Archive for November 12th, 2008

1874: William Udderzook, because a picture is worth a thousand words

2 comments November 12th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1874, William Udderzook was hanged in West Chester, Pennsylvania for an insurance scam gone horribly macabre — accidentally making judicial history in the process.

Udderzook and his brother-in-law Winfield Scott Goss had contrived to pick up some easy scratch by insuring Goss’s life and having him “burned to death” in a laboratory fire; Udderzook procured a medical cadaver for the purpose, and duly identified its charred remains the late lamented Goss, who was in fact laying low in Newark under an assumed name.

An amateurish stunt by today’s standards, but forensic science was still in its infancy. During the Civil War just a decade before, the majority of the dead had been buried unidentified. Personal recognition was still the best way available in most cases to tell who was who.

Udderzook and Goss’s wife therefore collected on their say-so, but insurance adjusters smelled fraud. It was through their pressure that the “Goss-Udderzook tragedy” unfolded, and became an object lesson and test case in the science of establishing identity.

Goss was the first hoisted on his own petard, for his faked death meant that Udderzook could not afford to have investigators find him alive. So Udderzook murdered Goss, this time for real — real gruesome, that is. When the body was discovered, it had been dismembered, disemboweled, and repeatedly stabbed.

When Udderzook faced trial, Goss’s identity with “Wilson” (his assumed name) was the central question, and it was established using photography. (The same way they identified the body, actually, per a contemporary New York Times account here. (pdf))

Udderzook fought the photographic identification all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — which turned aside the appeal with a landmark ruling whose embrace of the photographic science would unlock its forensic potential:

That a portrait or a miniature painting from life and proved to resemble the person may be used to identify him cannot be doubted, though, like all other evidences of identity, it is open to disproof or doubt, and must be determined by the jury. There seems to be no reason why a photograph, proved to be taken from life and to resemble the person photographed, should not fill the same measure of evidence. It is true that the photographs we see are not the original likenesses; their lines are not traced by the hand of the artist nor can the artist be called to testify that he faithfully limned [sic] the portrait. They are but paper copies taken from the original plate, called the negative, made sensitive by chemicals, and printed by the sunlight through the camera. It is the result of art, guided by certain principles of science. . . .

It is evident that the competency of the evidence in such a case depends on the reliability of the photograph of a work of art, and this, in the case before us, in which no proof was made by experts of this reliability, must depend upon the judicial cognizance we make of photographs as an established means of producing a correct likeness. The Daguerrean process was first given to the world in 1839. It was soon followed by photography, of which we have nearly a generation’s experience. . . . We know that its principles are derived from science; that the images on the plate, made by the rays of light through the camera, are dependent on the same general laws which produce the images of outward forms upon the retina through the lenses of the eye. The process has become one in general use, so common that we cannot refuse to take judicial cognisance of it as a proper means of producing correct likeness.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Pennsylvania,USA

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Recent Comments

  • Dolliet: Very inspiring story. God bless you.
  • Lorna Mcneill: How many people have you murdered with the poison your dish out ..
  • Curt Kastens: Your sense of humor must be wraped.
  • Petru: No, is just plain stupidity.,.
  • Petru: And how old are you now?