Case 1 - Pathological Lying, Accusation, And Swindling - A Study In Forensic Psychology

Case 1 - Pathological Lying, Accusation, And Swindling - A Study In Forensic Psychology


Summary: A girl of 16 applied for help, telling an elaborate tale of family tragedy which proved to be totally untrue. It was so well done that it deceived the most experienced. Shrewd detective work cleared the mystery. It was found that the girl was a chronic falsifier and had immediately preceding this episode become delinquent in other ways. Given firm treatment in an institution and later by her family, who knew well her peculiarities, this girl in the course of four years apparently has lost her previous extreme tendency to falsification.

Hazel M. at 16 years of age created a mild sensation by a story of woe which brought immediate offers of aid for the alleged distress. One morning she appeared at a social center and stated she had come from a hospital where her brother, a young army man, had just died. She gave a remarkably correct, detailed, medical account of his suffering and death. In response to inquiry she told of a year's training as a nurse; that was how she knew about such subjects. In company with a social worker she went directly back to the hospital to make arrangements for what she requested, namely, a proper burial. At the hospital office it was said that no such person had died there, and after she had for a time insisted on it she finally said she must have been dreaming. Although she had wept on the shoulder of a listener as she first told her story, she now gave it up without any show of emotion. We were asked to study the case.

Hazel sketched to us a well-balanced story of her family life; one which it was impossible to break down. It involved experiences at army posts—she stated her only relatives were brothers in the army—and her recent work as a ``practical nurse.'' She finally led on to the death of her brother, as in the tale previously told. When asked how she accounted for the fact that no such person was found in the hospital, she answered, ``Well, I either must have been crazy or something is the matter, and I don't think my mind is that bad.'' The girl evidently was suffering from loss of sleep; her case was not further investigated until after a long rest.

The next day Hazel started in by saying, ``It's enough to convince anybody that I was not in the hospital when Mrs. B. and I went there and found out that they said I had not been there. Truthfully I don't know where I was. If I was not there I must have been some place or I must have been in a trance.'' The long stories told in the next few days need not be gone into. They contained descriptions of life with her family in several towns when she was a child, of her graduation from the high school in Des Moines, and of her experience as a nurse in Cincinnati and Chicago. Our cross-examination disclosed that she knew a good many facts about obstetrics, in which she said she had had training, and about the cities where she said she had lived. For instance, she gave a description of the Cliff House at San Francisco, the seals on the rocks there, the high school in Des Moines, and so on. She also knew about life at army posts. The point that made us skeptical was when in mentioning the names of railroads she placed the wrong towns upon them. For instance, she told us her brother worked on the L. S. & M. S. at Kenosha.

Hazel's stories were successfully maintained for several days until a shrewd detective, who got her to tell some street numbers in Chicago, ferreted out her family. She had persistently denied the existence of any of them in Chicago, and, indeed, stated that her father and mother had died years previously. One of the most convincing things about her was her poise; she displayed an attitude of sincerity combined with a show of deep surprise when her word was questioned. For example, the moment before her mother was brought in to see her, she was asked what she would say if anyone asserted that her mother was in the next room. Her instantaneous, emphatic response was, ``She would have to rise out of her grave to be there.''

We soon learned that not a single detail the girl had given about her family was true. She was born and brought up in Chicago and had never been outside of the city. She had never studied nursing nor had she ever nursed anybody. In public school she had reached eighth grade.

Hazel came of an intelligent family and we were able to get a good account of the family and developmental history. Heredity seems completely negative as far as any nervous or mental abnormalities are concerned. She is one of seven children, four of whom are living, three having died in infancy. The father had just recently died of tuberculosis. There has been no trouble with the other children of any significance for us. Pregnancy with Hazel was healthy, but the mother suffered a considerable shock when she stood on a passenger boat by the side of a man who jumped overboard and committed suicide. The birth was difficult. The child weighed 12 lbs. Instruments were used; it was a breech presentation. At 2 years of age Hazel was very ill with gastritis and what was said to be spinal meningitis.

She had some convulsions then. Had both walked and talked when she was about 16 months of age. During childhood she had a severe strabismus and at 8 years of age was operated upon for it. Vision has always been practically nil in one eye. Several diseases of childhood she had in mild form. After she was 2 years of age she had no more convulsions, or spasms, or attacks of any kind. From the standpoint of general nervousness Hazel was said to be one of the calmest in the family, although she was accustomed to drink five or six cups of coffee a day. Menstruation at 13 years, no irregularity.

On examination we found a very well nourished and well developed young woman of slouchy attitude and normal expression. Vision very defective in one eye and 10/20, even with glasses, in the other. Slight strabismus. General strength good. Examination otherwise negative except for the fact that she had been infected with the diplococcus of Neisser.

Mental tests proved her to have quite normal ability. Neither special ability nor disabilities of significance were discovered. For present discussion it is of interest to note that in the ``Aussage'' Test she gave a functional account, enumerating 16 items, 2 of which were incorrect, and accepted none of the suggestions which were offered.

The mother and sister brought out the facts that Hazel had been giving an assumed name recently and lying about her age. She had alleged that she was married. In the last year she had run away from home on several occasions. At one time had written to her mother about her happy married life. One letter reads, ``Dearest Mother:—I can picture your dear face when you receive my letter. I know you have your doubts about the matter, the same as I had the first few days. But mama, you know I love him and I have the satisfaction of being a married woman before Annie is.'' In the letter she describes the appearance of her imaginary husband, tells about her new dress and gloves and ``the prettiest little wedding ring that was ever made.'' In another letter she says, ``It is just one o'clock A.M. and Jack has just gone to sleep and so I stole a little time to write,'' etc. (It was later shown by the stationery used, and by the girl's final confession, that these letters were written in the rest room of a department store.)

