Tag Archives: identity

1673: Mary Carleton, “German princess”

On this date in 1673 ended the adventures of “German princess” and early modern celebrity Mary Carleton.

Mary vaulted into the ranks of famous-for-being-famous in 1663, when the pamphleteering forerunners of Perez Hilton caught wind of a bigamy scandal wherein Mary, presenting herself as a mysterious German noble, had hitched with 18-year-old law student John Carleton and run through his money.

Once the public made her acquaintance … well, there was just something about Mary.

Over two dozen pamphlets are known sensationalizing her subsequent trial and acquittal for hubby-hopping, including post-acquittal volleys by both John and Mary.

(These pamphlets don’t currently appear to be available in their original forms online, but substantial excerpts from the most famous of them can be found in the public domain 1914 book The Mary Carleton narratives, 1663-1673: a missing chapter in the history of literature. This volume argues the Carleton publications are a stylistic progenitor of the English novel as it emerged in the hands of, for instance, Defoe. We certainly would be remiss not to notice here our real-life anti-heroine’s parallels (pdf) with Moll Flanders.)

Actually the daughter of a Canterbury fiddler, Moll Carleton was accused of having ditched her first spouse (a shoemaker) for a surgeon, then ditched the surgeon for John Carleton.

Having adroitly beat that rap in a court of law (if not exactly in the court of public opinion) “the German Princess” went into show business; that ubiquitous diarist Samuel Pepys caught her on stage, playing herself, remarking

I’ve passed one trial, but it is my fear
I shall receive a rigid sentence here:
You think me a bold cheat, put case ’twere so,
Which of you are not? Now you’d swear I know.
But do not, lest that you deserve to be
Censur’d worse than you can censure me:,
The world’s a cheat, and we that move in it,
In our degrees, do exercise our wit;
And better ’tis to get a glorious name,
However got, than live by common fame.

Well, why not?

In a time with scant social mobility for women, Carleton — which is the name by which she’s been remembered although she was born “Mary Moders” — carved it out with the tools at her disposal, which makes her an irresistible academic subject.*

Carleton/Moders is nearly the anti-Martin Guerre: whereas the male Arnaud du Tilh subsumed his own identity to insinuate himself into the existing social part of “Martin Guerre”, Mary Carleton’s shifty identity excised her from the social circumstances that would otherwise define her. (She was even reported to have taking to masculine cross-dressing.) Paradoxically, her fictitious biography enabled her to be taken for her own self, which explains why she stuck with her blank-slate “German origins” backstory after it had been publicly discredited.

And after the stage gig had run its course and her identity become disposable once again, she easily resumed her marital perambulations.

Mary Jo Kietzman called Carleton’s life “self-serialization.” The Newgate Calendar sanctimoniously records some of her adventures.

After a few years below the Restoration radar, Carleton was caught up for petty larceny and given a death sentence commuted to penal transportation to Jamaica. (England had just seized it from Spain during Cromwell‘s Protectorate.)

Two years later, she returned to England — not the only one to prefer the danger of Tyburn to the rigors (and obscurity) of the colonies.

She could only live as herself at the peril of her life. And on this day, she clinched her lasting fame at the end of a rope.

* e.g., Mihoko Suzuki, “The Case of Mary Carleton: Representing the Female Subject, 1663-73,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring, 1993).

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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

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.