In November 1920, a prominent Washington, D.C. physician was shot to death in a robbery. After months of investigation, police arrested James Frye who eventually confessed to the crime. Frye later recanted this confession before his trial was set to begin claiming that he had been promised money to admit to the crime. At the request of Frye's attorney, psychologist William Moulton Marston was called in to verify that Frye was telling the truth. Having made a name for himself through the use of systolic blood pressure testing to detect lying (he actually coined the term "lie detector"), Marston tested Frye in a D.C. jail and concluded that he was telling the truth.
In a landmark legal decision, the presiding judge threw out the evidence ruling that the systolic blood pressure deception test has "not has not yet gained such standing and scientific recognition among physiological and psychological authorities as would justify the courts in admitting expert testimony deduced from the discovery, development and experiments thus far made". Frye was convicted of second-degree murder and the decision to exclude Marston's testimony was upheld on appeal. Until the introduction of the Daubert standard in the 1990s, the Frye decision would be the principal standard for admissibility of scientific evidence in courtrooms throughout the United States (and is still used in some U.S. states).
Ever the showman, William Moulton Marston took his place in legal history in stride. Born in 1893, he earned his LLB and Ph.D. at Harvard University studying under the legendary Hugo Munsterberg. While Munsterberg first proposed the use of experimental psychology methods in forensic case, it was Marston (with the help of his wife Elizabeth) who developed the systolic blood pressure test of deception as a graduate student. The rationale behind the test was simple enough: when people lied, their elevated autonomic arousal could be measured through systolic blood pressure (later expanded to include galvanic skin response). Over the course of his lengthy career, he would publish research boasting of a 97-99% accuracy rate.
After leaving Harvard, Marston had a varied career. Billing his "lie detector" as "the end of man's long, futile striving for a means of distinguishing truth-telling from deception", he publicized his discovery in different, (and at times outrageous) ways. Following the Lindbergh kidnapping in the 1930s, Marston offered his services to the Lindbergh family and, failing to get a reply, offered to test Bruno Hauptmann to verify his guilt. Although Marston was not the only researcher working on physiological measures of deception, his showmanship gave him a higher profile than anyone else.
Dubbed the "father of the polygraph", he pushed for its use in courtrooms and police work. His work at publicizing the polygraph took him in some strange directions. He was once hired by Gillette to do an advertisement using the polygraph to conduct "scientific shaving tests" to prove that Gillette razors were the best. Not surprisingly, his unconventional conduct and outrageous claims made him a target of serious polygraph researchers. One reviewer of his 1938 book, The Lie Detector Test, wrote that "It can only bring ridicule upon the subject matter and disrespect for its author."
Marston's eclectic interests included his fascination with comic books (he praised their educational potential), and feminist theory. Perhaps feminist is the wrong word to describe Marston's views on women since he focused on their superiority over men in most aspects. He regarded women as being more honest and reliable than men, not to mention less angry and violent. Marston viewed matriarchal societies as the ideal since women could curb male anarchy through their sexuality.
His views on women were reinforced by his unusual private life. While still married to Elizabeth, he became involved with Olive Byrnes, a former student who became his assistant. With his wife's blessing, Olive moved in with them in a remarkable menage-a-trois relationship that lasted until his death in 1947. Even after Marston died, Elizabeth and Olive continued to live together with their children (two by each woman) until Olive's death in the 1980s.
Marston's fascination with comics and his philosophical musings about feminine ideals came together in the early 1940s with his most memorable creation: Wonder Woman. Patterned after Elizabeth and Olive, the heroic Amazon was intended to be a "new kind of superhero" to offset the male superheroes that had dominated comics. It was with a touch of irony that Wonder Woman was equipped with a magic lasso that could compel villains to tell the truth (a fictional alternative to Marston's "lie detector".
Despite the appeal of a female superhero, Wonder Woman faced strong criticism over the years. Feminists disliked the bondage and physical submissiveness themes while Fredric Wertham denounced her as a lesbian in his anti-comics crusade. Wonder Woman has managed to survive (lasso and all) through decades of comic book storylines, a television series, and an upcoming movie.
As for Marston's other legacy, that depends on who you ask. While the use of polygraph evidence in courtrooms is still controversial, they are commonly found in police investigations, offender monitoring, and employment settings (including security agencies). In addition to standard measures of autonomic arousal, newer technologies include measures of brain functioning, computerized adminstration, voice stress analysis, and standardized interrogation techniques. Despite the lack of commonly accepted federal standards, polygraph schools (including one founded by William Marston) offer certificate programs in polygraph use around the world.
While supporters of polygraphy have typically reported accuracy rates in the 97-99% range, critics have argued that these numbers have been artificially inflated by flaws in research design. In 2003, the National Research Council released a review of polygraphy that condemned existing validity studies and concluded that "almost a century of research in scientific psychology and physiology provides little basis for the expectation that a polygraph test could have extremely high accuracy".Despite concerns about validity, the polygraph industry seems well-entrenched and the controversy is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.
Remember James Frye? While some accounts state that he was later exonerated when someone else confessed to the crime, this isn't the case. Frye was eventually paroled after serving eighteen years in prison. Leaving aside the question of his actual guilt (and there are still differing opinions on that), Marston's testimony almost certainly saved Frye from a first-degree murder conviction (and the death penalty). Just another part of William Moulton Marston's complex legacy.