Nazi Spies, The FBI & Wonder Woman...The Strange Case of William Moulton Marston

William Moulton Marston, better known as the creator of Wonder Woman, which he penned under the pseudonym of Charles Moulton, had another, more mainstream claim to fame – he invented the lie detector machine.  Now you’d think that such an invention would endear the man to law enforcement worldwide as the concept was to easily weed out a liar, but that wasn’t to be the case.  At least major agency not only refused to entertain the concept of a lie detector machine, but came to despise Marston.  That agency was none other than the FBI, and, in particular, the head of the FBI, John Edgar Hoover.

In 1938 Marston’s publisher, Richard Smith, sent a copy of Marston’s book, The Lie Detector Test to the FBI for review, and also with the hopes of securing either an endorsement from the FBI, and possibly J. Edgar Hoover himself, or the chance to secure some fat Government contracts and orders.  The book was received, logged and an acknowledgement letter sent out.  From there it was passed around until an agent, E.P. Coffey, contacted another agent, Harold ‘Pop’ Nathan who was Hoover’s number two man in the fight against the likes of Dillinger and co, now better known as the infamous ‘Public Enemies’, recommending that several copies be bought with the view of having field agents use them as reference.  Another Special Agent, Reed Vetterli, who achieved a certain amount of fame as being one of the people who survived the Kansas City Massacre of 1933 which saw six people shot dead in broad daylight by Pretty Boy Floyd and two other gunmen, also wrote to Hoover making the same suggestion.  Taking the bit by the teeth, Nathan commissioned a review of the book, to be used to internal use only.  The review, written by Coffey, was damning.

The above-entitled book was reviewed by Mr. Quinn Tamm of the Technical laboratory who reports that in his opinion the book is typical of all the work done by Doctor Marston in that it is written in an extremely egotistical view and the sole purpose of the book seems to be to establish the fact that Doctor Marston was the first to use the blood pressure test as a deception detector and also ridicules all other psychological attempts along this same line.”  The rest of the review points out Marston’s claims of settling martial differences using his machine, one of the stranger applications of the detector.  Summing up the book, Tamm said, this, “…exemplifies the same egotistical ridiculous strain in which this book is written.”    Naturally the FBI weren’t rushing to purchase copies, and it’s doubtful that Marston would have been keen to use an official quote from them either.

Naturally, with all things FBI, things didn’t just lie there.  Luckily we have the documents to show what Hoover himself thought of Marston.  In 1939 Marston entered into an agreement with Gillette Razors which purported to show the depth of research that Marston had applied to people shaving while connected to his lie detector.  This was a blind test with a difference and a very unique twist that would have captured the imagination of the public, but the only emotion it raised in Hoover was one of disgust.  A memo was sent to Hoover outlining the connection between Gillette and Marston’s machine.  The memo features the following notation at the bottom, in Hoovers own hand, “I always thought this fellow Marston was a phoney and this proves it.”  Marston’s card was marked and once a person was in the FBI files they never got out, all that happened was the file grew until the person of interest died.

Hoover wasn’t finished though.  In 1940 a Florida congressman had his secretary contact the FBI to ask about Marston’s claims of training truth deception testers, with the view of setting up a ‘Truth Bureau’.  The congressman wanted to get in touch with Marston in order to sign up and, naturally, felt that the FBI could supply him with the contact details.  It wasn’t going to happen.  Hoover, via his secretary, issued their then standard reply that the FBI couldn’t assist as they had no idea where or how to contact Marston, or so they said.  When someone was ‘in’ with Hoover and the FBI, efforts would be made to pass correspondence on, in all other cases the FBI couldn’t, and wouldn’t, be bothered to make any effort at all.  Hoover couldn’t resist noting his thoughts on the memo though, “He is a crock.” 

The last contact from Marston came via the White House.  Marston wrote to the President at the end of 1941 offering his services with the view of organizing, ”…deception work for military or civilian purposes.”  Although Marston included his many qualifications; creating Wonder Woman wasn’t amongst the list.  The letter was forwarded on to the FBI for review and reply, the reply was a simple one – if we need you, we’ll call you, until then don’t bother us.  In the meantime Marston was more than welcome to enlist and fight on the front lines…at the age of 48. 

