- 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
Hoch had been born the son of a German preacher. Apprenticed as a metalworker, he had switched to the study of pharmacy and worked in several chemist’s shops in Germany, where he got his knowledge of drugs and poisons. He married his first wife, name unknown, in Vienna in 1881 and buried her in 1883. Shortly thereafter he took wealthy Christine Ramb as his wife. He sired four children, and then skipped with Christine’s savings to a neighboring town where he married again. He used the dowry obtained from this last marriage to finance his trip to America in 1888. (It must be reported that Pastor Haass missed a romance enjoyed by Hoch on the boat coming over. In 1905, Frank Weninzer, an employee of a brewery in Chicago, revealed that he came over on the same steamer with Schmidt-Hoch in 1888. Hoch courted an immigrant servant girl aboard ship, married her as soon as the boat landed in New York, absorbed her miserable savings, and buried her two months later.) Shortly after his arrival in Chicago, Hoch commenced work seriously on his marriages, murders, and swindles. Late in 1894, posing again as a religious worker, Jacob Erdorf, he swindled the Hertzfeldt sisters out of their $2,600 and used this money to finance a trip back to Germany. In Herrweiler he speculated in barley futures and lost heavily. When a note for 3,000 marks fell due, he fled the country a second time—in January, 1895. A little over a month later he turned up in Wheeling as Jacob Huff, opened the saloon and began the campaign that won him the Widow Hoch.
On June 30, 1900, this fantastic man was released from jail in Chicago and taken to Wheeling, to face a murder charge. Without the widow’s vital organs, however, the situation was hopeless. Two weeks after his arrival in police custody, Hoch was freed for lack of evidence. The parson had brought him extremely close to the point of no return, but not all the way.
Immediately after his release Hoch journeyed to Argos, Indiana, where he introduced himself to a brand-new widow, Mrs. Mary Schultz, as Albert Buschberg, a millionaire Chicago druggist. He married the widow, collected the $2,000 insurance policy on her late husband’s life, and prevailed upon the widow and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Nettie, to go back with him to Chicago where both mother and daughter disappeared, along with $1,500 in savings. This was the first in a new streak of murderous triumphs.
At this point, one question begs for an answer: why didn’t Hoch give up his career in wife-murder after the law and the Reverend Mr. Haass came so close to fitting his neck for a noose in Wheeling?
One can only speculate. It seems doubtful Hoch possessed an arrogance so monumental that he believed he could murder without end and never run afoul of the law. More likely murder had become a habit. Wife-killing was his trade. He could make a living at nothing else.
Whatever the reason, Hoch plodded remorselessly on. In 1901 he had hardly buried a Widow Loughken in San Francisco when he began to court the young daughter who had inherited her baking establishment —and this while he was in correspondence with a woman in western New York, had become engaged to a St. Louis woman by mail, and was writing fervent love letters to a Mrs. Sophia Reichel in Chicago. Always the pot was kept boiling.
Late in 1901 Hoch took a mail-order course in hypnotism given by a “professor” in Jackson, Michigan. He stuck with the course long enough to earn a diploma certifying him as a “Graduate Hypnotist.” He immediately went to work on a widow named Mrs. Marie Elizabeth Goerk, whom he met through a room-wanted advertisement he placed in the German-language Abendpost in Chicago. He married her in three weeks and tried to hypnotize her into taking out a large insurance policy on her life. The widow was a stubborn, strong-willed woman, one of the few in Hoch’s career. When she fell ill she refused Hoch’s offer to nurse her and medicate her with his white powder. Either she got well fast, the widow warned, or she was going into a hospital. Hoch took the hint. He packed his bags and left. There would be other prospects, he was sure.
And there were. As the Count Otto von Kern of Bavaria he swindled the widow Hulda Nagel out of $3,000 in St. Paul in May of 1902. As John Schultz, he married Mrs. Mary Becker, a widow, in St. Louis, insured her life, and attended the funeral two months later when she succumbed to a sudden illness of two days’ duration.
On June 18, 1903, a strangely familiar and pudgy little man, travelling under the name of Dr. G. L. Hart, married Mabel Leichman, a burlesque queen of German extraction, in Milwaukee. He took her to a Minneapolis home he had rented and unsuccessfully attempted to chloroform her. After a quick getaway in the middle of the night, Dr. Hart, operating once more under the name of Johann Hoch, worked his way for the balance of 1903 and 1904 through a succession of widows that ranged the alphabet from Mrs. Ada Dodd to Mrs. Ida Zazuil, the former in Dayton and the latter in Milwaukee.
Then, late in November of 1904, Hoch returned to his old hunting grounds in Chicago. The move was to prove fatal for Mrs. Marie Welker, a widow who answered an advertisement that Hoch ran in the Chicago Abendpost on December 3, 1904. “ MATRIMONIAL ,” the advertisement invited the unwary Hausfrau , “German, with his own income, own home, wishes acquaintance of widow without children. Object, matrimony.”