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The Polygraph Wars - Page 3 of 4

Vollmer was finding it increasingly difficult to maintain his fatherly relationship with Larson, one of his first “college cops” and the man who had invented the polygraph. By 1934, the Keeler-Larson feud was close to open warfare, and Vollmer was uncomfortably in the middle. In a long letter, Keeler complained bitterly to Vollmer about Larson:12

Our good friend John Larson is still up to his old tricks. Gosh, I've done my best to be friendly, to give him all the credit due him for his good work, and to cooperate with him whenever possible. He always seems so friendly in my presence, but behind my back that's a different story. To individuals and in public talks and articles, he slams and pokes and tells some of the darndest lies you ever heard. Now he has the delusion that I am trying to get his job, so he told a friend of Dean Green's he was going to get me fired from Northwestern University in retaliation. (The Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory was owned by the university.) He also is attempting to find a way to break my patents. To one group he said I'm rotten for selling machines to untrained operators and dishonest police departments and to another group he condemns me for refusing to sell machines to those who want them. I don't think he had grounds for either statement. He slambasts the laboratory saying it's a cheap, commercial institution set up only for profit, although he knows we have a $12,000 deficit each year. I still try to speak kindly of John and of course do in public and try hard to ignore his foolishness. I'm going to arrange one more meeting with him and do my best to iron out difficulties, but after that, if he continues his present form of behavior, he can go to the devil. If I thought we could save him from a complete mental breakdown, I'd give him a half interest in the patents, but I'm afraid even that wouldn't help.

In response to Keeler's letter, Vollmer wrote:13

Pay no attention whatever to John's talk. Treat him as kindly as you always have in the past and say not one word that you wouldn't want him to say about you. You can't cure him, not by anything you or anyone may do. He is what he is by reason of all that had gone before him and nothing that he or any other person can do will remold him or change his behavior pattern in the slightest degree. Treat his talk as you would a mosquito. It is annoying but you can't do much about it.

Larson's troubles caught up to him in 1936 when he was fired from his position as the Illinois State Criminologist. According to Keeler, who wrote Vollmer about the incident on March 25, 1936, Larson was giving a psychiatric examination to James E. Day, the mentally deranged prisoner who had hacked Richard Loeb to death at Stateville Prison. (Loeb and Nathan Leopold were the rich kids who had been sentenced to life in 1924 for the senseless thrill murder of 14-year-old Bobby Franks.)

In his letter, Keeler reported that Larson, when testing Day, advised him to fire the two lawyers who had been retained to defend him. Larson suggested he hire a lawyer named John Taylor who was a cousin of Larson's wife. Larson then threatened to have Day committed to Menard Penitentiary, the prison for the criminally insane, if Day didn't hire the attorney he had recommended. Day told the prison authorities that Larson was putting on the squeeze and Larson was given the choice of quitting or being fired. Larson refused to resign so he was canned.

Following the Day incident, Larson took a job in Detroit with the Recorder's Court Psychopathic Clinic where he functioned as a psychiatrist and continued to work with the polygraph.

In the 1940's Larson left Detroit and took a job as Superintendent and psychiatrist at the Logansport State Hospital Longcliff at Logansport, Indiana. Logansport was a custodial asylum for people with serious mental disorders. By now, Larson was sick of the polygraph and telling people that he was sorry he had invented it.

In 1938, Vollmer, in his first year of full retirement, advised Keeler to go into private practice with his polygraph. Keeler took the advice and that year opened an office in Chicago. In an enthusiastic letter to Vollmer in November 1938, Keeler couldn't help boasting about his success as a private polygraph operator:14

I am handling more cases now than were ever handled in a corresponding period at the old laboratory. My gross income is approximately $1,000 a month which from all appearances will continue more or less indefinitely. As a matter of fact, I have cases scheduled for about a month in advance, and undoubtedly if I sought more work, I would easily double the income.

Vollmer had always been frugal and mindful of the advantages of financial security. Struggling along himself on a monthly police pension of $230, he must have been very impressed with Keeler's earning power.

