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The Polygraph Wars - Page 2 of 4

In the Spring of 1931, Larson was finishing a book he was writing on scientific lie detection.4 A prolific writer, he had written dozens of articles on the subject for mass circulation magazines and scholarly journals. He had also published a book in 1924 called Single Finger Prints System.5 Vollmer had agreed to write an introduction to Larson's book on the polygraph. There was a problem, however. Vollmer had been encouraging Larson to accept Keeler's contributions to the book and to bring him on as a co-author. Larson didn't like the idea and he was resisting. (Larson was already collaborating with a colleague named George W. Haney.) Larson found himself in a difficult position - he didn't want Keeler involved in his project, but he didn't want to offend Vollmer, his friend and mentor.

Larson and Keeler had not been on very good terms with each other for several years. In a letter to Vollmer in April of 1931, Larson broke the news that he didn't think Keeler deserved co-author status: “Keeler,” he wrote, “has rendered me less help than others.”6

Larson had come to resent Keeler and was jealous of Vollmer's obvious preference for his younger protégé. In his letter, Larson worried about the ill-trained people coming into the polygraph field and indirectly blamed Keeler. Larson reminded Vollmer that Keeler had promised to get his Ph.D., or better yet, a medical degree. He even told Vollmer that Keeler's work was not being well received by the “real scientists” in the field. Larson referred to Keeler as a “technical operator” who didn't have “sufficient controlled academic training.”

If that wasn't enough, Larson reported that Keeler was making a fool of himself in public by giving silly polygraph demonstrations. Larson found it embarrassing that for a fee Keeler would appear with his machine before women's clubs and service groups. Larson wrote that he had attended one of Keeler's “card trick” demonstrations where Keeler would use the polygraph to identify the card his subject had picked. Larson said that Keeler was selecting the correct card by picking up clues from the audience, not from the polygraph. Keeler told him, he said, that his subjects “instinctively lean forward when the right card is displayed, or laugh . . . .”

Larson accused Keeler of making exaggerated statements regarding the polygraph's infallibility, then wound-up his letter with the following news:

. . . I have heard of four different groups where he (Keeler) gave demonstrations and, as they put it, failed to pick the card. He made the same failure before a very scientific group, including physiologists, neurologists, etc., on the South Side.

Vollmer was childless, and Keeler was the closest he'd ever get to having a son. He was therefore very upset with Larson after reading the letter. By suggesting that Keeler's “card trick” smacked of charlatanism, Larson was belittling Vollmer who he knew had given similar demonstrations himself. Larson must have realized he was spraying Vollmer with some of the buckshot fired at Keeler. Larson had simply given in to his tendency to speak his mind and his proclivity to point out other people's flaws and weaknesses. These traits plus his self-righteousness made Larson an unpopular man and one of the few people Vollmer would criticize to others.

Vollmer suddenly found himself in the middle of a sibling type dispute between his two most prominent protégés. On the one hand he was as eager as Keeler to get the polygraph into the mainstream of American law enforcement, but on the other, his good sense told him that Larson was right – the polygraph should not be pushed too hard and fast because, for one thing, it wasn't ready to be accepted by the courts.

In his reply to Larson, Vollmer defended Keeler and asked Larson to reconsider his decision to drop Keeler as a co-author. Vollmer reminded Larson that when he initially proposed the book, Larson had agreed to write it with Keeler, using Keeler's cases and studies along with his own.

In June of 1931, after returning to Chicago from a trip he had taken to Toronto, Larson wrote Vollmer another long letter.7 Larson hadn't changed his mind about the co-authorship of his book, informing Vollmer that Keeler had only submitted five pages of unpublished material. Larson advised that he'd completed the first draft of the book, and it didn't include any of Keeler's cases. All that Keeler had done was send Larson several photographs of his polygraph. Larson wrote: “Do you really think that a book of the size of this one should carry Leonarde's name with mine?” Larson then informed Vollmer that he'd compromise by listing Keeler along with George W. Haney as a collaborator. Larson states: “those two names – collaborators – are usually mentioned on the jacket and the title page, and I am sure that you will agree that we are giving Leonarde sufficient credit when after all there are probably some fifteen people who have done more for this work than Leonarde has, but in spite of his lack of contribution to this manuscript I am including him as collaborator solely because of you old request.”

