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- The many careers of Joe Nickell, paranormal investigator.
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As we talked, Nickell reached across the counter and pulled out a test tube that was half filled with a congealed, reddish-brown substance. In the early fourteenth century, the Cathedral of Naples, in Italy, began to covet one sacred relic above all others: the blood of St.
Januarius, or San Gennaro. This blood, sealed inside an ornate reliquary, is said to remain perfectly solid until a priest who is truly inspired by God prays over it. Only then does the blood begin to flow. The effect has baffled generations of observers—even if it can be explained scientifically, how could a medieval Italian have achieved it? After nearly three years of research, they hit upon a solution.
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By heating olive oil and beeswax in a double boiler, combining the liquids in precise quantities, and adding some iron oxide as a dye, they could make a blood-red liquid that would congeal in the cool air of a church vault. He took the tube from his left hand, where he had been warming it, and gave it a quick shake. The Cathedral would not allow the blood to be removed from its vial for testing. Although he has an abiding contempt for paranormal frauds, he feels a certain kinship with true believers. His mother was a devout member of the Disciples of Christ, and he knows, at first hand, the appeal of unreasonable devotion.
Edgar Hoover, he grew to despise what the government stood for. He opposed the Vietnam War, even when his older brother became a captain in the Marines. When he was finally called for military service, in , he fled to Canada. It was in Toronto that he fell back on the tricks he had learned as a boy. In later years, he headed out to the Yukon Territory, where he dealt cards, prospected for gold, ran riverboats, and m. There is a picture of Nickell in those days, slouched against a wall in a magic-and-novelty shop, with a cigarette hanging from his lips. His body is thin and rangy, and his face has a wolfish look, with small, bright, eager eyes.
Magic is really the art of deception, so magicians tend to be the first to spot a fraud. Houdini was so disillusioned by his attempts to contact his dead mother that he offered five thousand dollars to anyone who could demonstrate true supernatural powers. They quickly exposed psychics like Uri Geller, who claimed that he could bend silverware with his mind.
When Geller visited the staff of Time , Randi posed as a reporter and caught him bending a fork by hand. Nickell himself toyed with tarot cards as a young man, but the claims for the paranormal soon grew too suspect for him to ignore. Inspired by Houdini, he set about investigating some local superstitions.
In Toronto, for instance, he showed that the haunted footsteps in the infamous Mackenzie House were really coming from a late-night cleaning crew in the building next door. But he soon got tired of dabbling. He wanted to master detective work, to study it like a science—and to keep getting paid for putting on disguises.
He was ready to be a paranormal investigator. It was hard to believe such gatherings exist, but the skeptics, for once, had quelled their doubts and made the pilgrimage. The Hilton convention center had three large halls devoted to sessions on creationism, urban legends, fringe psychotherapies, and other topics.
The many careers of Joe Nickell, paranormal investigator.
Many of the speakers were eminent scientists—Marvin Minsky, a world authority on artificial intelligence, gave the keynote address—and the assembled mind power was impressive. Still, attendance was disappointing. I asked Ray Hyman, who is now a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Oregon, why his colleagues were so few, so old, and so predominantly white and male.
He shook his head sadly. Science is hardly a safeguard against gullibility, he added. Some of the most persuasive kooks are those who have mastered one area of research and presume to make pronouncements about another. The chemist Linus Pauling, for example, won two Nobel Prizes yet spent the last years of his life touting vitamin C as a cure-all.
Humans have evolved to be a credulous species, Hyman concluded. Skeptics can take an almost unseemly pleasure in this characterization. In one session of the conference, a jittery British psychologist named Richard Wiseman showed a videotape of a study he had done on firewalking. Skeptics had previously demonstrated that almost anyone can cross fifteen or twenty feet of live coals without burning his feet. Such triumphs are rare, though. The conference was largely a tale of futility—of brave but overmatched skeptics piling up sandbags of logic to slow a never-ending tide of credulity.
Peru has too many psychics, France too many aromatherapists, and the Netherlands too many fad diseases. When I asked an Indian skeptic what problems his country was facing, he chuckled. These are men who say they are gods. We have hundreds, thousands. Late that night, back in my hotel room, I gave my mother a call.
By looking at both palms, he could tell that I had been born with a weak heart but had strengthened it through exercise. I was about to go on when my mother interrupted. But she ignored me. I had a great-aunt, she said, who went to Germany as a refugee from Romania and had a powerful sixth sense. After the war, when most of her family was starving, she made a good living reading coffee grounds for the wives of missing soldiers.
My great-grandmother had a similar gift. One night during the First World War, when her son Josef was off fighting in France, she awoke to the sound of footsteps in the house. Heart-stricken, she roused her husband and told him that she had heard a ghost. The Army later confirmed that he had been killed that night. Tap the surface of almost any family history and such stories will pop out like secret compartments in an old jewelry chest.
We are born believers, as Hyman said, apt to affix meaning to all our coincidences. She believes in an intuitive bond between parents and children and those of great sensitivity—a sixth sense of the vaguest sort—and in the limits of modern science to perceive it.
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Her stories exasperated me at first, but there was comfort in them, too, a relief from all the smug certainties of the conference. Kole looks like a more ascetic Pat Boone, fastidiously groomed and remarkably preserved for a sixty-five-year-old. Part of the year, he lives in Arizona and designs illusions for David Copperfield; the rest of the time he travels the world, performing his own magic and exposing the tricks of local charlatans. Kole has debunked witch doctors in Uganda, faith healers in India, and psychic surgeons in the Philippines, often to crowds of many thousands.
At the end of every show, he makes a pitch for the one magician whose miracles, he says, cannot be explained away: Jesus Christ. When I asked Kole why he had come to the conference, he shrugged. Then he fixed me with the same unblinking eyes that have mesmerized crowds in Calcutta. And what value is there in gaining the whole world if you lose your own soul? Hunched over a bowl of granola and yogurt in the hotel restaurant the next morning, Nickell looked tired and uneasy. Yet the conference was a kind of crossroads for him—an intersection of two careers, two philosophies of life, that once seemed parallel.
For his Ph.
Book Review: Waiting for Joe, by Sandra Birdsell | National Post
Legend holds that Bierce went to Mexico and never came back. Nickell argued that the author committed suicide in a canyon along the Colorado River, using a German revolver that he had long carried for that purpose. He soon found, though, that English departments had little need for a literary detective, much less a paranormal investigator. For the next twenty years, Nickell did his best to scratch a livelihood from his obscure fields of expertise.
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During the school year, he took adjunct teaching jobs at the university; in the summer, he investigated the paranormal and wrote books about what he found. It was too shaky and peripatetic a life to allow for marriage, he says. Twelve years later, Kurtz persuaded Nickell to move to Buffalo and join the committee full time.
Yet Nickell has begun to feel like a heretic of late. Nickell would rather leave his options open. He was walking down some stairs one afternoon, not long after investigating the statue of a local saint, which was said to protect those who embrace it, when his left leg suddenly crumpled beneath him.
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When he told them, between gasps, that he thought he had broken his leg, they were dubious. Another told him to try wiggling his toes. Har har har. I think the chances are closer to Not only are they chockful of simple-sentence wisdom and innocent questions about their wondrous new land, they share their rice bowl with Joe while telling him about their tragic pasts.
Joe and the immigrants then together have a tragic experience that instead proves miraculous, inspiring Joe to feel hope for the future.