You’re a juror in a capital punishment case. The primary piece of evidence is a photograph. Is that enough to sentence a man to death?
Increasingly, it isn’t. Adobe Photoshop and other photo-manipulation software have eroded trust in what we see. Courts now have elaborate procedures to prove that images haven’t been doctored. Standard rules of evidence, for instance, require prosecutors to preserve digital images in their original formats, and to save copies as read-only files.
It’s a trend 136 years too late for William Udderzook, who went to West Chester’s hangman in 1874. Udderzook was convicted of stabbing to death a man whose identity had been proved by a photograph that no one—other than a desperate defense attorney—challenged. The case was a landmark in confirming the legal admissibility of photographs in court.
“The process [of photography] is one in general use so common we cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it as a proper means of producing a correct likeness,” wrote Daniel Agnew, chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in rejecting Udderzook’s appeal. “It is a result of art guided by certain principles of science.”
It began as insurance fraud. William Eachus Udderzook and Winfield Scott Goss both lived in Baltimore, married sisters and knew each other well. Udderzook worked for a sawmill. Goss, a self-employed maker and gilder of picture frames, had a small workshop on the outskirts of the city. On the side, according to Philadelphia journalist Louis Megargee, Goss was trying to invent a substitute for India rubber, using ingredients that he kept in the shop.
Perhaps picture frames weren’t selling. Perhaps Goss was frustrated by his unsuccessful experiments. Perhaps Udderzook hated his dirty job at the mill. Or perhaps all of it.
In any case, Goss had $25,000 worth of life insurance from four different companies. And, in February 1872, he acted with Udderzook on a scheme to collect the money without undergoing the inconvenience of dying.
The fire that leveled Goss’ workshop was blamed on a defective lamp. An inquest revealed that he’d just bought a gallon of kerosene for the 1-quart fixture. Goss’ other chemicals also fed the flames.
“The body of a man was seen in the glowing embers,” wrote Megargee. “Hooks were procured, and the corpse, black and bleeding, was drawn from the ruins.”
The face was burned beyond recognition. The legs and arms were nearly burned off. But the body was roughly Goss’ size, and a tuft of unburned hair was the color of his. A coroner ruled that the body was Goss, and he’d died by fire from an accidental explosion. Case closed. The body was turned over to Goss’ family, viewed by many friends and relatives—none of whom suspected anything was amiss—and buried.
But the insurers were suspicious. Three of the four policies had been purchased within the past 10 months. Goss had closed a bank account the day before the fire. His brother, Campbell, claimed he was at home the night of the fire, although his landlord and two members of his family all testified that he was not. The insurers were sure Campbell was aiding his brother’s getaway.
Campbell denied having rented a horse and buggy on the night of the fire, though the livery owner positively identified him. (The insurers suspected he had driven his brother to the train station.) Later, Campbell visited the scene of the fire and “discovered” Goss’ watch and keys—missed by everyone else. (The insurers suspected that he’d planted them.) Also, Goss’ widow testified that her husband had good teeth, yet an examination of the exhumed corpse revealed that many of its teeth were decayed or missing.
Udderzook’s testimony was that of someone who “knew too much,” according to investigators John B. Lewis and Charles C. Bombaugh (both doctors and authors of 1896’s Stratagems and Conspiracies to Defraud Life Insurance Companies). He’d spent several hours in the late afternoon with Goss. “He had visited every room in the cottage … and knew there was no one in the house except himself and Goss,” wrote Lewis and Bombaugh. “He also knew there was no dead body in the house.”
And Udderzook just happened to have left the building 15 or so minutes before the fire erupted. Investigators also thought it odd that Goss, who was strong and healthy, did not at least try to flee the burning building.
The Mutual, Continental, Travelers and Knickerbocker insurance companies all refused to pay. Goss’ wife sued and won, though the suit took nearly 18 months. Then, in July 1873, as the insurers were vowing an appeal, a strange story filtered down from Chester County. Another body had been found near Penningtonville (now Atglen), and Udderzook had been seen acting strangely in the vicinity.
