiar to the writer of this story."(4) Similarly, in Telka, knowledge is shown of medieval England.

(4) Ibid. pp. 383-8.

It has been suggested that Mrs. Curran secretly crammed all this knowledge in libraries, or overheard experts talking, about the historical periods. But her life from childhood is known, and there is no plausibility in these suggestions. Besides, it is extremely difficult for even the best novelists to write accurately about countries with which they are not familiar. General Lew Wallace said in his biography that it took him seven years to write Ben Hur and that, "research and investigation consumed most of the appropriated time." It seems utterly unplausible to suppose that the knowledge shown in these automatic productions was ever acquired by the normal consciousness of Mrs. Curran.

There is, then, the question of dialect. Mrs. Curran knew and spoke only colloquial American. Whence did he acquire these dialects with their old English basis? Critics suggested that she had picked them up from the Bible, from a glossary of Shakespeare, or from visiting the Ozarks, a region of the United States where a few Old English words survive. But the futility of such explanations is obvious, since, for one thing, none of these sources could have provided the material. The only reasonable conclusion is that Mrs. Curran's conscious mind was innocent both of the knowledge appearing in her automatic writings and of the verbal clothing in which that knowledge was expressed.

2) What of the literary merit of the writings? This is not easy to assess. Dr. Prince is enthusiastic and uses the word "genius" to describe it. That there is considerable literary merit in the writings can scarcely be denied. The following is one trivial example of quality. Patience Worth, apparently amusing herself by imitating the metre of Hiawatha, throws off the following verse:

"Silent standing, head uplifted, 
Yet unconquered thou art waiting;
Thou whose loins shine like the copper 
Run of oils and naked gleaming; 
Listening through the ages rolling
For the calling of a comrade."

Dr. F. C. S. Schiller, in a review of Dr. Prince's book, wrote that "not only Dr. Prince but other good judges have not hesitated to use the word 'genius' in describing it. I am not sure that I should like to go so far; but what writer need be ashamed of bits of proverbial philosophy like: 'Beat the hound and lose the hare'; 'It taketh a wise man to be a good fool'; 'A basting but toughens an old goose'; 'Nimble words are not nimble wits'; 'Wisdom patches the seat of learning' and 'Give me not wisdom enough to understand the universe but folly enough to tolerate it.'"

My own suggestion is that there is not here the greatness of genius but that there is a fount of inspiration which might have provided the material for a work of genius had it been expressed through the conscious mind of, say, a Coleridge, instead of finding its expression through the mind of Mrs. Curran.

Two observations of F. W. H. Myers are here worth quoting, one which remarks on the streak of "otherness" which works of inspiration possess; the other pointing out the family resemblance which runs through automatic writings. The first is: "Thus, on the one hand, when in presence of one of the great verbal achievements of the race - say the Agamenmon of AEschylus - it is hard to resist the obscure impression that some form of intelligence other than supraliminal reason or conscious selection has been at work. The result less resembles the perfection of rational choice among known data than the imperfect presentation of some scheme based on perception - which we cannot entirely follow." In the second, he says: "The 'messages' of a number of automatists, taken at random, will be sure to resemble each other much more closely than do the supraliminal writing of the same persons. Quite apart from their general correspondence in ideas - which belongs to another branch of our subject - there is among the automatic writings of quite independent automatists a remarkable correspondence of literary style. There is a certain quality which reminds one of a translation, or of the compositions of a person writing in a language which he is not accustomed to talk."(5)

(5) "Human Personality", Vol. i., pp. 98 and 100.

3) Was Patience Worth a Dorsetshire country maid of the seventeenth century, speaking through Mrs. Curran; or was she a secondary personality of Mrs. Curran's?

Our chief knowledge of secondary personalities is obtained from the study of cases of advanced hysteria. One relevant feature of these is that the alternating phases are complementary to one another, being in the nature of "split" portions of the total personality. There is not much resemblance between secondary personalities of this kind and Patience Worth. An important fact to remember about Mrs. Curran's automatism is that she is consciously present in propria persona during the whole of it. (We shall come across this important feature in another case.) Patience Worth does not supplant the normal Mrs. Curran, nor does she seem to be an abstraction from her. There is, indeed, some mental dissociation; that is, Mrs. Curran's normal consciousness is thrust a little to one side during the automatic writing; but "to a casual observer, no change is noted." "One most peculiar thing about this work," says Mrs. Curran, "is that while I am writing there seems to be no definite place where my consciousness ceases, and that of Patience comes in. 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."(6) If Patience Worth is in some sense a secondary personality, she is, it would appear, an additional creation rather than a fragment of the normal Mrs. Curran. That such creations within a personality may occur is, for all we know, a possibility; but I do not think they should be confused with the cases of secondary and multiple personality occurring in hysteria, which seems to be quite a different thing. If secondary personalities of the type of Patience Worth are possible, they would afford an alternative to the view that Patience Worth is a discarnate entity; but, as we shall see later, they involve astonishingly complicated assumptions about the nature of the human being. They form an alternative to the discarnate theory, but scarcely a less marvellous alternative.

(6) "The Case of Patience Worth", p. 398.

In the final paragraph of his review quoted above, Dr. Schiller says: "Personally, I am quite willing to subscribe to Dr. Prince's conclusion that, either our concept of what we call the subconscious must be radically altered, so as to include potencies of which we hitherto have had no knowledge, or else some cause operating through but not originating in the subconsciousness of Mrs. Curran must be acknowledged." The general impression of the case on my mind is to deepen the conviction that orthodox psychology and orthodox philosophy are both very far from having plumbed the depths of the soul, and that it is unreasonable to require an open-minded man to endorse their prejudices."(7)

(7) Proceedings S.P.R., Vol. xxxvi, p. 576.

Abyssus humanae conscientiae. The case of Patience Worth illustrates the extraordinary range and capacity of these subliminal powers. It shows how the human personality begins to tower as soon as we get behind normal consciousness. It sketches in the first few lines of the perspective which lies before psychical research and psychology. It shows how wise it is to take the measure of this perspective before attempting to standardise methods of experiment, and, incidentally, how incompetent is the experimental technique described in Chapters 12, 13, 14 and 15 to do more than scratch the surface.

Source: "The Personality of Man. New Facts and their Significance" by G. N. M. Tyrrell (Letchworth: Penguin Books, 1946).


Other articles by G. N. M. Tyrrell

• Alternatives to Discarnate Theory
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 1
• Attitude to Psychical Research. Part 2
• What is Psychical Research?
• What is Science?
• The Significance of the Whole
• The Subliminal Self and the Unconscious
• Psychical Research and Religion
• Is there Anything Besides Fraud in the Physical Sιance Room?
• Mrs Willet: Communications Ostensibly Proceeding from the Dead
• What is Science? The Opposition Between Science and Rationalism
• Discarnate Agency: More Evidence on the Discarnate Problem
• Trance Personalities
• Sense-Imagery
• Modus Operandi of the Mediumistic Trance
• The Boundary of the World of Sense
• The Movement of Modern Spiritualism

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