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In the Media: 2011 Activities of Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell

February 17, 2012

CSI Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell (and several of his personas—by which this report is organized) had yet another very busy year, utilizing his varied background as stage magician and mentalist, private detective for a world-famous detective agency, forensic science writer, historical document consultant, and university scholar in literature (as literary detective and folklorist). He traveled widely as always, conducting new investigations as well as lecturing, doing TV shoots, and appearing in various other media venues. For those who wish to see some of the results of their donations to CSI, read on.

Author. Nickell’s latest book, Tracking the Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More (Prometheus Books, 2011), received excellent reviews from major venues, and he promoted the book on the talk-show circuit. (However, Bigfoot Times groused, “Make no mistake about it, Nickell is a skeptic and debunker of genuine mysteries”—or did the writer mean “investigator and solver of countless former mysteries”?) He has just completed the manuscript for a new book and is at work on five others, including another children’s book.

Blogger. Since December 18, 2008, Nickell has been a regular contributor to the Center for Inquiry blog Free Thinking. His blog, called Investigative Briefs, featured some forty-five postings in 2011, consisting of field-investigation reports, editorials, and other writings for skeptics and humanists. Among his postings were “Thermal-image ‘Ghosts,’” “Mothman: the Continuing Saga,” “Trump Trumped!,” and “Turin ‘Shroud’ called ‘Supernatural.’”

Book Contributor. Among several books to which Nickell contributed in 2011 were La Scienza dei Mostri (published by the Italian skeptics group CICAP) and Who Believes in Roswell? (Nickell, with others, provided a running commentary on statistics concerning conspiracy theorists’ and skeptics’ views on the 1947 Roswell UFO incident).

Chupacabra Examiner. One of Nickell’s on-site investigations in 2011—of a “chupacabra attack” on farm animals near Springfield, Missouri—has been turned into a new episode of his YouTube video series, Joe Nickell Investigates (see also “Co-Producer,” below). Nickell actually examines and identifies the carcass of the predator, shot dead by the farmer’s stepson (see also “Slain Paranormal Investigator,” below).

Columnist. Among Nickell’s 2011 writings were his regular columns in the bimonthly Skeptical Inquirer magazine (“‘Pop’ Culture: Patent Medicines Become Soda Drinks”; “Heaven’s Stenographer: The ‘Guided’ Hand of Vassula Ryden”; “The Case of the Miracle Oil”; “The Séances of ‘Hellish Nell’: Solving the Unexplained”; “In Search of the Emerald Grail”; and “Psychic Connections: Investigating in Hungary”) as well as in the quarterly Skeptical Briefs (“The Atlanta Child Murders: Evidence vs. Psychics”; “The Doctor’s Ghostly Visitor: Tracking ‘The Girl in the Snow’”; “On a Wing and a Prayer: The Search for Guardian Angels”; and “Chinese Ape Men”).

Co-Producer. As already mentioned, a series of short videos titled Joe Nickell Investigates is being developed and posted on YouTube (the first focused on Alcatraz). The series was conceived by CFI videographer Adam Isaak; with Isaak, Nickell is a co-producer.

Cryptozoologist. As a skeptical cryptozoologist (one who studies “hidden” animals such as Bigfoot) and monster hunter, Nickell offered not only his latest book (see above) but lectures and appearances in documentaries and other venues featuring his latest investigations of aliens, chupacabra, Mothman, and many others, including the Loup-garou (a French-American werewolf).

Document Examiner. Known for his examinations of such sensational documents as the Jack the Ripper “diary” and the pre–Civil War manuscript novel The Bondwoman’s Narrative, and for his books on forgery and authentication, Nickell continued his work in the field of questioned documents. His investigative article on the writings of a “visionary” who allegedly takes dictations from Heaven appeared in SI. Also, mid-2011 brought the conviction in Germany of Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk, whose family once asked Nickell to prove his incriminating SS identity card a forgery; instead Nickell found further evidence of his guilt, and he was deposed by American OSI agents for a superior court trial that revoked Demjanjuk’s citizenship.

