What would it take for you to spill your secrets? The promise of a reward? Maybe the fear of losing your most treasured belongings? Or, perhaps, a skeleton with glowing eyes? The latter was a legitimate suggestion put forward in a patent filed in August 1927 by Helene Adelaide Shelby of California whose “apparatus for obtaining criminal confessions and photographically record them” sought to revolutionize the interrogation process. The patent, confirmed in March 1930, might sound a little supernatural, but the motivations that inspired its creation were very much of this world.
“It is a well known fact in criminal practice that confessions obtained initially from those suspected of crimes through ordinary channels are almost invariably later retracted, or repudiated, by the criminal with the charge that these confessions had been obtained through intimidation, or under duress,” reads the patent. “The accompanying drawings illustrate the apparatus as adapted to be employed in carrying out my method of procuring and recording these confessions of guilt to be later reproduced as evidence.”
The illuminating figures depict quite the scene to walk in on as an investigating officer. The suspect is stood in a chamber separated from where the interrogator is sat, and between the two stands a skeleton. Shelby’s design calls for the back of the skeleton’s head to be removed so that microphones and cameras can be fitted inside it to record the perpetrator’s confession.
Filming confessions is of course a valuable tool that remains to this day a staple in criminal interrogations, so what’s with the skeleton?
“The skeleton 16 is arranged in front of the panel 8, with its feet resting upon the glass top of the light chamber 14, the lights 27 mounted in this chamber being adapted to flood the entire skeleton from the feet up, while a second source of light 28 mounted upon the panel 8 over the skull of the skeleton, as shown in Figure 1, is adapted for additional flooding from an opposite direction, the purpose being to produce the appearance of an apparition having a translucent outer, or astral body, and a diaphanous veiling constituting the so-called aura, the lighting being of a character adapted to flood with a ghostly light and to bring out clearly the skeleton’s outlines,” read the patent, in just one of many incredibly long sentences included in its write up.
“To add to the mystification,” as the author put it, the skeleton’s spook factor would be bolstered by a bulb in each eye that would blink as the subject responded. The skeleton would be integral in conducting the interrogation, too, as a megaphone fitted to its mouth would put the questions from the concealed investigator to the suspect, making it look as if the skeleton is speaking.
Put yourself in the shoes of a criminal, for a moment, and imagine the scene: you’ve been brought into the police station under suspicion of committing a crime for which you know you’re guilty. Led into a dark room where you’re left alone, you suddenly find yourself confronted by the ghostly apparition of a floodlit astral skeleton whose glowing, blinking eyes can see into your soul (presumably). Are you going to spill the beans?
According to Atlas Obscura, it seems Shelby’s out-of-the-box thinking in interrogation techniques never really took off. Something of a one-hit-wonder for the inventor, a 1961 decision from the US Supreme Court which ruled that coerced confessions weren’t admissible in court no doubt clipped the interrogation skeleton’s wings. Shame, jury duty could’ve been quite the show.