Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Page 115: Colander lie detector

Before the humble colander was embraced by Pastafarians who have been touched by the noodly appendage of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it played a role in urban legend. Indeed, appears in my favorite urban-legend-based scene in The Billionth Monkey. And best of all, the legend is one of those rare stories that may actually have some basis in reality.

According to legend, some small-town police (Radnor, Pennsylvania, is the most common location) are interrogating a clearly guilty but uncooperative perp. In order to extract a confession, they put a colander on his head and connect it to a photocopier which has on its copying plate a piece of paper on which the police have written “He’s lying!” On questioning, whenever the suspect gave a dubious answer the police pressed the “copy” button, and out popped a piece of paper alerting them to the suspect’s falsehood. Before long, the police had their confession.

According to Brunvand (2001), the story first appeared in print in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1977. Columnist Clark DeLeon reported that Judge Isaac Garb heard the associated case and suppressed the confession. In 1993, Garb confirmed that he did indeed hear the case before his Court of Common Appeals in Bucks County, Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Mikkelson, however, is skeptical that a colander would just happen to be sitting around a police department.

True or not, the story had legs, spread widely, and underwent predictable changes as it grew in popularity. It appeared in the TV show Homicide: Life on the Streets in the episode “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Season 1, Episode 8, March 24, 1993). Amar and Lettow (1995), in their law journal article about the Fifth Amendment’s self-incrimination clause, report that this actually happened recently in Detroit (page 873–4). Critics of voice-stress analyzers have compared the technique to the colander copier caper (as Brunvand calls it). And according to Savage (1998), the story was told to the Supreme Court as part of the testimony in its decision concerning the use of polygraph evidence.

A variant of the story was used in the January 6, 2008, episode of The Wire, “More with Less” (Season 5, Episode 1).


Jimmy Kimmel Live! has reinvented this legend—with buzzers and lights—into a hilarious series of “Lie Detective” shorts with children. Here’s the first in the series:


In this scene from "Lie Detective" on Jimmy Kimmel Live!,
Jimmy finds the tables turned (© ABC).

For Further Reading

Akhil Reed Amar and Renée B. Lettow. “Fifth Amendment First Principles: The Self-Incrimination Clause.” Michigan Law Review, March 1995, 93(5): 857 – 928.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. “The Colander Copier Caper,” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 78–9.

Mark Hansen. “Truth Sleuth or Faulty Detector? Voice stress analyzer as polygraph alternative goes on trial.” American Bar Association Journal, May 1999, 85(5): 16.

David G. Savage. “Let Trial Judges Decide: High Court Rejects a Per Se Rule on Polygraph Evidence.” American Bar Association Journal, June 1998, 84(6): 52–3.

Barbara Mikkelson, “Next Case on the Court Colander,” Jul 4, 2011, Snopes.com.

7 comments:

  1. The guy who invented the lie detector also created Wonder Woman. She was based on a young girl that was in a relationship with him and his wife.

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  2. The guy who invented the lie detector also created Wonder Woman. She was based on a young girl that was in a relationship with him and his wife.

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    1. Indeed! For those readers who want to know more, the Smithsonian recently ran a great story on William Moulton Marston: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/origin-story-wonder-woman-180952710/?no-ist

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  6. And best of all, the legend is one of those rare stories that may actually have some basis in reality.www.liedetectortest.uk/

    ReplyDelete