Lizzie Borden’s Eighty-One Whacks: Table-Tipping Testimony from a Spirit?
Lizzie Borden took an axe And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one! —Anonymous On August 4, 1892, in the Massachusetts seaport and cotton-mill town of Fall River, a unique double axe murder occurred that shocked the citizenry at the time and continues to fascinate. …
A poltergeist is said to be a sort of prankster entity, after the German word for a “noisy” (poltern) “spirit” (geist). Poltergeist phenomena include mysteriously thrown objects, strange noises, or unusual fires (Nickell 1995, 79). Those who promote belief in poltergeists often attribute the effects—fiery or otherwise—to the repressed hostilities of a child or other …
Haunted Asylums: Imagining Scary Ghosts
In the Middle Ages in Europe, the mentally ill—or those considered so—were kept in various settings, ranging from benign monasteries to “fools’ towers” where apparent madmen were housed. In London, the Priory of Saint Mary of Bethlehem evolved into a hospital (now six centuries old) that cared for the poor and aged and “lunatic.” Bethlehem, …
Gloucester Sea-Serpent Mystery: Solved after Two Centuries
A “wonderful sea-snake” was repeatedly seen in the area of Gloucester Bay and Nahant Bay, Massachusetts, in August 1817 and again in 1819. Although attracting “hundreds of curious spectators,” plus a large reward for “his snakeship” alive or dead, the great creature escaped any such fate (Drake 1883, 156–159). The visitations have been reported in …
Premonition! Foreseeing What Cannot Be Seen
An article in the March 4, 2019, New Yorker gave the regrettable impression that some people could do what science—and common sense—say cannot be done: see something (usually a tragedy) before it has occurred. (The magazine followed other outlets that have recently hawked paranormal claims—The New York Times regarding UFOs in 2017 and 2018 [Nickell …
The Trapped Miners’ Holy Visions: Investigating the Sheppton ‘Miracle’
On August 27, 1963, two Pennsylvania coal miners were rescued after two weeks of being trapped underground. The pair would soon relate how, confined in the pitch black, they had witnessed humanoid figures, bathed in strange light, and saw a door that opened onto marble steps leading to a great celestial city with angels playing …
The Saga of Tom Horn: Is the Hanged Man’s Ghost Still at Large?
At the turn of the twentieth century in Wyoming, the “range wars” claimed many victims, among them fourteen-year-old Willie Nickell (yes, one of my distant cousins).1 This is the story of his murder and the hanging of his killer—a legendary lawman and now “ghost.” It begins over a quarter of a century earlier in my …
Kraken: Monster of the Deep
The Kraken—a massive sea monster—legendarily rose out of the ocean to pluck sailors off ship decks or even to grasp whole vessels and carry them to the depths.
Arkansas’s White River Monster: Very Real, but What Was It?
Can we finally solve the mystery?
Outside the Box: Solving Diverse Mysteries
In contrast to mystery mongers, I insist that mysteries should not be fostered but investigated with the intent of solving them. I like them so much I have never really cared whether some case could be pigeonholed into a specific category, let alone what that category might be. “Probing Paranormal, Historical, and Forensic Enigmas,” I …
Secrets of ‘The Flying Friar’: Did St. Joseph of Copertino Really Levitate?
Supported by records citing eyewitness testimony, St. Joseph of Copertino was a seventeenth-century religious marvel who laid claim to the power of levitation.
Navy Pilot’s 2004 UFO: A Comedy of Errors
The first I heard about a shadowy UFO research program operated by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) from 2007–2012 was when I was interviewed by New York Times reporter Helene Cooper on December 12, 2017.
Hawking ‘Ghosts’ in Old Louisville
How could a press that represents all of the universities in the Commonwealth of Kentucky publish such nonsense—even in an age of fake news and fake science?
