Case 4 - Pathological Lying, Accusation, And Swindling - A Study In Forensic Psychology

Case 4 - Pathological Lying, Accusation, And Swindling - A Study In Forensic Psychology


Summary: A girl of 16 had been engaged in an extraordinary amount of clever shoplifting under the influence of her ``mother.'' In the courts where the cases against her were heard there was much sympathy with the girl, but it was difficult to carry out any measures for her benefit because of the excessive prevarications which had characterized her for a long period. Under oath she falsely accused her ``father'' of sex immorality with her. She was removed from her home, and with knowledge of the mental conflicts which beset her, splendid efforts to ``cure'' this girl met with success. It is another case where supposed inherited traits turn out to be the result of environmental influences.

Through frequent communication with the highly intelligent woman with whom Edna F. was placed in a small western city after she was taken from her previous miserable environment, we have been able to keep close check on the progress of the case for several years. It was also very fortunate for our understanding that a nurse who knew the girl's real mother in New York, where Edna was born, appeared on the scene and gave us data upon which we could base some opinions of the outcome. The case in its entirety had proved very baffling to detectives because of the mass of contradictory lies told by both the girl and her ``mother.''

Our attention was first called to this girl when a number of court people were trying to solve the mystery. She had been arrested for shoplifting and her curious attitude and statements had made some believe she was not quite right mentally. Once before she had been detected stealing things in a shop. One of her remarkable statements this last time was that her parents were implicated in the thieving and she named certain stolen articles which might be found at their home. She went with the detectives and accused her ``mother'' of wearing a dress which she, Edna, had stolen. The woman was forced to give up the dress and other articles, but it was found later that these goods had been actually bought and paid for by the parents. Later it was found that the woman was a party to the girl's stealing and this made the girl's story seem all the more strange, for if she were going to involve the people at all why did she not pick out the actually stolen articles? However, long study of the case brought out the fact that this type of statement was a characteristic of Edna's. Her word on even important points was absolutely unreliable and her own interests were frequently thwarted by her prevarications.

The case in its different aspects came up in court again and again until finally most of the truth was ascertained, enough to justify radical measures being undertaken. During this period the mother was discovered to be an atrocious liar; even with her last bitter confession that all she had said about her motherhood had been untrue, she manufactured more quite unnecessary falsehoods. In the meantime the family physician and the family lawyer had both informed me of the peculiar mysteries of the case and of the perfect mass of lies into which the statements of both mother and daughter led. This sort of thing had been going on for years. It is of no small interest to note that the woman was greatly over-dressed and made up. On numerous occasions she appealed to us to study the girl and find out why she lied so much and why she had such an inclination to steal, in the meantime attempting to fill us up with many inventions about the girl's antecedents.

Physical examination showed a perfectly normally developed girl. No sensory defects. Pleasant features. Well shaped head. Weight 101 lbs; height 5 ft. 1 in. We found no hysterical stigmata. Menstruation had first occurred at 14. No trouble or irregularity was reported. We learn the girl has never had any serious illness. She herself told of fainting spells after being whipped and so on, but these were undoubtedly falsifications. The family physician informed us he had operated on the girl for appendicitis about three months previous to the time we first saw her. He had found some evidences of an old appendiceal inflammation, but it is quite likely from the various accounts which we heard that her symptoms recounted to him were largely fabrication and that the signs which he found, at least in their excessive phases, were partly deceptions. The most important point for the court proceedings was his findings that the girl had never been sexually tampered with and had no local disease. At the time when we knew Edna she was being treated for a local infection which must have been recent and superficial, for it rapidly subsided.

We had ample opportunity to test Edna's ability and found it quite normal. She had been out of school much and had been careless in general about her education, but she had finally finished the grammar school. A long list of tests was done almost uniformly well. Where a prolonged task which required concentration was asked, Edna was inclined to work carelessly, but in general her capacities proved to be decidedly good. She was accustomed to read nothing but the lightest literature and fairy stories and her interests were of the superficial sort. Neither in powers of imagery or imagination, nor by anything else ascertained about her mental abilities did we come to know of any point of special bearing upon her behavior.

