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07 August 2010

TAM, Day One: Joe Nickell

This is the eighth in a series of posts discussing The Amaz!ng Meeting 8, which took place at South Point Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, 8–11 July 2010. You can find the previous post here. You can find the next post here.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell is friendly and mildly self-deprecating, calling himself "the warm-up act for Adam Savage." He was an undercover detective for several years, and begins by briefly discussing the ethics of undercover (and thereby inherently deceptive) skeptical operations—they are, in his assessment, necessary, and do more good than harm.

He speaks about his investigation of Camp Chesterfield, and the tell-all book by confessedly fraudulent psychic M. Lamar Keene, entitled The Psychic Mafia. Nickell went in under the name Jim Collins (an homage to Houdini's assistant of the same name), and the results of his investigations were eventually published in Skeptical Inquirer.

Joe tells the audience of a spiritualist church service in which participants were instructed: "Please address your billet to one or more loved ones in spirit, giving first and last names." Nickell asked how he was to fold his paper, and one of the people assigned to pick them up replied, "Just fold it in half once." Nickell points out that when all papers are folded in this way it is impossible to tell which is which.

The papers were gathered together in a basket, and the psychic at the podium would take one and hold it to his forehead. With head bent in prayer, the medium would read the paper with his mind, announcing its contents.

Joe Nickell explains that this is rather easy to do. Simply take a paper and hold it to your forehead, while taking a second paper behind the podium with the other hand, flipping it open, and reading it under cover of prayer. Announce the contents of the second paper to your astonished audience: they won't know the difference.

Joe gives a brief rundown of common forms of hucksterism that he's encountered over his long career, mentioning faith healing (Popoff, Hinn, etc.), psychic detectives, and others of their ilk. He castigates the Oasis of Hope Hospital for selling laetrile after several studies have shown that it has no effect on cancer survival. He discusses the stigmata of Lilian Bernas, and faked holy blood in Belgium. Finally, at the spiritualist camp at Lily Dale, Bartlet drew him a portrait of Yellow Bird, his recently fabricated aboriginal spirit guide.

It seems like Joe Nickell has had a fascinating career. If you'd like to read more about him, visit his website.

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