By Rebekah Tilley
“Last summer I was in Budapest briefly locked in a gypsy’s apartment while she tried to extort more money from me, and had a great time…” said Joe Nickell, as if he were describing a weekend at the lake. He is a man with many interests – over 200 “personas” are listed on his personal website including folksinger, stage magician, and séance conductor. His current title is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and investigative columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. However, he identifies himself simply as a writer.
“Writer seemed the one thing that complimented my insatiable curiosity,” said the author, co-author or editor of over 30 books. “The reason through so many interests and activities that I’ve held it all together – I attribute that to being a writer. If I’m curious about something, I’m probably going to want to write about it. Being a writer is the thing that’s central to my being and all the roles that I play. All the things that I do are really extensions of that.”
As an undergraduate art student at UK, Nickell was drawn away from art and into English. He excelled at his composition classes and received encouragement from mentors such as Wendell Berry and Guy Davenport.
“That was really life transforming – this idea that I could write,” said Nickell of the birth of his writing career. He wrote poetry and was editor of the UK student literary magazine Stylus.
After earning a BA in English in 1967, Nickell lived a full life including working as a private detective and blackjack dealer while in Canada protesting the Vietnam War, attending stuntman school in California and making a living as a paranormal investigator. Deciding that his resume was starting to look “a bit ridiculous,” he returned to his family and scholarly roots to pursue a PhD in Literary Investigation and Folklore at UK, which he completed in 1987, aided by his mentor John Shawcross.
As Nickell describes it, the work and training he received as a PhD student allowed him to raise his investigative work to a higher level.
“I began to be interested in more complex, historical, literary cases and to bring to bear more scholarly approaches,” he said. “I was able to take a questioned document and look at it not only at the forensic level under a microscope, but also look at a text in the way that a scholar would look at a text.”
A prime example of this melding of the scholar and the investigator was when Harvard Professor Henry Lewis Gates, Jr., asked Nickell to examine what could be the first slave-written novel: The Bondswoman’s Narrative. In 2001, the original document was hand-delivered to Nickell’s office in Amherst, N.Y.
Through his examination, Nickell determined the document was a genuine manuscript of the period through tale-tale signs such as stitch marks across the page caused by the belt of an early paper making machine, evidence of places where the author stopped writing to sharpen her quill pen, and places where she had pasted over unwanted text in an 1800s version of whiteout. An examination of the text suggested the author had a rather good vocabulary and writing skills.
“Was it an original manuscript? Yes. Was it written by a slave? Initial findings were the document could be consistent with that. I couldn’t disprove it,” said Nickell of his findings. “I’ve become more skeptical, particularly because we couldn’t identify the author under the name. I’m more inclined to think this was written by someone who simply adopted the persona of an escaped slave. It does sound very true and believable in places, but that’s why we have the word verisimilitude.”
Despite his travels, Nickell still retains a strong connection to his hometown community of West Liberty, Ky. He writes a monthly article for the Licking Valley Courier – “Historical Sketches” – and through his historical research helped place two West Liberty sites on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Most of my actual paid work is as a paranormal investigator for a science magazine, but I honestly don’t much care whether the mystery is historical or paranormal or forensic or what,” said Nickell. “If it’s an intriguing mystery and if there is some chance I might be able to bring something to it, I’m interested in it no matter how cold the case is.”
Over the years, Nickell has searched for the truth in cases of all kinds including: homicides, grand thefts, forgeries, and literary mysteries.
“As a child, I was just very, very curious,” said Nickell. “Looking back I just always wanted to know things. That is the one thing that you could say characterized all my work. Secrets are meant to be revealed and mysteries are meant to be solved. Really any kind of secret or mystery was an attraction to me whether it was a secret code or invisible evidence like a fingerprint or a mystery like a murder or a questioned manuscript. I knew I was a detective at the age of 8.”
This curiosity continues to take him all over the world, and his writing brings that world alive for the rest of us.