The Mind of Harry Orchard (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part 1

Based on Orchard's incredible confession, James McParland personally travelled to Colorado to arrest Haywood, Moyer, and Pettibone in what many witnesses described as a "kidnapping scheme" to force them to Idaho to stand trial.   Not only did McParland use falsified extradition papers claiming that the union leaders had been present at the assassination scene, but he also arranged a special train to get them out of Colorado before the courts could overrule him.   The extradition generated so much outrage among unionists that an appeal was later sent to the Supreme Court (which upheld the legality of McParland's actions).    

It probably didn’t help that McParland arranged for Orchard’s confession to be serialized in a popular magazine to “reach the largest possible public).   Occurring before the trial even started, McParland did everything possible to ensure the union leaders would be convicted.   There is even evidence that the prosecuting attorneys were secretly paid by the mine owners to ensure a conviction.

The American Federation of Labor raised funds for the defense of the three union men and hired famed Chicago trial lawyer Clarence Darrow to handle their defense.    In the trial that began on May 9, 1907, Darrow's defense strategy focused on breaking down Harry Orchard's credibility.    As the main witness against the union men, Orchard's history of violence, his claims of being a hired killer, and his known history of being a paid informant for the Mine Owners Association (at the same time that he was supposedly working for the Western Federation of Miners) all worked against him.   

While Orchard was absolutely convincing on the witness stand (at least as far as the reporters were concerned), the question of whether he was telling the truth or a gifted liar became the subject of nationwide speculation.      For the prosectors, proving that Orchard's confession was genuine meant resorting to a somewhat risky strategy using the new science of psychology in a way that had never been tried in a courtroom before.

Enter Hugo Munsterberg.

A prominent German psychologist hired by the legendary Willliam James to run Harvard's new psychological laboratory, Munsterberg wrote a series of articles advocating the use of psychology in the courtroom to help judges and juries reach a verdict.   While medical doctors had been allowed to appear as expert witnesses in cases of suspected insanity, Hugo Munsterberg argued that the traditional method of having juries weigh evidence had inherent flaws.  His research demonstrated the inaccuracy of eyewitness testimony and memory, including how easy it was for police interrogators to create false confessions in pliable suspects.   Munsterberg also argued that trained observers were better able to identify liars than the usual panel of untrained jurors.   

Along with his outspoken views on the applied uses of psychology, Munsterberg had also turned himself into a media darling with his frequent contributions to various popular magazines and newspapers.  He quickly became America’s best-known psychologist and could write essays on virtually any topic.  Not only was he eminently quotable, but he could be counted on to make sensational comments that often led to scathing attacks.   His personal papers, stored in the Rare Books and Manuscripts in the Boston Public Library, contains four folders of hate mail, including numerous death threats.   It says a lot about Hugo Munsterberg’s view of the world that he felt the need to preserve them for posterity.

Despite being a media figure, Munsterberg was primarily a researcher who was determined to expand the boundaries of what was known about the human mind.    It was Hugo Munsterberg who first proposed an "action theory" suggesting that human thought and emotion could be explored by measuring physiological processes.  He also pioneered the use of word-association tests to probe whether people were telling the truth. 

The underlying principle of the word-association test, which was also being used by his contemporary, Carl Jung, was that measuring the time required to respond to words relevant to the crime allowed questioners to catch potential liars.     Munsterberg reported that using word-association testing in laboratory settings allowed trained analysts to identify people making false statements far better than people without training.   Based on his research, the New York Times ran a headline announcing that Professor Munsterberg "INVENTS MACHINE AS CURE FOR LIARS" based on his claim that his mental tests could "record the emotions and reveal the secrets of the human mind".  In the various articles that he wrote for popular magazines, Munsterberg suggested that the rise of experimental psychology would lead to a radical transformation of the criminal justice system and replace the traditional judge annd jury.  

Considering the notoriety of Haywood trial, it likely seemed like a good idea for the editor of McClure’s Magazine to invite Hugo Munsterberg to come to Idaho andassess whether Harry Orchard was lying.  Certainly the prosecutors in the case needed all the help they could get to bolster the credibility of their star witness.  The news that Munsterberg would be traveling to Boise to interview Orchard made for sensational headlines .     

Munsterberg began by attending part of the trial and listening to Orchard standing up to the vigorous cross-examination offered by Clarence Darrow and the other defense attorneys.    Though he was initially impressed by William Haywood who seemed far more trustworthy than the sinister-looking Orchard, Munsterberg then put his new theories about lie detection to the test.

During a two-day examination of Orchard in his cell, Munsterberg administered numerous tests including his much-vaunted word association test as well as some of the physical response measures he had been developing with his graduate students.   The method that attracted the most journalistic interest however was what one reporter called Munsterberg’s “Truth Compelling Machine” which was an early version of the modern polygraph.    Based on the various test results, including how rapidly Orchard responded "true" when presented with the word "confession" during the word-association test, Munsterberg informed the prosecutors that he had "not the slightest doubt" that Orchard was telling the truth.

On returning to Cambridge however, Munsterberg unwisely agreed to talk about his findings in an interview with the Boston Herald.   After telling the reporter that "Orchard's confession is, every bit of it, true", all hell broke loose.   Since no verdict had yet been delivered in the case, Munsterberg's rash announcement threatened the impartiality of the courtroom and newspaper editorials across the country denounced him.   Some journalists assigned him the nickname, “Professor Monsterwork”, a name that he would have difficulty living down.

Along with the editorial outrage, even jurists and his own fellow psychologists spoke out against him.  Accused of engaging in "yellow psychology" for pandering to the media, one colleague asked how "Dr. Munsterberg can have the face to ply the American public with these platitudinous half-truths."   Though he fought back against his critics, Munsterberg was forced to tone down his rhetoric and admit that psychological science had not quite caught up to his optimistic predictions.

Which still left prosecutors with the problem of Harry Orchard's testimony...

To be continued


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  • The Mind of Harry Orchard (Part 1 of 3)
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  • The Nerve Trainer


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