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How to Test a Miracle

Massimo Polidoro

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 34.3, May / June 2010

A few years ago, my colleague Luigi Garlaschelli and I were asked if we would be interested in testing a twenty-two-year-old mystic woman who talked with the Virgin Mary and could create supernatural phenomena.

Debora Moscogiuri was a mystical seer living in Manduria (Taranto) in southern Italy. During ecstatic periods, she could supposedly see and receive messages from the Madonna, which she would then deliver to worshippers. Other phenomena were said to take place in and around the seer's home, including religious icons (pictures and statues) allegedly weeping blood. As is usually the case, none of these phenomena had been carefully investigated or documented, nor were DNA tests performed to ascertain the origin of the blood.

In 1995 one of Moscogiuri's statues of the Virgin Mary allegedly began to drip olive oil. Sealed containers, such as small bottles or jars, left in the proximity of the statue were later found to be partially filled with oil. These had been tied with ribbons, taped, sealed with wax, and placed inside plastic bags. At Moscogiuri's request, some olive leaves were placed inside the bottles before they were sealed.

This phenomenon was reproduced when Dr. Giorgio Gagliardi, a physician from Milan, prepared two such wax-sealed containers: one was kept in his office and a second identical one was sent to Manduria, which was returned to him weeks later with some oil in it—still sealed. Nothing had happened inside the jar kept in Milan. Realizing that wax and tape seals are inadequate against tampering, Gagliardi asked us about secure, "tamper-evident" containers.

Evidence of Tampering

When testing psychic claimants, it is sometimes necessary to allow the subject to take some target material away from the laboratory in order to try and obtain a psychic effect on it in his home. Until a short time ago, the importance of using foolproof containers when conducting this kind of experiment was not fully recognized. Consider, for example, the naiveté with which some parapsychologists investigated the claimed psychokinetic powers of children and teenagers in the past. Since children and teenagers were thought unlikely (or unable) to cheat, they were too readily left alone with target material, such as spoons or pieces of metal to bend. Then, when bends were found in the material, psychic investigators immediately assumed that some kind of psychic force was at work. Later investigations showed these suppositions to be wrong, and now stricter controls are (or should be) used when testing psychic claims.

Preparing "fool-proof" containers (e.g., bags, envelopes, or boxes), which do not allow the subject access to the item contained inside, has always been a challenge. However, preventing access to the item (e.g., by placing it in a steel safe) is probably not as important as making sure that the container is "tamper-evident," meaning it is prepared in such a way that any improper attempt to open it can be easily detected. Special security items are now used to this end. The old sealing wax, for example, has been replaced by self-adhesive labels that show signs of physical tampering, such as attempts to peel it off or the application of heat or solvents. These strips also carry unique identification numbers, used to determine when someone has replaced a strip with a duplicate after opening the container.

Sealing the Tubes

Returning to our investigation of Debora Moscogiuri, Luigi and I confirmed with Gagliardi that the kind of seals he had used could be easily opened and later replaced. Therefore, we prepared a set of sealed test tubes as follows: a) an olive leaf was put into each glass test tube; b) the tubes were flame-sealed on a Bunsen burner, taking care not to scorch the leaf inside; c) each tube was numbered in several positions using a vibrating glass-etching instrument; d) each tube was checked for invisible gaps by holding it under water (in such conditions small air bubbles would escape from those imperfectly sealed); e) the tubes were weighed on a precision lab balance (tared just prior to this operation), recording all digits within a milligram of precision; f) each tube was then photographed with additional close-up lenses to record the etched number and shape of the sealed tip, where the glass had been melted.

When these tubes were slightly heated, the leaf inside gave off a few tiny droplets of water. The general look was quite different from that of oil, the total weight of course did not change, and the droplets were re-absorbed after a few days. Thus we decided not to worry about this detail. Each tube could then be identified by its weight and photograph, and each was "tamper-evident," as there is no way that glass can be melted and resealed exactly in its original shape.

Eight of these vials (numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10) were delivered to Moscogiuri through Gagliardi and Father Civerra, a Catholic priest who followed the seer. We did not know the whereabouts of the sealed tubes, nor what was happening to them at the other end of Italy.

Surprise, Surprise!

Two notable events followed. We received news from Civerra, wherein he reported a mystical vision by Moscogiuri of the Blessed Virgin: she had seen a large tongue of flame (of the Holy Ghost) approach the tubes and take one of them away, leaving just seven (the number of the Virgin's sorrows). Later, there was speculation that some of our tubes contained oil.

Through the intermediacy of Gagliardi and Civerra, we managed to get our tubes back. We then examined them during a videotaped meeting attended by both Gagliardi and Civerra. Afterward, all participants signed a statement of the results. Civerra had put the tubes we had prepared into a jar and then into a plastic bag; each of these containers had been wax-sealed. For the reasons given above, we disregarded these extra security measures and requested that only our tubes be taken out and checked. It should be noted that when asked, Civerra admitted that he had no way of verifying whether his wax seals had been tampered with and replaced.

It turned out that: a) one of the eight tubes (number 3) was missing; b) tubes 1, 2, and 7 were intact and did not contain any liquid; c) tube 4 had a broken tip that had produced a small gap, but no liquid was present; and d) tubes 6, 8, and 10 contained a yellow viscous liquid.

A comparison with the photographs of the originals showed that the tips had been melted and resealed. The shapes of the tips were clearly different. One of the tubes had been tampered with on the side, and the glass was deformed, leaving a large bubble. One tip was also slightly cracked. All three of these phials contained traces of a black substance, and the leaf was partially or completely carbonized.

It was quite apparent that some crude tampering had occurred, which was indicative not of a miracle but, on the contrary, of some sort of fraud carried out by somebody in Moscogiuri's group. However, Civerra did not accept our suggestion of fraud, claiming that he placed more trust in his own external wax seals and that any deformity in the tubes was due to the "Holy Ghost's flame" in Moscogiuri's vision.

Despite Civerra's claim, we concluded that such flame-sealed glass test tubes—prepared with the few simple control procedures described above—could actually be a useful tool in the hands of researchers testing psychokinetic abilities.

As for Debora Moscogiuri, it appears that she still claims to have visions and periodically receive messages from the Virgin Mary, but strangely enough, materializations of oil inside containers no longer take place. l


This study would not have been possible without the work of Luigi Garlaschelli.

Massimo Polidoro

Massimo Polidoro's photo

Massimo Polidoro is an investigator of the paranormal, author, lecturer, and co-founder and head of CICAP, the Italian skeptics group. His website is at