One of the film genres I really enjoy are spy movies. I love all the action of the James Bond and Mission Impossible movies, but I also enjoy the tension in the older film noir spy flicks of the cold war as agents hide in the shadows waiting for those precious seconds they can attempt to scale the Berlin Wall to freedom. Recently I was watching a 1966 movie called the Quiller Memorandum, staring the great Alec Guinness (of Obi-wan Kenobi fame). The protagonist, Quiller, is sent on a mission to find a neo-Nazi group in cold war West Berlin. At one point he is rendered unconscious.
Quiller awakens in a derelict house where he is surrounded by the enemy. At first Quiller refuses to answer any questions about his spy agency or his mission, that is until a doctor injects him with a truth serum, causing him to reveal several of his secrets. While a truth serum certainly looks great in movies, does it actually exist in real life?
The first person to realize that certain chemicals affected the brain in a way that elicited truthful answers was the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder, who is quoted as saying In vino veritas, or “in wine there is truth”. He noted that intoxicated individuals often spoke exactly what was on their mind. One of the first modern truth serums was sodium pentothal, which was invented by two chemists in 1936, who were trying to come up with a better pain killer. Unfortunately they found that it didn’t really work very well unless you used a lot of it, at which point the patients were unconscious and didn’t notice the pain anyway. What was realized was that even though at lower doses it didn’t affect pain, it did make people more relaxed, and that’s because sodium pentothal is a barbiturate, a class of drugs that slow down the central nervous system, and slows down brain activity. Psychiatrists started trying sodium pentothal on traumatized soldiers returning from World War II, sending them into a trance-like state causing them to talk more freely than if they were fully conscious. Well if it could cause soldiers to talk openly about their problems, maybe it would cause criminals to talk openly about their crimes, and confess to their misdeeds. Indeed if you get injected with sodium pentothal it slows down your higher brain functions, reducing fear and anxiety, but it also makes it really hard for the brain to carry out complex thought processes, like lying. The logic is that if you now can’t tell lies, then all you can tell is the truth!
Well reality crashed head-on into that logic, and researchers found that for sure criminals would talk, but they would talk endlessly about anything, happily confessing to crimes they hadn’t even committed. At the same time, sodium pentothal couldn’t make unwilling subjects admit to things they didn’t want to, and had no effect on people with serious personality disorders who would just keep repeating their lies.
Hyoscine was first used in the early 20th Century by Dr. Robert House, and was the first drug to actually be called a “truth serum”. House was an obstetrician in a small town near Dallas. When performing a home delivery, he injected the mother with hyoscine as a painkiller, putting her into a semi-conscious “twilight” state. After the baby was born, House asked the father for scales to weight the baby, but the father had no clue as to where they might be. In a semi-sleep-like state the mother responded that they were behind a picture in the kitchen. which they were. It occurred to House that hyoscine had shut down the higher functions of the brain involved in high level thinking, but left the person still able to answer questions. As he experimented further, House became convinced that answers given under hyoscine were completely truthful, and he had found a truth serum. So is there really such as thing as truth serum? Well evidence from truth serum is not admissible in court, and people given truth serum tend to say anything that they feel will make the questioner happy. So we don’t really have a truth serum, but for sure spy agencies would love one.
Although hyoscine has been used as a truth serum, it has also been used in murder! A small dose of hyoscine will make people drowsy, a larger dose will put them to sleep, and an even larger dose will put a person to sleep permanently. Indeed one of the most famous trans-Atlantic police chases occurred as Dr. Crippen killed his wife with a hyoscine overdose before dismembering and burying her in the basement. Crippen then set sail for America with his mistress, Ethel le Neve, who was disguised as a boy. Assuming he had gotten away with murder, Crippen enjoyed the boat journey to America. Little did he realize that the ship’s Captain knew exactly who Crippen was, and that he was wanted for murder. The SS. Montrose had recently been fitted with a new-fangled device called a wireless telegraph, and each day the ship’s Captain telegraphed the previous day’s activities of Crippen and le Neve to the London newspapers, who printed everything for a voracious scandal loving readership. The wireless telegraph was also used to warn authorities to arrest Crippen when the ship docked, making Crippen the first person to be arrested following trans-Atlantic messaging.
Finally, I have to say I have benefitted from the effects of hyoscine, and found hyoscine to be remarkably effective! Was I putting some hyoscine drops in an unsuspecting family member’s coffee so I could find out if they were up to anything? Well, no. Hyoscine also goes by another name, scopolamine, and scopolamine is used in skin patches to prevent motion sickness, including sea sickness. Scopolamine has certainly allowed me to enjoy boat rides that would otherwise have seen me spending all my time leaning over the side.