Saturday, December 6, 2014

Chapter 32 - Trial-By-Headline: Part 3 - Trial-by-Headline

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

Houck turned up three days later, disheveled and confused, in a small upstate New York town. He was brought back to Washington and placed under observation. With no sign of his wife, the police suspected foul play. But Houck couldn’t provide any coherent information. Both Korzybski and Graven were brought in for further questioning. Both men had been forthright with the police and had told them everything they knew. But apparently it wasn’t enough. Did Dr. Houck murder his wife? Did Korzybski and Graven know something they weren’t telling? Were they shielding Dr. Houck? After about a week of such grilling, Korzybski got fed up with what he considered “the third degree” by the investigating detectives and the district attorney:
Finally, I squashed the whole thing because I yelled at them. “Don’t be damn fools, [if] Dr. [Houck] killed fifty people, not one, he is immune as far as you are concerned. The man is profoundly ill, so don’t be silly about murder and shielding a murderer. He could kill fifty people. He’s immune.” That finally piped them down, but you can imagine what we had in the newspapers. (18) 

What they—especially Alfred—had in the newspapers, could be called trial-by-headline. With newspaper space to be filled, the situation seemed ideal for sensationalistic coverage that amounted to a campaign of malicious untruth about him. There was a missing woman and no information on her whereabouts, an ‘insane’ doctor of the ‘insane’ who seemed obsessed with a strange-looking device with a funny name that no one could explain very well. (Why bother asking Korzybski when they could ask the obsessed doctor himself?) Then there was this ‘exotic’ foreigner Korzybski—and his wife (a Count and Countess no less), who seemed to be under suspicion by the police. Korzybski’s presumed role in this affair (actually rather peripheral) provided tempting bait for a feeding frenzy by journalistic sharks.

It started with a story in the December 20 edition of the Washington Evening Star, which featured a panel with pictures of Dr. Houck and his missing wife, as well as a picture of the Anthropometer (taken by an enterprising photographer in Dr. White’s office). Above the pictures, the headline read, “Mystery Laid To “Thought Machine”.” The caption underneath read “Deep study of the “Anthropometer,” designed by its inventor, a Polish count, to “diagnose thoughts” is blamed by associates of Dr. Knute Houck for his breakdown.” More sensational copy appeared in the accompanying article:
Dr. Houck, it was declared, was devoting much of this time to a device that was invented by Count Kurzypski [sic], who is a noted mathematician by profession. The device known as an “anthropometer,” was supposed to register the innermost thoughts of a person and aid them in a psycho-analysis of themselves. Other physicians declared Dr. Houck had permitted the thing to prey on his mind so much that it became a Frankenstein that struck him down…Fanciful in appearance, the thing seemed to assume an eerie atmosphere as its various functions were explained, all technical and, to the layman, impossible of understanding...(19) 

One can’t assume that any of the physicians at St. Elizabeths actually said any of the things they were reported to have said in the article. The reporter searched out Korzybski the following day to make some inquiries and ended up apologizing for his exaggerations and misinformation. However, it was already too late. Other newspapers had picked up the story and were off and running. The story about the “thought machine”, along with the photograph of the Anthropometer, spread nationwide via wire service accounts and newspaper syndicates and was embellished with each retelling.
From the Washington Evening Star, Dec. 20, 1926

Over the following week headlines such as the following appeared in newspapers in Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, New York, Boston, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Detroit, Kansas City, and other major and not-so-major cities throughout the U.S: ““Thought-Machine”…believed to have unbalanced his mind”(20), “COUNT AND WIFE GRILLED IN INQUIRY [ON] MISSING MRS. HOUCK”(21) (Actually Mira was never questioned by the police), “Houck Mystery Laid To His Study of “Mind Meter”(22), ““Mind Machine” Is Blamed For Houck Mystery, Doctor and Missing Wife Believed Deranged by “Occult” Device”(23), “Mental Meter Floored Houck, Device to Measure Thoughts Is Puzzle to Fellow Alienists”(24), “Going Mad From Study Of Insane”(25), “Thought Machine Blamed for Mystery Surrounding Houcks, Doctor’s Mind Affected By Too Much Concentration and Psychoanalysis”(26), “Thought Machine Sends Dr. Houck Mad”.(27) 

