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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.

Haunting Hokum

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
October 30, 2014

Walk into a large bookstore and note the signs for different genres: True Crime, Photography, Nature, the Occult. . . . Threatening to take over the latter is a sub-group that is proliferating so rapidly I think it deserves its own genre: Haunting Hokum.

 

“Are We Alone?” Speaking at the Trottier Symposium

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
October 27, 2014

In early October I spent a few days in enchanting Montreal, on two of which (the 6th and 7th) I participated in the annual event, The Loren Trottier Public Science Symposium at McGill University. (Dr. Trottier—an engineer, co-founder of the famous graphics and imaging group Matrox, and recipient of many prestigious honors and awards—makes this event possible by his vision and generosity.) The Symposium moderator was McGill’s indefatigable Joe Schwarcz, Director of the Office of Science & Society and a well-known author, skeptic, and CSI Fellow. This year’s theme was “Are We Alone? (The symposium was recorded and posted online.)

 

“Ghosts of the Queen Mary”: A Nickell-iferous Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
October 23, 2014

Published September 16, 2014—in time for pre-Halloween promotion—is the book Ghosts of the Queen Mary, by Brian Clune with Bob Davis, hosts of a radio show called Planet Paranormal Presents, and with an introduction by Christopher Fleming, former co-host of a TV show called Dead Famous which involved the late “psychic” Peter James. James, we are told, incessantly roamed the historic RMS Queen Mary, docked at Long Beach, California, and was “responsible for discovering the many ghosts that inhabit the ship” (p. 139)—“at least six hundred spirits” by James’ count (66). That’s a lot of ghosts, but before one contacts the Guinness World Records folk, we should point out that the book provides no scientific evidence of existing spirits of the dead. Science, in fact, has never authenticated a single ghost.

 

“Bracketing” for Historical Detectives

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
October 8, 2014
“Bracketing” for Historical Detectives

For my collection of dictionaries (which also includes various related volumes such as antique spellers and other wordbooks), I recently purchased a little primer (about 3 x 4 12’’ tall) bearing no publication date. I usually pass over undated works because their use in literary investigation is therefore limited.

 

The ‘Miracles’ of Father Baker

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 38.4, July/August 2014

Investigative Files
The ‘Miracles’ of Father Baker

Here we look at a few of the unusual incidents that some have called “miraculous,” although none has been accepted as such by the Catholic Church.

“Magic in the Moonlight”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 26, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight is the story of a skeptical—even pompously cynical—1920s magician and his attempt to expose a séance medium whose powers appear to defy exposure.

Dillinger’s Ghost

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 22, 2014
Dillinger’s Ghost
 

RIDDLEculous V

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 8, 2014
More funny riddles with a science/critical-thinking angle.

“Incorruptible” Corpse of St. Cecilia

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 28, 2014
“Incorruptible” Corpse of St. Cecilia

Reputedly, Cecilia (or Cecily) was a member of a noble Roman family who—having been forced into marriage—persuaded her new husband, Valerian, to respect her holy vow of virginity. Legends say he was himself converted to Christianity by a vision of his wife’s guardian angel. Cecilia is regarded as the patroness of music and musicians, and is represented as such in many paintings, including one by Raphael (1843–1520). The designation came about because, it was said, while organs played at her wedding, “she sang in her heart” to Christ (Coulson 1958, 107, 114). She is commonly depicted playing a flute, harp, or other instrument, especially an organ (see accompanying picture postcard, ca. 1915, author’s collection).

The ‘200 Demons’ House: A Skeptical Demonologist’s Report

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 38.3, May/June 2014

Investigative Files
The ‘200 Demons’ House: A Skeptical Demonologist’s Report

Sparking an international media frenzy, a house in Gary, Indiana, was—according to two unnamed “clairvoyants”—besieged by over 200 demons.