Investigators soon focused on a man calling himself A.C. Wilson, who had checked into a boarding house near Bryn Mawr in June 1872, four months after the fire. “Wilson” stayed until November, then moved to other boarding houses nearby. Early on June 27, he checked out of a Philadelphia hotel, announcing that he was heading for a train that would carry him to New York and an afternoon steamer for Europe. What followed remains unknown, but Wilson was seen with Udderzook on June 30 at the West Grove railroad station. Both checked into a tavern in Jennersville and spent the night.
“The next morning,” Megargee later wrote, “Udderzook left his companion, who appeared to be drinking heavily and ill, and rode to the house of his sister, Mrs. Samuel Rhoades, living near [Atglen], about 13 miles away.” Samuel Rhoades later testified that Udderzook had offered him $1,000 to help drug and rob a man. The man, said Udderzook, had developed delirium tremens, was drinking his money away, and probably wouldn’t live long anyway. Rhoades refused.
Udderzook then rented a horse and buggy, in which he and Wilson drove north from Jennersville at about 6:30 p.m. on July 1. Udderzook arrived—alone—at Atglen at 11:40 p.m. and returned the vehicle, battered and stained with blood. Wilson was never seen alive again.
Ten days later, on July 11, Gainer Moore, a local resident, noticed a large number of buzzards as he was passing Baer’s Woods, a mile or so from Atglen. The buzzards were on the fence, perched in the bushes and trees, and walking around in the road. He investigated and found a partially buried human torso that had been stabbed eight or nine times. The severed legs and one arm were buried nearby.
“At the time … I raised the head out from the ground, the face had a natural look,” Moore later testified. “By that, I mean I could have recognized it easily if I had known the person in life.”
Initial press coverage drew the attention of the insurance companies resisting the widow Goss’ claims. They sent a physician with Goss’ photo to examine the corpse. Observers all agreed that the photo resembled the body on the table. And the physician confirmed that the body had excellent teeth.
To investigators, it was clear. Udderzook and Goss had conspired to defraud the insurance companies, and Goss—restless after months in hiding—had become a liability. Udderzook killed Goss to prevent his own role from being revealed. But how to prove this in court?
There was much circumstantial evidence. Witnesses had seen Udderzook and “Wilson” together. There was Udderzook’s documented testimony in the insurance case. But the prosecution’s case rested on proving that Goss and Wilson were the same man. To that end, the key piece of evidence was Goss’ photograph, which was shown to Moore on the witness stand.
“This person bears a strong resemblance to the face of the person I discovered in Baer’s Woods,” said Moore. “From the point of the nose upwards, in particular, there is a strong resemblance—also in the eyebrows and the hair.”
Moore testified that he’d recognized the man without any prompting from prosecutor W.M. Hayes. Udderzook was convicted and condemned.
The use of photography by the criminal justice system was not entirely new. In 1859, the U.S. Supreme Court had noted the usefulness of “the beautiful art of photography” in grouping together, on a single sheet for examination, a collection of genuine and disputed signatures. In France, Emperor Napoléon III had fantasized, while rebuilding Paris, about “photographic batteries, so located as to take, from many points of view at once, the likenesses of persons engaged in disturbing the peace.”
But as photography’s presence in daily life expanded, lawyers debated its legal status. Some saw photography as similar to hearsay, a he-said-she-said equivalent. In 1869, a writer for the American Law Register sought to debunk this view: “Human memory will fade … and can be distorted or intentionally falsified. But the photograph ‘is that person himself, precisely as he exists in the article of vision—is, therefore, direct and original evidence of the kind of man he was.’”
In his appeal, Udderzook’s lawyer rejected this view. The only acceptable proof, insisted J. Perdue, was testimony by someone who’d known Goss and who’d also inspected the body of “Wilson.” A photo was merely a copy of the negative, which, in turn, was only a copy of the subject—two times removed from reality and, therefore, unreliable.
Bunk, said Agnew.
On Nov. 12, 1874, at 12:19 p.m., after shaking Udderzook’s hand, Chester County Sheriff Davis Gill threw the lever on the scaffold. “Death ensued by strangulation,” reported the New York Times, “with apparent suffering.”
E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at firstname.lastname@example.org.