The newspaper stories accompanying these damning headlines consisted mainly of half-truths and outright lies about Korzybski. The psychiatrists Alfred talked to agreed that Houck, and his wife, had probably sensed he was ‘slipping’ and grasped at Korzybski and his work in a futile effort to fend off a breakdown already in progress. So Alfred felt confident that he had no responsibility for Houck’s collapse or Mrs. Houck’s disappearance. But that gave him small comfort. The newspaper accounts made his work look ridiculous. He had toiled over the last few years to establish a good reputation, especially in the scientific community. Now he felt he was getting “bloodlessly murdered” by the press. He knew the power of words. Although friends like Walter told him not to feel concerned—that any publicity was good publicity—Alfred felt the future success in his work depended on his good name. He and Mira and numerous friends mobilized in order to salvage it.
By the end of December, he had already consulted some lawyers. He felt he had cause to sue one or more of the newspaper chains for libel. Since the picture of the Anthropometer was being reprinted in many of the stories, he felt he also had cause to sue for copyright violation. In the meantime, he renewed his subscription to the clipping service (which he had let run out), asked friends around the country to keep their eyes open for news stories related to the incident, and wrote to newspapers around the country to obtain multiple copies of stories about him and the Anthropometer in relation to the Houck affair. His quickly growing newspaper files would give him ammunition.

Alfred also felt heartened by the support he got from his friends. He had started to get telegrams and letters expressing outrage at the treatment he was receiving from the press. The first public sally on his behalf was a newspaper article written by Roy Haywood, which appeared in the December 27 edition of the New York Sun newspaper. The assistant editor of the New York Masonic Outlook, which Haywood edited, was A. M. Nielsen, a geography professor at New York University, who had recently gotten interested in Korzybski’s work. The article, entitled “Explains “Thought Machine”, Name a Misnomer, says Professor—For the Rest It’s as Simple as Einstein” was written in the form of an interview with Nielsen. Accompanied by a picture (authorized by Alfred) of a woman handling an Anthropometer, it read in part:
New York friends of Count Alfred Korzybski, Polish scientist now living in Washington, were amused and indignant at once to-day over the theory that too much toying with the Count’s invention, the anthropometer, erroneously called a “thought machine,” was responsible for the disappearance of young Mrs. Gladys Walter Houck of Washington and the mental unbalancing of her husband, Dr. Knutt [sic] H. Houck.  
“The anthropometer,” said Dr. A. M. Nielsen, professor of economical geography in the New York University’s school of commerce, “is no more a ‘thought machine’ than a blackboard in a schoolroom. It is simply a chart, a plastic diagram, that illustrates a method of thinking, and is in no sense a machine.  
“There is nothing occult or spiritual in it. In fact, Count Korzybski takes no stock in such things. He is an engineer with a scientific background.  
“It is silly to suggest that a man lost his reason over studying the Anthropometer. You may as well say that a mathematical treatise or a book on logic will drive a man insane.  
“The Anthropometer is made of wood instead of paper simply as a matter of convenience.”  
...“In a general way,” he said, “Korzybski undertook to get hold of a method of thinking that underlies modern science and put it into simple form so that it would be available to the layman. The anthropometer is merely a plastic diagram that illustrates that method of thinking.”  
With the anthropometer, he said, thoughts are analyzed and discussion and argument at an end.  
“Why,” exclaimed Dr. Nielsen, “this thing would have a tendency to restore an insane man’s sanity rather than to derange a sane man. If Dr. Houck studied the Anthropometer it was only incidental and could have had no bearing on his insanity.” (28) 

Alfred wrote to both Haywood and Nielsen thanking them for the fine piece. Nielsen wrote back saying that after the article appeared about 50 people contacted him expressing interest in Korzybski’s work.(29) If a positive article could have that effect, what were the negative ones doing?

