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Hunting Monsters, Chasing Ghosts

(photo by Christina Shaw)

The marvelous life of detective Joe Nickell

In July 13, 2003, several UFOs appeared above Buffalo. The objects, five or six bright lights, hung weirdly in the summer sky. Each was a luminous disc, strange but unmistakable.

The observer who spied the UFOs was a 29-year-old carpenter named Jack Szeglowski, who was playing with his daughter in the yard behind his home in Buffalo’s Kaisertown neighborhood.

They were jumping on a trampoline, and Szeglowski “got a little worked up,” as he would later recall.

He lay down on his back to relax. That’s when he saw them: those saucers, studding the sky.

The objects were easily discernible—it was a relatively clear afternoon, and they were shining vividly. Clustered together, they moved in a synchronized fashion that suggested orchestrated activity.

Szeglowski grabbed an eight-millimeter video camera and began to record. He was a sober-minded individual. He viewed alien life as a mathematical probability given the size of the universe, but he didn’t think extraterrestrials were zipping around Earth in spaceships. That seemed unlikely.

What, then, were those lights?

Szeglowski phoned his discovery in to the Shredd and Ragan radio show on WEDG. The hosts knew just whom to call.

Soon after, the case landed on the desk of Joe Nickell, paranormal investigator.

Nickell, 67, is a spirited sleuth with a frank demeanor and a crown of thinning gray hair. A pronounced arch in his eyebrows conveys curiosity. Discerning eyes behold the world from behind wire-framed glasses.

Since 1995, Nickell has investigated all manner of exotic happenings as the staff detective of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), a rationalist group in the Buffalo suburb of Amherst

He may be the only professional of his kind in the world, salaried by a reputable organization to travel the planet on the trail of monsters, mystics, and miracles.

“I’ve had a very interesting life,” he said one afternoon, holding forth in his usual unabashed, no-nonsense manner. Around him in his office rose stacks of books with names like The Apocrypha and The Encyclopedia of Ghosts.

CSI Executive Director Barry Karr, a long-time confidant, calls Nickell a “walking encyclopedia” of paranormal claims, and the world seems to agree. Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, and Anderson Cooper have consulted Nickell as an expert. The New Yorker published a nine-page profile in 2002, describing Nickell as “a sharp-tongued and amiably pompous old gumshoe.”

As an affiliate of the renowned Center for Inquiry, CSI supports scientific scrutiny and critical investigation of fringe claims, religious phenomena and more.

At the heart of Nickell’s work lie questions central to the human experience: Are heaven and ghosthood real? What happens after we die?

If flying saucers hail from alien worlds, we’re not alone in the universe. If clairvoyance is genuine, there are people among us who can divine the future.

Few matters carry more weight. So far, however, Nickell has encountered nothing science can’t explain.

And yet, the stories he has to tell are strange and wonderful—extraordinary tales where spirits, phantoms, and marvelous beasts turn out, through Sherlock Holmes-type deduction, to have the most ordinary of explanations.

In one investigation involving relics stored in Catholic churches, Nickell sought to learn why samples of saints’ congealed blood would inexplicably liquefy. Eyewitnesses accounts endorsed the phenomenon, dating back several centuries.

Nickell was suspicious. Though 20 or so examples of the mysterious blood existed, “virtually every one of them is found in the Naples area,” he wrote in Adventures in Paranormal Investigation, a compendium of cases he helped solve. “Such proliferation seems less suggestive of the miraculous and more indicative of some regional secret.”

With a forensic analyst named John F. Fischer, Nickell set out to recreate the divine effect—without godly intervention.

Mixing olive oil, pigment, and beeswax, the two men came up with a simple solution. They formulated a substance that stayed solid when cold but melted in the vicinity of body heat or candles.

Could the holy relics be something similar?

Not long after Nickell and Fischer completed their experiments, an Italian scientist reportedly submerged a vial of the “blood” of St. Lorenzo in warm water. The coagulated contents reddened and thinned, corroborating the warming hypothesis.

The book in which Nickell reported these findings is about one of 30 he has authored or edited. Others carry such tantalizing titles as Secrets of the Sideshows and Tracking the Man-Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies, and More. Several volumes are how-to guides on topics like forensics and authenticating documents, an area in which Nickell is a recognized expert.

It’s a catalogue of works that speaks to a lifelong fixation with sniffing out facts and unraveling secrets.

From the time he was a boy, Nickell was preoccupied by a thrilling idea: that the world is not always as it seems—that there is a truth beyond what our senses discern.

He loved ciphers of every variety. He was curious as hell. When he came across a code, he wanted to crack it. When he saw someone pick a lock, he wanted to learn the trick.

