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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.

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

St. Jacob’s Oil

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 8, 2014
St. Jacob’s Oil

St. Jacob’s Oil, a liniment, was one of the common proprietary remedies for rheumatism and other aches and pains in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its advertisements were not only painted on barns but on fences and even rocks, proclaiming, “St. Jacob’s Oil Conquers Pain.” Sometimes the remedy was touted in verse (Fike 2006, 195):

“Philomena”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
January 6, 2014

Judi Dench is wonderful in the title role of Philomena Lee, a real woman who spent half a century searching for the out-of-wedlock son she had been forced to give up.

“Mandela”—A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 30, 2013

The death of one of the great people of the twentieth century, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela (1918–2013), had mixed consequences to the movie based on his life: Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

“The Book Thief”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 18, 2013

Based on the book of the same title (the very popular novel for young adults by Markus Zusak), The Book Thief is as endearing a story as seems possible given its setting in Nazi Germany.

Ghost-hunter Arsonists?

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 16, 2013

In folklore studies, a “legend trip” is the term for a visit to a site that has a legend (a narrative reflecting a folk belief) about uncanny events there—say the activities of ghosts; the visit is made to test the legend. Such a legend trip resulted in seven men being arrested for the suspected arson of a historic Louisiana plantation house on November 21, 2013.

Bigfoot Lookalikes: Tracking Hairy Man-Beasts

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 37.5, September/October 2013

Investigative Files
Bigfoot Lookalikes: Tracking Hairy Man-Beasts

Over my years as a skeptical cryptozoologist, I have looked for real, natural lookalikes to explain various reported “monsters.” Are there animals that might be mistaken for Bigfoot?

Bones of Contention

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 11, 2013

On Sunday, November 24, 2013, the Vatican, via Pope Francis, publicly unveiled for the first time several bone fragments that some have claimed are those of St. Peter himself. Retrieved in 1942 from beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, they have since been bones of contention.

Awardee

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 6, 2013

I am very grateful for two awards recently bestowed on me.

Martin Gardner’s Autobiography

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 4, 2013

The man whom Stephen Jay Gould called rationality’s “single brightest beacon” has given us yet another fine book, his posthumously published Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner (Princeton University Press, 2013). It has an introduction by Persi Diaconis and an afterword by James Randi.

Visiting an Urban “Village Church”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
December 3, 2013

My wife Diana and I went on another religabout—our contraction for religion and walkabout, which describes an excursion to observe or experience some religious activity.

Another SHC Death That Wasn’t

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 26, 2013

The caller identified himself as “a longtime fan” and had a case for me to look into, he said. A New Jersey man had been found inexplicably incinerated on a state park path. He wondered if it might be an instance of spontaneous human combustion. I explained that the scientific evidence for that possibility was non-existent, but that I would have a look anyway.

Holy Apparitions and “Cryptic Photos”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 25, 2013

On November 10, 2013, my wife Diana and I went on one of our religabouts (excursions to observe or experience some religion-related event—see my blog of January 14, 2013). We responded to an ad in the Buffalo News to learn about “the powerful apparitions” of Jesus and Mary and “awe-inspiring cryptic photos” at a Catholic shrine in Queens, N.Y.

Sylvia Browne: A Post-Mortem

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
November 21, 2013

“Celebrity psychic” and professed medium Sylvia Browne has died. (Pause here while we all try to get a grip.) The notorious pretender Browne—formerly Brown (and therein lies a story), who was born Sylvia Celeste Shoemaker in 1936—died November 20, 2013, at the age of 77. To skeptics who gleefully claim she failed to foresee her own death, one must note that she did appear to recognize the end was near, but that that information came from medical science, not spirit guides.

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