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Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.

Steller’s Sea Ape:
 Identifying an Eighteenth-Century Cryptid

Skeptical Briefs Volume 26.4, Winter 2016/2017

Investigative Files

Since its appearance in 1741, a mysterious creature has remained controversial—a so-called “sea monkey” that puzzled naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller.

Ghost “Orbs” at the Witch’s Barn

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 24, 2017
Ghost “Orbs” at the Witch’s Barn

Many ghost hunters insist that “orbs”—strange balls of light that mysteriously appear in their photos—are a form of “spirit energy.” If so, they seem nowhere more evident than at a Rhode Island barn where, according to some sources, two persons were hanged, including a witch named Bathsheba. She was central to the horror film, The Conjuring, reportedly based on the case files of the infamous Ed and Lorraine Warren, self-styled “demonologist” and “clairvoyant” who made a career of scaring people with made-up demons.

 

Miracle Tableau: Knock, Ireland, 1879

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.2, March/April 2017

Investigative Files
Miracle Tableau: Knock, Ireland, 1879

The ability to see pictures in random forms—as in clouds, tea leaves, and inkblots—is known as pareidolia... Some publicized examples I have made pilgrimages to examine include the face of Jesus in the skillet burns of a tortilla…

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Some Queensland Mysteries

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.3, May/June 2017

Investigative Files

“The Conjuring” Double Bombshell

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 11, 2017

The author of the book that launched The Conjuring franchise (two main horror films and spin-offs based on the work of two notorious paranormal investigators) has now launched a double bombshell. He is suing the movies’ producers for allegedly violating his rights, while also stating that central claims in the movies are bogus.

 

Joe Nickell Receives Distinguished Service Award

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 5, 2017
Joe Nickell Receives Distinguished Service Award

Thanks to the committee for Buffalo’s annual Science Exploration Day who — on the event day of March 22, 2017, at the University of Buffalo — honored me with the Distinguished Service Award. The following page appeared in the event booklet:

Claims of Chi: Besting a Tai Chi Master

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.1, January/February 2017

Investigative Files
Claims of Chi: Besting a Tai Chi Master

Tai chi is a shortened form of taiji quan, “Supreme ultimate boxing.” Conceived centuries ago as a martial art, it is now also practiced—as “Taoist tai chi”—as an exercise technique…

A Brief Biography of “Magnetic Healer” H.N. Wheelock

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
March 28, 2017

As presented elsewhere (Nickell 2017), I acquired for my collection a trade card of nineteenth-century “Magnetic Healer” H.N. Wheelock. To learn more about him, I researched various sources, including an authoritative Wheelock genealogy (Sullivan 2017). CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga greatly assisted with this project, tracking Wheelock through federal and state censuses and other records. Here is what we discovered.

 

Rare Trade Card of “Magnetic Healer”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
March 24, 2017
Rare Trade Card of “Magnetic Healer”

The Victorian trade card (a forerunner of the later business card), pictured here, is graced by the engraved portrait and facsimile signature of H.N. Wheelock. He is described on the reverse as a “Mental and Vital Magnetic Healer”—that is, one who treated both mind and body. “WILL THOU BE MADE WHOLE?” he asks.

 

Unique Quassia Cup: Made Its Own Medicine!

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
March 10, 2017
Unique Quassia Cup: Made Its Own Medicine!

The cures were in the wood of this nineteenth-century medicinal goblet. It supposedly turned ordinary water into a powerful tonic for treating fever and numerous other ailments.

 

RIDDLEculous XIV

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
March 1, 2017

More funny riddles from a skeptical view.

Dispelling Demons: Detective Work at The Conjuring House

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.6, November/December 2016

Investigative Files
Dispelling Demons: Detective Work at The Conjuring House

I analyzed the Perrons’ claims of demonic activity and showed that they were consistent with the effects of strong winds, misperceptions, schoolgirl pranks, vivid dreams, simple suggestion, role-playing, and other factors.

“Otto’s Cure” for Consumption, Etc.

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
February 17, 2017
“Otto’s Cure” for Consumption, Etc.

“Otto’s Cure for Throat & Lungs” was allegedly effective for diseases including whooping cough and consumption (tuberculosis). (There were many such bogus consumption cures.)

 

Ghost in the Window: At Toronto’s Colborne Lodge

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
February 10, 2017

According to many sources, Colborne Lodge at Toronto’s High Park (where I visited in 1973) is still the residence of the lady of the house, Jemima. Illness confined her for many years to her upstairs bedroom, until she died in 1877 and was buried on the property. “To this day,” states Dennis William Hauck in his The International Directory of Haunted Places (2000, 155), “her apparition is seen staring out that same upstairs master bedroom window, looking down at her iron-fenced gravesite and massive monument.” Hauck goes on to explain that she was the wife of Sir John Colborne, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, but he is mistaken.

