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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > July/August 2018 > Secrets of ‘The Flying Friar’: Did St. Joseph of Copertino Really Levitate?

Secrets of ‘The Flying Friar’: Did St. Joseph of Copertino Really Levitate?


Joe Nickell, PhD, is CSI’s senior research fellow. He has worked professionally as both a stage magician and a private investigator, and he is author of such books as Looking for a Miracle and The Science of Miracles.

Supported by records citing eye witness testimony, St. Joseph of Copertino was a seventeenth-century religious marvel who laid claim to the power of levitation. Reportedly, as stated by the title of a new book by Michael Grosso (2016), he was The Man Who Could Fly. Although I had addressed both the topic of levitation and Joseph himself briefly in a book (Nickell 1993, 211–216) as well as in a BBC television documentary (“Secrets” 1999), I determined to look more deeply into the strange life of “the flying friar.”

Future Saint

Born Joseph Desa in the Italian village of Copertino (or in English Cupertino), he lived his sixty years (1603–1663) during a superstitious period that included the European witch obsession. Joseph—whose father had fled to avoid debtor’s prison and whose mother gave birth to him in a shed—was thought stupid. As a boy he loitered at churches and—though always apologizing for fits of reverie— was taken in at a Capuchin monastery. There he prayed on his knees so often and so long (a habit that would later prove useful in his “levitations”) that his knees became infected. When his trying to operate on them himself led to a lengthy convalescence, he was thought worthless and was dismissed.

St. Joseph of Copertino is lifted in flight at the site of the Basilica of Loreto, by Ludovico Mazzanti
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