“Apparatus for Obtaining Criminal Confessions”


This one leaves me speechless. Helene Adelaide Shelby was unhappy with the low rate of criminal confessions, so in 1927 she invented a solution. The police put their suspect into the darkened chamber on the left, and he finds himself facing a floodlit human skeleton with glowing red eyes. The skeleton asks questions (via a megaphone in the mouth), and the suspect’s reactions are recorded by a camera and a microphone in the skull.

The effect produces “a state of mind calculated to cause him, if guilty, to make confession.” I’ll bet. What if he’s innocent?

A Dedicated Reader

Image: Flickr

Between August 2000 and May 2002, more than 1,100 ancient books disappeared from the French monastery of Mont Saint-Odile. There was no sign of forced entry; the monks changed the locks and reinforced the library door with steel, but the books continued to vanish. The thief even left a rose, taunting them.

Finally police installed a video camera and caught Stanislas Gosse, a Strasbourg engineering teacher, entering the darkened library through a cupboard. He confessed that he had discovered a lost map in public archives that revealed the secret entrance — he climbed the exterior walls of the monastery, entered the attic, descended a narrow stairway, and operated a hidden mechanism to open the back of the cupboard. He then browsed the library by candlelight. Apparently the passage had been used to spy on monks in medieval times, when the library had served as the monastery’s common room.

Gosse was convicted of “burglary by ruse and escalade,” fined, and given a suspended sentence. “I’m afraid my burning passion overrode my conscience,” he said. “It may appear selfish, but I felt the books had been abandoned. They were covered with dust and pigeon droppings, and I felt no one consulted them anymore.”

“There was also the thrill of adventure–I was very scared of being found out.”

Sublime, Ridiculous


Amazingly, Cyrano de Bergerac was banned from the United States for 15 years because a federal judge decided that Edmond Rostand had plagiarized it from a Chicago real estate developer.

The developer, Samuel Gross, had written The Merchant Prince of Cornville in 1896 and had 250 copies printed privately. In 1900 he brought suit in U.S. district court, and Judge C.C. Kohlsaat ruled that Rostand was “a plagiarist and by inference a perjurer” for “obviously” borrowing from Cornville and then denying he’d ever heard of it. The judge issued a perpetual injunction against the production of Cyrano in the United States.

So was Rostand guilty? Decide for yourself — here’s a sample of the work he “stole”:

Violet: I thought I heard some one speak, but not from underground, for he’s not a goblin; nor yet from the sky, for he’s not an angel; nor yet from the earth, for no dreadful man is near. Why, what is that in the sky? ‘Tis last eve’s moon, that will not to her couch by day. To rest! pale planet. Oh gentle moon, where is thy blush? Thou art dismantled by the roseate sun. Alack! what divine dramas are there in the skies!

The ban was eventually overturned: In 1915 Gross failed to stop an operatic production of Cyrano, and in 1923 the original play was revived successfully. I’m not really sure what happened to The Merchant Prince of Cornville.

Exit Speech

When New York gangster Dutch Schultz was shot in 1935, police had a stenographer take down his delirious last words. Find a confession here if you can:

  • “Police, police, Henry and Frankie. Oh, oh, dog biscuits and when he is happy he doesn’t get snappy.”
  • “I am a pretty good pretzler. Winifred. Department of Justice. I even get it from the department.”
  • “Please, I had nothing with him. He was a cowboy in one of the seven-days-a-week fight.”
  • “There are only 10 of us. There 10 million fighting somewhere of you, so get your onions up and we will throw up the truce flag.”
  • “The sidewalk was in trouble and the bears were in trouble and I broke it up.”
  • “No payrolls, no walls, no coupons. That would be entirely out.”
  • “Oh, sir, get the doll a roofing.”
  • “A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim. Did you hear me?”
  • “Please put me up on my feet at once. You are a hard-boiled man. Did you hear me?”
  • “Please crack down on the Chinaman’s friends and Hitler’s commander. I am sure and I am going up and I am going to give you honey if I can.”
  • “I am half crazy. They won’t let me get up. They dyed my shoes. Open those shoes. Give me something. I am so sick.”

His final words were “I will settle the indictment. Come on, open the soap duckets. The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. Shut up, you got a big mouth! Please help me up, Henry. Max, come over here. French-Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone.”

Fox in Stocks

In 2007, prison inmate Charles Jay Wolff sent a hard-boiled egg to U.S. District Court Judge James Muirhead in Concord, N.H.

Wolff, who was awaiting trial for sexual assault, said he was an Orthodox Jew and demanded a kosher diet.

In his judgment, Muirhead wrote:

I do not like eggs in the file.
I do not like them in any style.
I will not take them fried or boiled.
I will not take them poached or broiled.
I will not take them soft or scrambled,
Despite an argument well-rambled.
No fan I am of the egg at hand.
Destroy that egg! Today! Today!
Today I say!
Without delay!

“We’ve told him, if you don’t like the eggs, don’t eat them,” said Assistant Attorney General Andrew Livernois.

Damned If You Don’t

Marijuana is illegal in North Carolina, but the state still profits from its sale. Under state law, anyone who purchases illegal drugs must buy stamps within 48 hours and affix them to the controlled substance. If you’re caught without stamps, you’re still liable for the tax.

No one expects people actually to do this — since 1990, only a few dozen people have bought the stamps, and many of those are thought to be stamp collectors. But the state has collected more than $68 million for failure to display them.


Grave inscription of a horse thief:

He found a rope and picked it up,
And with it walked away.
It happened that to other end
A horse was hitched, they say.

They took the rope and tied it up
Unto a hickory limb.
It happened that the other end
Was somehow hitched to him.

From Frederic William Unger, Epitaphs, 1904

See No Evil

Ken Rex McElroy was the town bully of Skidmore, Mo., and a thoroughly vile man. A thief, rapist, and arsonist, he had been charged with dozens of crimes but avoided jail by intimidating witnesses.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that two townsmen finally shot him to death on July 10, 1981, in broad daylight in the center of town.

But somehow, though McElroy’s wife identified the attackers, none of the 46 witnesses could quite recall what they had seen that day.

Without corroboration, the case could not move forward–and it remains unsolved to this day.


In 1800, robber and housebreaker Pierre Coignard was sentenced to 14 years’ hard labor in the prison at Toulon. After five years he escaped, journeyed to Catalonia, assumed the identity of a local nobleman, won glory fighting in the Spanish ranks, entered the French army, rose to become a decorated colonel …

… and was recognized in Paris by one of his former cellmates.

He was tried, convicted, and returned to the same prison he had escaped 18 years earlier.

Numbers Game

On June 18, 1964, an elderly woman was walking through a Los Angeles alley when a blond woman with a ponytail pushed her to the ground and stole her purse. The blond woman escaped in a yellow car driven by a bearded black man.

Police arrested Janet Collins, a ponytailed blond woman whose bearded black husband drove a yellow Lincoln. At trial, a local mathematics instructor testified that there was 1 chance in 12 million that another couple would meet this description, and the jury convicted the Collinses of second-degree robbery. Sound reasonable?

Well, no. The California Supreme Court reversed the conviction, noting that the prosecution had offered no statistical evidence and that the mathematician had simply invented estimates for each of the six factors and multiplied them together, without adjusting for dependence or the possibility of mistake.

“The testimony as to mathematical probability infected the case with fatal error and distorted the jury’s traditional role of determining guilt or innocence according to long-settled rules,” wrote justice Raymond Sullivan. “Mathematics, a veritable sorcerer in our computerized society, while assisting the trier of fact in the search for truth, must not cast a spell over him.”