Maria Monk: A Nun’s ‘Secrets’ Revealed

Skeptical Briefs Volume 23.4, Winter 2013–2014

Investigative Files
Maria Monk: A Nun’s ‘Secrets’ Revealed

It turns out that the fantastic assertions she made were investigated thoroughly at the time by Protestant clergymen who were permitted to inspect the actual convent, discovering that its interior was incompatible with Monk’s descriptions.

Hair Samples: From Bigfoot or the Bigfoot Bear?

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 18, 2014

The hirsute (hairy) man-beast known as Sasquatch—or, since 1958, more commonly called Bigfoot—is elusive indeed. Although wanted dead or alive, no such living creature has ever been found (notwithstanding Roger Patterson’s 1967 film of “Patty,” supposedly a Bigfoot with pendulous breasts but actually the common Bigsuit or Sasquatchus costumedus). Neither has a corpse been discovered (despite such hoaxes as the Minnesota Iceman, a carnival exhibit billed as a “Sasquatch—Safely Frozen in the Ice” but instead a specimen of S. latex).

Is the “Crying Woman” Really Bigfoot?

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 5, 2014

While the Animal Planet TV series Finding Bigfoot never does find the elusive man-beast, the show’s “team” tries hard to convince us they have. Again and again, they try to conjure up the mythological creature with a fuzzy photo, bent twig, or fleeting shadow. Their leader, Matt Moneymaker, is, at least, aptly named for a Bigfoot ballyhooer.

Tracking Florida’s Skunk Ape

Skeptical Briefs Volume 23.3, Fall 2013

Investigative Files
Tracking Florida’s Skunk Ape

Combining myths of the American Sasquatch—better known since 1958 as “Bigfoot”—and various swamp monsters, Florida’s “Skunk Ape” is reportedly a large, shaggy, man-beast that haunts, especially, Florida’s wilderness areas.

“Finding [the] Bigfoot [Bear]”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
July 7, 2014

The television show, Finding Bigfoot, continues. While the hairy man-beast still remains elusive, the Animal Planet’s “team” keeps looking, assisted by local good ol’ boys and gals, their imaginative children, producers trying to make something out of nothing, and cool night-vision equipment.

The Conjuring: Ghosts? Poltergeist? Demons?

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 38.2, March/April 2014

Investigative Files
The Conjuring: Ghosts? Poltergeist? Demons?

The 2013 scary movie The Conjuring was very loosely based on the story of Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters who moved into a “haunted” Rhode Island farmhouse in January 1971. There, hysteria soon reigned, the flames of which were fanned by the infamous paranormal “investigators” Ed and Lorraine Warren.

Shiloh’s Consumption Cure

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
June 24, 2014
Shiloh’s Consumption Cure

The word cure on an old patent-medicine bottle is an almost sure indicator of quackery. No doubt should remain when the product is touted as a cure for consumption (i.e., tuberculosis)! There were many such cures as related in the chapter “Consumption Cures” in Nostrums and Quackery, published by the American Medical Association in 1911. It is a sordid tale of the exploitation of sufferers of pulmonary tuberculosis by means of the temporary benefits of the placebo effect and a remarkable number of “treatments” and “cures,” which fall between worthless and addictive (Nostrums 1911, I: 72–169).

RIDDLEculous IV

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
June 17, 2014

More funny riddles with a science/critical-thinking angle.

“Heaven Is for Real”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
June 11, 2014

Based on the bestselling book of the same title, this is the story of a little boy, a pastor’s son, who had what is known in the parlance of paranormal claims as a “near-death experience” (NDE). That is taken as proving what the title declares, Heaven Is for Real.

‘Miracle’ Statue of Fatima

Skeptical Briefs Volume 23.2, Summer 2013

Investigative Files
‘Miracle’ Statue of Fatima

After years of crossing paths with it, I finally met up with the Pilgrim Virgin Statue of Fatima, which has been traveling the world to relate the “message” of the Lady of Fatima—that of world peace.

