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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.

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.)

A Brief Look at Phrenology

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
March 26, 2014
A Brief Look at Phrenology

Phrenology is a form of character reading (like graphology and physiognomy) as supposedly revealed by the individual contours of the subject’s head. The term was introduced in 1815 to refer to a “physiognomical system” of two German doctors, Franz Joseph Gall and John Spurzheim, who gave phrenological readings and lectured on the subject in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Phrenology flourished during the latter century due to the publishing and merchandizing efforts of the Fowler brothers, Orson S. and Lorenzo N., together with their brother-in-law, Samuel R. Wells. The company, Fowler & Wells, was headquartered in New York City with a branch in Philadelphia.

Warner’s Safe Cures

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
March 18, 2014
Warner’s Safe Cures

Familiar to collectors of antique bottles, especially those for patent medicines, is the distinctive flask-shaped, amber-colored bottle for Warner’s Safe Kidney & Liver Cure (about 9 3/4’’ tall; see photo). Interestingly, given the word safe in its name, such bottles are embossed with the design of a strongbox, but we are getting ahead of an interesting story about a multiple-quack-medicine empire. Here it is—focusing in turn on each word of the company’s name, Warner’s Safe Cure Company.

RIDDLEculous III

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
March 9, 2014

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

“Slave” Takes Oscars

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
March 4, 2014

It wasn’t a vision, but in my “Nickell-odeon review” of 12 Years a Slave (Nov. 19) I did foresee Academy Awards in that film’s future.

“The Invisible Woman”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
February 26, 2014

Charles Dickens (1812–1870), the most popular and one of the greatest of English novelists, also deserves plaudits for his literary indictments of society for abusing the poor. To be sure, however, he did have faults. For instance, he fostered belief in the pseudoscientific notion of spontaneous human combustion in his novel Bleak House (1852), although Dickens at least seemed honest in his error.

“The Monuments Men”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
February 18, 2014

The Monuments Men is a true story, based on a book of the same title, written by Robert M. Edsel and subtitled Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. No exaggeration that.

Valentine’s Day

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
February 14, 2014
Valentine’s Day
 

RIDDLEculous II

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
February 4, 2014

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

Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 29, 2014

During some research, I was intrigued by an entry in an old general store ledger from West Liberty, Kentucky, in 1830 for “1 Vial Batmans [sic] drops.” Although I suspected this was just a patent medicine of the day, I was surprised to learn of its staying power as a product marketed (and imitated) for some two centuries.

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Universe

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 17, 2014
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Universe

Lynn Sherr has done an excellent job of profiling (in the good sense of that word!) Neil deGrasse Tyson in Parade magazine (January 12, 2014). At the bottom of the handsome cover photo—depicting the astrophysicist who is known through the known world—are the words, “Master of the Universe.” The label, at once lighthearted and profound, perfectly fits Tyson.

In the Media: 2013 Activities of Joe Nickell

January 15, 2014
In the Media: 2013 Activities of Joe Nickell

As CSI’s Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell continued his work—now in the middle of his fifth decade—of investigating the world’s paranormal, historical, and forensic mysteries.

More on St. Jacob’s

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 15, 2014
More on St. Jacob’s

I recently acquired another bottle (see previous blog) advertising St. Jacob’s Oil. However, I was immediately suspicious of it, not the least reason being the price—too cheap for such an item. It was also unlike previous bottles of that famous old liniment—in shape and size as well as means of manufacture: it had not been blown in a mold but was produced by an automatic bottle machine. Could it simply be a more modern example of the product?

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Detective: Uncovering the Mysteries of a Word

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 37.6, November/December 2013

Investigative Files

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