 

“Hidden Figures”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
February 1, 2017

Hidden Figures is an important, must-see movie. It tells the inspiring story of three African-American women who rise above the sexism and racism of the 1950s and 1960s to work as “human computers” at NASA, helping to launch Americans into space.

 

Cartoon: Immigrant/Refugee Ban

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 31, 2017
Cartoon: Immigrant/Refugee Ban

Artwork by Joe Nickell.

St. Jacobs Oil: New Acquisition

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 24, 2017
St. Jacobs Oil: New Acquisition

My recent acquisition of another St. Jacobs Oil liniment bottle warrants this update. My earlier blog (St. Jacob’s Oil, January 8, 2014) told how German immigrant August Vogeler (1819–1908) came to America and founded a patent-medicine business by 1845; after 1878 he and his son Charles were selling “ST. JACOBS OEL” (sic, using German spelling). I only described their early bottle but showed a photo of a later one.

 

Relic Madness

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 19, 2017

The mania for holy relics—in Catholicism objects once connected with the body of a saint—stems from belief that a relic is imbued with miraculous power including supernatural healings. Not surprisingly, this superstition has led to many excesses.

 

A Tramp-art Cross

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 11, 2017
A Tramp-art Cross

In my previous blog, “A Tramp-art Picture Frame,” I focused on a typical work of that folk-art genre. Here is a very different example (see photograph).

 

A Tramp-art Picture Frame

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 3, 2017
A Tramp-art Picture Frame

A folk-art phenomenon of yesteryear was so-called “tramp art”— wood items handcrafted from discarded materials, ostensibly by hoboes, either to sell or to barter for food or drink. Pictured here (see photo) is a tramp-art frame with its religious oleograph (which I acquired for my collection in 2002).

 

RIDDLEculous XIII

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 21, 2016

More funny riddles from a skeptical view

 

Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 14, 2016
Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root

Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Kidney medicine began in the mid-1870s and in time became a household name. It was the creation of Dr. S(ylvester) Andral Kilmer (1840–1924) who developed a line of patent remedies in Binghamton, New York.

 

Herkimer Diamond Mysteries

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 6, 2016
Herkimer Diamond Mysteries

Although not a precious gem like the diamond, the so-called “Herkimer diamond” is itself the focus of much attention. In June 2016 I was able to add to my collection of curious stones by searching for “Herkimers” at a mine in New York state and learning more about their natural and allegedly magical properties.

 

Mystery Coin of 
the Yukon

Skeptical Briefs Volume 26.3, Fall 2016

Investigative Files
Mystery Coin of 
the Yukon

According to raconteur Ed Ferrell in his Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon (1996, 120), the coin “appeared to have been minted before the Ice Age”

Stagecoach Tavern Ghosts

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 29, 2016
Stagecoach Tavern Ghosts

Where my travels take me, I often have occasion to check out a “haunted” tavern or inn. In several months’ time in 2015–2016, for example, I visited two such places in Australia, others in Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands, Vancouver’s Gastown, and Niagara Falls, NY, and then in June 2016, the Tavern on Main in Chepachet, RI.

 

Ghosts at New Orleans’ Secret Horror Chamber

Skeptical Briefs Volume 26.2, Summer 2016

Investigative Files
Ghosts at New Orleans’ Secret Horror Chamber

Perhaps such antics will inspire a new generation of ghost hunters.

Old English Black Oil Liniment

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 22, 2016
Old English Black Oil Liniment

“Black Oil” is an old English name for a horse liniment. It eventually came to be sold in America as “a never failing Remedy for Man and Beast.”

 

Mother Gray’s Sweet Powders

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 18, 2016
Mother Gray’s Sweet Powders

LeRoy, New York, has many claims to fame—apart from the mysterious twitching outbreak I investigated for Skeptical Inquirer in 2012. It was the birthplace of Jell-O in 1897 (the museum is well worth seeing) as well as something called Mother Gray’s Sweet Powders for Children, among other products.

 

Jesse James’s ‘Haunts’: Legends, History, and Forensic Science

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 40.4, July/August 2016

Investigative Files
Jesse James’s ‘Haunts’: Legends, History, and Forensic Science

Before trying to explain something, first be sure that it really occurred.

“Miraculous” Infant Jesus of Prague

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 7, 2016
“Miraculous” Infant Jesus of Prague

The Infant Jesus of Prague is a small (18.5 inches tall) wax-covered wood statue of the child Jesus in a church in Prague, Czech Republic. Many of the faithful believe it to have magical powers.

 

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