The Lie Detector's Inventor Married The First Person He Questioned
We've had a few different kinds of lie-detection machines over the years. One was created by William Marston, who also created the character Wonder Woman, wielder of the lasso of truth. The polygraph, however—a device that measures both heartrate and breathing, while the suspect answers questions instead of just reciting a narrative—was invented by med student John Larson in 1921. During testing, it was not yet ready for a police investigation. So he instead used it to investigate a lower-stakes crime at Berkeley: Someone was stealing underwear from sorority sisters.
The thief also (more importantly) stole cash and even a diamond ring, and Larson asked five sisters about the case in his lab. The first interrogation subject was named Margaret Taylor. He hooked her up to the machine, which meant wrapping her arms in cuffs and tying a hose around her chest. Then he asked a series of questions.
Regardless of what the needles showed, the prewritten script, halfway through, would declare that the results showed the suspect was the thief, and then would ask whether she had spent the money. On hearing this, Margaret pulled off the cuffs and had to be restrained to keep her from punching the police officer who was standing there.
So, case closed? Not quite. Margaret actually wasn't even a suspect—the thief had stolen the ring from her. She was one of two "control" subjects, while three other women were suspects. The polygraph, it would turn out, was never any good at detecting lies, which is why most courts now exclude polygraph results as evidence. Polygraphs are good only at creating stressful situations, which sometimes cajole confessions out of suspects, even false confessions.
Larson's experiment did unearth the culprit. This sorority sister, Helen Graham, had innocent-looking test results (possibly, the drugs she'd taken beforehand relaxed her) and yet the experience convinced her to go to the police, half-confess, and then finally offer to replace Margaret's ring, saying the original was now irreparably lost. She insisted, however, that she hadn't stolen any underwear. Maybe the sorority house had been victim to a bunch of unrelated incidents that people wrongly blamed on a single thief.
Larson continued to wonder why the test had so stressed Margaret. What if, he speculated, she hadn't really disliked the experience but had reacted because she felt aroused ... aroused by him? Sounds delusional, we know. But he called her back for a follow-up, strapped her in again, and this time asked if she'd go out with him on a date. She said yes. Eventually, the two got married.
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Top image: FBI