Insurance fraud is one of those enterprises that leads to unexpected misadventures. When the focus is on life insurance swindles that requires one of the conspirators to feign being dead, the likelihood of unpleasant surprises naturally increases.
Particularly for the corpse.
Our story opens early in 1872. One Mr. Lowndes rented out a cottage he owned just outside of Baltimore to Winfield Scott Goss. Goss explained to Lowndes that he was an inventor--he had already created a "ratchet screwdriver," and was currently formulating an artificial substitute for rubber. The rural retreat would, he said, be the ideal location for his secret and vital experiments.
All seemed well until the evening of February 2, when the cottage inexplicably burst into flames. The conflagration was too intense to be contained. All poor Mr. Lowndes could do was watch helplessly while his property burned to ashes. Also observing the disaster was Goss' brother-in-law, William Udderzook. After studying the flames for about an hour or so, Udderzook strolled up to Lowndes and casually commented, "I think he's still in the house."
"Who is in the house?" asked the understandably rattled Mr. Lowndes.
Udderzook seemed surprised that the man had to ask. "Mr. Goss," he replied.
Lowndes' evening was quickly going from bad to worse. After a bit of sputtering, he inquired why Mr. Udderzook could not have mentioned this earlier. Udderzook--clearly a man with a passion for etiquette rare in this unmannerly world--replied coldly that he had not been introduced to anyone present, so he was naturally reluctant to impose himself. As he said later, "I claim that I performed my duty in sending a message to the family."
When the ruins were searched, it was soon evident that Udderzook's grim assertion was likely only too correct. A man's body was discovered. It was burned beyond recognition, but everyone took it for granted that these were the earthly remains of inventor Goss.
Immediately following this tragedy was the revelation that Mr. Goss had been a great fan of life insurance. In the months before his fiery end, he had purchased no less than four different polices, which--once his accidental demise was made official--would make his wife, Eliza, richer by $25,000.
When a man of modest means suddenly becomes addicted to buying large policies on his life, and then meets a weird end immediately afterward, insurance companies tend to narrow their eyes and begin asking uncomfortable questions. The coroner and the police wanted to know a bit more about Mr. Goss, as well. How was it, they asked, that this perfectly fit man came to be trapped inside the burning little home?
Udderzook and the late inventor's brother, Campbell Goss, told the authorities a simple story: On the day of the fire, Udderzook accompanied Winfield to his cottage, where they spent an educational and entertaining morning inspecting artificial rubber samples. At dusk, Goss filled a lamp with kerosene, and Udderzook took his leave. Later in the evening, Udderzook and a neighbor, Gottlieb Engel, paid a brief call on Goss. Winfield was having trouble with his lamp, so Engel volunteered to get another one from his mother's home. Goss gratefully accepted the offer, insisting that Udderzook accompany him on this mission. Udderzook and Engel returned to find the cottage on fire. It was obvious, said Udderzook, that this faulty lamp had exploded, causing the fire. Just a tragic accident, that could have happened to anybody.
Unfortunately for the Widow Goss, while the insurance companies agreed the lamp was the likely cause of the fire, they were not nearly so certain it had been an accident. They were uncovering some interesting things about Goss. For instance, they found it odd that although the ruins of the cottage had been searched without finding anything of value, more than a week later Campbell Goss claimed to have found in the wreckage his late brother's watch, chain, and keys. It struck them as curious that Goss had been willing to spend no less than half of his total income on life insurance premiums. There was also the fact that the day before the fire, Winfield had withdrawn his entire bank balance and closed his account. And when they also learned that on the night of the fire, Campbell Goss had hired a horse and carriage and made a mysterious ride into the country, the firms began muttering some suspicions that were very painful to the Goss family. The companies flatly refused to pay up.
Mrs. Goss took the companies to court. The lawyers for the insurance companies insisted that the body --which they were now openly doubting was truly that of Winfield Goss--be exhumed and autopsied. Mrs. Goss was asked to give a detailed physical description of her husband, with particular attention to his teeth. After a bit of judicial nagging--she was very reluctant to provide this information--she finally submitted a written report of Winfield's dentistry. He had, she said, an excellent set of teeth.
