Joe Nickell (1944–) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1944, in Lexington, KY; Education: University of Kentucky, B.A., 1967, M.A., 1982, Ph.D., 1987. Hobbies and other interests: Collecting antique writing materials.
Office—Center for Inquiry, P.O. Box 703, Amherst, NY 14226.
Paranormal investigator, author, and educator. Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Washington, DC, volunteer worker in Carroll County, GA, 1967–68; professional stage magician in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1968–73; private investigator with Toronto agency, 1973–75; Dawson City Museum, Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada, museologist, 1975–76; freelance investigative writer, beginning 1976; University of Kentucky, Lexington, instructor in technical writing, 1980–95; Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, Amherst, NY, senior research fellow, 1995–. Presenter at conferences; lecturer at colleges and universities, including University of Kentucky, Heidelberg University, Old Dominion University, Yale University, Colgate University, University of Ghent, University of Toronto, University of Brussels, University of California at Berkeley, and California Institute of Technology. Has appeared on numerous radio and television programs.
Historical Confederation of Kentucky (member of executive committee, 1988–95), Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (technical consultant, 1984–88; member of executive council, 1988).
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal fellow, 1988–2005.
(And illustrator) The Magic Detectives, Prometheus Books (Buffalo, NY), 1989.
(And illustrator) Wonderworkers! How They Perform the Impossible, Prometheus Books (Buffalo, NY), 1991.
Inquest on the Shroud of Turin, Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY), 1983, reprinted, 1998.
(With John F. Fischer) Secrets of the Supernatural, Prometheus Books (Buffalo, NY), 1988.
Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1990.
Ambrose Bierce Is Missing, and Other Historical Mysteries, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1992, published as Unsolved History: Investigating Mysteries of the Past, 2005.
(With Robert A. Baker) Missing Pieces: How to Investigate Ghosts, UFOs, Psychics, and Other Mysteries, Prometheus Books (Buffalo, NY), 1992.
Looking for a Miracle: Weeping Icons, Relics, Stigmata, Visions, and Healing Cures, Prometheus Books (Buffalo, NY), 1993.
(Editor) Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases, Prometheus Books (Buffalo, NY), 1994.
Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1994.
Entities: Angels, Spirits, Demons, and Other Alien Beings, Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY), 1995.
Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1996.
(Editor with Kendrick Frazier and Barry Karr) The UFO Invasion: The Roswell Incident, Alien Abductions, and Government Coverups, Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY), 1997.
(With John F. Fischer) Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 1999.
Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2001, published as Investigating the Paranormal, Fine Communications (New York, NY), 2004.
The Kentucky Mint Julep, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2003.
The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2004.
Secrets of the Sideshows, University Press of Kentucky (Lexington, KY), 2005.
Contributor to periodicals, including Popular Photography, Journal of Police Science and Administration, Law Enforcement Technology, Indiana Folklore, Journal of Forensic Identification, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Canada West, Filson Club History Quarterly, International Journal of Forensic Document Examiners, Humanist, Fate, Science et Vie, Skeptical Inquirer, American Rationalist, Performing Arts in Canada, Christian Life, Current Anthropology, Fire and Arson Investigator, Lincoln Herald, Appalachian Heritage, Free Inquiry, Journal of Kentucky Studies, Identification News, Manuscripts, and Behavioral and Social Sciences Librarian.
In addition to a career in document analysis that has prompted him to write the books Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective and Detecting Forgery: Forensic Investigation of Documents, Joe Nickell has been described by New Yorker writer Burkhard Bilger as "the country's most accomplished investigator of the paranormal." In his job as senior researcher for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSCIOP), Nickell attends séances, healing services, and other events wherein connections with otherworldly entities are claimed to occur. He also publishes a column in Skeptical Inquirer, which is published by CSICOP, an organization founded in 1976 to evaluate paranormal and pseudoscientific claims within a rational framework. Nickell stands as a skeptic in a world in which, according to Bilger, "half of all Americans believe in E.S.P., more than forty per cent believe in demonic possession and haunted houses, and about a third believe in astrology, clairvoyance, and ghosts." Not surprisingly, Nickell's books Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal and The UFO Invasion: The Roswell Incident, Alien Abductions, and Government Coverups have gained a teen readership due to their fascinating premise, while Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection has an attraction to fans of the mega-popular CSI television series.