In 1938, Larson was still following Keeler's career closely and continued to object to Keeler's commercialization of the polygraph. He was also complaining about the caliber of people being brought into the field. Larson was also upset about what he considered inadequate polygraph training. In a letter to Vollmer, Larson made reference to Keeler's activities as a polygraph entrepreneur:15

Keeler and others, with their polygraphs, psychographs, photopolygraphs, pathometers, etc. have focused their attention upon the sale of the apparatus and the training of laymen whose backgrounds are inadequate. Then many of those so trained pose as being able to interpret or rule out clinical factors that they are in no way qualified to pass judgment on. In fact, these clinical matters pose problems to those of us with the best scientific and medical training and years of experience. No scientific interest has been shown by most of the apparatus promoters, including Keeler. They concentrate on the commercial aspects of selling machines, training 'operators' who had no background which would enable them to differentiate between heart disease and guilty fear, and use of trickery to obtain confessions. When I originally trained Keeler, and later in Illinois, he promised to go through medical school. Instead he was lured away to develop the field commercially.

Larson didn't mention, or didn't know, that it was Vollmer who had “lured” Keeler into the commercial polygraph field. By 1938 Keeler had sold his polygraph to police departments in Wichita (Kansas), Cincinnati, East Cleveland, Chicago, Indianapolis, Toledo, Buffalo, Evanston, Kansas City (Missouri), and Berkeley. State police were using it in Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.

In 1939 The Police Journal in London carried an article by Larson entitled, “The Lie Detector Oversold and Rashly Operated.”16 Besides complaining about how the polygraph was being exploited commercially, Larson stated flatly that polygraph examiners without medical degrees were not qualified.

In 1941, when he was making more money than he had ever dreamed of, Keeler encountered serious problems. He had been drinking heavily, his heart was acting up, and he had to be hospitalized. His wife, Katherine, a successful questioned documents examiner in practice for herself, had sued him for divorce. And if that wasn't enough, his polygraph assistant, George W. Haney, left the firm, taking with him many of Keeler's big clients.

By 1943 hundreds of companies in the United States were using the polygraph on a regular basis to screen job candidates and to solve a variety of employee crimes. Polygraph tests were routinely run, for example, on people who collected money from pay telephones and slot machines. Insurance firms also used the polygraph to test the honesty of policy holders who had made suspicious claims. Keeler worked with lawyers who paid him to test their clients for honesty.

Keeler's ex-wife Katherine died unexpectedly in 1944. She had been one of a handful of female criminalists and was a licensed pilot who flew herself around on business in her own plane. She was killed in a plane she was flying and those familiar with the circumstances of her death believe it was suicide.17 In a letter to Vollmer, Keeler wrote:

Of course it was a shock to me, as it was to the rest of our friends to hear of Kay's untimely death, but apparently time heals all such heartaches and history keeps in the making.

The next year, Vollmer's second wife, Pat, died. They had been married twenty-one years. It was a terrible loss for Vollmer and a blow to Keeler who had called her “Mother Pat.”

Following World War II, Keeler added the U.S. Army to his polygraph client list. He tested Army personnel accused of specific crimes and used the polygraph as a screening device. He was also busy training military polygraph operators.

Keeler became seriously ill in 1949 and had to spend five weeks in a Chicago hospital and a sixth week at the Mayo Clinic. He had been home from the hospital two months when his heart gave out for good. He was forty-four and at the peak of his career. Vollmer was crushed. “Nard,” as he called him, had been the son he had never had.

12. Keeler to Vollmer, March 19, 1934. Bancroft Library.
13. Vollmer to Keeler, April 4, 1934. Bancroft Library.
14. Keeler to Vollmer, November 13, 1938. Bancroft Library.
15. Larson to Vollmer, December 5, 1938. Bancroft Library.
16. Larson, John A., “The Lie Detector Oversold and Rashly Operated,” The Police Journal, November-December, 1939.
17. This is according to Fred E. Inbau who was interviewed by the author on July 22, 1988, at Northwestern Law School in Chicago. Mr. Inbau knew Keeler and his wife very well.

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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