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The Polygraph Wars - Page 1 of 4

The Polygraph Wars
By Jim Fisher

The modern polygraph was born in Berkeley, California where August Vollmer, the legendary chief of police, author, teacher, and law enforcement innovator, built a police department that served as a model of police professionalism. Vollmer took office in 1905, and upon his retirement in 1932, began teaching police administration at the University of California. When he died in 1955, dozens of Vollmer protégés were working all over America in high law enforcement positions.

During Vollmer's long and illustrious career, he crusaded tirelessly for improved police training and education, the separation of police work from politics, the establishment of hiring standards, the acceptance of fingerprints, the creation of crime laboratories, and the use of science in criminal investigation.1

In 1919, when Vollmer was at the peak of his career, he placed an ad in the school newspaper at the University of California soliciting students to serve as police officers while attending college. Dr. John Larson, a 27-year-old medical student with a Ph.D. in physiology, joined the department that year and became one of Vollmer's first “college cops.”

Two years later, Larson read an article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology about the effects of lying on the deceiver’s heart rate and blood pressure.2 The article had been written by a Boston lawyer named William Marston. Marston had been studying the effects of lying on blood pressure since 1915 and had written other pieces on the subject. Marston had become a student of Harvard psychiatrist Hugo Munsterberg who had been searching for a method of scientific lie detection since the turn of the century.

In 1908 Munsterberg had published a book entitled, On the Witness Stand which contained a chapter called, “The Traces of Emotions.”3 Munsterberg noted that three physiological things happen whenever a person lies. First, the person's blood pressure and heart beat increase, second, there are respiratory alterations, and third, there's a change in the individual's galvanic skin response, or GSR. To measure the GSR, Munsterberg used a galvanometer that picked up variations in the body's resistance to electricity. (Munsterberg found that when the brain is excited emotionally, the person’s sweat glands alter the body's resistance to electricity.)

William Marston, however, wasn't particularly interested in the GSR. To test his theory that lying caused involuntary cardiovascular changes, he asked his subjects questions calling for a yes or no answer, then checked their blood pressure with an ordinary sphygomanometer (blood pressure cuff.) Although this was a rather primitive method of lie detection, Marston was certain the scientific principle behind it was sound.

Another one of Vollmer's “college cops,” Bill Wiltberger, brought Marston's article to Larson's attention. Larson read it with interest then showed it to Vollmer who asked Larson to fashion a lie detector instrument for law enforcement based upon the principles outlined by Munsterberg and Marston.

Larson worked several weeks on the project, then announced that he had rigged an apparatus that could detect truth and deception. Called the polygraph, Larson's machine was a tangled mass of rubber hose, wires, and glass tubing. The cumbersome looking machine was five feet long, two and a half feet high and weighed thirty pounds. It could be taken apart and moved from one place to another, but it took an hour to set up.

Larson's crude device measured and recorded the examinee's blood pressure, pulse beat, and changes in respiration. Unlike modern polygraphs, Larson's instrument didn't produce an ink line of a flowing piece of chart paper. Instead, the subject's cardiovascular and respiratory modulations were recorded by a needle that etched out a line on the surface of soot-blackened paper that turned on two upright wooden spindles.

Larson's invention advanced Marston's technique in four ways. First, the polygraph recorded the physiological responses on a continuous graph while the subject was being questioned. This was far superior to Marston's method of asking a question then taking the subject's blood pressure. The second advantage involved the ability to adjust the instrument in order to control such variables as high blood pressure or extreme nervousness. Thirdly, Larson's device produced a tangible and permanent record of test results that could be analyzed later by other experts. And finally, the polygraph detected and recorded the subject's breathing patterns in addition to his blood pressure and pulse rate.

In the Spring of 1921 Larson tested his polygraph on Vollmer and members of the Berkeley Police Department. The results of these experiments convinced Vollmer that Larson was on to something big. Shortly thereafter, Larson was using the instrument to solve a series of petty theft cases on the campus of the University of California.

In 1922, the 17-year-old son of Charles Keeler, a well-known Berkeley poet and Vollmer friend, began hanging around the police department. He had been a sickly child and his father hoped his association with the police would make him a little more worldly.

Young Leonarde Keeler began helping out in the department's photography lab where he met Larson who had him photograph the sooted polygraph charts. Before long, Larson had an assistant who accompanied him on cases and set up the instrument. During the next several months Larson and Keeler gave hundreds of polygraph tests in the bay area.

Larson resigned from the Berkeley Police Department in 1923, the year Vollmer moved to Los Angeles to reorganize the police there. (Vollmer would stay in Los Angeles one year then return to Berkeley.) Larson had taken a job in Chicago as a criminologist with the Illinois Department of Public Welfare. He also began work with the prominent criminologist, Herman Adler at the Institute of Juvenile Research. It was here he had the opportunity to test hundreds of juvenile delinquents on the polygraph. Meanwhile, he continued with his medical education by attending Rush Medical College.

In the Fall of 1924 Leonarde Keeler moved to Los Angeles where he enrolled at U.C.L.A. While in Los Angeles, Keeler ran hundreds of lie detection tests for Vollmer and several neighboring police departments. Two years later, he transferred to Stanford where he fashioned his own version of Larson's device, an instrument that became known as the “Keeler Polygraph.”

Keeler graduated from Stanford in 1928 and moved to Chicago where he took Larson's old job with the state. Keeler also began working with Herman Adler at the Institute of Juvenile Research. A year later he joined the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Chicago run by the famous ballistics expert, Dr. Calvin Goddard. About this time he obtained a patent for his improved polygraph instrument then had twelve of them manufactured for sale at $300 a piece. (His first sale was to the Berkeley Police Department.)

In 1930 Larson returned to Chicago after teaching a year at the University of Iowa. He had accepted the position of Chief Psychiatrist for the Illinois State Prison Department. Larson also resumed his work with Adler and Keeler at the Institute of Juvenile Research. At this time Vollmer was also living in Chicago. He had moved there to teach Police Administration at the University of Chicago, a position he held for two years before returning to his beloved Berkeley.

1. For more on August Vollmer, see: Carte, Gene E. and Elaine H. Carte, Police Reform in the United States, The Era of August Vollmer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); Parker, Alfred E., The Berkeley Police Story, (Springfield, Ill: Charles C. Thomas, 1972); Deutsch, Albert, The Trouble with Cops, (NY: Crown, 1954); and Fisher, Jim, “Pioneer Cops,” The National Centurion, August, 1984.
2. Marston, William M., “Psychological Possibilities in Deception Tests,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, February, 1921. See also: Larson, John A., “Modification of the Marston Deception Test,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, December, 1921.
3. Munsterberg, Hugo, On the Witness Stand, (NY: Doubleday, Page, 108. Other early works on the polygraph are: Marston, William Moulton, The Lie Detector Test, (NY: Richard R. Smith, 1938) and Inbau, Fred E., Lie Detection and Criminal Interrogation, (Baltimore: The Williams & Wilkins Company, 1942). For a general history of the polygraph, see: Trovillo, Paul, “A History of Lie Detection,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 29, 30, 1939, Inbau, Fred E. “The First Polygraph,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 43 (5), 1935, and Inbau, Fred E., “Scientific Evidence in Criminal Cases: Methods of Detecting Deception,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, March-April, 1934.

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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