Diamond Brand (Whispered Secret) Pills

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
June 3, 2014
Diamond Brand (Whispered Secret) Pills

The red, black, and gold tin box pictured here (about 2 1/4” x 1 5/8”  x 1” high) was the product of Chichester Chemical Company of Philadelphia: Diamond Brand Pills. Nowhere on the box, however, is any indication of what the pills were expected to remedy. Indeed, each box was secured with a blue ribbon as if to keep a secret. (Note: The present box has a flange on the bottom that fastened the ends of the ribbon, which are still present.)

Rheumatic Cures

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
May 21, 2014
Rheumatic Cures

The adjective rheumatic pertains to rheumatism, a general, if a rather archaic term describing such acute and chronic conditions as inflammation, joint pain, muscle stiffness and soreness. “Rheumatism” once referred to arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, bursitis, fibromyalgia, degenerative joint disease, and various other conditions (Taber’s 2001, 1806–1807).

A Pilot Comments on UFOs

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
May 12, 2014
A Pilot Comments on UFOs

James McGaha and I have another investigative article in Skeptical Inquirer—indeed another SI cover story. Titled “Mount Rainier: ‘Saucer’ Magnet” (May/June 2014), it presents the solutions to two important UFO cases occurring at or near Rainier: Kenneth Arnold’s “flying saucers” of 1947 and a lesser-known cold case of 1896 (during the great “airship fever”). We also discuss how a mountain like Rainier helps to form saucer-shaped, lenticular clouds—sometimes seeming almost as active as a bubble machine.

More on Mummies

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 30, 2014
More on Mummies

Regarding my previous blog, “Mummies’ Secrets,” here are two artistic responses to the same exhibition; a poem (in my “improvisational rhyming” style) and a sketch of a natural mummy (a 17th-century nobleman discovered in 1806 in a German castle crypt, dressed in fine boots).

Mummies’ Secrets

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 25, 2014

On April 12, 2014, I visited the Buffalo Museum of Science to view an excellent traveling exhibit, “Mummies of the World.” Mummies are interesting in their own right, of course, but they also provide insights into cultures that imagine mummies’ supernatural potential.

Father John’s Medicine

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 23, 2014
Father John’s Medicine

Father John’s Medicine is the name of a cough remedy with a long history and accompanying legend.

The ‘Bell Witch’ Poltergeist

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 38.1, January/February 2014

Investigative Files
The ‘Bell Witch’ Poltergeist

Called “America’s best-known poltergeist case,” Tennessee’s sensational “Bell Witch” affair of ca. 1817–1821 has gone unexplained, it is said, for two centuries.

St. Hyacinth’s Miracles

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 18, 2014
St. Hyacinth’s Miracles

Known as “The Apostle of the North,” Saint Hyacinth (ca. 1185–1257) is a much honored figure in Roman Catholicism. He is the subject of a painting, Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Hyacinth by Ludovico Carracci (1592, now in the Louvre) and, among lesser artworks, a mosaic mural dominating the front of a church named for him in Dunkirk, New York. (CFI colleague Tom Flynn, Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism, called it to my attention, and I visited it to take the accompanying photo.) The mural depicts the future saint performing miracles, and therein lies a tale—or rather, several tales.

A Sighing Debunker

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 14, 2014

A TV producer, visiting me to shoot segments for a new series, told me of his experience with another skeptic, unnamed, whom he had talked with by phone.

Mystery of Belgium’s Glowing Virgin

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 2, 2014

On two trips to Belgium (in 1998 and 2006), I investigated several “miracle” claims, including a healing shrine, known as the “Belgian Lourdes”; the “Holy Blood of Christ” at Bruges; and a wonderworking statue at Belgium’s most-frequented pilgrimage site. (See my The Science of Miracles, 2013, pp. 23–25, 101–103, 187–190.) Now, another remarkable statue there—one that glows!—has come to light (so to speak); however, its mystery was quickly solved by scientists. (Belinda Robinson, We have seen the light! MailOnline [http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2590014/We-seen-light-Mystery-glowing-Virgin-Mary-statue-visited-hundreds-Belgium-solved-scientists-discover-covered-luminous-paint.html]; March 26, 2014.)

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