(Investigator 122, 2008 September)

Ouija is made up of two words – the French Oui, and the German Ja, both meaning yes. The Ouija board is a device upon which are lettered the alphabet, the numbers 1 10, and the words yes, no, and goodnight. It is popular at seances for receiving communications from the spirits of the departed.

Usually about forty five centimetres by sixty centimetres in size, the board comes with a planchette, or miniature table, on which the operator (a medium or sitter) lightly places their hand. The medium's hand is then allegedly guided by a spirit from letter to letter spelling out a message. Sometimes the planchette is dispensed with and a pointer or finger used instead.

Some sensational results have been claimed, possibly the most famous being that of Mrs John Howard Curran of St. Louis, who, using this method in 1913, was contacted by a spirit calling herself Patience Worth.

Patience Worth introduced herself as a young Puritan girl who had been brought to New England from her native Dorsetshire in 1649, and had been slain by Indians. Initially her dictation was laboriously taken down from the Ouija board by Mrs Curran letter by letter, but this method was discarded when she started to write automatically. The spirit displayed a literary ability far beyond her years and that of Mrs Curran who had received little formal education.

Mrs Curran (or Patience) became one of the century's most prolific authors – novels, short stories and poems. Among them was The Sorry Tale, a narrative of the life of Christ, which ran into six hundred and forty pages, much of which was written at the rate of five thousand words at a single sitting. She also wrote Telka, a tale of medieval England set in blank verse, and Hope Trueblood, published under the name of Patience Worth, which received excellent reviews.

In 1924 Dr Walter Franklin Pierce, a distinguished pioneer in psychology, published the results of a very thorough study of Mrs Curran in a book, The Case of Patience Worth, in which he says, "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 subconscious of Mrs Curran, must be acknowledged."

F.W.H. Myers, a former President of the Society for Psychical Research, refers to this kind of mental mediumship as "motor automatisms", an action which goes outside the automatist's conscious mind. These unconscious muscle movements are examples of a phenomenon due to what psychologists call a disassociative state, in which consciousness is somehow cut off from some aspects of the individuals cognitive, motor, or sensory functions.

While material apparently quite alien to the mind of the person operating the Ouija board is sometimes produced, more often than not and in keeping with the revelations one has come to associate with other paranormal prognosticators, the disclosures are usually of a mundane or consolatory nature.

But what of the remarkable wealth of literary works produced by Mrs Pearl Curran. Her biographers tell us that Mrs Curran was a quiet, plain living woman, with little formal education and experience of life, yet she is credited with a sum total of over three million words published as historical novels and poems, in a style and philosophical depth wholly beyond the reach of a Missouri housewife however intelligent.

Casper Yost, respected editor of the St Louis Globe Democrat, investigated "Patience" in 1914. Convinced that she was genuine and with real literary ability, he wrote about her in his newspaper, creating a celebrity overnight. He followed this in 1916 with a book, Patience Worth: a psychic mystery. Psychic researcher James Hyslop (1916) was unimpressed however, and complained that there was no evidence whatever "that a scientific man would regard as conclusive, in respect of the origin of the material."

One formidable problem regarding the authenticity of the deceased girl Patience, was how could she have written so perceptively about life in the time of Jesus in the 350,000-word The Sorry Tale, and how could she possibly have known anything about life in Victorian times (Hope Trueblood) when she died two hundred years before that era?

The question no one seems to have addressed, however, is why, if the spirits possess all the remarkable attributes I have listed in Spirits [#120], they should have to resort to such a slow and cumbersome method of communication such as a Ouija board!


Curran, P. 1920. "A Nut for Psychologists." The Unpartisan Review. March/April.

Hill, D. and Williams. P. 1989. The Supernatural. Bloomsbury Books.

Hines, T. 1988. Pseudoscience and The Spiritualists. Alfred Knopf.

House, B. 1963. Strange Powers of Unusual People. Ace Books. Inc.

Hyslop, J.H. 1916. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research. X, pp 189 94.

Litvag, I. 1972. Singer in the Shadows, Macmillan. New York.

Podmore, F (Ed.) Dingwall, ET 1963. Mediums of the Nineteenth Century. Humphrey.

Prince, M. 1914. The Unconscious. Macmillan. New York.

Prince, Dr W.E 1927. The Case of Patience Worth. Boston Society for Psychical Research.
[From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, Australian Skeptics Inc.]