“I wanted to know how these wonders were done,” he said. He continued: “I developed an idea that secrets, mysteries, were not meant to be hyped and exaggerated and kept [from others] and hustled…I had the idea that mysteries were meant to be investigated and solved, because they would teach us things.”

He knew, he said, by the age of eight that he wanted to be some kind of detective.

Growing up in the Appalachian town of West Liberty, Kentucky, he was a bookish child whose favorite reads included Dick Tracy comics and Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

His mother, Ella Kathleen, was a bookkeeper and high school valedictorian, and his father, J. Wendell, a postmaster and amateur magician. Both prized curiosity, and they indulged Nickell’s passion for sleuthing by helping him build a home crime lab with kits for dusting fingerprints and concocting invisible inks.

A cloud of fingerprinting powder trailed Nickell from room to room as he investigated, a visible manifestation of the intensity that friends would later pinpoint as one of Nickell’s most salient traits. He attacked his work with fervor; his attitude was all-or-nothing. (Karr remembers how once, during a trip to the South with Nickell, “I asked, ‘What are grits?’ And [Joe] gave me, like, a 10-minute dissertation on how to make grits.”)

As Nickell honed his talents as a boy detective, he also immersed himself in a second pursuit: conjuring illusions.

His tools in the endeavor included a Gilbert magic set and a black magician’s mustache that he would attach with Spirit gum. His father was his teacher, imparting secrets of the trade.

Magic, like detective work, was an art of observation, so the choice of pastimes made sense. Nickell devoted himself fanatically to each, and through them, learned a pair of valuable truths.

First, he came to understand that there is more to the world than what we see, that even the sanest mind can be deceived. Secondly, he discovered that it was possible to get to the bottom of things—to unveil the trick behind an illusion, or to reconstruct a crime scene with clues.

These maxims would stay with him for the rest of his life. They would fuel his infatuation with mystery, but they would also make him a gentler investigator.

Today, he is a skeptic, but he says he’s not the heartless debunker who dismisses all paranormal believers as gullible fools.

“I’ve in fact talked to alien abductees and I can tell you that many of them are not crazy,” Nickell said. “They’re not mentally ill in any way. They’re sane, they’re normal. They’ve had an experience. They’re not lying…So what is it?”

Nickell hesitated at first when the request to investigate UFOs over Buffalo came to him in July 2003.

He was busy fielding other inquiries. A cluster of crop circles had materialized on a California farm (a prank), and an image of the Virgin Mary had appeared in the window of a Massachusetts hospital (a discoloration from a chemical reaction).

Twenty-five thousand pilgrims had reportedly visited the Madonna in a single weekend. Szeglowski’s UFOs, by comparison, seemed a trifle.

“UFOs are real—that is, they really are something unidentified in the sky, and there are videos of them,” Nickell said. “But it doesn’t in any way mean that they’re extraterrestrial craft or that they’re anything mysterious—just that you and I don’t know what they are.”

Ultimately, Nickell agreed to take the case.

He soon clarified one puzzling phenomenon: the lights’ propensity to blink in concert. A video expert explained that the behavior was routine. The flickering was actually a camera effect, produced when the camcorder refocused during filming.

To study the UFOs themselves, Nickell cobbled together an informal squad and circulated the video.

The team determined that the objects could not be stars or planets, given the speed they were moving. Birds and satellites were also out of the question.

One clue came from the position of the sun: It was shining from behind the camera, which meant the UFOs were likely reflecting, and not radiating, light.

Weather balloons, a common culprit in flying saucer sightings, came up. But this theory, too, was quickly rejected. An intern Nickell consulted happened to be studying meteorology and felt confident that the lights in the sky were not weather instruments.

As the group ruled out more possibilities, a picture began to form in Nickell’s mind. He thought he knew what the objects were.

The detective was in the thick of a mystery. It was just where he liked to be.

Nickell is, by appearance, an ordinary man, with a matter-of-fact sartorial style to match his candid manner. In his time-worn sportcoat and black slacks, he doesn’t look the role of an adventurer.

But then, on a drab and icy December day, with a cold rain lashing the windows and a panoply of fluorescent bulbs burning weakly overhead, he begins to recount his intrigues and exploits. The words come tumbling out, the stories take shape, and the room itself seems to brighten.

You are mesmerized. You see that he has lived the lives of many men. He has hunted for lake monsters on two continents, sought out the graves of vampires, unmasked phony psychics, and read the flattened wheat of crop circles for signs of hoaxers.

But his adventures began long before he became known for his paranormal work. Past vocations and avocations include blackjack dealer, map illustrator, balloon sculptor, newspaper stringer, bear-catcher’s sidekick, and bodyguard. He is practiced in the art of forgery. Once, many years ago, he managed a riverboat.