Unfortunately for her, the corpse revealed a quite different story. The man who had been buried as Winfield Goss had many teeth missing, and the ones he had retained were in a sad shape indeed. The insurance companies felt their darkest theories about the case were vindicated, and they vowed to fight.
The first case--against the Mutual Life Insurance Company--was held in May 1873. The heart of the trial was the medical evidence, all of which raised serious doubts whether the body found in the cottage was truly that of Winfield Goss. However, for reasons best known to themselves--probably a misplaced gallantry--the jury found for Mrs. Goss.
The time would come when they would feel a tad embarrassed about that decision.
The insurance companies moved for a new trial. They were convinced that Winfield Goss was still alive and well, and they were determined to prove it.
Mr. Udderzook was not pleased by this news.
On June 30, 1873, Udderzook traveled to the village of Jennerville, Pennsylvania, and booked into the local hotel. Accompanying him was a middle-aged, bearded man who coyly refused to give his name. That evening, the pair paid their bill and drove off in a rented carriage. A few hours later, Udderzook returned the carriage to the livery stable. He was quite alone. The next morning, the stable owner was disconcerted to find that the carriage was in a sorry state. The dashboard was broken, two blankets were missing, a large seal ring had been left between the cushions, and there were stains on the floor that looked very much like blood.
A week later, a local farmer named Gainer Moore passed by an area known as "Baer's Woods." He noticed an unusual amount of buzzards. When Moore went to investigate, he was shocked to find a man's body.
Or, to be more precise, part of a man's body. There was only a trunk and a head, partially covered with dirt and leaves. Further exploration revealed the man's limbs in a trench about twenty yards away. A quickly-assembled coroner's jury soon determined that the man had died of stab wounds. And that this was the same man who was last seen driving off in a carriage with Mr. Udderzook.
Udderzook was quickly tracked down and put under arrest. And when the insurance companies got the chance to examine the body, at long last they had to admit that Winfield Goss was well and truly deceased.
The prosecution saw very clearly what had happened. The problem with Winfield Goss was that he just didn't know how to play dead. He liked to, in the words of one of Mrs. Goss' attorneys, "deal in conviviality to too great an extent with his companions." After the fire, Udderzook and Campbell Goss settled Winfield--who was now calling himself "A.C. Wilson"--in some secluded residence, and at first all seemed to be going according to plan. However, Winfield soon got bored with being deceased. He also became very thirsty. His fondness for boozing it up in bars could not be contained. This was clearly not at all the way a dead man should behave, and it became an increasing source of worry for Mr. Udderzook, especially when the insurance companies broadcast their intention to find the allegedly defunct Mr. Goss.
Mr. Udderzook decided that Mr. Goss needed some help with being a really convincing corpse.
In October, Udderzook stood trial for murder. The prosecution presented the results of their detective work, which managed to trace the movements of Goss/Wilson from the night of the fire until the discovery of his remains. Photos of Winfield Goss were used to prove that he and the corpse found in the woods were one and the same. (Incidentally, this set a legal milestone in confirming the admissibility of photographs in court.)
Another of Udderzook's brothers-in-law, Samuel Rhodes, offered some startling testimony: he stated that on the day Goss was murdered, Udderzook had asked for his help with a certain scheme. He wanted to bring a man into the woods, sedate him with laudanum, and then rob him.
Very wisely, Rhodes declined.
The defense lawyers--who were apparently taken aback by the strength of the prosecution's case--had a hard time of it. The most they could do was suggest a feeble conspiracy theory that the insurance companies were trying to frame their client by planting a spurious body in Baer's Woods.
While this was certainly a novel argument, it failed to sway the jury. Udderzook was found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was hanged on November 12, 1874, maintaining to the end that Winfield Goss had indeed met his end in that cottage near Baltimore, and solemnly warning his audience about the evil machinations of those dastardly insurance companies.
The true identity of the unfortunate soul who had been enlisted to masquerade as Goss remains a mystery. Trial testimony indicated that Udderzook and Goss had hauled this body to the cottage in an express wagon the morning of the fire, but it was never established how the pair had acquired it. It is assumed that Udderzook had managed to filch it from some medical college.
Unless, of course, that worthy had more than one murder on his resume.