Ghostbuster. Halloween came with its obligatory media treatment of ghosts and with Nickell in his familiar role as ghostbuster, notably on NPR’s All Things Considered and CBS News Sunday with Charles Osgood, among numerous other venues. Nickell’s next book will be titled The Science of Ghosts.

Lecturer. Nickell lectured at a number of conferences, including SkeptiCon IV in Springfield, Missouri (“Undercover: Clandestine Paranormal Investigation”); the CFI Institute in Tallahassee (“Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal”); and at the University of Buffalo’s Science Exploration Day (“Investigating Paranormal Mysteries,” presented to three different audiences). He also spoke to Buffalo State University Freethinkers (“Investigating the Paranormal”) and to Friends of the Center at CFI in Amherst (“Quack Remedies in WNY,” with Libraries Director Tim Binga). For other short lectures, see “Panelist,” below.

Magazine Subject. Nickell appeared in several magazine features such as Esquire (UK), Buffalo Spree, and Extra (Italy). (For the latter see “Profilee” below.)

Miracle Detective. Well known as an investigator of miracle claims (he was an inspiration for Hilary Swank’s role as such in The Reaping), Nickell appeared on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Network’s Miracle Detectives debunking oil-exuding effigies he examined in a California home. He also investigated other miracle claims and discussed related topics on various venues; for example, how the Vatican “investigates” alleged miracles (NPR); exorcisms (USA Today); the “miraculous” image on the Turin “Shroud” (MSNBC online); and stigmata (Smithsonian Magazine blog).

Movie Critic. As a blogger (see above), Nickell occasionally reviews movies with a relevance to skepticism and humanism. His 2011 critiques—of such movies as The Rite (about exorcism), The Illusionist, Paul (about a captured and escaped ET), The First Grader (an inspiring story of human values), Cowboys and Aliens, Anonymous (see “Shakespeare Defender,” below), and many more—are called “Nickell-odeon Reviews” and rated not with the usual stars but with Nickell’s trademark wooden nickels (which he gives out as business cards).

Newspaper Interviewee. A number of newspapers, large and small, interviewed Nickell on a wide variety of topics: USA Today (on exorcism, prompted by a new film starring Anthony Hopkins); Arkansas Gazette (ghost hunters); Miami Herald (psychic medium Chip Coffey); the Durham, North Carolina, Herald-Sun (on near-death experiences); the Jamestown, New York, Post-Journal (ghost hunting); the Wilmington, North Carolina, Star News (psychic Noreen Renier); the Buffalo News (“Monster Mania”); Japan’s Mainichi newspaper (“American Life: Living with Ghosts”); and the New York Daily News (on the 2012 apocalypse supposedly predicted by the Mayan calendar).

Panelist. The panels on which Nickell appeared included—in addition to the 2011 CFI Leadership Conference’s “Decades of Leadership” (with Ronald Lindsay, Thomas Flynn, Barry Karr, and Andrea Szalanski)—“Skepticism on TV” and “Ethics of Paranormal Investigation” at TAM9; “The Investigators” and “Louisiana Folklore and Fakelore” at CSIcon in New Orleans; and three panels at Dragon*Con in Atlanta including, in addition to a “chat” and a wrap-up panel, one titled “Skepticism and the Humanities.”

Podcast Guest. Numerous podcasts featured Nickell as their guest. These included Skeptic Zone in Australia, Paranormal Podcast, Monster Talk, SETI’s Are We Alone?, and CFI’s Point of Inquiry, among others, including The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

Profilee. A major profile of Nickell appeared in a color spread in Italy’s Extra magazine written by Massimo Polidoro and titled “Il detective dell’ impossible” (“The Detective of the Impossible”). Also, NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor gave a salute to Nickell with a two-paragraph profile on December 1, his birthday. And the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences website profiled alumnus Nickell under the heading “Curiously Inclined.”

