Monday, November 6, 2017

Death Rays: The Local X-Ray Murder Trial That Made International News

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Earlier this year, I wrote a longer paper for the Empire State Library Network’s Researching the Empire State contest about a sensational local murder trial. I wanted to share some of the story on our blog. I first uncovered the Orme/Punzo murder trial when I was doing research on early forensic science for our Crime and Punishment exhibit. I was hooked by the story’s mix of science and scandal and had to know more.

On July 8, 1897, George A.C. Orme walked into the Horseheads home of his estranged wife, Susan Orme, and proceeded to shoot her and her alleged lover, James Punzo. Susan Orme was shot in the face and James Punzo in the back of the head. Both somehow survived the initial assault. Mrs. Orme escaped serious injury, but her ability to speak clearly was hindered by the wound. Punzo was rushed to the Arnot Ogdon Hospital, where he slipped in and out of consciousness as doctors prepped for emergency surgery.

George Orme was arrested and brought to the Chemung County Jail, where he waited while Punzo clung to life in the hospital. He somehow survived the surgery, but the doctors had been unable to locate and remove the bullet. Knowing that they couldn’t leave it in his brain, doctors decided to use the newly-discovered x-ray technology to find where the bullet had lodged. The team of physicians, led in part by Dr. Frank Ward Ross, anesthetized the patient and performed the x-ray, but the image produced was unclear. 

Skull x-ray from our Van Aken photograph collection. While not related to the trial, this image would have dated from around the same time. After x-rays were discovered in November 1895, word of the technology spread quickly. With rather minimal supplies, even amateur photographers could produce the powerful rays.
Punzo was miraculously still alive and talking in the wake of the procedure. But fearing they were running out of time, the physicians made another attempt at an x-ray on July 27. That again failed. They tried one last time, on July 31. The two exposures on July 31 lasted a combined 36 minutes. Those images again failed to show the bullet. After the final x-ray, Punzo’s health quickly declined and he died on August 10 or 11. But that was just the beginning of the scandal.
George Orme’s lawyer argued that it was the x-rays that had killed Punzo, not his client’s bullet. The trial proceeded with conflicting expert testimony; some physicians, like Ross, argued that the technology was completely safe and that it was the bullet and ensuing infection that caused Punzo’s death. Other physicians, like Dr. John Pitkin of Buffalo, claimed that the physicians had outdated technology and had been negligent. The curious public packed the Chemung County Courthouse to witness the testimony and courtroom demonstrations of the x-ray machine.
Illustrations from the trial as printed in the American X-Ray Journal in 1897 (available on Wikimedia Commons)
When the arguments were over, the jury took little time to return a verdict of not guilty. The press and x-ray experts attributed this to the jury’s confusion over the safety of the rays. Since there was doubt, they found Orme innocent.
The Orme case continued to spark international debate about x-rays and their use in legal proceedings. Both Drs. Ross and Pitkin continued to argue for their sides. But no matter the role that the x-rays played in Punzo’s death, the trial did open up dialog about the very real and devastating health effects that prolonged x-ray exposure had on the physicians and scientists who first experimented with the technology.

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