The Giant Panda: Discovered in the Land of Myth
Its immense popularity today belies the fact that the panda was once among the world’s most obscure creatures, “as mythical and elusive as Bigfoot” (Edwards 2009). Bigfooters are prone to emphasizing such creatures that were only discovered comparatively recently—for example a giraffe relative, the okapi (1901), and a “living fossil” fish, the coelacanth (1938)—because they …
Mystery of Mollie Fancher, ‘The Fasting Girl’, and Others Who Lived without Eating
Can people live for years without food? Some have claimed to, including certain holy persons. One nineteenth-century marvel in Brooklyn alleged not only to have lived without sustenance but to have experienced a nine-year trance state, possessed clairvoyant abilities, and recovered from paralysis and blindness. She was Mollie Fancher, a woman whose well-nourished body made …
Australia’s Storied Ghosts
Whenever someone relates his or her ghost encounter, a story is born. And, as folklorists know well, stories tend to evolve in the retelling—changing and becoming embellished by others over time. Thus are created variants, evidence of the folklore process at work. When a writer creates an imitation tale, the product is called “fakelore,” but, …
Murder by Darkness: Does Mammoth Cave’s Specter Harbor a Secret?
Joe Nickell solves the case of an unlikely ghost, hidden in Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave
JonBenet Murder Mystery Solved? (Not by Psychics)
The death of six-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey went unsolved for two decades. Psychics were worse than useless, but the author’s proposed solution resulted from evaluating the best evidence.
Some Queensland Mysteries
Strange mysteries may be found almost anywhere, but they seem especially plentiful and interesting in Australia.
Miracle Tableau: Knock, Ireland, 1879
The ability to see pictures in random forms—as in clouds, tea leaves, and inkblots—is known as pareidolia… Some publicized examples I have made pilgrimages to examine include the face of Jesus in the skillet burns of a tortilla…
Dispelling Demons: Detective Work at The Conjuring House
I analyzed the Perrons’ claims of demonic activity and showed that they were consistent with the effects of strong winds, misperceptions, schoolgirl pranks, vivid dreams, simple suggestion, role-playing, and other factors.
Cómo superar a un Maestro de Tai Chi
Tai chi es una abreviatura de taiji quan, “boxeo máximo supremo”. Concebido hace siglos como un arte marcial, ahora también se practica —“Tai chi taoísta”— como técnica de ejercicios.
Claims of Chi: Besting a Tai Chi Master
Tai chi is a shortened form of taiji quan, “Supreme ultimate boxing.” Conceived centuries ago as a martial art, it is now also practiced—as “Taoist tai chi”—as an exercise technique…
Jesse James’s ‘Haunts’: Legends, History, and Forensic Science
Before trying to explain something, first be sure that it really occurred.
Gallows Ghosts? Mystery at Brisbane’s Tower Mill
Residents in the neighborhood in the mid-twentieth century reported that “sometimes when they looked up at the small window facing the street they could see a faint glow and a figure inside the tower, swinging gently from side to side.”
Searching for the Yowie, the Down Under Bigfoot
The Yowie is becoming increasingly standardized in its appearance. It is sometimes said that it resembles “depictions of the American Bigfoot” or that “America’s Bigfoot would be an identical type”
The Brown Mountain Lights: Solved! (Again!)
As with UFOs, some lights will remain unidentified—not because they are inherently mysterious but because they are just eyewitness reports or snapshots with so many variable factors.
Poltergeist Scribbler: The Bizarre Case of Matthew Manning
What has been called “one of the most extraordinary outbreaks of poltergeist phenomena” of the twentieth century began with an English schoolboy, aged eleven and a half years, Matthew Manning.
The Black Madonna: A Folkloristic and Iconographic Investigation
One of the most famous of true icons (traditional religious panel paintings) is the so-called Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland (Figure 1). Its notoriety was boosted when, following his election to the papacy, the “Polish Pope” John Paul II prayed before it on a visit in 1979. For an international History Channel series, Miracles Decoded, I was asked to look into the icon’s origins. I
The New Pope Saints
On April 27, 2014, two former popes—John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli, 1881–1963) and John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla, 1920–2005)—were made saints of the Roman Catholic Church. But how are saints created?
Monster Catfish: Investigating a Whopper
There are different versions—folklore at work—regarding the origins of both the giant fish and the old photo. Some say the picture is genuine, while others insist that it is not.