Larson felt he was keeping fair with Keeler. After all, Keeler had not kept his end of the bargain. Larson had convinced himself that he was doing the right thing, but he wasn't sure he had convinced Vollmer: “As a matter of fact, on the matter of co-authorship I would damn sight have you because you originally gave me the opportunity to do the work. Furthermore, if it hadn't been for the cooperation of several members of the department, we should never have gotten under way at all. What do you think?”

Vollmer didn't have to think of Larson's compromise, he didn't like it and questioned Larson's ethics on the deal.

In a letter to Vollmer the following month, Larson took the wrong approach by lashing out against Keeler.8 He complained about Keeler's taking out patents on his polygraph. He said that his action had aroused considerable criticism from physiologists he knew:

…as a matter of fact, several of us don't dare discuss our research plans with Leonarde any more because within a week or so he announces he is working on some apparatus, and this sort of thing is not done in research circles. . . . There are certain obligations when a man goes in another laboratory to do work, especially with reference to publishing – he never publishes unless he tells the other men and he leaves out material that the other men may object to. Again I hear that the psychologists are a little peeved at Leonarde's methods such as doing card tricks and using subjective clues, etc.

Larson closed his letter by asking Vollmer to see what he could do to get Keeler to start working on his degree in medicine.

In 1932, Larson's book, Lying and Its Detection, came out. Keeler and George W. Haney were listed as collaborators. The book was published by the University of Chicago Press. Shortly after the book came out, Larson wrote Vollmer to remind him he had kept his promise to add Keeler's name to it. He said he did this to please Vollmer. Larson wrote: “Actually in this work which has taken me ten years, Keeler didn't do five minutes original work in writing, in fact, he admitted this and thought he shouldn’t be given any credit . . . .”

Vollmer wasn't pleased with the rift between Larson and Keeler, and he held Larson responsible. In an October, 1932 letter to Keeler Vollmer wrote:10

I want to take this occasion to express my profound regret that Larson took time out of his busy life to criticize your work. His book is on my desk, but as yet I have had no opportunity to read the contents. It is my opinion that Larson may be slipping slightly, judging from information in two letters recently received, it is possible that the poor chap is overworked.

In a July, 1933 letter to Larson's colleague, George W. Haney, Vollmer finds himself apologizing for Larson.11 Haney's feathers had been ruffled over some matter causing Vollmer to explain his troublesome protégé:

John is the victim of his heredity and environment, and it is most unfortunate that his lack of tact causes his friends to desert him. My suggestion is that you retain his friendship, because after you analyze the entire situation you will discover that he is not devoid of marvelous qualities. Like some bad boys you want to put him over you knee and spank him, and just about the time you are ready to administer capital punishment, you discover some lovable point that makes you change your mind. He is just different from the run of the mill type of men, and because of that fact, occasionally does things that are worthwhile. You have had sufficient psychology to know the basis of all of his difficulties, and you have sufficient sympathetic understanding to be of assistance to him.

4. Larson, John A., Lying and It's Detection, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932 (reprinted 1969, Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith).
5. Larson, John A., Single Finger Prints System, NY: Appleton and Company, 1924.
6. Larson to Vollmer, April 28, 1931. Vollmer Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley.
7. Larson to Vollmer, June 21, 1931. Bancroft Library.
8. Larson to Vollmer, July 2, 1931. Bancroft Library.
9. Larson to Vollmer, August 19, 1932. Bancroft Library.
10. Vollmer to Keeler, October 4, 1932. Bancroft Library.
11. Vollmer to George W. Haney, July 12, 1933. Bancroft Library.

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A. James Fisher
Dept. of Political Science & Criminal Justice, 146 Hendricks Hall
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Edinboro, PA 16444
e-mail: jfisher@edinboro.edu blog: http://jimfishertruecrime.blogspot.com