It’s his way, he said, of cheating death. His wife, Diana, finds it brave. She thinks that more of us would be like Nickell—if only we had the heart to pursue our dreams.

“We’re not just one persona naturally,” Diana said, noting that she knows Nickell best as a poet, another of his motley identities. “Children are just bubbling over with interests and enthusiasms and passions. They’re just—whew!—exploring everything…I think that’s an incredibly human condition.”

One might trace Nickell’s itinerant lifestyle—and his fascination with the paranormal—to Toronto in the late 1960s. He was a fugitive then, a war resister on the lam from the US government for evading the Vietnam draft.

Separated from his family, Nickell sought comfort in a childhood love. On Saturdays, in some out-of-the-way Toronto pub, he would practice coin tricks and other sleights of hand under the tutelage of Norman Houghton, an inveterate beer-drinker and wizened old magician.

“I can, to this day, hear Norm saying to me, ‘No. No. Not like that,’” Nickell said. “‘Let me show you again.’”

Soon, Nickell was hired as the resident magician at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada, where he perfected a one-minute straitjacket escape and other feats. The setting rekindled Nickell’s interest in a lesser-known aspect of Houdini’s career: employing an eye for trickery to expose fraudulent spiritualists, like mediums who claimed to speak for the dead.

Already a stuntman in Houdini’s mold, Nickell looked to tread in the footsteps of his old role model once more—this time as an investigator of seers and charlatans and ghosts.

Not long before, in 1969, Nickell had sat in on his first paranormal event: a CBC radio séance to contact the spirit of Houdini. The famed escape artist was a no-show, and Nickell’s bullshit detector went off.

He adopted paranormal sleuthing as a hobby, and then embarked on a string of esoteric careers that helped him hone his gift for observation.

The first of these gigs was at a world-famous detective agency, where Nickell trailed suspects, infiltrated a warehouse theft ring, and monitored bartenders believed to be pocketing money. He said he’s forbidden to reveal the name of the firm, but he describes the office with language worthy of an old crime flick: a place “that kept stacks of cash and pistols” in a safe.

After leaving his job as a private eye, Nickell crisscrossed the continent, unanchored. He panned gold in Canada’s Yukon Territory and attended stunt school in California (after President Jimmy Carter pardoned draft resistors in 1977).

Everywhere he went, he was a greenhorn; he would work meticulously to master a trade, and then, when he had, he would abandon it for something new.

This drifter’s existence suited Nickell. His hometown of West Liberty was a rural community where specialists were rare. Consequently, Nickell had always believed—correctly—that he would grow not into a single occupation, but many.

There was one alter ego, however, that he hung onto through the years.

Ever since the Houdini séance, Nickell had been moonlighting as an investigator of supernatural claims. He began with routine hauntings but soon moved on to higher profile cases—international mysteries like the Nazca lines, a set of enormous drawings scratched into the desert floor of Peru. The etchings were relics of the country’s 1,500-year-old Nazca civilization. Many took the shape of animals, like a monkey or lizard. Some were longer than a football field.

Paranormal enthusiasts, convinced that the Nazca could not have produced the symbols using only simple tools, theorized that the society had outside help—from extraterrestrials. One popular conclusion was that the lines were ancient alien runways.

To Nickell, this argument seemed wild. Employing a landfill in West Liberty as a giant sketchbook, he set out to prove that the Nazca could have created the artwork alone.

The team he convened for the project included his cousins, Jim, John, and Sid; his nephew, Conrad; and his father, J. Wendell, who commissioned a pilot for aerial photography.

On August 7, 1982, the crew successfully copied one of the larger Nazca drawings, a 440-foot condor, without modern technology. Their methodology was elegant: They used twine and wooden stakes to map the icon, plotting important points in relation to a center line.

The feat made Nickell a sensation in the world of skeptics. Scientific American covered the news, remarking on the “exactness” of the replica.

Thirty years later, Nickell still tells the story with a light in his eye.

“He likes talking about the business,” said Karr, of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

“Going to a conference, you’ll find him holding court with some people, because people know him,” Karr said. “Within the movement, he’s a celeb.”

Nickell’s detective credentials include a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky, where he specialized in literary investigation. As a scholar, he has authenticated letters from George Washington and helped identify the purported diary of Jack the Ripper as a fake.

Some people view these academic studies as the more “serious” side of Nickell’s work, but he doesn’t see it that way. He thinks questioning the supernatural is truly important. A 2009 Pew Research Center survey reported that one in five Americans had “seen or been in the presence” of a ghost—double the proportion in 1996. A quarter believed in astrology. In a world where faith and spiritualism hold such allure, Nickell implores people to examine evidence—to act with the mind and not the gut.