Hazel's lying began, it seems, when she was a little girl. She would come home from school and out of whole cloth relate incidents which occurred on the way home. One of her earliest efforts was about being chased by a white horse. The mother states that for years she has had to check Hazel because she recognized her remarkable tendencies in this direction. The father's death was somewhat of a shock and it seems that after this the girl's other delinquencies began. Prior to the time she first went away from home she had some sort of hysterical spells when she said she could see her father lying in his coffin before her in the room.

Her behavior became quite outrageous with some young man in her own household at just about this time. Not that she was immoral, although she once suddenly blurted out in the parlor a grave self-accusation: ``Now, John, mother thinks you must be careful. You know I am a prostitute.'' When we first saw her she had been away from home four times, on this last occasion for three weeks. Before she went she had said she wanted to kill herself. Mother had notified the police but no trace of her was found.

From Hazel's own story told at this time and even after she became more stable it seems very likely that her bad tendencies began with her acquaintance with a certain rather notorious woman. Her mother came to believe that this was undoubtedly the fact. Our inquiry into beginnings brought to light the fact that Hazel while a school girl for long associated with this woman who taught her about sex immoralities. ``I don't believe my mother knows what this Mrs. R. did to me or she would have her arrested. She started me on all this. When I was about 11 years old I first knew of those things. The first I ever heard was from that woman's daughter. I never said anything to my mother. I was always ashamed of myself to say anything about it.

After I got to working with factory girls I heard a lot about it.'' The mother told us later that she thought it probable from what she now knew that this Mrs. R. may have been largely responsible for Hazel's tendency to delinquency. Hazel kept this association of several years' standing quite to herself. The mother remembers now how Hazel once stayed for hours after school and told a story in explanation that they felt sure was untrue. The teachers used to tell the mother that Hazel seemed as if she couldn't pay attention to her school work. One teacher reported to us that she remembers Hazel as a girl who seemed peculiar and hysterical. The other girls called her queer and used to steer clear of her.

The mother reports Hazel as being for several years impulsive, erratic, talkative, untidy, and rather dishonest in other small ways besides lying—all this in spite of vigorous home discipline. The girl at one time under the influence of revival meetings left the religious faith of her parents. However, they thought if any form of religion would make her better it would be all right.

At our last interview with Hazel before she was sent away, an interview which she prefaced by saying, ``I want to apologize for everything I did,'' the girl showed herself unable to avoid prevarications. Coming back, for instance, to the subject of her schooling she tells us how she won a graduating medal. This her mother said was untrue.

About her own lying tendencies she confessed that sometimes she hardly knew whether things were really so or not. Asked about her knowledge of other cities; ``I read a whole lot and learn things in that way. I used to have to write compositions and imagine we were going places. I was pretty good at that.'' One felt very uncertain about Hazel's mental condition when in almost the same breath she denied having said anything about the seals on the rocks at San Francisco, or about obstetrical cases, but, of course, the denial may have been itself another falsification. Her knowledge of army affairs was gained through her acquaintance with young soldiers. An unusual amount of what she heard or read was photographed with the greatest clearness in her mind and was recalled most vividly.

A peculiarity of Hazel's case which was quite obvious was her lack of apperception concerning her own interests. Her lies all along, after her identity was discovered, were so easy to trace, and they so quickly rebounded upon her, that there seemed every reason for her to desist. Nothing so clearly proved the absence of self-realization as her feeling under detention that other girls with whom she was in forced association were much beneath her in quality, although many of them were not nearly so untidy and had not been nearly so immoral. During all this period of several months, beginning with her running away and her writing the housewifely letters about her imaginary married life, and ending with her appeal for aid at the social center, Hazel was indulging in veritable orgies of lying. When away from home she several times picked up men on the street and stayed at hotels with them.

At the time of our first studies of this case we hardly dared to offer either a mental or moral prognosis.

In the institution for delinquent young women to which she was sent Hazel's traits were long maintained. She proved very troublesome on account of lies to her family, to the officers, and to the other girls. The latter soon discovered, however, the peculiar lack of foundation for her stories. In the institution was also noted the tendency to untidiness of which her mother spoke. The authorities steadily persevered with Hazel. They secured another operation on her eye, which successfully straightened it, and she became fully ``cured'' of her pelvic disease. She received instruction in a form of handicraft in which she quickly showed special dexterity and skill. Her tendencies to falsify gradually became less. About two years later the mother again assumed control with great success.

This is the remarkable interest of Hazel's case, to wit, that with proper discipline and the development of new interests her fabricating tendencies have been reduced to a minimum. She has made a wonderful improvement and has long been a self-supporting and self-respecting young woman with her own relation to the world realized in a way that before seemed entirely lacking.


Mental conflict: About early secret Case 1.

experiences. Girl, age 16 yrs.

Mental conditions: Either mild psychosis

or extreme adolescent


Bad companions: Early.

Delinquencies: Mentality:

Extreme lying. Normal ability.

Running away. Psychosis (?).



Excerpt From Pathological Lying, Accusation, And Swindling - A Study In Forensic Psychology By William Healy, A.B., M.D