Something to Cry About: Investigating a “Miraculous” Eye-Con

October 9, 2019

At the request of the Toronto Sun, on September 3, 1996, I drove to Canada to investigate a “weeping icon.” It would prove not to be really weeping and was not a true icon, only a print, but I am getting ahead of an interesting series of adventures in my career as a “miracle detective.”

I met with reporters at their headquarters, and they escorted me to the Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto’s East York district. Church officials had promised we could examine the effigy at 11:00 p.m., and I had brought my “weeping icon kit” for the purpose (including a stereomicroscope removed from its base, various pipettes and other collection materials, and other equipment).

However, as we arrived I saw a line of pilgrims eager to view the “miracle” stretched into the night. As I expected, the promised examination was canceled. I jettisoned my case and ran into the church, a Sun photographer hurrying behind me. We passed a lady collecting admission fees who shouted after us, ”two dollars fifty cents,” but I shouted back, “Toronto Sun,” and kept going.

I persuaded a priest to pull aside a hanging oil lamp for a better photo, and I studied the picture—noting that it was just a color print and that the “tears” streaming down were most suspicious. They did not emanate from the eyes; they were static, unmoving all the time we were there (although flickering candles could give the illusion of movement otherwise); and, very importantly, they were oily—a common trick being to substitute for water (which will evaporate quickly) a non-drying oil (such as olive oil) which will remain fresh and glistening indefinitely. (Drying oils—e.g., linseed oil—are used in paints.)  Afterward, I was debriefed by the Sun for a skeptical article on the “miracle.”

As it happened, the priest, Rev. Ieronimos Katseas, had previously been involved with a weeping icon in Queens, New York , that—decorated with gems and golden jewelry—was stolen at gunpoint and remained controversial. Moreover, he had been defrocked in 1993 when it was learned he had previously worked in a brothel in Athens!

In time it was learned that the present church had become financially strapped—in debt for nearly $271,000. After a special prelate was dispatched to the church to investigate, he concluded: “It would not be surprising if this were a hoax, in order to attract people to spend money” (Goldhar 1996).

When subsequently the priest went missing, along with a reported $500,000,  I returned to the church. This time I had been invited by attorneys for the parent body, the Greek Orthodox Church of North America. The matter having become controversial in the local neighborhood,  I was given a police guard, attended by the Canadian news media, and supplied with a carpenter who, at my direction,  dismantled the elaborate frame and shrine the icon had acquired (Hendry 1997). I took samples of the still-static “tears” for the police crime lab to test and turned them over to a fraud-squad detective, then signed the written description of them in his police notebook. Some time later, at a forensic conference where I spoke in Nova Scotia, I learned that—just as I had concluded—the “tears” had indeed proved to be from a non-drying oil. However, since no one could testify who put that on the icon, the case fizzled, like so many others (Nickell 2001).

More recently, a film crew from the popular Travel Channel television series Mysteries at the Museum visited me and my “Skeptiseum” collection at the Center for Inquiry. I supplied relics of the Toronto case, including photos, clippings, a votive candle, and oil-soaked balls of cotton. The show (season 16, episode 11) first aired July 13, 2017. For a dramatized portion, I was ably played by New York actor Samuel Shurtleff.  The icon remains a fake, but for science and skepticism the case is one that keeps on giving!

References

Goldhar, Kathleen. 1996. Church of “weeping” Virgin headed by defrocked priest. Toronto Star, Sept. 4.

Hendry, Luke. 1997. ‘Weeping’ icon called a fake. Toronto Star, August 28.

Nickell, Joe. 2001. Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 214–218.