In 1874 Chester County, photography was enough to hang a man.
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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.