On the ``Aussage'' picture test, she gave only 12 details, all correct, on free recital. Upon questioning she gave 28 more items and almost the only variation from accuracy was in respect to the colors. Evidently she let her fancy run when she could not remember correctly; through this she got 6 items incorrect. She readily accepted 3 out of 4 suggestions.

Our earliest impressions of Edna state that she seemed much confused in her stories and in her manner of telling them, leaving sentences unfinished and trying to explain inconsistencies by other inconsistencies. At this time she was referring constantly to her doubts about her age, her family, and her origin. She then seemed highly suspicious of every one and talked of suicide. However, when she was showing these signs she could be diverted, for she worked with much pleasure at the tests, particularly certain memory tests on which she did well.

On account of the difficulties of the solution of this case under the law considerable time and effort were spent in looking up her record. It was found that some years ago Edna had run away from home and there was a newspaper article published about her. Even at that time an officer who went to the home was unable to ascertain the truth in the case. The family had frequently moved and the mother asserted it was because of the bad reputation which the girl's actions had given them. The neighbors complained of the cruelty of the parents to Edna, but this meant only the whippings which the mother had given her. By all accounts the father was a good man who insisted that affairs between his wife and Edna were not his own. (Edna always maintained that this man had been unusually good to her, although she so strangely made in court the false accusations of prolonged sex immorality on his part and reiterated these statements even to us. It was not until many months afterward that she acknowledged the falsity of her accusations, although we knew from her physician that they were not true.)

The first time Edna was in court was when she was about 14 years old. At that time she had been observed by a department store detective stealing hosiery and a bracelet. She perceived she was being shadowed and walked up to the counter and ordered some children's garments, having them charged and sent to a fictitious name and address. The detective thought this a masterpiece of slyness, this endeavor to throw them off the track. Since the family, who really kept an account at this store, appealed to the manager to have Edna let off as it was an ordinary trick of a growing girl, the charge was withdrawn. Detectives who had been employed from a private agency made a very poor showing on getting at the real facts. The husband was doing well in his business and there never seemed to be any reason to suspect his wife of being directly or indirectly connected with the shoplifting. Earlier there was some intimation that Edna was not the child of these people, but the persons who suggested this did not know the true facts and were found to have a grudge against the mother. In the meantime the latter had strongly maintained her relationship.

It was months after this and just before we saw the case when a detective, who had kept the case in mind, went to the house to get the goods which Edna maintained had been stolen. There he found the ``mother'' and another woman smoking and thought he detected signs of their being drug habitues. Later, I myself felt sure of this point, but we were never able to state to what drug they were addicted. Edna frequently stated she had been accustomed to buying morphine for these women, but her statements about its appearance and its cost were so at variance with the facts that though it is likely she had bought something of the kind, yet no amount of inquiry brought out the definite facts. The woman's appearance and her remarkable lack of veracity were both highly suggestive of a drug habit.

In our several interviews with this woman we were amazed by her strange self-contradictions. It was not only that she stated something different from what she had said a week before, but even at different times on the same day her statements would be changed. Concerning her relationship to Edna she gave us the facts of the girl's birth and laughed off the idea that she was not the girl's mother. ``Why, I can remember every moment of my pregnancy with her.'' It was anomalous that this woman had hired a righteous man as a lawyer to represent her and the girl. This attorney, consulting with me, soon came to the conclusion that the only interest he would serve in the case was that of the girl, and then only in the effort to save her from the miserable influences of her mother.

Edna's school record was most peculiar. She had been frequently changed on account of her dishonesty. In one sectarian school she was said to steal all sorts of useless things—bits of string, pieces of pencils, and articles no one else would want. She also stole a two dollar bill from a grocery store; the cashier followed her and recovered the money from her person right there in the school. Edna always denied that she took things. While in another school she had flowers sent to all the teachers and the florist's bill was presented to her there. In still another school she took a pair of shoes from a boy at recess, wore these and left her old ones in the locker room. Her word was everywhere recognized as being most unreliable.