In Real-Life X-Files, as well as its sequel, The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files, Nickell collects dozens of articles he has written for Skeptical Inquirer magazine that debunk claims of paranormal activity. In addition to research, Nickell describes on-site experiences that range from visits to crop circles to meetings with spiritualists and witnessing stigmata and other seemingly unearthly manifestations. In Booklist George Eberhart noted that "skeptical teens will enjoy the debunking of these 'paranormal'" phenomena, an activity that is approached in a serious manner in Real-Life X-Files. Also praising Nickell's reasoned approach in studying everything from mind-reading dogs to haunted houses, Skeptical Inquirer reviewer Kendrick Frazier wrote that the investigator "demonstrates the power of his neither too-credulous nor too-dismissive attitude" in the process of revealing far more plausible explanations for these unusual events.
Nickell told SATA: "In my childhood I wanted to be many things—magician, detective, museum curator, artist, and writer, among others—and I played at being each. For example, with a glued-on mustache and a kit of tricks, I gave magical performances in my grandmother's parlor. An extra upstairs room in our home became alternately a 'crime lab,' 'museum,' 'artist's studio,' and so on.
"I grew up to do all these things and more, becoming (as one source dubbed me) 'a man with a hundred faces.' I call them personas. Growing up, I worked as a popcorn vendor, surveyor's chainman, sign painter, and (in high school) athletic trainer and scoreboard operator.
"At one time or another, I have been a carnival pitchman, stage magician (I was resident magician at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada, from 1970 to 1972), clown, political cartoonist, black-jack dealer, freelance broadcaster, prospector, riverboat manager, museum-exhibit designer, armed guard, movie extra, and many more, including private investigator (with undercover 'roles' such as mail clerk, steelworker, lens polisher, forklift driver, tavern waiter, and shipper-receiver). I also have an avocation as a questioned-document examiner, having been involved in many famous cases of suspected historical texts.
"I am currently a paranormal investigator—perhaps the only full-time, salaried one in the world—meaning I am alternately (as a skeptic) a ghost hunter, UFOlogist, cryptozoologist (one who studies unknown animals like Bigfoot), etc. As part of this work, I am an investigative writer for Skeptical Inquirer science magazine, which occasionally finds me also wearing the hats of illustrator, photographer, and proofreader.
"Even as a writer, I've been something of a chameleon: children's author, poet, forensic-science writer, carnival historian, editor, advertising copywriter, columnist, newspaper stringer, historical reporter, and so on.
"Why have I done so many things? Like every child, I think, I had changing ideas of what I wanted to be when I 'grew up.' Maybe I never really grew up. But since I began to think of myself primarily as an author (which kept me from having an identity crisis!), it made sense to try on different 'costumes,' so to speak (sometimes quite literally), in order to learn about people and the world. I have been able to view life from different windows, different perspectives, and thus to learn more about myself as well. In fact, I believe the most creative thing one can do is to shape one's own life, not merely to drift along at the mercy of circumstances. I realize I've been very fortunate to be able to follow Thoreau's advice: 'Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you've imagined.' Others who influenced me were George Plimpton, the participatory journalist, and Ferdinand Waldo Demara, the 'Great Impostor.'
"Some of my roles—notably Vietnam War protester, civil-rights organizer, and teacher—have involved expressions of my most deeply held values. As to new personas, while continuing to be an investigative writer, I have also become a part-time antiques dealer and virtual-museum curator (see www.skeptiseum.org). I am currently a Toastmaster in training. Born in 1944 (you can do the math!), I am of sufficient age that it's unlikely I'll become an astronaut, and I never realized my childhood role of pirate. But I can still dream, can't I?"
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, October 15, 2001, George Eberhart, review of Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal, p. 357; March 15, 2004, George Eberhart, review of The Mystery Chronicles: More Real-Life X-Files, p. 1245.
Criminal Justice Review, spring, 2000, Jeffrey D. Lane, review of Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detection, p. 143.
Library Journal, February 15, 1999, Michael Sawyer, review of Crime Science, p. 168;.
Library Quarterly, July, 2001, Clay Stalls, review of Pen, Ink, and Evidence: A Study of Writing and Writing Materials for the Penman, Collector, and Document Detective, p. 421.
New Yorker, December 23-30, 2002, Burkhard Bilger, "Waiting for Ghosts: The Many Careers of Joe Nickell, Paranormal Investigator," pp. 86-88, 93-100.
Publishers Weekly, November, 9, 1998, review of Crime Science, p. 65.
Skeptical Inquirer, May-June, 1995, Robert A. Baker, review of Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases, p. 44; July-August, 2002, Robert A. Baker, "Truth Really Is Stranger than Fiction—and More Entertaining," review of Real-Life X Files, p. 55; July-August, 2004, Kendrick Frazier, review of The Mystery Chronicles, p. 58.
USA Today, May, 1999, Gerald F. Kreyche, review of Crime Science, p. 80.
Joe Nickell Home Page, http://www.joenickell.com (January 10, 2006).