What do rattlesnakes have to do with crime? In this case the answer is nothing. Why are the two young men in the news photo holding a large, venomous snake? The explanation is on the back of the photo:
Leonarde “Nard” Keeler, the young man on the left, was one of the fathers of the lie detector or “polygraph,” as he called the machine he helped invent. The machine was developed as a scientific alternative to “the third degree,” in which a cop basically beat a confession out of a suspect. John Larson, a police officer in Berkeley, California, with an interest in psychology, thought there had to be a better way to sort the guilty from the innocent, so he created an early version of the lie detector in 1921. As a teenager Keeler got to know Larson and August Volllmer, the pioneering Berkeley chief of police known as the “father of modern law enforcement.” While he was still in high school Keeler became Larson’s assistant.
The idea was to hook someone up to the machine and measure their vital signs while asking them a series of questions. If a particular question caused the vital signs of to go haywire it indicated they were lying. That, at least, was the theory.
Born in Berkeley on Halloween 1903, Keeler’s father was the poet and naturalist, Charles Keeler. Keeler attended several colleges, including UCLA and Stanford, but he was never an enthusiastic student. He was far more interested in the lie detector than in his studies. However in order to pay his expenses while he was in college, Keeler kept two-dozen rattlers in a “lonely” water tower near the university and ran his unusual “dairy” out of the tower.
During the gangster era of the 1930s, Chicago was the perfect place to research crime and to work on developing the lie detector. Keeler, Larson and Vollmer all moved to Chicago. Eventually Keeler and Larson became enemies because Larson, the more science-oriented of the two, considered Keeler to be nothing more than an egotistical showman who wasn’t interested in science and only wanted to generate headlines and promote his “Keeler polygraph.” The two continued to back bite and snipe at each other for years. The older and wiser Vollmer tried to stay out of the fight.
Keeler married Katherine “Kay” Applegate, one of America’s first female forensic scientists, in 1930. For a time it seemed the couple was a real life version of Nick and Nora Charles, Dashiell Hammett’s fictional sleuths, but after Keeler discovered Kay was having affairs with other men, they divorced. Always popular with the ladies, the handsome Keeler philandered, smoked and drank his way into an early grave. He died of a heart attack in 1949.
Nard Keeler sold snake venom, but was he a snake oil salesman? The bottom line is that the reliability of the polygraph continues to be controversial and, generally, the results of the test are not admitted as evidence in court.
Featured photo: from the collection of the author.