After the case had long been in court and Edna still stoutly maintained that she was not the child of these parents, but had complicated her story by adding incidents which were known to be untrue, such as her ``father's'' immorality with her, that there had been another adopted child in the family, that even the dishes the family used were stolen by her, and so on, the woman came and suddenly blurted out that she herself had been lying all along and that this was not her child. She then alleged the parentage was so and so, but this matter was in turn looked up and found to be false. It was adjudged that these people had absolutely no parental rights, and then work was begun on constructive measures of redeeming the girl if possible. It was not long after this that the nurse came to us who had known the girl's real mother in New York and who had taken charge of Edna as an infant before her foster mother had taken her. It seems that the mother was an American, that this child was illegitimate. A few months after her birth the mother abandoned her, became dissolute and is said to have since died.

Edna had run away from home on several occasions and slept in hallways for a night or two at a time. She had not been sexually immoral until just previous to our seeing her. Then while away from home she had gone with a man to a hotel, and probably had also been with boys. These were her first and last experiences of the sort, but how much these affairs had been on her mind we obtained some intimation of from herself.

``My mother took me to S's when I was 8 years old and told me to take anything I could and I got into the habit of it. I can't stop myself. I take anything I want. Mother said she would kill me if I told the truth. I had to say lots of things that were not so. I had to lie and say mother did not beat me, but she had a horsewhip that was plaited, father burned it. Then they bought a little one, but she beat me with a rubber hose and everything. The first thing I think I stole was jewelry in a store down-town. The woman I call `auntie' said if I would give her the goods she would pay me for them.''

``My mother fixed it up that if she got the goods and got caught she would get a clerk to make out receipts and get them stamped paid. She has not done this yet, but I think she will in this case.'' (This was a statement at the very first interview with Edna and no doubt had reference to the fact that the mother could produce receipted bills for the dress and other articles which Edna had maintained to the detective she herself had stolen. Of course the girl's story of this was untrue; the receipts were genuine.)

``One of my sisters is adopted, but my father does not know it. She ain't real. It was this way. When my pa was out west for a year ma asked me to look in the papers for a baby and I looked and found an advertisement about one. Ma said she must not be redheaded because that ain't like the family. We went and got her and ma went to bed for nine days and pretended it was her baby. She took a shawl and gave the nurse $25 and made out adoption papers. She took me with her. It was a month old. She made me go and tell my aunt I had a little sister. My aunt said it looked kind of big for 3 days old, but ma said she had been keeping it in an incubator. She had padded herself out before, and pretended it was her own child. Pa came home when it was six months old and he loved the baby just like his own. I ain't jealous, but it makes me sick to hear such lies.''

This alleged fact, reiterated to us and testified to in the court, was in itself a source of the whole case being farther followed up. The nurse was found who took care of Edna's ``mother'' during her confinement and it was found that Edna's whole story was quite untrue. It was evidently an elaborate fabrication representing the facts as they might have been about Edna herself. The only part of it that was true was that one of the younger children had been for a time in an incubator.

``Since I was 10 years old I have known about that. I have known I was not her child. She said something that sounded queer to me once when I ran away. It made me think she was not my mother.

``Why do I tell lies? I got started at it when I was small. She used to make me tell lies to my father. I began to steal when I was about 8 years old. My little sister has started to take things already. She is only 4. I was trying to break her and mother said, `Let her alone.'

``She's had about nine different servants. She never can keep any. She used to make me forge letters. She made me sign a girl's name to a receipt for wages which the girl never received. The girl had no case against her because she had the receipts. The poor girl lost it.

``I am going to tell the truth. There's going to be lots of things come out. I am going to tell the judge I lied when I told him I did not steal the things. Why did I lie? Well, she gave me just one look and I knew what she would do to me when I got home. Everything I told you about my father is the truth. Where else would I get that disease? I was never allowed to go out with boys.''

