- Historic Sites
A tale of bigamous Johann Hoch (if that was his name), of the follies of wealthy widows, and of the dreadful discoveries of a parson who suspected the worst
October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
Just before dawn of a Monday early in July, 1895, a middle-aged man appeared on the hank of the Ohio River near Wheeling. West Virginia, and set a bulging gunny sack on the ground. His lace boasted side whiskers, a chin beard, and a mustache. He wore a derby. Behind a pair ol goldrimmed spectacles stared light blue eyes, the IeIt distinguished by a drooping lid. His teeth, as described by one ol his admirers, were “large and well-kept.”
The man removed his derby and looked around cautiously. Satisfied that he was alone, he began to undress. Alter stripping down to the bare skin, he made a neat pile ol his clothes and placed a suicide note on top. Then, to make sure the police would know beyond any possible doubt who had done himself in, he put an old silver pocket wauh ol German make, with his photograph inside the lid, on top of the note and the clothes.
Now, gunny sack in hand, he walked barefoot into the river, leaving his footprints in the mud right down to the water’s edge. He wanted the police to be absolutely certain that he drowned himself.
Once in the water, however, he turned north and walked fifty yards upstream to a pile of rocks where he had previously cached a spare suit of chlothes and a boat. He dropped the gunny sack into the boat, dressed, shoved the boat into the water, and started rowing across the Ohio River.
When he was halfway across, he shipped hisoarsand let the boat drift. Then he dumped the contents of his sack, letting—we must be blunt—the entrails of ;i human female, riddled with arsenic, slide beneath the surface of the dirty water to settle to the bottom.
Then he picked up his oars again, heading for a deserted stretch ol bank above Martins Ferry, on the Ohio side of the river. As he disappeared into the mist, he was confident that he had successfully covered the tracks of still another of an astonishing number ol murders, and that he had written oil as a suicide another of the many personalities he had chosen 10 represent.
Who was the killer? He had been, in turn, Jacob Schmidt, Johann Hoch, Albert Huschberg, Count Otto von Kein, Jacob Erdorf, Henry Martels, Dr. L. G. Hart, Martin Dotz, Jacob Duss, C. A. Meyer, H. Frick, Dr. James, C. A. Calford, Jacob Huit, DcWitt C. Cuduey, Henry F. Hartman, John C. O. Schulze, Heinrich Valtzand, and many others besides. He was ultimately known to the police, the newspaper readers of his time, and the families of his victims, as Johann Hoch. He was the American Bluebeard—the equal of anything England, France, or Germany has produced in ihe highly specialized field of classic crime—right up Io the moment when—but we will come to the climax later.
In his specially, wife-murder, Hoch apparently never wasted time. On the very night (January 12, 1905) that his penultimate victim had breathed her last in an upstairs bedroom at 6034 Union Avenue in Chicago, the killer was downstairs in the kitchen courting lier sister, whom he married four days later. The event was not unique in his career. Over a span of eighteen years he married between forty-three and fifty women, alxjut a third of whom he murdered with systematic doses of arsenic. The exact number of his victims cannot be determined. His operations were too complex, his victims too many and too often permanently silenced, the trail he left too obscure, and his own version of his altairs too contradictory, for an exact total to be compiled.
In terms of technique, Johann Hoch was a GermanAmcrican counterpart of Landru, the Frenchman who seduced and murdered lonely, middle-aged women who answered his matrimonial advertisements in Paris newspapers in the years 1915—19. In terms of his attitude toward the opposite sex, Hoch was a male Helle Gunness, as untouched by the dismal fate of his victims as Kelle was by the sordid end of the string of husbands she slaughtered in her cellar abattoir at La Porte, Indiana, around 1905. In terms of number of victims, Hoch was almost a peer of H. H. Holmes, ihe dandy who asphyxiated or strangled an estimated fifty women in his multiroomed crematory and murder castle in Chicago in the years 1892—94.
For a little more than a decade Johann Hoch married, swindled, and either abandoned or murdered his victims with time-clock regularity—without arousing the curiosity or inierest of anybody at all. The first man to peel back a few of the layers of lake personality and catch a glimpse of the killer underneath was, strangely enough, a mild-mannered clergyman, the pastor of St. Matthew’s German Lutheran Church in Wheeling in 1895.
Early in February of that year the perambulating merchant of death turned up in Wheeling, posing as a wealthy man named Jacob Huff. He opened up a saloon at 4728 Jacobs Street, where he catered to the local German immigrant populaiion with beer, spirited zither playing, and an old-country delivery of Heidelberg drinking songs. If he had stuck to saloonkeeping and Heimatslieder , Hull’s path would no doubt never have crossed that of the Reverend Herman C. A. Haass, a local parson. What got the publican in trouble with the parson was his unconcealed talent with the ladies—especially with well-heeled German-speaking widows who were members of Haass’ congregation.
Huff’s romantic technique was of the scatter-shot variety. He proposed marriage to just about every wealthy widow in the neighborhood. “He wanls Io settle clown,” the minister later remembered one of his Hausfrau parishioners telling him. “He said he needs a woman to care for his home,” she continued. “And he said he would be willing to provide for me.”