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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.

Sarsaparilla for Syphilis?

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 22, 2017
Sarsaparilla for Syphilis?

I recently acquired an old sarsaparilla bottle, its label stating that it was intended for medical treatment of such diseases as “chronic rheumatism,” “obstinate cutaneous eruptions,” and “syphilitic conditions.” It was to be used orally, not topically. Yes, this is the same sarsaparilla long used as an herbal tea and tonic that evolved into a health drink before finally becoming a soda pop similar to root beer (Nickell 2011).

 

Vexed by “Vaxxed”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 13, 2017
Vexed by “Vaxxed”

I am long familiar with the anti-vaccination “movement” (a conspiracy-theory cult based on a hoax), but it nevertheless came home to me recently. Literally. A black bus with the word Vaxxed in 4-foot-high letters parked a stone’s throw from CFI headquarters in Amherst, NY. (No, I didn’t throw a stone.)

 

Response to Fake News on Climate Change in “The Federalist”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
September 6, 2017

“Prominent Debunker Shows Himself Gullible to Al Gore’s Unsupported Climate Shilling,” read the headline in The Federalist, August 29, 2017 (Gleason 2017a). Why, they were talking about moi!

 

H. David Sox (1936–2016)

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 25, 2017

H. David Sox—a onetime advocate for the Shroud of Turin who was later persuaded it was a fake and went on to delve into other art forgeries—has died. He and I knew each other only slightly but respected each other’s work, and I am deeply saddened by his loss.

 

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Bigfoot as Big Myth: Seven Phases of Mythmaking

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.5, September/October 2017

Feature

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Australia’s Storied Ghosts

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.5, September/October 2017

Investigative Files

“An Inconvenient Sequel”:  A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 17, 2017

Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006)—his powerful documentary on global warming—justly helped earn him the Nobel Peace Prize of 2007. Now comes his An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, an engrossing presentation of power-point slides and video footage that updates the dynamics of planetary weather change.

 

JonBenet Murder Mystery Solved? (Not by Psychics)

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.4, July/August 2017

JonBenet Murder Mystery Solved? (Not by Psychics)

The death of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey went unsolved for two decades. 
Psychics were worse than useless, but the author’s proposed solution resulted from evaluating the best evidence.


Haunted Buffalo Asylum

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
August 10, 2017
Haunted Buffalo Asylum

Among Western New York’s allegedly most haunted sites stands the architecturally acclaimed H.H. Richardson complex, begun in 1871 and opened in 1880 as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. Its two 185-foot towers rose from a four-story structure originally flanked on either side by five stepped wards, with its female wing being completed in 1895. Based on the humanitarian philosophy of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, the asylum was intended to provide curative hospitalization for the mentally ill. Crowded by a surge in patients, its occupancy was eventually exceeded by the thousands. In 1927 half the grounds were lost to a college, and more were claimed by modern buildings in the late 1960s.

 

Murder by Darkness: Does Mammoth Cave’s Specter Harbor a Secret?

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.4, July/August 2017

Investigative Files
Murder by Darkness: Does Mammoth Cave’s Specter Harbor a Secret?

Joe Nickell solves the case of an unlikely ghost, hidden in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave

Turin Shroud: “Blood” Still Fake

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
July 28, 2017

“New research,” reports the Catholic News Agency (July 14, 2017), indicates that the “Shroud of Turin Bears Blood of a Torture Victim.” Actually, it was the research that was tortuous: questionable science in the service of confirmation bias.

 

Cartoon: Obamacare Repeal

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
July 21, 2017
Cartoon: Obamacare Repeal

Artwork by Joe Nickell.

Eclectic Medicine

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
July 7, 2017

In nineteenth century America, a number of what today are called “alternative” medical practices—“magnetic healing” (hypnosis), homeopathy, and eclecticism, among others—vied with each other and with regular or “old school” medicine—i.e., allopathy, today’s science-based medicine.

 

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The Bigfoot Obsession

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.4, July/August 2017

Review

Barker’s Nerve and Bone Liniment

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
June 19, 2017
Barker’s Nerve and Bone Liniment

Barker’s Nerve and Bone Liniment was a proprietary medicine introduced by Thomas Barker in Philadelphia in 1859. It was intended for both man and beast.

 

Multipurpose “Florida Water”

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
June 1, 2017
Multipurpose “Florida Water”

“Florida Water”—popular through most of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth—was neither water nor a product of Florida. It had a surprising number of uses, medicinal and otherwise.

 

The New Zealand Moa: From Extinct Bird to Cryptid

Skeptical Briefs Volume 27.1, Spring 2017

Investigative Files
The New Zealand Moa: From Extinct Bird to Cryptid

Cryptids are of two types: either (1) unknown species, such as Bigfoot or at one time the Mountain Gorilla; or (2) known species that supposedly become extinct but may have survived and could be rediscovered.

“Globster” Mysteries

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
May 22, 2017

Cryptozoologists call them “globsters”—great decaying masses usually seen when they wash ashore somewhere. The unidentified carcasses are typically called “sea monsters”—until science determines their true identity. Such a creature—a 50-foot leviathan—appeared on an Indonesian island beach in early May 2017. The rotting corpse was first thought to be that of a giant squid (the “Kraken” of sea lore).

 

“Mouth Elixir”: Bell-shaped Dr. Bell Bottle

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
May 11, 2017
“Mouth Elixir”: Bell-shaped Dr. Bell Bottle

This distinctive bell-shaped bottle (see photo) is embossed on its bottom, “DR. V. C. BELL’S MOUTH ELIXIR.” What on earth was that?

 

Some Queensland Mysteries

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 41.3, May/June 2017

Investigative Files
Some Queensland Mysteries

Strange mysteries may be found almost anywhere, but they seem especially plentiful and interesting in Australia.

Televangelist Hinn Investigated—Again

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
May 5, 2017

Benny Hinn—the televangelist who talks with God and knocks people down by merely pointing at them—is being investigated for fraud and tax evasion, following a raid executed by a search warrant on April 26, 2017. I am not surprised. He is full of tricks.

 

“The Lost City of Z”: A Nickell-odeon Review

Free Thinking (centerforinquiry.net)
April 28, 2017

The Lost City of Z is the story of an alleged indigenous city in Brazil’s Amazon, its name given by British soldier, surveyor, and explorer Col. Percy Fawcett who sought to prove its reality. To understand Fawcett’s quest, we must see it in the context of such myths generally, which—pursued from the fifteenth century—helped lead to the development of archaeology.

 

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…

“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.

 

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