History of Interrogation According to Wicklander-Zulawski: The Past

From the naked truth to torture and drowning, the early history of interrogation saw some harsh practices.

history of interrogation

The following is Part 1 of a 3-part series on the History of Interrogation provided by Wicklander-Zulawski and Associates.

The team at Wicklander-Zulawski was asked to discuss the history of interrogation at a conference along with its present situation and possible implications for the future. When we originally began thinking about this project, we thought it might be as simple as doing a book report relating the facts as compiled by some prestigious historian. Unfortunately, we could not find a book like this. Our search did uncover one text called The History of Interrogation, which seemed to be the answer to our prayers. With great anticipation, we explored the pages that listed interrogations throughout the ages. None of the listed interrogations contained any of the questioning techniques employed by our ancestors. However, the final sentence of many of the descriptions of the interrogations contained the words “hanged,” “drawn,” and “quartered.” It seems our ancestors were nothing if not thorough.

Since we have neither a degree in history nor the academic qualifications to produce a definitive history of interrogation, you will have to be satisfied with the history of interrogation according to Wicklander-Zulawski. What we hope to do here is to follow some threads of history and weave them into a story of how we got to today’s interview and interrogation techniques. Fortunately, we have been part of much of the recent history of interrogation.

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In the Beginning–Literally

The earliest interrogation we could locate seemed to revolve around the theft of an apple. On the surface, the theft would seem harmless, but it apparently had major implications for the human race, if one reads the biblical record. The story of Adam and Eve as told in the Bible’s book of Genesis 3.8–12 relates the serpent’s temptation of Eve to eat an apple from the forbidden tree.

Adam and Eve hide themselves from God’s presence after eating the apple.

God calls to Adam “Where art thou?” and Adam responds, “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” When God then asks Adam if he had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam responds that his wife had told him to.

The resolution of this case was probably easier than most, since according to the Bible, Adam and Eve were the only possible suspects. However, if we examine this first interrogation, several things become evident.

First, there is a change in the behavior of Adam and Eve—they now recognize that they are naked and hide themselves from God. When we think about our experiences in today’s interviews, we often see changes in the individual’s verbal and physical behavior because of their fear of detection.

Second, we see the first evidence of a rationalization as Adam blames Eve for initiating the eating of the apple. Here Adam shifts the blame to Eve, offering an excuse to God for the reason he partook of the apple. It seems rationalization is an integral part of human nature.

We might also take another example from the biblical record and the wisdom of King Solomon. The Book of Kings reports the following account of a case that was brought before King Solomon’s court in Jerusalem.

Two women came to King Solomon and stood before him. One woman [1] said: “My Lord, this woman and I dwell in the same house. She arose during the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep, and lay him in her bosom, and her dead son she laid in my bosom.”

The other woman [2] replied: “It is not so! My son is the live one and your son is the dead one!”

The first woman [1] responded: “It is not so! Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!”

Then King Solomon said: “This woman [2] claims ‘My son is the live one and your son is the dead one,’ and this woman [1] claims ‘Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!'”

King Solomon said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one and half to the other.”

The woman [2] turned to the King, because her compassion was aroused for her son, and said: “Please my Lord, give her the living child and do not kill it!”

The King said, “Give her [2] the living child, and do not kill it, for she is his mother!”

This may be the first example of statement analysis. King Solomon had been given great wisdom by God, and he used it here in the analysis of the two women statements. “This woman [2] claims ‘My son is the live one and your son is the dead one,’ and this woman [1] claims ‘Your son is the dead one and my son is the living one!'”

The positioning of the words “my son” is important in analyzing this statement. Woman 2 places what is most important to her at the beginning of the sentence while Woman 1 abdicates the child to the end of the sentence. Further evidence of her love for the child is contained in the final statement of the woman where she wishes to preserve the child’s life, rather than have the baby killed.

This example probably is also the first written example of a bluff (killing the child) during an interrogation. The deceitful woman gave herself away with her cruelty encouraging the King to sever the child, thus further providing convincing proof to the onlookers of her lie.

Other Techniques from the Early History of Interrogation

Using the fact that we experience physiological changes when there is a fear of the action, our ancestors recognized an advantage that they could use to resolve questions of truthfulness during an interrogation. One of the physiological observations that were made concerned the dryness of the mouth that occurred when someone was deceptive.

In China, circa 1000 BC, individuals were told to place uncooked rice in their mouths and hold it while they were questioned during the interrogation. The truthful individual whose mouth contained saliva would spit out wet globular pieces of rice, while the deceptive individuals would spit out dry rice kernels. Here the physiological response to the fear of detection causes the deceptive individual’s mouth to dry as a result of the natural diuretic response to increased stress during the interrogation.

In India around 500 BC, they made use of the sacred donkey as a means of detecting deception. A donkey was placed in a tent and the suspects were told the donkey was sacred and had a direct link to God. Each of the suspects was told to enter the tent and pull on the donkey’s tail. When the guilty party pulled on the tail, the donkey would bray and identify the person responsible for the crime. The innocent subjects entered the tent and pulled on the donkey’s tail knowing that God would exonerate them of the crime. However, the guilty individual, fearing detection, did not pull on the tail and left the tent. The priest then examined each of the suspect’s hands. Unbeknownst to the suspects, the priest had coated the donkey’s tail with lamp black (soot) so the suspect without soot on his hands was identified as the guilty party. Here, our ancestors recognized individuals’ change of behavior as a result of their fear of detection.

Supposedly in Africa, suspects were asked to pass an ostrich egg to one another and if one dropped it he was the guilty party. The physiological basis of this test was probably the idea that the more nervous individual would be more likely to drop the egg because of their fear of detection. In addition, they would likely be more distracted handling the egg, increasing the probability of damaging it.

During the Middle Ages, people turned to torture and humiliation to extract confessions and punish the transgressors during the interrogation process. The torturers constructed unbelievably terrible devices to cause pain to extract a confession from the unwilling. From the rack, which stretched the secured legs and arms by pulling in opposite directions, to the Iron Maiden, which confined the individual inside a tube containing sharp spikes that pressed into the body from all directions, each was designed to cause excruciating pain over a long period of time. The interrogator’s perfected many of their designs during the Spanish and Medieval Inquisitions carried out by the Church to identify heretics. Scholars vary on the number of people killed using these devices during the inquisitions, but they generally place the number of people killed between 40,000 and 100,000.

In 1692, the Salem witch trials began in the United States. These trials resulted in the hanging of nineteen men and women accused of being witches. Some said that witches could be identified by being bound and thrown into water. If they came to the surface and floated, they were a witch; however, if they drowned, they were innocent.

The Salem witch trials are one of the first uses of taking a deposition and preserving a court record of legal proceedings we could find in the United States. The defendants and witnesses testimony was transcribed and became a permanent record of the interrogation. It was only in the fall of 1692 that the court refused to allow testimony relating to apparitions supposedly observed by witnesses. These apparitions were the basis of testimony that convicted many of the people in the spring when the witch trials began.

From these observations, it is clear that our ancestors recognized there were behavioral changes associated with attempts at deception during the interrogation, and they devised a variety of means to identify and test an individual’s truthfulness. In Part 2 of this series, we begin to identify the origins of today’s techniques and forecast where investigative interviewing may be in the future.

This article was first published in 2011 and updated February 27, 2017.



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