Scopolamine, Truth-telling and the Other Dr House

Portrait of Daniel Defoe

The reasoning that recording physical correlates can be used to discern truth and deception can be traced at least as far back as Daniel Defoe’s 1730 essay on the prevention of street crime. He wrote: “Guilt carries fear always about with it; there is a tremor in the blood of the thief.” Defoe advocated holding the wrists and measuring the pulse to detect a person in possession of false tongue.

As Geoffrey Bunn has recently argued, a range of important concepts emerged in the genesis of criminology, not least the notion of ‘criminal man’, whose animalistic, biological nature was the source of his criminal behaviour. So in the late 1800s and early 1900s the body was increasingly tied to the mind and the various inscriptions produced from reading the body became vital to theorising mental and emotional events. Similarly, the theorisation of the unconscious as a quasi-spatial repository of personal truths made the mind a focus for physiological study. Moreover, biologists of the time investigating heredity imagined memory to be material, conceiving of it as a vibration of cells in parents, which were then transmitted to offspring. This helped them account for the transmission of ostensibly non-physical qualities that nonetheless seemed to be transferred from parents to offspring.

These and a great many more small changes in the discourse of crime and the body helped to consolidate the idea that some technique or technology could be used to access the internal state of a criminal suspect resistant to interrogation. Practitioners of applied psychology, developing their work most fervently from the 1870s onwards, produced a central set of technologies that examined psychic states by monitoring physiological changes. The years from 1870 to 1940 thus saw the development of numerous lie detection devices such as truth serum, sphygmomanometers, pneumographs and the galvanic skin response monitors, some of which were consolidated into the ‘polygraph’ machine, patented several times from the 1930s onwards, and now used throughout the USA to police a range of suspect categories.From good historical work we now know quite a lot about the history of the polygraph machine, particularly regarding its early years of development and deployment in the USA. However, we know a lot less about the emergence and use of truth serum.

Dr Robert House, administering his “truth serum” drug to an arrested man in a Texas jail.
House administers the serum in Texas

In the 1920s a nightshade-derived drug, scopolamine hydrobromide, was trialled by one Robert House, a Texas obstetrician, for use in the interrogation of two prisoners at the Dallas county jail. Dr House had observed the effects of scopolamine on women during childbirth, alongside morphine and chloroform. This drug-induced state became known as ‘twilight sleep’, and was caused by blocking the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. House felt that the drug’s effects on women might be similarly produced in people suspected of concealment. The two prisoners interviewed by Dr House retained their original story indicating to the Dallas physician that they were innocent. The evidence was submitted and the prisoners were found not guilty at their trial. The use of scopolamine as a ‘truth serum’, a term coined by the media and eventually adopted by House, was short lived, mostly due to its dangerous side effects, and though it found brief use in the legal field it was generally unsuccessful.

Dr Gregory House and his slogan, ‘Everybody lies’.

Its popularity resided mostly within the media and was propelled not solely, but incessantly, by House. Much like the proponents of the polygraph, House believed that the truth serum would not only act on individuals to produce justice but on institutions also. He feared that the corruption of powerful members of society, both public and private, had reached severe levels, most dangerously so within the criminal justice system. At the time, aggressive interrogation methods had become endemic in US police investigations, a practice that became known as ‘the third degree’. The doctor saw his serum as the antidote to this social ill. As the more popularly known Dr Greg House from the US TV show says, ‘Everybody lies’. Indeed, the TV character of House seems to be a modern inheritor of the historical House’s cause for lie detection techniques. in the TV show, House regularly calls his patients on their deception and prevarications, and in a few episodes uses the hospital’s fMRI machine to scan their brains and determine whether they’re telling the truth or not.

However, the Dr Robert House’s hopes for a truth serum, that might act like a societal vaccine were never made real: he died in 1930 and the use of scopolamine as a truth drug mostly died with him. It was around this time that the ‘inventors’ of the polygraph were pushing their devices as cures for the corruption of police investigation practices. So although the idea for using chemical compounds in the interrogation of suspects survived, becoming known as ‘narco-analysis’ it never really competed with the rise of the polygraph machine. One important context in which it did endure, however was as part of the programme of human behavioural modification explored by the CIA in Project MKUltra, about which I’ll talk more in a future post. For now, here are some references that might be of interest:

Robert House, The Use of Scopolamine in Criminology

Geoffrey Bunn, The Truth Machine

Alison Winter, The Making of “Truth Serum” 1920-1940

Melissa Littlefield, The Lying Brain

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