Email tale echoes an urban legend dating back several decades about police interrogators wiring a metal colander to a Xerox machine and convincing a suspect it's a lie detector, thereby extracting a confession.
Description: Urban legend
Circulating since: 1989 (this version)
Status: Probably based on fact (see details below)
Email excerpt contributed by Courtland B., June 12, 2001:
Police in Radnor, Pennsylvania, interrogated a suspect by placing a metal colander on his head and connecting it with wires to a photocopy machine. The message "He's lying" was placed in the copier, and police pressed the copy button each time they thought the suspect wasn't telling the truth. Believing the "lie detector" was working, the suspect confessed.
Analysis: Though the basic premise isn't all that implausible, we have reason to believe, thanks to documentation provided by Jan Harold Brunvand in his 1993 book, The Baby Train (New York: W.W. Norton), that the specifics of the story above may be false. Brunvand contacted the police chief of Radnor, Pennsylvania, where most versions of the story say the "Colander Copier Caper" took place, and was told that despite repeated claims to the contrary in publications dating from the late 1970s on, no such incident ever occurred in the township.
We also, interestingly enough, have reason to believe the story may be true. According to a letter written to Brunvand in 1993 by Judge Isaac Garb, who says he presided over the case in question, the sequence of events occurred pretty much as stated. "I can confirm the veracity of the colander polygraph (lie detector)," Garb wrote. "The matter came before me in court on a motion to suppress the confession." Indeed, the only major discrepancy between Garb's account and the anecdotal version is the specified location. Most variants, including those published in newspapers, name Radnor Township, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, as the setting. Garb says it took place in Warminster Township, Bucks County, which would account for the Radnor police chief's denial. (Judge Garb's letter was published in Jan Harold Brunvand's 2001 book, Too Good to Be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends.)
History of a human interest story
The item's earliest appearance in print was in the July 22, 1977 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which named "a small police department" in Bucks County as the locale. Four months later, this version was distributed nationwide by United Press International (story dated Nov. 18, 1977):
There's Still One Born Every Minute
RADNOR, Pa. (UPI) The police department here recently was told by a Bucks County judge that a Xerox machine cannot be used as a lie detector.
Detectives bent on obtaining a confession pretended an office copier was a lie detector after a suspect agreed to undergo a polygraph test. Prior to interrogation, the sleuths placed a typewritten card in the machine reading: "He's lying."
The suspect was seated near the copier. A metal colander was fastened to his head and wires ran from the colander to the Xerox machine.
Each time investigators received answers they did not fancy, they pushed the copy button.
Out came the message: "He's lying."
Convinced that the machine was infallible, the suspect finally confessed.
Judge Ira Garb threw the case out of court.
"It's the kind of comic relief we need around here once in a while," the judge laughed.
The incident was brought up again for comic relief in a March 13, 1978 Chicago Tribune feature on the societal impact of photocopy machines. "[T]he top prize for imaginative use of copiers," wrote reporter Paul Weingarten, "goes to detectives in Radner [sic], PA. They put a colander on the head of one unsuspecting suspect and hooked it to the Xerox machine, but they told the suspect that the machine was a lie detector. He bought it." (Tempo section, p. B5)
From 'News of the Weird' to forwarded email
The email version, which typically circulates as part of a compendium of allegedly-true "dumb criminal" stories, looks to have been snipped verbatim from News of the Weird, Chuck Shepherd's volume of human interest stories published in 1989 (New York: New American Library). It made its way onto the Internet in the early '90s, spawning minimally reworded variants such as the this one:
A judge admonished the Radnor, Pennsylvania, police for pretending that a Xerox copy machine was a lie detector. Officers had placed a metal colander on the head of a suspect and attached the colander to the copier with metal wires. In the copy machine was a typewritten message which read: "He's lying." According to UPI, "Each time investigators received answers they did not fancy, they pushed the copy button. Out came the message 'He's lying.'" Apparently convinced the machine was accurate, the suspect confessed.
(Usenet posting, Feb. 24, 1994)
The colander polygraph prank has been used as a sub-plot in episodes of several TV crime series, including Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire, and The Unusuals.
Last updated: 03/30/12