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Source: December 1949 Volume 7 Number 2, Pages 30–33

The first use of photography as evidence in a Chester County murder trial

As told by George P. Orr

Page 30

In 1872, there lived in Baltimore a man by the name of W. C. Goss, his wife Eliza, and one Udderzook, who had married E1iza!s sister. Goss had secured approximately $25,000 of insurance on his life. His wife, Eliza, was beneficiary.

Goss had a little frame shop on the York Road, about three miles from Baltimore, and, on February 2nd, 1872, this shop was completely destroyed by fire. From the smoldering ruins was extricated the charred remains of a man.

Eliza Goss presented claims on the insurance policies but the companies resisted payment because the identification of the body as that of the insured was not satisfactory.

The United States Circuit Court of Baltimore found in favor of Mrs. Goss on one of the policies, but pending a motion for new trial certain facts developed in Chester County, which will be discussed this evening.

On the ninth day of July, 1873, seventeen months after the fire, the dismembered body of a man was found in a shallow grave in Baer's Woods on the west side of the road from Cochranville to Penningtonville - now Atglen.

The connection between this body and the tragedy near Baltimore seventeen months before was established to the satisfaction of Judge Butler, the jury, and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania by the tireless efforts of Mr. Wanger, then the District Attorney of Chester County. Circumstantial evidence, and the manner in which it was obtained warrants some study.

David R. Mullin who lived two miles South of Bryn Mawr Station received a letter dated October 28th, 1871 from one Udderzook - whom he had raised - asking whether he could board a particular friend of the writer's, who, by reason of intemperate habits, wished to remove from his present surroundings. A second letter followed. Both were written from Baltimore.

To these Mullin replied that it did not suit him to take such a boarder. However, on June 22nd, 1872 - approximately five months after the fire - a man who gave his name as Alexander Campbell Wilson arrived, and was boarded at the Mullin home until November 16th, 1872.

Page 31

While at the Mullin home, Wilson sent a number of parcels by Adams' express to A. C. Goss, the brother of the man who was supposedly burned in the Baltimore fire.

Then a livery man in Penningtonville recalled that he had hired a horse and buggy to a man about 2:00 P.M., a few days before the body was found, and same was returned about midnight with the buggy damaged and a ring and collar button on the floor. This ring was later identified by Mullin as a ring worn by Wilson.

The next bit of evidence unearthed was that the prisoner, Udderzook, and a stranger had appeared at the Jennerville Hotel and stayed overnight, and the next evening, July 1st, 1873, left Jennerville in a buggy. The next day Udderzook was asked what became of his companion and said that he had left him at Parkesburg. Wilson's whereabouts were traced from the time he left Mullin's place on November 16th, 1872 until a few days before he appeared at Jennerville, and his identity as the same man who left Jennerville with Udderzook was thoroughly established. The next problem was to identify him as the W. S. Goss who was supposed to have perished in the fire seventeen months before.

So far, the only connecting evidence was that Wilson arrived at Mullin's shortly after Udderzook had written requesting board for an unnamed friend, and, that while at Mullin's Wilson sent parcels to A. C. Goss in Baltimore.

Witnesses were then found who knew W. C. Goss handwriting and identified two letters written by "Wilson" as in Goss' handwriting.

The final identification of Goss, Wilson, and the man who left Jennerville with the prisoner Udderzook on the night of July 1st, 1873, was accomplished by a photograph taken in Baltimore of Goss and one Langley. Langley testified that he had known Goss approximately eighteen months before the fire and that he and Goss had had the picture taken. The figure identified as Goss was shown to a number of witnesses, who testified under objection that it was a picture of the man they knew as Wilson.

No less a personage than Wayne McVeigh, later Attorney-General of the United States, I believe, objected to the use of the photograph and asked the Supreme Court to reverse the Court below for having admitted it.

This apparently was the first time a murdered person had been identified in Pennsylvania by the use of photographs, and the comments of the Supreme Court are interesting.

"All the bills of exceptions, except one, relate to this question of identity, the most material being those relating to the use of a photograph of Goss. This photograph, taken in Baltimore on the same plate with a gentleman named Langley, was clearly proved by him, and also by the artist who took it. Many objections were made to the use of this photograph, the chief

Page 32

being to the admission of it to identify Wilson as Goss; the prisoner's counsel regarding this use of it as certainly incompetent. That a portrait or a miniature, painted 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 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 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.

"In the case before us, such a photograph of the man Goss was presented to a witness who had never seen him, so far as he knew, but had seen a man known to him as Wilson. The purpose was to show that Goss and Wilson were one and the same person. It is evident that the competency of the evidence in such a case depends on the reliability of the photograph as 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 may take 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 had nearly a generation's experience. It has become a customary and common mode of taking and preserving views as well as the likenesses of persons, and has obtained universal assent to the correctness of its delineations. 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 cognizance of it as a proper means of producing correct likenesses."

The only step left was the identification of the body found in Baer's Woods. Although it had been in the ground for approximately ten days, Langley identified it as that of Goss, and two other witnesses as the same man in the picture with Langley.

As I have said before, the trial Court, the Jury, and our State Supreme Court found the evidence sufficient to impose the death sentence, and in the little Mount Pleasant Churchyard just across the Octoraro from Steelville I have seen the grave of one Udderzook and was told it was that of the convicted murderer.

Thus ends the story of a famous Chester County murder trial so far as the legal side is concerned, but back of it can be constructed a story of great human interest.

Page 33

Three people conspired to defraud an Insurance Company. They disinterred a recently deceased man, placed it in the little shop and burned it. To collect the insurance required the absence of Goss, who apparently tired of his exile and wanted to see his wife again. Fearing that the supposed decedent would be discovered and the fraud exposed, Udderzook undertook to see that Goss vanished permanently and paid for same with his own life.


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