On this date in 1906, “with terror stamped on his colorless face and almost in a state of collapse,” Richard Ivens hanged for a murder that remains to this day an unsettling indictment of witness reliability — even when it is his own crime the witness describes.
The tenor of the crime and of its consequent sensation — a Chicago society matron sexually assaulted by a young hoodlum who proceeds to garrot her with a wire — is readily apparent in the headlines of the day; editors from coast to coast plunged into their thesauruses to titillate their subscribers with the most bombastic invective.
As this image also indicates, Ivens confessed soon after he was detained. (He reported finding, or “finding”, the body to his father and the two of them went to the police; the police immediately detained the youth, separated from Ivens pere.)
Usually, a confession is the “and shut” part of an open-and-shut case. Indeed, for most of human history, given a paucity of useful forensic evidence, legal cases have come down to eyewitnesses and confessions: hence the formalization of torture as part of the investigative process courts of bygone years.* A perpetrator’s own testimony against himself is the evidentiary gold standard.
Today, this long-unquestioned bedrock of criminal justice is dissolving. A quarter or more of the wrongful-conviction exonerations from death row have been cases involving false confessions; witness testimony by victims or third parties has frequently been shown to be unreliable. Our behavioral models once implied that the brain stored memories like a faithful photograph, a view suggesting that witnesses could be either accurate or liars without much room in between. Today, it’s ever more widely understood that memories are constructed, and reconstructed, amid the interpolations of fragmentary data and the subtle feedback of others’ suggestion and influence.
But Ivens put this idea to the test more than a century ago. Backed by friendly alibi witnesses who placed him away from the scene of the murder, Ivens recanted his confession and “declared that the police locked him up in a room at the police station with a number of officers and that their questioning so confused him that he said ‘yes’ to everything they asked him.”**
Perhaps this was just the gambit of a desperate defense counsel with few cards to play. But it did briefly make the Ivens case a referendum on the reliability of the confession.
Ivens intimated that the circumstances of his interrogation might have intimidated him into confessing, but his subsequent claim to have no memory at all of those events led a defense “alienist”, J. Sanderson Christison, to argue that the whole story of the crime had been planted in his mind when he was in a hypnotic state.
Christon’s pamphlet excoriating the way the young man was handled makes interesting reading. Titled “The ‘Confessions’ of Ivens”, [contains full transcripts of the interviews. Ed.] its core thesis that Ivens was “dominated by police statements” is a strikingly forward-thinking one.“we find in the “confessions” a mixture of fact with “suggested” fiction … he was first forcefully charged with the crime in a brutal manner and after being confounded and subjugated, a current of leading questions were put to him on a stupid police hypothesis, so that the first “confession” is composed of a few vague and contradictory statements. And it is both evident and acknowledged that all the other official “confessions” are the products of question suggestions, almost entirely”
For Christison, Ivens was a dull and easily controlled personality; the doctor’s explication of “hypnosis” suggests to modern eyes a laughably Mephistophelean sleepy, verrrry sleeeeepy caricature. But maybe we would do better to view it as the best framework available in 1906 to grasp the incomprehensible circumstance of a person accusing himself of a crime: the most ready illustration of outside influences entering the mind. A century later, we are only just now developing an understanding of wrongful confessions that might be shared widely enough to speak with mutual understanding about disorientation, suggestibility, leading questions, confirmation bias, and the malleability of memory.
But by any name, the notion was not ridiculous to Christison’s peers.
Christison consulted with Hugo Munsterburg, the German-American psychologist credited with founding the field of forensic psychology: Munsterburg shared Christison’s opinion, and expounded on it (without mentioning Ivens by name) in his subsequent magnum opus On The Witness Stand:
“the accused was hanged; yet, if scientific conviction has the right to stand frankly for the truth, I have to say again that he was hanged for a crime of which he was no more guilty than you or I, and the only difference which the last few months have brought about is the fact that, as I have been informed on good authority, the most sober-minded people of Chicago to-day share this sad opinion.
I felt sure from the first that no one was to be blamed. Court and jury had evidently done their best to find the facts and to weigh the evidence; they are not to be expected to be experts in the analysis of unusual mental states. The proof of the alibi seemed sufficient to some, but insufficient to others; most various facts allowed of different interpretation, but all hesitation had to be overcome by the one fundamental argument which excluded every doubt: there was a complete confesslon. And if the sensational press did not manifest a judicial temper, that seemed this time very excusable. The whole population had been at the highest nervous tension from the frequency of brutal murders in the streets of Chicago. Too often the human beast escaped justice: this time at last they had found the villain who confessed — he at least was not to escape the gallows.
For many years no murder case had so deeply excited the whole city. Truly, as long as a demand for further psychological inquiry appeared to the masses simply as “another way of possibly cheating justice” and as a method tending “towards emasculating court procedure and discouraging and disgusting every faithful officer of the law,” the newspapers were almost in duty bound to rush on in the tracks of popular prejudice……
If I examine these endless reports for a real argument why the accused youth was guilty of the heinous crime, everything comes back after all to the statement constantly repeated that it would be “inconceivable that any man who was innocent of it should claim the infamy of guilt.” Months have passed since the neck of the young man was broken and “thousands of persons crowded Michigan Street, jamming that thoroughfare from Clark Street to Dearborn Avenue, waiting for the undertaker’s wagon to leave the jail yard.” The discussion is thus long since removed to the sphere of theoretical argument; and so the hour may be more favourable now for asking once more whether it is really “inconceivable” that an innocent man can confess to a crime of which he is wholly ignorant. Yet the theoretical question may perhaps demand no later than tomorrow a practical answer, when perhaps again a weak mind shall work itself into an untrue confession and the community again rely thereon satisfied, hypnotised by the spell of the dangerous belief that “murder will out.” The history of crime in Chicago has shown sufficiently that murder will not “out.”
It is important that the court, instead of bringing out the guilty thought, shall not bring it “in” into an innocent consciousness. Of course in a criminal procedure there cannot be any better evidence than a confession, provided that it is reliable and well proved. If the accused acknowledges in express words the guilt in a criminal charge, the purpose of the procedure seems to have been reached; and yet at all times and in all nations experience has suggested a certain distrust of confessions.”
Munsterburg wrote this under the heading of “Untrue Confessions” but he did not exempt himself from susceptibility to the hypnotic tricks of the mind: Munsterburg himself once found his house burgled, and realized that the evidence he subsequently gave about what he found was wildly inaccurate. “In spite of my best intentions, in spite of good memory and calm mood, a whole series of confusions, of illusions, of forgetting, of wrong conclusions, and of yielding to suggestions were mingled with what I had to report under oath, and my only consolation is the fact that in a thousand courts at a thousand places all over the world, witnesses every day affirm by oath in exactly the same way much worse mixtures of truth and untruth, combinations of memory and of illusion, of knowledge and of suggestion, of experience and wrong conclusions.”
We do know at a minimum that Ivens was being interrogated alone for a number of hours by officers who evidently presumed him to be guilty. Right down to the present day, any number of fully cogent adults (many still languishing in dungeons as I write this) have falsely implicated themselves in terrible crimes during similar confinements, under manipulative interrogation techniques evincing much more interest in getting to “yes” than probing truth. (Just one of many reasons we caution the reader against ever talking to the police.)
The Richard Ivens case, needless to say, is impossibly cold. It is quite difficult from several generations’ distance to form a convincing affirmative confidence in Ivens’s innocence. But as all those involved for good or ill have gone to their own graves too, perhaps it is enough for us to leave that door open just crack — enough to let in the humility before we print a man’s epitaph.