The 1920s Lie Detector That Forced Suspected Criminals to Confess to a Skeleton

“In the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem,” the ever­green Law & Orders open­ing cred­its remind us, “the peo­ple are rep­re­sent­ed by two sep­a­rate, yet equal­ly impor­tant, groups: the police, who inves­ti­gate crime; and the dis­trict attor­neys, who pros­e­cute the offend­ers.”

They fail to men­tion the life-sized skele­ton with ghast­ly glow­ing eyes and a cam­era tucked away inside its skull.

That’s because no police depart­ment ever saw fit to put Helene Ade­laide Shelby’s 1930 patent for a high­ly unusu­al “appa­ra­tus for obtain­ing crim­i­nal con­fes­sions and pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly record­ing them” into prac­tice.

Ms. Shelby’s vision sought to trans­form the police inter­ro­ga­tion room into a haunt­ed house where the sud­den appear­ance of the afore­men­tioned skele­ton would shock a guilty sus­pect into con­fes­sion.

(Pre­sum­ably an inno­cent per­son would have noth­ing to fear, oth­er than sit­ting in a pitch black cham­ber where a truth-seek­ing skele­ton was soon to man­i­fest before their very eyes.)

The idea may have seemed slight­ly less far-fetched imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing a decade when belief in Spir­i­tu­al­ism flour­ished.

False medi­ums used sophis­ti­cat­ed stage­craft to con­vince mem­bers of a gullible pub­lic that they were in the pres­ence of the super­nat­ur­al.

Per­haps Ms. Shel­by took inspi­ra­tion from Mys­ter­ies of the Seance and Tricks and Traps of Bogus Medi­ums: A Plea for Hon­est Medi­ums and Clean Work by “life­long spir­i­tu­al­ist” Edward D. Lunt. The sec­tion on “form mate­ri­al­iza­tion” pro­vides plen­ty of con­crete ideas for enact­ing such trick­ery.

Ms. Shelby’s pro­posed appa­ra­tus con­sist­ed of a “struc­ture divid­ed into two cham­bers:”

…one cham­ber of which is dark­ened to pro­vide quar­ters in which the sus­pect is con­fined while being sub­ject­ed to exam­i­na­tion, the oth­er cham­ber being pro­vid­ed for the exam­in­er, the two cham­bers being sep­a­rat­ed from each oth­er by a par­ti­tion which is pro­vid­ed with a pan­el upon one side of which is mount­ed a fig­ure in the form of a skele­ton, the said skele­ton hav­ing the rear J por­tion of the skull removed and the record­ing appa­ra­tus insert­ed there­in.

The exam­in­er was also tasked with voic­ing the skele­ton, using appro­pri­ate­ly spooky tones and a well-posi­tioned mega­phone.

As sil­ly as Ms. Shel­by’s inven­tion seems near­ly a hun­dred years after the patent was filed, it’s impres­sive for its robust embrace of tech­nol­o­gy, par­tic­u­lar­ly as it per­tains to cap­tur­ing the pre­sum­ably spooked suspect’s reac­tion:

The rear por­tion of the skull of the skele­ton is removed and a cam­era cas­ing is mount­ed in the pan­el extend­ing into the skull, said cam­era being prefer­able of the con­tin­u­ous­ly-mov­ing film-type an hav­ing pro­vi­sions for simul­ta­ne­ous­ly record­ing pic­tures and sound waves, or repro­duc­ing these, as may be desired or required, the said cam­era impres­sion upon the hav­ing an objec­tive adapt­ed to reg­is­ter with the nose, or oth­er open­ing, in the skull. The eye-sock­ets are pro­vid­ed with bulbs adapt­ed to impress dif­fer­ent light inten­si­ties on the mar­gins
 of the film, the cen­tral sec­tion of the film being arranged to receive the pic­tures, the vari­a­tions in the light inten­si­ties of the bulbs being gov­erned by means of the micro­phones, and sele­ni­um cells (not shown), which are includ­ed in the light cir­cuit and tend to cause the fluc­tu­a­tions of the cur­rent to vary the inten­si­ty of the light for sound record­ing pur­pos­es, the den­si­ty of the light film vary­ing with the inten­si­ty of the light thus trans­mit­ted.

Ms. Shel­by believed that a sus­pect whose con­fes­sion had been record­ed by the skele­ton would have dif­fi­cul­ty mak­ing a retrac­tion stick, espe­cial­ly if pho­tographs tak­en dur­ing the big reveal caught them with a guilty-look­ing coun­te­nance.

Writ­ing on, Jonathan Kozlows­ki applauds Ms. Shelby’s impulse to inno­vate, even as he ques­tions if “scar­ing a con­fes­sion out of a guy by being real­ly real­ly creepy (should) be con­sid­ered coer­cion:”

Shel­by does­n’t seem to have got­ten any cred­it for it and nor am I sure that Shel­by was even the first to think of the idea, BUT if you remove the skele­ton fig­ure and the red light­bulbs star­ing into the crim­i­nal’s soul was this the inspi­ra­tion of a mount­ed sur­veil­lance cam­era? 

Allow me to push it even fur­ther … imag­ine your depart­men­t’s inter­view room. If you’ve got the cam­era in the cor­ner (or mul­ti­ple) let that be. Instead of the skele­ton fig­ure just put an offi­cer stand­ing in the cor­ner with a record­ing body cam­era. The offi­cer is just stand­ing there. Star­ing. Sure that’s a MASSIVE waste of time and mon­ey — of course. I may be wrong, but if I’m being hon­est this seems like intim­i­da­tion.

It also strikes us that the ele­ment of sur­prise would be a chal­lenge to keep under wraps. All it would take is one freaked-out crook (inno­cent or guilty) blab­bing to an under­world con­nec­tion, “You wouldn’t believe the crazy thing that hap­pened when they hauled me down to the sta­tion the oth­er night…”

What sort of hor­rif­ic spe­cial effect could force a guilty par­ty to con­fess in the 21st cen­tu­ry? Some­thing way more dread­ful than a skele­ton with glow­ing red eyes, come­di­an Tom Scott’s exper­i­ment below sug­gests.

Hav­ing enlist­ed cre­ative tech­nol­o­gist Charles Yarnold to build Ms. Shelby’s appa­ra­tus, he invit­ed fel­low YouTu­bers Chloe Dun­gate, Tom Ridgewell, and Daniel J Lay­ton to step inside one at a time, hop­ing to iden­ti­fy which of them had nicked the cook­ie with which he had bait­ed his crime-catch­ing hook.

The par­tic­i­pants’ reac­tions at the crit­i­cal moment ranged from delight­ed gig­gles to a sat­is­fy­ing yelp, but the results were utter­ly incon­clu­sive. Nobody ‘fessed up to steal­ing the cook­ies.

That’s not to say the appa­ra­tus couldn’t work with a sub­set of crim­i­nals on the low­er end of ele­men­tary school age. Did they or didn’t they? Why not scar ‘em for life and find out?

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detec­tion Kit”: A Toolk­it That Can Help You Sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly Sep­a­rate Sense from Non­sense

The Poly­graph: The Pro­to-Pho­to­copy Machine Machine Invent­ed in 1803 That Changed Thomas Jefferson’s Life

The Strange Sto­ry of Won­der Woman’s Cre­ator William Moul­ton Marston: Polyamorous Fem­i­nist, Psy­chol­o­gist & Inven­tor of the Lie Detec­tor

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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