On November 27, 1920, Washington physician Robert Wade Brown was shot to death while he was working in his D.C. office (which also happened to be part of his residence on West Eleventh Street). Just before the shooting, Dr. Brown's junior colleague saw a man enter Dr. Brown's office whom he later described as being an African-American male around twenty-five years of age. After hearing shots being fired, the young doctor investigated and found Dr. Brown's body lying outside his office. He had been shot twice in the chest and once in the head.
A prominent member of Washington’s African-American community, Robert W. Brown's death devastated family, friends, and admirers alike. He was also considered to be one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the United States which is apparently what led to his being sent several threatening letters just months before his death. Whoever wrote the letters had been apparently trying to extort money from him. While police investigated at the time and failed to find whoever was responsible, they suspected that the gunman had killed him out of revenge or possibly in an attempt to steal drugs. Though there were no immediate suspects, a $1000 reward was posted by the dead man’s daughters as well as the National Benefit Life Insurance Company (of which Dr. Brown had been president). A coroner’s inquest concluded that he had been killed by an unknown assailant and the killing went unsolved for months.
A break in the case finally came in August 1921 when twenty-four year-old James Alphonso Frye was arrested by D.C. police following an arrest over an unrelated offense. Shortly after Frye was taken into custody, a Washington dentist, John R. Francis, told police that Frye was involved in the Brown murder. Frye had worked for Francis and had reportedly confessed to him that he had killed the doctor. Acting on this tip, police interrogators subjected Frye to intense grilling and managed to get a confession.
According to this confession , Frye had gone to Dr. Brown’s office to get a prescription to treat his gonorrhea. The bill was for two dollars and, when he told Dr. Brown that he only had half of that in his pocket, was told to get the rest. He left the doctor's office and tried to borrow money to cover the rest of the bill but had no success. Frye then went home to get his revolver which he offered to the doctor as collateral for the debt. According to Frye's story, it was at this point that the physician became hostile and, when he failed to leave his office promptly, attacked him. Frye insisted in his confession that he had taken out his gun and shot Brown in self-defense (his exact words were: "I tried to run to the door and he grabbed me again and knocked me down and I told him to put his hands up and he kept on hitting me, hitting me on the head, and in the struggle I think that my gun was fired.”). Frye would change his story repeatedly over the course of the next few months but the original confession seemed proof enough to charge him with first-degree murder.
After months of legal wrangling during which he repudiated his original confession and insisted that his confession had been forced out of him by police, Frye eventually changed lawyers. With few other options, he placed his life in the hands of two young attorneys, Lester Wood and James Mattingly, who also happened to be graduate students at American University. This is likely what inspired them to recruit American University professor William Moulton Marston to use his newly-developed "lie detector" to determine whether the accused was telling the truth or not. What this basically involved was using a sphygmomanometer to measure changes in blood pressure as the person being questioned answered a series of questions linked to the offense. While Marston and other researchers such as John Augustus Larson had already generated headlines over the ambitious claims being made, this new technology had never actually been allowed as evidence in a criminal trial before.
As it happened though, William Marston was an irrepressible showman who relished the chance to make legal history. Born in 1893, he studied law and psychology at Harvard University as well as working as a research assistant for the legendary Hugo Munsterberg. While Munsterberg first proposed the use of experimental psychology methods in forensic cases, it was Marston (with the help of his wife Elizabeth) who developed the systolic blood pressure test of deception. His undergraduate thesis, Systolic Blood Pressure Symptoms of Deception, would later be published in the The Journal of Experimental Psychology. The rationale behind Marston's 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).
Though he intended to become a lawyer rather than a psychologist, Marston was convinced that his blood pressure technique would revolutionize criminal law. As he later told a Boston reporter, "This study of psycho-physics of deception is going to prove a great help to me when I begin to practice law. I have tried 100 experiments and every one has come out right. You can see what a valuable thing it will be to me when I cross-examine a witness."
With the outbreak of World War I, Marston offered his services to interrogate criminals and suspected spies using his new device. Working for the Psychology Committee in Washington D.C., his attempts at proving the effectiveness of his lie detector tended to yield mixed results that antagonized his supervisor, American Psychological Association president Robert Yerkes. Undaunted, Marston completed his law school education and eventually qualified to practice law, along with his wife Elizabeth.
After later receiving his doctorate at Harvard University, Marston launched a series of businesses as well opening his own law practice. To promote his research and establish himself as an authority on deception, Marston arranged a series of newspaper interviews describing the potential value of his lie detector. In one photograph run in a 1921 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Marston is shown administering his test with a caption reading "“MACHINE DETECTS LIARS, TRAPS CROOKS." The article itself basically repeats what Marston already provided in his press release including such bold pronouncements as : "Successful lying will soon be a lost art, for science has perfected an instrument which is credited with being able to register instantly a falsehood." Heady stuff considering he was still a graduate student at the time.
Soon afterward, Frye graduated from Harvard and took a new position at American University in Washington, D.C. Both of Frye's lawyers had taken Marston's new course on legal psychology, including his enthusiastic lectures describing his lie detector and its virtual infallibility. Using Marston and his new technique in James Frye's defense was largely an act of desperation on their part but they had few real alternatives. As for Marston, the Frye case (which was already one of the most-publicized murder trials in Washington) would provide him with the perfect opportunity to prove the value of his invention.
After meeting Frye and getting his consent, Marston carried out his test on June 10 at the D.C. jail where Frye was being held. As Frye himself would later describe what happened, "“He asked me several questions, none pertaining to the case, then suddenly he launched upon several questions going into every detail of the case. Several days later, I read in the Washington News where he had said I had told the truth." Based on his results, Marston expressed his satisfaction that Frye was telling the truth when he said that he had been coerced into confessing to the murder.
Certainly news that the new device had been used generated considerable excitement among the people following the case. The number of spectators eager to see Marston's lie detector being demonstrated jammed the courtroom and even extended into the corridors beyond.
But would his testimony be accepted in a court of law?