Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychological Autopsy for Death Investigation

The Mystery of Howard Hughes

Dr. Raymond Fowler
Dr. Raymond Fowler

Following the death of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in 1976, Dr. Raymond Fowler, then President of the American Psychological Association and chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Alabama, was asked to make a psychological study of the man.  Because Hughes had been such a mysterious person for so many years toward the end of his life, and because he was such a self-destructive person, there were a lot of questions about his death and his state of competence for making business decisions and wills.  Attorney George Dean requested that Dr. Fowler make an assessment over different periods of Hughes life to determine his patterns and level of mental functioning.

Fowler spent several years on this project (an inordinately long time) and practically wrote a biography.   A summary of his work was published in Psychology Today in May 1986, and he mentioned then that he would eventually write an entire book.  To date, that has not occurred.  While he does not spell out precisely how he gathered and organized the information, its not difficult to see how it was done.  Virtually everything that Howard Hughes said or did was recorded in some way or witnessed by others, Fowler remarked.  He used diaries, business memos, newspaper articles, interviews, and letters to reconstruct the mans life to get some sense of his death.

Fowlers primary interest lay in looking back over Hughes life to determine how such a vibrant man had become a paranoid and eccentric recluse.   Born in Houston, Texas, Hughes was an only child, nicknamed Sonny, and his mother doted on him with rather excessive concern about his health, his teeth and his bowels (a real irony in retrospect).  His father was usually absent.  At the time, the public feared the spread of polio, so when Howard went to camp, his parents wanted assurance that he was protected.  Finally his mother decided it was better just to keep him home.  Thus we see the early seeds of his paranoia about germs, which became so extreme that toward the end of his life he did not leave his rooms.  Added to that, he was an introverted loner who did not make friends easily.

Fowler indicates that he learned much of this from letters Hughes mother had written to camp counselors.   He diagnosed it as avoidant disorder, a means of coping in which someone wants friends but is too anxious to make them.  He believed Hughes mother actually exacerbated these problems with her own concerns and gave him a means of escaping social pressures by using the excuse of illness.  He avoided another year at camp by complaining about headaches and bad dreams when he returned home.

Then, on the verge of adolescence, Howard became ill and was kept out of school for most of the year.   He developed a paralysis which was never diagnosed and which disappeared after several months.  Fowler again believes this was psychological in nature, a way to avoid having to socialize.

Sent to boarding school, Howard became increasingly unhappy so he asked his parents to buy him a horse, and he spent more time with the animal than with boys his age.   Then, when he was sixteen, his mother died during surgery.  She was followed two years later by Howards father.  Understandably, Howard went into a deep depression.  His parents had been his world.

All of this could be gleaned from school and hospital records, especially as a school counselor was aware of the psychological problems and had written to the parents about them.

A young Howard Hughes, 1938
A young Howard Hughes, 1938

At 18, Howard took over the profitable family business in Houston, which was based on an invention of his fathers that had revolutionized oil drilling worldwide, and finally found something over which he could feel mastery, so he set out to achieve more of it.   He married without any romantic involvement and divorced after he went to Hollywood, where he took up flying and developed a passion for moviesa budding industry in the mid-1920s.  In one film he produced, he crashed his plane and was pulled unconscious from the wreck.

From this point, a psychologist could ask business associates about Hughes, which Fowler apparently did, adding comments into his report from people who worked with Hughes.   It was clear to those who knew him that his ambitions were highto be the richest man alive, to be a top film producer and a top aviator.  He managed all three, winning international fame in his early 20s, so newspaper accounts are widely available about his rise to fame.  A Web site about social history says, At various points in his life, he owned an international airline, two regional airlines, an aircraft company, a major motion picture studio, mining properties, a tool company, gambling casinos and hotels in Las Vegas, a medical research institute, and a vast amount of real estate.  Yet according to people around him, he was uncomfortable with his public persona.  By the time he was 24, Fowler found out, he began to avoid the parties and publicity.  His only real interest lay in flying planes.

But more than just flying, he was fascinated with speed, and he set significant records for cross-country and round-the-world travel.   Then, again, when testing a prototype, he crashed and nearly died.

Howard Hughes, 1955
Howard Hughes, 1955

He also had three nervous breakdowns over the course of 13 years.   In Beverly Hills in 1944, after hed been in several serious accidents in which others had died, Hughes spent most of his time sitting naked in a white leather chair where he could be free of germs (he thought) and where he watched movies endlessly.  It was possible he had sustained brain damage, evidenced by his sudden habit of repeating himself.  He developed an obsession with details.  When he moved to Las Vegas (and bought up hotels and casinos), he also took to watching movies naked, but this time he had developed an addiction to codeine and Valium.  For one seven-month stretch, he had a pilot secretly fly him around the Southwest, where he would stay alone in darkened motel rooms.  It seems likely, writes Fowler, that all the stress Hughes was under increased his already high anxiety.

By 1966, at the age of 60, he was the worlds wealthiest man, but had a terror of contagious disease.   People who worked for him had to wash their hands often and wear white gloves.  They were not to speak to him or look directly at him.  He would go so far as to burn his clothing (which he wore infrequently) if he heard that someone he had met had an illness.

Clearly, Fowler points out, he had an obsessive-compulsive disorder.   His fear of germs disrupted his life.  He claimed he wanted to live longer than his parents so he needed such precautions.  Yet he was about to undermine all of his mothers attempts to protect his various bodily functions.

He left Las Vegas for the Bahamas, and then moved to Mexico, reportedly to get codeine more easily.  He made one public phone call in 1972 to repudiate a book allegedly based on his memoirs, but for the most part kept to himself.  Only his security guards and doctors saw him.  By now, he was injecting codeine, breaking needles into his arms that later showed up on X-rays during the autopsy.  He wore tissue boxes on his feet, wore no clothing, and let his hair and nails grow out.  Eating candy bars, his teeth rotted and fell out because he never brushed them.  He urinated on the floor and never bathed, but might sit on the toilet for twenty hours at a time.  He still watched movies obsessively, mostly Ice Station Zebra, his favorite.  On his way to a hospital in Houston in 1976, he apparently died of heart failure.  From Houston, his fingerprints were sent to the FBI to affirm that this corpse was indeed that of the legendary Howard Hughesmostly for the treasury departments purposes.

The FBI confirmed his identity, and a legal battle began over which of his alleged wills was authentic.   There was also some question about decisions he had made while alive about his businesses.  Thus, the need for a retrospective psychological assessment.

In the end, Fowler concludes, Hughes was not psychotic.   There was never a time when he couldnt rouse himself to deal rationally with a situation.  But, he writes, he was a disturbed man.

Retrospective analysis is a complex undertaking, and it gets even more so the farther back into history one goes.

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