Pathology of Lying, Accusation, and Swindling: A Study in Forensic Psychology

Author: William Healy

Case 16

Summary: A motherless girl of 9 1/2 years, following her complaint of local symptoms, which proved to be due to vulvitis, accused her father and brother of incest. She was a bright child and normally affectionate, even towards these relatives. Her father and brother were held in jail for several weeks, but were dismissed at the trial because of the ascertained untruth of the charges.

As causative factors of her false accusations our study showed (a) her local irritation, (b) for which her father had treated her, (c) prior crowded housing conditions with her father and brother, (d) her lack of mother’s control, (e) early and intimate acquaintance with atrocious sex knowledge and sex habits, and (f) recently becoming the center of interest in a group of friends made through her statement of the vileness of family conditions.

We were requested to study this case by the judge of the court in which the father and brother of Bessie M. were to be tried for the crime of incest with her. At a preliminary hearing the judge had felt that the remarkable statements of the little girl savored of untruth, and that the character sustained by the brother, in particular, was quite out of keeping with the grave accusations against him. The girl’s charges, so clearly detailed, together with her local ailment, had proved thoroughly convincing to a group of women who had become interested in her. Bessie was evidently quite normal mentally and apparently affectionately regarded her only near relatives—this father and brother. Her story appeared thus entirely credible. The judge stated that he had been approached outside of court by these women, who in their righteous indignation were insistent upon the need of dire punishment of the outrageous conduct of Bessie’s natural protectors.

We found a rather poorly developed little girl. Weight 64 lbs.; height 4 ft. 4 in. Bright, pleasant, vivacious expression. Attitude normal. High, prominent, narrow forehead. Head: length 19 cm., breadth 13 cm. Slightly asymmetrical frontal bosses. Snub nose; eyes fairly bright; ears asymmetrical in size—.6 cm. difference in greatest length. Thyroid palpable. Tonsils enlarged moderately. No sensory defect of importance. Strength good for size. Color only fairly good. (Results of gynecologic examination later.)

Bessie was given a wide range of mental tests, with the result that we classified her as being well up to the ordinary in ability. Indeed, considering her poor school advantages through frequent changes of residence she did very well in the subjects covered by formal education. Her memory processes and ability to testify correctly—in which we were naturally most interested—seemed, so far as we were able to test them, quite normal. Of a standard passage about a fire (Test XII), which she read once to herself, she recalled 17 out of the 20 items. A passage containing 12 main details (Test XIII), which was read to her in the usual way four times, she recalled with 2 details omitted. The "Aussage" test (Test VI) was done very well indeed, with 17 items of the picture given correctly on free recital, and 5 rejections out of the 7 suggestions proffered. Bessie’s conversation was fluent and coherent, her range of information was good. She showed fondness for the dramatic statement.

Her mother died in the old country when she was about four years old, and her father had immediately come to America, but had never established a home of his own. For the last nine months Bessie had been living with a woman, Mrs. S., who was deeply interested in her. Previously to this she roomed for about six months with her father and brother, and prior to that time she had been placed about in different homes by her father. After some months with Mrs. S. she complained of local pain and irritation. When taken to a physician, she said her father was accustomed to touch her, and her story involved incest by both her father and brother. After others had become interested in her case, the matter was turned into the hands of the police. It was notable that during this period Bessie’s love of the dramatic was being fostered by her newly found woman friend, who was providing her with lessons in dramatic reading and taking her extremely frequently to moving picture shows and theatres.

When first seen by us, Bessie reiterated her story of sexual relations with her father and brother. As she had done with others, and with the judge, she went into almost convincing details. Her knowledge of such relationships was apparently complete. She informed us that she had caught "an awful disease" from her father. She said that while rooming with them her sexual relations with her father and brother were nightly occurrences. They all slept in one bed.

A careful inquiry into Bessie’s earlier knowledge of such things brought forth the most astounding account. One may say that this little girl had the most extensive acquaintance with many kinds of pervert sex practices that one has ever known in a young individual. She now said that the last ones who engaged in such things with her were her father and brother. Her experiences began at 5 years with a boy and a girl, and, she maintained, they had been very frequent ever since, up to within the last 9 months. A number of boys and girls were involved, as well as the men in two households where she had been placed. The practices she had engaged in were many, running all the way from self use of pieces of broom to normal intercourse, and both active and passive forms of pervert practices. It is unnecessary, even in this medical case, to go into details or to give her actual phraseology. It is sufficient to say that she frankly stated her early discovery of the pleasures of local stimulation and how she asked others to give it to her in various ways. Then she performed different perversions on boys and men. She told about observing sex relations between husband and wife in households where she had lived. She now says she had a disease before she came home to her father—a doctor had told other people previously. The men in two homes frequently had complete intercourse with her, she maintains, and gives description of it.

