The Mind of Harry Orchard (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part 2

Clarence Darrow had little trouble discrediting all of the evidence presented against William Haywood and his fellow union leaders.   He was scathing in his attack on Munsterberrg’s testimony and told him in a letter that:  “In my humble opinion, you are in no more position to give any intelligent judgment upon the truthfulness of Orchard’s story than the man in the moon..”    If Darrow saw any irony in his championing psychological testimony during his later career as a defense attorney in the Loeb and Leopold case, he never mentioned it.

Ironically, not only was Munsterberg’s evidence disallowed, he was not even allowed to testify as an expert witness.   After a brutal cross-examination of Harry Orchard and a masterful summation to the jury that is still a classic, Darrow won his case.   The others were acquitted in short order since the prosecution had no other evidence aside from Orchard’s now-discredited testimony. 

As for Harry Orchard, the acquittal of everyone else he had ever implicated meant he had to bear the sole responsibility for Frank Steunenberg’s murder.   After changing his plea to guilty, he received a death sentence in 1908 though this was later commuted to a life sentence in recognition of his cooperation with prosecutors.  He went on to spent nearly five decades in prison before dying in 1954.    Orchard continued to insist to his dying day that his confession had been true and his autobiography (which was largely ghost-written) is still available online.

While Hugo Munsterberg continued to insist that Orchard had been telling the truth, the case would damage his reputation, and the credibility of forensic psychological testimony in general.  Though continuing to insist that experimental psychology would transform the criminal justice system, this was very much a minority position.  In a draft essay on Harry Orchard’s testimony, he wrote, “My nerves protest against twelve jurymen in rocking chairs, each one rocking in his own rhythm.”   He also added that what he found in his two days of testing Orchard was far more convincing than any of the other evidence presented throughout the trial.  

It was a second capital murder case in which he participated in 1906 that had an even stronger emotional impact on Munsterberg, however.   The case involved a mentally disabled man who had been coerced into confessing to a murder in Chicago.   Though the suspect later withdrew his confession, he still faced the death penalty and the defense attorney asked both Munsterberg and William James to intervene.   While both psychologists agreed that the man was probably innocent, copies of the letters they wrote on his behalf were leaked to the press.   The resulting outrage was almost identical to what Munsterberg experienced during the Orchard trial with the court regarding them as nothing more than “self-appointed experts” who dared to contradict the guilty verdict already handed down by the jury.   The man was hanged.

Upset over the outcome, and how his psychological opinion had been completely rejected by the court, Munsterberg went on to publish a series of articles that were collected together in his 1908 classic, On The Witness Stand.   The book, which was nothing less than an indictment of the shortcomings of the criminal justice system as it was then, pointed out the inadequacies of much of the evidence on which juries and judges form their verdicts.   Munsterberg also reemphasized his earlier conclusions about the fallibility of eyewitness testimony and how false confessions could be obtained through psychological pressure and suggestibility.   

It was the chapter titled, The Detection of Crime that attracted the most attention though.  In that chapter, Munsterberg described his various lie detection tests in detail.   That included the word association test originally developed by Max Wertheimer and Carl Jung.  Using a chronoscope to detect speed of responding, Munsterberg argued that people took longer to speak after words that were emotionally meaningful to them.  While he insisted that even minutes differences in responding would be enough to catch liars, this didn’t really work out in practice (hence his disaster with Harry Orchard).  

Defending his word association test against all critics (including several of his graduate students), Munsterberg wrote that:

“The association experiments thus completely fulfilled their purpose; they…[answered] a definite question which could hardly be answered by other methods of evidence. The association experiments proved that the murderer [Orchard] did not try to hide anything,”

Despite his enthusiasm, he was also careful to warn about the possibility that his findings could be misused.   Adding that “"The new method is still in many ways imperfect, and if clumsily applied it may be misleading; moreover there exists no hard and fast rule which fits every case mechanically", he would continue trying to improve his lie-detection methods right up until his death in 1917.

While many psychologists attempted to perfect Munsterberg’s lie detection technique, including his student William Moulton Marston (who developed the first working polygraph), his optimistic prediction that experimental psychology would transform the criminal justice system never really materialized. 

So far at least.


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