- 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
It once occurred to Magcrstadt, who seems to have been rather slow on the uptake, to ask Hoch why he married under so many different names. “Women wouldn’t like to marry a man,” Hoch had replied logically, and with what may have been a mordant sense of humor, “if they knew he had been a widower so many times.”
Magerstadt, out of curiosity, had actually gone to the funeral of one of Hoch’s wives, a Mrs. Julia Steinbecker, who had married Hoch in iHt)| and lasted for two months after the wedding ceremony—about par for the course. There had been a fuss at the cemetery. The deceased’s family turned up with the coroner and tried to stop the funeral. They claimed she swore on her deathbed that Hoch had poisoned her with a white powder. Hoch produced a death certificate, signed by the attending physician, which stated the woman had died of natural causes. He outbluffed the coroner, and his wife was buried.
In the course of his researches, Inspector Shippy interviewed Mrs. Martha Hertzfeldt, a German widow, who had been married in 1894 to Hoch, who was then posing as one Jacob Erdorf, a religious worker. He had told his wife that the bank where she had savings was about to fail. She withdrew her $1,800, and her sister withdrew $800 she had on deposit. Hoch took the money and said that he would put it in another bank under his own name in order to protect it. The sisters were still waiting, in 1898, for him to return from his trip to the bank.
Inspector Shippy’s investigation alerted the Chicago police to the fact that they probably had a murderer on their hands. They believed, however, that too many years had passed for them to be able to dig up enough concrete evidence to convict the man of murder. The best chance of bringing the killer to book lay, it seemed, in Wheeling, and in the clergyman who had been on Hoch’s trail.
On November 1, 1898, the Chicago police sent the following letter to Haass: In reply to your letter relative to Jacob Adolph Hoch, serving a year’s sentence here for bigamy under the name of Dotz or Doesing, I desire to inform you that I sent an officer with the photo you sent me to the Bridewell, and Hoch, or Doesing, acknowledged at once it was his, but denied knowing any person in Wheeling. Now we learn from a cousin of his deceased wife that he kept a saloon at No. 4728 Jacobs Street, your city, where he married his wife. Friends here are positive he poisoned his wife to get her money. He is said to have married several women to get their money. Lay the whole matter before your Chief of Police and have him hunt all criminal evidence in the matter. Obtain indictment, if possible, for murder. Forward papers to us and we will turn him over to the chief. Yours truly, L. P. COLLERAN , Chief of Detectives.
Pastor Haass now took his suspicions, his scrapbook dossier, and his correspondence with the Chicago police to State’s Attorney William C. Meyer, Wheeling, West Virginia. The decision was made to exhume the body of Mrs. Caroline Hoch for autopsy.
On November 14, 1898, Mrs. Hoch’s grave was opened. The coffin was hoisted out to ground level and its lid pried off. The men leaned over and peered into the pine box. Where the widow’s mid-section should have been, there was a gaping hole. She had been tidily cut open by a party or parties unknown, her vital organs removed, and along with them any poison they might have contained.
Some time before, the Reverend Mr. Haass had remembered that Hoch had claimed to have come from the town of Hoexter in Westphalia. The parson had written a letter of inquiry to the mayor of that city, and two weeks after the exhumation he got a reply from Herr Rung, the prosecuting attorney of Mainz, Germany: Replying to your inquiry of the 4th November, 1898, to the Mayor of Hoexter, Westphalia, we return photo and answer you that the police of Hoexter, Brackel, and Driburg had no success in finding a man as described in your letter and photo. However the police of Bingen-on-the-Rhine are positive that it is that of merchant Jacob Schmidt from Herrweiler, near Bingen-on-the-Rhine. Schmidt was born there on November 10, 1862. He is the son of Adam and Anna Elizabeth Schmidt and he married Christine Phillippine Ramb, by whom he had four children. He left his home and country, January 5, 1895, and has since that time been pursued under a warrant charging him with being a fraudulent bankrupt.
This letter temporarily confused the chronology of killer Schmidt-Hoch’s activities which the minister had been working out: the German authorities had the killer emigrating in 1895 to the United States, and the Chicago police, from information supplied by Magerstadt, the furniture dealer, had Hoch marrying and murdering at least four years earlier—in June, 1891, in Chicago. It remained for Haass, to whom Hoch had become an all-consuming obsession, to iron out any question as to where Hoch had been operating at any particular time. The minister’s research, done entirely by correspondence, worked it out this way.