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Skeptical Briefs — Investigative Files

Investigative Files

A column by Senior CSI Fellow Joe Nickell

Messages from ‘Star Families’—in the ET Language

by Joe Nickell
Volume 23.1, Spring 2013

Investigative Files

Cassandra Vanzant’s claims are legion. At one time or another she has acted as a tarot-card reader and instructor, ghost hunter, spiritualist medium, angel communicant, ordained minister, professional psychic, and of course, telepathic “Master Alien Communicator.”

Uncovering Secret Messages

Uncovering Secret Messages

by Joe Nickell
Volume 22.4, Winter 2012/2013

Investigative Files

Among my many interests as a boy was cryptography—the study of codes, ciphers, and other secret writings. I sent and received nighttime Morse code messages by flashlight between neighbors’ houses and mine, made and solved cryptograms, used my forensic chemistry lab to make various invisible inks and developers, and even compiled a treatise on the subject.

A Fiery Death: Murder or ‘Spontaneous Combustion’?

A Fiery Death: Murder or ‘Spontaneous Combustion’?

by Joe Nickell
Volume 22.3, Fall 2012

Investigative Files

This is the story of a fiery death that became a cold case—a mystery unsolved since 1847. It begins with an elderly Frenchman, whose badly burned body suggested to authorities that it may have been set afire to conceal evidence of foul play.

Ghosts at a Shaker Village

Ghosts at a Shaker Village

by Joe Nickell
Volume 22.2, Summer 2012

Investigative Files

In 1774 a “visionary” named Ann Lee—as charismatic as she was uneducated—sailed from Manchester, England, to New York to spread her new faith. In time “Mother Ann’s” United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming would found nineteen utopian communal villages.

Montauk Monster and the Raccoon Body Farm

Montauk Monster and the Raccoon Body Farm

by Joe Nickell
Volume 22.1, Spring 2012

Investigative Files

In July 2008, the carcass of a creature soon dubbed the “Montauk Monster” allegedly washed ashore near Montauk, Long Island, New York. It sparked much speculation and controversy, with some suggesting it was a shell-less sea turtle, a dog or other canid, a sheep, or a rodent—or even a latex fake or possible mutation experiment from the nearby Plum Island Animal Disease Center.

Chinese Ape-Men: In Science and Myth

Chinese Ape-Men: In Science and Myth

by Joe Nickell
Volume 21.4, Winter 2011-2012

Investigative Files

The term ape-man is used in two major ways. As CFI’s visiting scholar in China during October 2010, I encountered—so to speak—an example of each of these two types of ape man, which some believe are related. As we shall see, each has proved elusive in its own way.

On a Wing and a Prayer: The Search for Guardian Angels

On a Wing and a Prayer: The Search for Guardian Angels

by Joe Nickell
Volume 21.3, Fall 2011

Investigative Files

Are these experiences really supernatural? Or are they only natural, the result of misperceptions and even misreporting? A look into the phenomenon of claimed guardian-angel encounters is illuminating.

The Doctor’s Ghostly Visitor: Tracking ‘The Girl in the Snow’

The Doctor’s Ghostly Visitor: Tracking ‘The Girl in the Snow’

by Joe Nickell
Volume 21.2, Summer 2011

Investigative Files

Although skeptics insist ghosts are unreal, there are many ghostly encounters that seem to present startling evidence to the contrary. One such incident is presented in the book The Telltale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Tales by Ruth Ann Musick.

The Atlanta Child Murders: Evidence vs. Psychics

The Atlanta Child Murders: Evidence vs. Psychics

by Joe Nickell
Volume 21.1, Spring 2011

Investigative Files

While television often offers pseudoscience and fantasy instead of lessons in critical thinking (consider shows like The Ghost Whisperer), there are noteworthy exceptions. One is Soledad O’Brien’s CNN special Atlanta Child Murders (2010).

Shootout with Martians: In the Wake of the 1938 Broadcast Panic

Shootout with Martians: In the Wake of the 1938 Broadcast Panic

by Joe Nickell
Volume 20.4, December 2010

Investigative Files

A visit to an art exhibit—based on Orson Welles’s famous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast—at Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo introduced me to a remarkable incident that reportedly occurred during the “panic” caused by Welles’s dramatized Martian invasion.

Scientific Investigation vs. Ghost Hunters

Scientific Investigation vs. Ghost Hunters

by Joe Nickell
Volume 20.3, September 2010

Investigative Files

I have often crossed paths with The Atlantic Paranormal Society, headed by Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, stars of the popular Ghost Hunters series.

Paracelsus:  The Magic and the Science

Paracelsus:  The Magic and the Science

by Joe Nickell
Volume 20.1, March 2010

Investigative Files

Among the significant European figures of the sixteenth century, Paracelsus (1493–1541) was a transitional figure in the contest between magical and...