The credible substance of Bessie’s long story elaborately told upon inquiry into her life history was that she certainly had had many sex experiences. When, in the light of these, it finally came to the question of the charges against her father and brother she said that it was really she who had been the instigator. When in bed she had begun playing with them. She described her method, learned before. She now says they did not have real intercourse with her, but the other men did.

The account of local physical conditions as obtained from several sources is as follows. Bessie was taken to a physician for vulvitis, etc., by some people before she came back to her father. During the period she roomed with her father he regularly treated her locally with a salve and a wash. The physician who later examined her for Mrs. S. found the parts so swollen that he could make no diagnosis of ruptured hymen, but took it for granted. After the father and brother had been in jail for some weeks the inflammation had subsided. (It is only fair to say that the father had clamored for a specialist’s examination, which, he contended, would prove his innocence. Of course he was not aware of her earlier experiences or he would not have been so sure.) Then a competent gynecologist found that coitus had never taken place. The hymen was intact. This was at the time we studied the case. On the day of the trial, I with two other physicians examined the girl. It was found that a cotton swab about 3/8 of an inch in diameter could with difficulty penetrate the vaginal orifice. There was not the slightest evidence of any rupture of the hymen or of any vaginitis. So far as the "awful disease" was concerned, repeated bacteriological tests over a considerable period failed to show the extensive vulvitis to be due to gonorrhea. It seemed much more likely that it was due to nonspecific infection following traumatism from the use of the various foreign objects which the girl told she had used. Perhaps it was partly the result of the perversions which, judging by her knowledge of them, had been practiced by others on her.

We were informed later that much indignation at our report to the judge was expressed by the crowd in attendance at the trial. The girl’s first story was so well told that many had been irrevocably convinced of the utter guilt of the father.

The father himself, who was brought to us in the course of our study of the case, was rather a low type in appearance. He was a poor earner, evidently had earlier been alcoholic, a small whining figure with tears in his eyes. His appearance would prejudice against him. The brother, on the contrary, made an unusually good impression. He had the best of recommendations. His sister’s first charges ought not to have been believed on the basis of his qualifications. There had been 5 children, 3 died in infancy. No history of any significance was obtained except that the development of Bessie had apparently been normal in all ways. Her mother was said to be normal. Both parents were evidently representative products of the underfeeding and generally poor hygienic conditions of the laboring classes in a large Irish city. There was unquestionably a great feeling of affection between the three. Indeed, Mrs. S. stated that it was the excessive kissing of the child by the father which made her suspicious. Bessie always maintained that both father and brother treated her very well and that she loved them much.

It seemed clear to us that Bessie never knew in the least the significance of the charges she so glibly made at first. Her mind had long been so full of these things, and their social import seemed so slight, that it meant no vindictiveness towards her loved ones to say what she did about them. She asserted to us later that she really did not know what she said to the judge at the first hearing. The case illustrated well the fallibility of a young girl’s accusations coming even from the lips of a normally bright and affectionate daughter or sister.

For her own protection Bessie was given a trial in an institutional school. From there it was reported after a few months that her mind was found to be so continually upon sex subjects that it would be most advisable for her to remain long under the quietest conditions and closest supervision.

--------------------------------------------------------------- Physical conditions: Local irritation. Case 16.
Girl, age 9 1/2.
Housing conditions: Crowded.
Early sex experiences: Excessive and pervert.
Parental control failure: No home, no mother. Delinquencies: Mentality: Serious false accusations. Good ability. ---------------------------------------------------------------


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Chicago: William Healy, "Case 16," Pathology of Lying, Accusation, and Swindling: A Study in Forensic Psychology, trans. Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859 in Pathology of Lying, Accusation, and Swindling: A Study in Forensic Psychology (London: Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831), Original Sources, accessed July 17, 2024,

MLA: Healy, William. "Case 16." Pathology of Lying, Accusation, and Swindling: A Study in Forensic Psychology, translted by Macaulay, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron, 1800-1859, in Pathology of Lying, Accusation, and Swindling: A Study in Forensic Psychology, London, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, 1831, Original Sources. 17 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Healy, W, 'Case 16' in Pathology of Lying, Accusation, and Swindling: A Study in Forensic Psychology, trans. . cited in 1831, Pathology of Lying, Accusation, and Swindling: A Study in Forensic Psychology, Effingham Wilson, Royal Exchange, London. Original Sources, retrieved 17 July 2024, from