At another time when we inquired what bothered or worried her more than anything else we obtained an account of her sex repressions. Of course there would always be difficulty in knowing just how true the details were but probably she gave us the main factors in her mental life.

``I used to be out in the streets all the time. There were hardly any houses around there then. I used to hear mother talk about things. She would send me out of the room and say it was not for me to hear. Then boys lived near me and they asked me to do bad things. I first heard about those things from a boy on the porch. I was 7 or 8. I was always thinking about it—what my mother said at that time, I mean. She did not explain it enough. I am always fidgety, always nervous. My hands and feet are always going. Whenever I would see a boy it would always come up in front of my eyes. It was mostly when I saw boys. If she had explained it more it would not have come up that way. I know a girl who does that thing. She's bad. She does it with boys too. The people said so. When I was little I imagined there were some bad girls. You can't tell, but you can guess a little. That boy had lots of things. I don't know if he took anything. It was when I was about 4 until I was 8 that I played with him. These things never came up in my mind when I was taking things. It was only when I was not busy. I was always thinking about it when I haven't anything else to do. These few little words were not enough to explain. I remember I asked my aunt once. I tried to put things together what I heard, and what words about it meant.''

The above excerpts from many interviews with this girl represent points upon which there is the least contradiction. It is obviously useless to give any more of her story because of the variation from time to time. Even on the last occasion when we talked earnestly to her before she was taken to her new home, she lied to us about a number of points. Any attempt at an accurate analysis of her impulse to steal seemed quite beyond the mark in the light of her ever-ready fabrications.

The after-history of this case is of the utmost importance. A woman of strong character took Edna and surrounded her with new interests. Conference was had with us on the nature of the case. For the next few months reports came that the girl was a liar through and through and grave doubts were entertained of ultimate success. It was after she had been tried in her new environment for 3 months that, seeing us again, she confessed that her stories about her foster father were absolutely untrue. From about this time on there has been steady improvement. No more elaborate fabrications have been indulged in. On several occasions when Edna has been late from school she has lied about it, but even that tendency for the last year has been nearly obliterated. A good deal of interest in boys has been maintained, but not with any show of immorality. There has been nothing but normal flirting; accounting for the occasions when Edna has been late from school.

At two or three periods during her new life Edna has engaged in stealing. She has taken articles for which she had no particular use and has told lies about the matter. The thieving has not been a single event, but each time has seemed to represent a state of mind she has been in, and for a week or so numerous articles have been taken. We warned her good friend to make a study of her social and mental influences at such periods. It was found then that Edna was undergoing special stress on at least one such occasion. A young man had been making up to her, and later she confided that this given period was one of great turmoil because of the renewed arousal of many ideas about sex affairs. After this there was still more attempts to win Edna's confidence about her daily experiences, including such as the above. There has been the gradual development of character, and Edna is now, two years after she was taken from her bad environment, only very occasionally guilty of falsifying, and she is otherwise trustworthy.

Our study of the causative factors of this girl's delinquency and particularly of her extraordinary lying led us to see that perhaps all of the following have a part: (a) Heredity. Father unknown. Mother a free-living woman. (b) Home conditions. Mental and moral bad influences in the home life on account of the foster mother conniving at stealing and being herself an extreme liar. (c) Psychic contagion from the atmosphere of lies in which the girl has been brought up. (d) Mental conflict arising from the suspicion of her parentage, early acquaintance with sex knowledge, and the irregular morale of her home life. (e) Bad companions, including her foster mother's friends, and boys and girls.


Mental Conflict. Case 4.

Girl, age 15 yrs.

Home influences: Extremely bad, including

excessive lying.

Bad companions.

Heredity (?).

Delinquencies: Mentality:

Much stealing. (Shop lifting, etc.) Fair ability.

Excessive lying.

False accusations.

Sex immorality.


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