Publisher’s Reader. Nickell’s expertise in the paranormal is sought in many ways. For example, publishers sometimes commission him to read new book manuscripts and report on their worthiness to be published. In 2012 he gave a thumbs-up to a book on historical hoaxes and another on the search for extraterrestrial life.

Radio Talk-Show Guest. As usual, Nickell appeared on numerous radio shows: Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson (on ghostbusting—live by hookup from New Orleans on Halloween eve); Northeast Pennsylvania’s WIOK (on spontaneous human combustion); Yankton, South Dakota’s KYNT (re near-death experiences); Culture Shocks with Barry Lynn (debating Mack Maloney, author of UFOs in Wartime); Milton Rosenberg’s Chicago radio show (on the paranormal); WECK’s Edge of the Unknown (investigating the paranormal); Rob Breckinridge’s show in Alberta, Canada (The Shroud of Turin); and SETI’s Are We Alone? and Buffalo’s WBFO (both on his book Tracking the Man-Beasts).

Shakespeare Defender. One of Nickell’s most controversial efforts was his cover story, “Did Shakespeare write ‘Shakespeare’?,” in Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Editor Ken Frazier notes that it generated an abundance of reader response—some favorable, some criticizing Nickell for his penetrating ridicule of the “anti-Stratfordian” position, namely that only an “aristocrat” could have written the Shakespearean canon. Writing in the Guardian, Simon Hoggart called Nickell’s article “splendid” and Skeptical Inquirer “admirable.”

“Slain Paranormal Investigator.” An episode of the TV series Bones featured the ostensible death by chupacabra (but actually a careless shooting and coverup) of a Nickell-like character, with elements closely paralleling his book The Mystery Chronicles (which pictures a chupacabra on the front cover).

Television Guest. Nickell was interviewed, as usual, for a number of television shows, including three episodes of National Geographic’s The Truth Behind . . . (on the Crystal Skull, UFOs, and King Arthur); one episode of the Oprah Winfrey Network’s The Miracle Detectives (on “Mysterious Oils”); three for William Shatner’s Weird or What? (on spontaneous human combustion, demonic possession, and psychic detection); three for Canadian television’s The Conspiracy Show (on past lives, alien abductions, and the Beast of Bray Road); and a prominent pre-Halloween appearance on CBS News Sunday (on ghosts and ghost hunting). He also appeared in the reruns of many documentaries produced in earlier years.

Turin “Shroud” Expert. New claims regarding the image on the infamous Shroud of Turin—that it has characteristics suggestive of a burst of high-intensity radiant energy at the moment of Jesus’ supposed resurrection—drew Nickell into the fray. Notable was his interview by Alan Boyle for an online MSNBC article—“Was Holy Shroud created in a flash? Italian researchers resurrect claim”—which soon had Nickell and a shroud scientist engaged in a running debate. At one point Nickell suggested his opponent “stop slashing carelessly with Occam’s razor.”

UFOlogist. As a longtime skeptical researcher of flying saucers, Nickell has teamed up with fellow UFO expert Major James McGaha, an astronomer and former military pilot, to continue to research important cases. Their solution to the forty-five-year-old mystery known as the Exeter Incident appeared in the November/December 2011 Skeptical Inquirer, and more of their combined work is forthcoming.

Workshop Conductor. For the James Randi Educational Foundation’s The Amaz!ng Meeting in Las Vegas, Nickell conducted a well-attended workshop on “Problems in Paranormal Investigation” in addition to appearing on two panels.

“Zombie.” Investigating the popular topic of zombies, Nickell even appeared as an extra in a zombie movie (having previously written about his experiences and research in SI’s special issue on “Monster Mayhem” [Nov./Dec. 2010] and in his book, Tracking the Man-Beasts).

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

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