Elvis Lives! Investigating the Legends and Phenomena

Elvis Lives! Investigating the Legends and Phenomena

by Joe Nickell
Volume 19.4, December 2009

Investigative Files

Legendary American singer Elvis Presley is heralded not only as the major innovator, "The King," of rock 'n' roll but also as a godlike figure...

John Calvin and the Shroud of Turin

by Joe Nickell
Volume 19.3, September 2009

Investigative Files

While writing an introduction for an edition of John Calvin’s 1543 Treatise on Relics, I became intrigued by a little mystery...

The Image of Edessa Revealed

The Image of Edessa Revealed

by Joe Nickell
Volume 19.2, June 2009

Investigative Files

Among certain reputedly miraculous images of Jesus was the Image of Edessa, known later to the Byzantines as the Mandylion.

Cagliostro: ‘Quack of Quacks’

by Joe Nickell
Volume 19.1, March 2009

Investigative Files

While on a five-country investigative tour of Europe in 2007, I twice came upon historic residences of the master deceiver...

Grilled-Cheese Madonna

Grilled-Cheese Madonna

by Joe Nickell
Volume 18.3, September 2008

Investigative Files

It has become the quintessential holy image to appear on an item of food: the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich.

Catching Ghosts

Catching Ghosts

by Joe Nickell
Volume 18.2, June 2008

Investigative Files

Despite the popular antics of inept "ghost hunters," ghosts continue to remain elusive.

Werewolves—or Weren’t?

Werewolves—or Weren’t?

by Joe Nickell
Volume 18.1, March 2008

Investigative Files

Among those creatures that inhabit the night, or at least the nightmares of the credulous, are vampires, zombies, and werewolves

A Case of Automatic Writing From Robert G. Ingersoll’s Spirit?

A Case of Automatic Writing From Robert G. Ingersoll’s Spirit?

by Joe Nickell
Volume 17.4, December 2007

Investigative Files

Did famed orator Robert Green Ingersoll communicate posthumously through a spiritualist medium to recant his atheism?

The Bermuda Triangle and the ‘Hutchinson Effect’

The Bermuda Triangle and the ‘Hutchinson Effect’

by Joe Nickell
Volume 17.3, September 2007

Investigative Files

Calling it "the world's greatest mystery," Gian J. Quasar revisits the enigma of the Bermuda Triangle.

Lake Monster Lookalikes

Lake Monster Lookalikes

by Joe Nickell
Volume 17.2, June 2007

Investigative Files

As a cryptozoologist--albeit a skeptical one--I have long been on the track of fabled creatures...

Headless Ghosts I Have Known

Headless Ghosts I Have Known

by Joe Nickell
Volume 16.4, December 2006

Investigative Files

In the popular imagination, ghosts are a form of “energy” that survives death.

Snake Oil: A Guide for Connoisseurs

Snake Oil: A Guide for Connoisseurs

by Joe Nickell
Volume 16.3, September 2006

Investigative Files

In an earlier article, "Peddling Snake Oil" (Nickell 1998), I addressed the question of snake oil’s existence.

Postmortem on ‘Alien Autopsy’

Postmortem on ‘Alien Autopsy’

by Joe Nickell
Volume 16.2, June 2006

Investigative Files

Britain's Manchester Evening News termed it a hoax that "fooled the world". Well, not exactly...

Sherlock Holmes, Paranormal Investigator

Sherlock Holmes, Paranormal Investigator

by Joe Nickell
Volume 16.1, March 2006

Investigative Files

Sherlock Holmes was not just the world's "only unofficial consulting detective."

Healing Waters - Part I: Spas

by Joe Nickell
Volume 15.3, September 2005

Investigative Files

Here we look at ancient baths and later spas; in Part II we discuss legendary "fountains of youth" and reputed healing shrines.

Return from the Dead

Return from the Dead

by Joe Nickell
Volume 15.2, June 2005

Investigative Files

She had suffered a fever of 104.5 and experienced shortness of breath, whereupon she declared, "Mother, I'm going to die."

The Lake George Monster Hoax

The Lake George Monster Hoax

by Joe Nickell
Volume 14.4, December 2004

Investigative Files

Called "one of the grandest hoaxes of all times", the Lake George Monster has occasionally resurfaced since its debut in 1904.

Abraham Lincoln: An Instance of Alleged ‘Spirit Writing’

Abraham Lincoln: An Instance of Alleged ‘Spirit Writing’

by Joe Nickell
Volume 14.3, September 2004

Investigative Files

Modern spiritualism began in 1848 at Hydesville, New York, when two schoolgirls pretended to communicate with a ghost who...

Riddle of the Glowing Statues

Riddle of the Glowing Statues

by Joe Nickell
Volume 13.4, December 2003

Investigative Files

Two women noticed it first. The eyes of the Virgin Mary statue on the church's bell tower had begun to glow.

The Case of the Alien Hand

The Case of the Alien Hand

by Joe Nickell
Volume 13.3, September 2003

Investigative Files

It was Monday, March 24, 2003, when the voice of CSICOP Executive Director Barry Karr came over my intercom...