Last Halloween, he explained to National Public Radio that one of ghost-hunters’ favorite gizmos—electromagnetic field detectors—don’t really pick up signs of ghosts; even in abandoned houses, he said, signals abound from sources like nearby microwave towers.

In an article this March, he gave the Buffalo News this account of why the Shroud of Turin—the purported burial cloth of Jesus Christ—is nothing supernatural: “It’s the work of a confessed medieval forger done in France in the middle of the 14th century using red ochre and vermilion tempera as part of a faith-healing scam.”

He has written a book and articles that draw on scientific and historical documentation to back up those claims.

When Jack Szeglowski spotted those UFOs above Buffalo, it was one of those rare moments in life that sparkle with astonishment, when the world seems steeped in mystery.

“I’m looking at it, and I’m not sure what I’m seeing,” Szeglowski said, remembering the sighting nine years later. “They seemed to be lights at the time, with little auras around them.”

Nickell thought the UFOs were balloons—the common, quotidian variety that might festoon a summer wedding or other outdoor soirée.

“He can often come up with a simple solution to a complex problem,” his wife, Diana, said.

Balloons agreed with the facts. One investigator had commented that the UFOs seemed to be floating (not flying), and weather records had matched the objects’ movement to the pattern of the wind.

On a warm day at the end of July 2003, Nickell and his colleagues sent a handful of white helium balloons soaring into the sky. The result was so convincing that many people thought a video of the operation was Szeglowski’s UFO film.

Szeglowski said that while the experiment did not explain one thing he witnessed—why the UFOs appeared to drift toward one another at times—he accepts the balloon hypothesis. Ballons had crossed his mind as well, and he concedes that the mystery motion may have been a trick of perception.

What he says next, about alien reconnaisance of Earth, is a breath of fresh air for skeptics like Nickell who have spent a lifetime scrutinizing such events.

“Prove to me that it happens, and I’ll believe it,” Szeglowski said. “I’m not like, ‘There’s no way,’ but I personally haven’t seen any evidence.”

Nickell’s investigations, in many cases, do little to sway believers in monsters and miracles.

The origins of the Shroud of Turin are still hotly contested. Alien abductees insist that their kidnappings really happened, despite Nickell’s observation that many such victims seem prone to fantasy, exhibiting traits like susceptibility to hypnosis and vivid hallucinations. A man who has communed with the ghost of his recently departed mother doesn’t necessarily want to hear that the episode was only a waking dream.

“People who want very, very much for there to be ghosts get angry,” Nickell said. “What happens, I think, with the paranormal belief side is that people are not really thinking with the organ above the neck, the brain. They’re not really weighing the evidence. What they’re doing is they’re feeling it about here”—he points at his chest—”somewhere viscerally.”

Often, it’s impossible to disprove a paranormal event conclusively. A person spots a sasquatch or meets a phantom—and then, in a matter of moments, the encounter is over. The memory becomes ingrained, but the details are difficult to recreate. There are no other witnesses. The event may not even exist in the real world; only in the mind.

The pull of belief, of a person’s convictions, is a sentiment that Nickell understands. His mother was religious—an ardent follower of a Disciples of Christ congregation, and perhaps because of her influence, Nickell never wanted to be known as a hardline debunker.

He considers himself a humanist, which he defines as “an atheist with a heart.” He despises fakes and frauds, but in general, he believes in a kinder brand of skepticism—one that doesn’t spurn all believers as hoaxers and dolts.

He knows firsthand the allure of mystery. His office is a storehouse of peculiar treasures, a shrine to his lifelong obsession with the weird and magical. Trinkets collected over the years include a snake-charmer’s flute, a Congolese nail fetish, a plaster-cast bigfoot track, spirit trumpets and crystal skulls.

By investigating the occult, he said, we may “find something quite interesting that tells us about ourselves and our world.”

“The paranormal promises very big things,” he said. “If ghosts exist,” he offered as an example, “then we don’t really die.”

That doesn’t mean Nickell thinks that there’s a 50-50 chance that he’s going to find something strange every time he hunts down a lake monster or chases a ghost. Based on 40 years of probing and the laws of physics, he doubts he’ll ever encounter a truly supernatural phenomenon.

But the true meaning of skepticism is to always question, he said—to stay open to different possibilites, to welcome whatever the world may hold.

Charlotte Hsu is a freelance contributor to Artvoice. A former reporter for the Las Vegas Sun, she now works in the University at Buffalo’s communications office. She writes about Buffalo at buffalostoryproject.com.

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