Spring 2018–Winter 2019

Truth in the Skin, and Beyond

Walter G. Summers and the theology of polygraphy

D. Graham Burnett

Shortly after 10:20 pm on 12 July 1937, a white male of average height and weight stepped into Frey’s Delicatessen, just off 128th street in Ozone Park, Queens, and trained the barrel of a revolver on the proprietor, Robert Frey, and his wife, Frieda, both behind the counter. He threatened them with death if they failed to convey to him the contents of the till. They handed him thirty-five dollars. Pocketing his gun and their money, the perpetrator exited, sprinting up Liberty Avenue and disappearing into the muggy darkness of a Monday night.

Police promptly rounded up a set of suspects, including twenty-four-year-old Raymond Kenny, who lived nearby and had only recently been paroled, following conviction on a very similar charge. The Freys made a positive identification, though Kenny and his wife both swore he had been home and in bed at the time of the incident. (The recently married couple had an infant and were living with his parents.) The case went to trial before the end of the year, and Kenny was briskly convicted. The mandatory minimum sentence was a full thirty years in prison, and the maximum (of sixty years) left open a real possibility that Kenny would spend the rest of his life behind bars. Before sentencing could proceed, however, two women from the neighborhood surfaced, alleging that they had caught a clear view of the escaping criminal on that fateful night, and that he was both taller and of a larger build than Kenny—whose lawyer promptly petitioned for a new trial.

By the time that new case went to the jury, on the afternoon of 29 March 1938, The People v. Kenny had become a controversial and closely watched legal showdown. Reporters haunted the judge’s chambers, and kept vigil outside the jury room, where sequestered deliberations ran for more than nine hours. Finally, at 2:30 in the morning, the foreman emerged to announce the verdict: an acquittal. 

The New York Herald Tribune’s headline the next morning, like headlines across the country, broke the news: “Lie Detector ‘Testifies’ and Jury Acquits: Robbery Suspect Is Freed in Queens after Colden Permits First Use of Device in a City Court.”[1]

It was indeed an unprecedented development. While the use of various instruments for monitoring respiration and blood pressure and other biometric indices had played a role in law enforcement for decades (being used to elicit confessions, or deployed probatively, under conditions of cooperation between suspects and investigators), the introduction of machine testimony over the strenuous objection of a prosecutor marked new terrain for the techno-scientific scrutiny of human inwardness. Journalists reached for exclamation points as they worked to express the sense that the legal system stood at a significant watershed: “A defendant was freed almost solely because of the mute testimony of the graph sheets!” exclaimed an illustrated Sunday feature in the Minneapolis Tribune. One photo spread there showed a pair of open hands, the middle of each palm bearing the peg-like stigmata of a wired electrode; balanced in the midst of this cyborg-supplication sat a gridded strip of indicator paper upon which a narrow stylus was scratching the hills and valleys of veracity. The caption told the real story that lay under the national fascination with the Kenny case: “This is the Graph Section of the Pathometer Invented by Father Summers, S.J., of Fordham University. A Line of Demarcation Chosen by the Priest during the Preliminary Questioning Separates Falsehood from Truth.”[2] Another prominent photo depicted the man of the hour—Father Walter G. Summers himself, S.J., PhD, the founding chairman of the Fordham University Department of Psychology, wearing studious gold-rimmed glasses and a clerical collar—adjusting the dials on a pair of black boxes that look a little like a shortwave radio.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.