- 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
Nine days after the ad appeared, Hoch led Mrs. Welker to the altar. The afternoon of the wedding he borrowed all of the blushing bride’s ready capital, $475, to furnish their new rented home at 6034 Union Avenue. His own capital, he said, was all tied up in investments and real estate.
Overnight the widow fell ill. She was soon being treated in tandem, by a Dr. Reese, for what he diagnosed as nephritis, and by Hoch with a white powder for only he knew what. As the widow’s condition rapidly became worse, a sister, Mrs. Emilie Fischer, who was a widow too, came to visit her. At first the sisters got along well, and Mrs. Fischer mentioned that she had a thousand dollars saved that could be used toward paying the medical expenses.
Hoch, having better things to do with a thousand dollars, rejected the offer. Somehow his sick wife got the idea that her sister had put the net out for Hoch and that a romance had begun. “I’ll soon be dead,” she told Emilie Fischer, “and then you can have him.” A bitter argument developed, and it was midnight before it ended. It was too late for Emilie to go home, and she went down to make her bed on a couch in the kitchen, where Hoch came to visit her and apologize for his wife’s accusations. By five thirty in the morning they were old friends, and Hoch slipped into his coat and went to fetch the doctor for his wife, whose imprecations seemed to be raining down on their heads with less and less strength.
Mrs. Welker was dead when Hoch and the doctor returned. The date was January 12, 1905, one month to the day after the marriage of Hoch and the widow. Hoch wept noisily in the kitchen, and Mrs. Fischer had her hands full comforting him. “Now I am a widower again,” he cried, “and all alone in the world. I would have spent my entire fortune to have saved her life.”
Hoch courted Mrs. Fischer through the funeral and steadily for the next four days. “If Marie had not insulted you with her accusations,” he told her, “I would have mourned six weeks for her.” Under the circumstances, he insisted, they should marry right away. They would open a hotel together and make a fortune.
On January 16, 1905, four days after the death of her sister, Mrs. Fischer demurely consented to be Hoch’s bride. The thousand dollars she had mentioned in her sister’s sickroom was already burning a hole in Hoch’s imagination. It would come in handy now, he said. He had an eighty-one-year-old father in Germany who was in feeble health and was about to leave him an estate of $15,000. Didn’t Emilie think he should go over and protect their interests?
Less than a week after the ceremony Emilie advanced $750 to Hoch. That night he disappeared. Emilie thought it over for a couple of days and began to wonder if maybe there wasn’t something odd about her sister’s death after all. She went to the police, and by one of those remarkable coincidences that plague master criminals, was ushered into the office of Inspector George Shippy, who listened in complete fascination to her story. On January 22, 1905, a court order was obtained for the exhumation of Mrs. Marie Welker Hoch’s body. An autopsy was performed, which showed that the unlucky woman was stuffed with enough arsenic to fell a brewery horse.
The search was now on in earnest. This time the Chicago police had a fresh corpse, and they intended to make the most of it. The case hit the newspapers, and overnight Hoch was a national sensation as more and more of his living ex-wives and the relatives of his dead ones suddenly learned about each other and began telling their stories to the police and reporters.
Hoch, however, had disappeared. Calling himself Henry Bartels, he turned up in Manhattan at a boardinghouse at 546 West Forty-seventh Street in answer to a room-for-rent advertisement in the German-language Das Morgen Journal . He rented a hall bedroom and commenced peeling potatoes for the landlady, Mrs. Catherine Kimmerle, a widow of German extraction, within twenty minutes of his arrival. The next day he proposed marriage in the kitchen while Mrs. Kimmerle was washing the breakfast dishes. Mrs. Kimmerle, not wishing to offend her new boarder, countered by offering to introduce him to the members of the three widows’ clubs to which she belonged, some of whom were anxious to take the marital plunge.
On Monday morning, January 30, 1905, Mrs. Kimmerle took a trolley ride downtown. The man sitting opposite her was reading the New York American . On the page facing Mrs. Kimmerle was a picture of the “Bluebeard Murderer” all America was talking about. It was Mrs. Kimmerle’s star boarder.
She notified the New York police. That night at ten, four detectives tiptoed up the stairs of Mrs. Kimmerle’s boardinghouse and into Hoch’s room, where they found him calmly rocking himself and smoking a cigar. He did not resist arrest. Among his possessions the police found six one-hundred-dollar bills, five fives, loose change in every pocket, a handkerchief that was heavily soaked in cologne, a wedding ring on his finger and a spare in his trunk with the inscription effaced, a dozen suits with the labels cut out plus one suit with a Cincinnati label and another with a San Francisco label, a loaded revolver, one empty new trunk and two suitcases, and a hollow fountain pen containing a white powder that turned out to be some fifty-eight grains of arsenic.