Legend of the White Lady

Legend of the White Lady

by Joe Nickell
Volume 13.1, March 2003

Investigative Files

Every town in Franconia has a legend of Die Weisse Frau - a ghostly figure that walks about at night terrifying people.

Mothman Revisited:
 Investigating on Site

Mothman Revisited:
 Investigating on Site

by Joe Nickell
Volume 12.4, December 2002

Investigative Files

In a previous critical report, I suggested the identity of “Mothman.” Subsequently I was able to make an investigative trip to Point Pleasant.

“Visitations”: After-Death Contacts

“Visitations”: After-Death Contacts

by Joe Nickell
Volume 12.3, September 2002

Investigative Files

Those who suffer the loss of a loved one may experience such anguish and emptiness that they are unable to let go...

‘Miraculous’ Image of Guadalupe

by Joe Nickell
Volume 12.2, June 2002

Investigative Files

Mexico's Image of Guadalupe is a sixteenth-century depiction of the Virgin Mary that, according to pious legend...

Secrets of the Voodoo Tomb

by Joe Nickell
Volume 11.4, December 2001

Investigative Files

Among the sites associated with New Orleans voodoo is the tomb of its greatest figure, Marie Laveau...

Remotely Viewed? The Charlie Jordan Case

by Joe Nickell
Volume 11.1, March 2001

Investigative Files

Was fugitive drug smuggler Charlie Jordan nabbed after a CIA "remote viewer" helped pinpoint his location in northern Wyoming?

Spirit Painting (Part II)

Spirit Painting (Part II)

by Joe Nickell
Volume 10.2, June 2000

Investigative Files

Part II: The Bangs Sisters

Spirit Painting (Part I)

Spirit Painting (Part I)

by Joe Nickell
Volume 10.1, March 2000

Investigative Files

During the heyday of spiritualism, among the "physical phenomena" commonly manifested were so-called spirit paintings.

Sideshow! Carnival Oddities and Illusions Provide Lessons for Skeptics

Sideshow! Carnival Oddities and Illusions Provide Lessons for Skeptics

by Joe Nickell
Volume 9.4, December 1999

Investigative Files

Like Robert Ripley, I have always been attracted to the odd and the curious.

Springer Psychic: A Study in ‘Clairvoyance’

Springer Psychic: A Study in ‘Clairvoyance’

by Joe Nickell
Volume 9.3, September 1999

Investigative Files

On March 16, 1992, I appeared on The Jerry Springer Show with what were billed as "today's outrageous psychics."

The Gypsies’ ‘Great Trick’

by Joe Nickell
Volume 9.1, March 1999

Investigative Files

Everyone knows what fortunetelling is supposed to be, but sometimes it is best defined as "the art of absconding with fortunes."

Peddling Snake Oil

Peddling Snake Oil

by Joe Nickell
Volume 8.4, December 1998

Investigative Files

Questions about the origins of the term provide the basis for an interesting investigation.

Investigating Spirit Communications

Investigating Spirit Communications

by Joe Nickell
Volume 8.3, September 1998

Investigative Files

Thanks to modern mass media, old-fashioned spiritualism is undergoing something of a revival.

Italy’s Graveyard “Ghost” Photo

Italy’s Graveyard “Ghost” Photo

by Joe Nickell
Volume 8.2, June 1998

Investigative Files

On January 24, 1998, CSICOP received an e-mail letter and scanned photograph from Dave Esch...

A Case of Reincarnation — Reexamined

A Case of Reincarnation — Reexamined

by Joe Nickell
Volume 8.1, March 1998

Investigative Files

Perhaps not since an American housewife supposedly discovered she was the reincarnation of an Irishwoman...

The Roswell Legacy

by Joe Nickell
Volume 7.2, June 1997

Investigative Files

Fifty years ago this summer, the modern UFO craze began...

Spontaneous Human Nonsense

by Joe Nickell
Volume 6.4, December 1996

Investigative Files

Follow up to the earlier article in Skeptical Inquirer

Nessie Hoax Redux II

by Joe Nickell
Volume 6.3, September 1996

Investigative Files

A reader's response

Levengood’s Crop-Circle Plant Research

by Joe Nickell
Volume 6.2, June 1996

Investigative Files

The question of bias is important since Levengood's attitudes and assumptions reveal him as a partisan crop-circle "believer."

Nessie Hoax Redux

by Joe Nickell
Volume 6.1, March 1996

Investigative Files

In 1934, a photo of "Nessie," the fabled Loch Ness Monster, was allegedly snapped by a London gynecologist named Robert Wilson.

The Skeptic-raping Demon of Zanzibar

by Joe Nickell
Volume 5.4, December 1995

Investigative Files

The scene is modern-day Zanzibar where a terrible monster is swooping into bedrooms at night and raping men.

The Haunted Tape Recorder

The Haunted Tape Recorder

by Joe Nickell
Volume 5.3, September 1995

Investigative Files

As most people who own them know, tape recorders sometimes malfunction...