Unfortunately, sensational articles mentioning ‘the thought machine’ continued. After about a week of coverage, however, they stopped appearing with their earlier frequency. Reporters focused more on Gladys Houck, who, despite an intensive search by the police, had failed to turn up either dead or alive. On the basis of a press photograph, three men in Blytheville, Arkansas identified as Mrs. Houck a woman they saw passing through their town.(30) In a lucid moment, Dr. Houck declared the unlikelihood of that since the photo used in the papers, taken several years before, showed his wife with a different hairstyle than the one she had before she went missing. He was still convinced she was alive, somewhere around Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, detectives seemed to discount either her running away or suicide. Instead, although psychiatric consultants thought it highly unlikely, and despite no physical evidence, detectives seemed convinced Dr. Houck had murdered her.

By this time Korzybski must have felt thoroughly disgusted with the police, as well as reporters, since detectives seem to have cynically decided to use Houck’s obsession with the anthropometer to further their investigation. On the day that Haywood’s Sun article appeared, reporters and detectives converged on Gallinger Hospital, where Houck was being held, with Houck’s anthropometer. The Baltimore News headline for December 27, 1926 read “Dr. Houck’s Mind Tested In Hunt For Wife.” In one of the most bizarre stories to be written about the case, the article explained how the police were planning to use the anthropometer to get Dr. Houck to psychoanalyze himself and probe his dreams for clues to his wife’s disappearance. Perhaps the detectives thought they could shock or rattle Houck into making a confession. It didn’t happen. The article also noted that Korzybski had met the Assistant District Attorney (this may have been the day Alfred blew up at the investigators). At any rate, the article also published a statement that Korzybski released after his meeting, undoubtedly a rebuke to both the press and police for the spate of shoddy, uncritical inferences that had been spewing forth from both camps: “The situation in regard to Dr. Houck is very complicated and very technical. To my mind, it should be dealt with by medical specialists and scientists. In this case no one else is competent to speak.” I can imagine Korzybski reading this with some satisfaction, even as he may have shaken his head in disbelief at the article’s description of how detectives planned to use the anthropometer to have Houck ‘psychoanalyze’ himself. It read: “This instrument is used for personal psychoanalysis. The person who would analyze his brain and thoughts sticks little pegs into the perforations of the figures and the resultant action tells him what he wants to know.”(31) If Alfred had known a little Yiddish, it would have been appropriate for him to say, “Oy Gevalt!”

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
18. Korzybski 1947, p. 253. 

19. The Washington Evening Star, 12/20/1926. AKDA 19.330. 

20. Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger, Tues 12/21/1926. AKDA 19.317. 

21. Washington Times, 12/23/1926. AKDA 19.296. 

22. The (NY) World, 12/24/1926. AKDA 19.276.

23. (NY) Evening World, 12/24/1926. AKDA 19.273. 

24. The Milwaukee Journal, 12/24/1926. AKDA 19.272.

25. Boston Post, 12/24/1926. AKDA 19.265. 

26. The Florida Times Union, (N.Y. World News Service), 12/25/1926. AKDA 19.271. 

27. Chicago Herald and Examiner, 12/24/1926. AKDA 19.257. 

28. “Explains ‘Thought Machine’, Name a Misnomer, says Professor—For the Rest It’s as Simple as Einstein”. The New York Sun, 12/27/1926. AKDA 19.244. 

29. A. M. Nielsen to AK, 1/4/1927. AKDA 19.550. 

30. “Say They Saw Mrs. Houck”. New York Times, 12/27/1926. 

31. “Dr. Houck’s Mind Tested In Hunt For Wife”. The Baltimore News, 12/27/1926. AKDA 19.243.

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