Mystery of the “Miracle” Stairs

August 6, 2018

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“. . . I only saw it because I was looking for it.”

—Sherlock Holmes in “Silver Blaze”

 

A claim circulated on the Internet holds that an antique spiral staircase in a Santa Fe chapel “miraculously” stands despite having “no discernible means of support.” True?

This was a case I investigated on site in 1993, at which time the chapel was no longer in use as a place of religious devotion, but used as a museum and occasional for-rent wedding chapel. The staircase was once touted in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not,” and it would go on to become the focus of a CBS television movie The Staircase (April 12, 1998) starring Barbara Hershey.

Such spiral staircases are not inherently stable. They usually require some extra support (in addition to being secured at top and bottom). Therefore they are typically attached to a central pole or an adjacent wall. Allegedly the Loretto stairway (which originally provided access to the choir loft) is completely free-standing and therefore miraculous.

Actually, although it lacks a central support per se, of its two wood stringers (spiral structural members) the inner one has such a small radius that it acts almost like a solid pole. But there is something more.

There is evidence that the staircase may have become rickety over time, and so another support was added. I looked for and found the S-shaped wrought-iron bracket that attached it to a nearby column! I saw no mention of this in published accounts prior to my discovery. I imagine the simple piece of hardware went largely unnoticed, and its true purpose mostly unrecognized. If it now seems obvious, recall Sherlock Holmes’ observation (in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”) that everything seems obvious after it is pointed out.

Now, a 2014 book on New Mexico mysteries by a skeptic (who knew well of my discovery) relegates me to just another listing in his references, while at the same time picturing the bracket (carefully denoted as “Photo by the author”) as if he were the discoverer. Wikipedia does cite me as a source in discussing the bracket but fails to state I discovered it.

Iron bracket—unmentioned in published accounts before 1993—reveals the “miracle” is a partial one. (Original 1993 photo by Joe Nickell.)

 

However, Snopes (2007, 2017), the fact-check website, shows its usual attention to detail. Citing my investigation at length David Mikkelson writes, “As well, Nickell observed when he visited Loretto in 1993 that the structure included an additional support, ‘an iron brace or bracket that stabilizes the staircase by rigidly connecting the outer stringer to one of the columns that support the loft.’” He quotes my conclusion (“Helix to Heaven,” Skeptical Inquirer magazine, November/December 1998), “It would thus appear that the Loretto staircase is subject to the laws of physics like any other.”