So what did Marston do?  It’s not entirely clear but it’s doubtful that Hoover would have been impressed with the arrest of Marston on March 6th 1923 on charges of mail fraud wouldn’t have helped his cause.  Nor would Marston’s personal life have endeared him to Hoover.  Marston, who described himself as a feminist theorist, openly lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, and another woman, Olive Byrne, both of whom would serve as inspiration for Wonder Woman.  He also wrote articles emphasising the importance of the role of women both in the current environment and in the future, which was at odds with the FBI culture of the time (women were secretaries and that was that).  Hoover, whose own personal life was convoluted, was always keen to judge anyone who lived a lifestyle that could be considered alternative from the norm.  The moral outrage that Hoover would have experienced, in public and in the eyes of the FBI, would have only added to his overall view of Marston, who he possibly would have considered to be a pervert.

Marston’s perceived personal failings in Hoover’s eyes would have paled alongside a far more serious claim though; that the lie detector might have aided in the escape of a leading Nazi in 1938.  The 1939 book, Nazi Spies in America recounts one of the few times that the FBI utilised Marston’s invention.  During an investigation of potential German spies in America, the FBI questioned seven suspects and exposed them to the lie detector in New York.  One of the main suspects was one Dr. Ignatz Griebl.

Griebl’s test, conducted in May, 1938, and overseen by Special Agent, R.E. Vetterli showed that he was “…unusually responsive on the polygraph,” and that his reactions were, “…so pronounced that it is believed that the conclusions are unusually reliable…It is believed that his present cooperation with the FBI Agents is sincere up to a certain point, but that he is still withholding much information concerning his own complicity in the espionage work.”   It mattered not.  Griebel, who passed the test so easily that a later FBI report would state he’d, “…made us relax all vigilance, all watchfulness over him,” fled the USA five days and returned to Germany.  Griebl apparently stowed away on a boat named the Bremen, and by the time the FBI acted he was well and truly gone.  The only amusement in the entire saga came with in an official memorandum to Hoover, which, in part, read, “…The fact that Dr. Grieble has sailed is not known to anyone except Captain Drexell and Grieble’s sweetheart and wife…The New York office has not talked to Grieble's wife; in an interview with his sweetheart, it was found that she knew nothing of his intentions to sail.”  The initial hope was to have Griebl arrested and deported when the boat docked in France, but this amounted to nothing as the Bremen’s captain, the aforementioned Captain Drexell, ensured that Griebl made it to Germany unscathed - the chances of a German being handed over from a boat named The Bremen was always going to be highly unlikely.

The irony was that Greibel was indeed guilty; he’d formed and ran the very same spy ring that the FBI was trying to crack.  The fact that the FBI had possibly the most important American Nazi saboteurs of the 1930s and in their grasp and had allowed him to escape due to their reliance on the lie detector was a black eye that would have been intolerable.  It would take the FBI nearly two more years to make any real headway into the various Nazi spies in America, with the investigation of the Duquesne Spy Ring, which saw a major espionage ring broken, resulting in convictions.  As a result of the embarrassment surrounding the escape of Griebl it’s very likely that Hoover, who always needed someone to blame for any mistake, real or imagined, would have placed the blame squarely at the feet of the machine’s inventor, William Mouton Marston.  This would have seen Marston labelled as both an enemy and a fraud for life, and an enemy of Hoover – real or imagined - was an enemy for life, not that Marston would have known anything about any of this – the FBI kept it’s enemies very private when it suited them, after all they never knew when they might be useful.  It’s never been recorded or noted as to what Hoover thought of Wonder Woman though, that is if he ever saw the comic book.

Launceston Examiner, 9th March, 1932

The Advocate, 15th January, 1937

The Horsham Times, 11th February, 1938

The Launceston Examiner, 14th May, 1938

The Townsville Daily Bulletin, 26th January, 1939

The Townsville Daily Bulletin, 8th July, 1939

H.G. Peter's original Wonder Woman character design

Greibel's FBI Lie Detector Results




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