October 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 6
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
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.”
To each of the widows who came to him for advice, Haass suggested caution. He distrusted Hull and urged delay until the stranger was better known, lint in spile of the minister’s opposition, Hull was a quick success. Mrs. Caroline Hoch, a widow with a nice house, $900 in lhe bank, an insurance policy for $2,500 on her life, and a mind of her own, decided to take the plunge. was an old story, really. If she waited too long, Mrs. Hoch no doubl reasoned, she wotdcl lose her ardent suitor to one of the other widows of the congregation —and then where woidd she be?
On April 18, 1895, (he Reverend Mr. Haass reluctantly performed the marriage ceremony. Hull moved into the widow’s house right after the wedding. In short order the widow, who had been a plump, healthy beauty all her life, was stricken ill and look to her bed. She got worse fast.
On June 14, 1895, Haass was summoned to the sickroom, where he watched Huff close his wife with a white powder. To his now suspicious mind it seemed that the widow was afraid of her husband and look the powdered medication with reluctance. By lhe time he lel’i the sickroom, he was convinced that the saloonkeeper was poisoning his wife. But he needed proof. How and where was he to get it before it was too late?
The pastor stewed over his problem lor a few days. He considered going to the Wheeling police; but there was always the possibility he might be wrong. The widow’s illness might be perfectly legitimate, and a lalsc accusation would not only hurt the parson’s reputation but would also be an unpardonable sin against an innocent man.
What he needed before he took any overt action was professional advice from somebody who could tell what was actually ailing the widow. Haass turned Io a young local physician, Dr. Gregory Ackerman. He took the doctor back to the sickroom with him, only to run into resistante. Huit hovered over his wife like a jealous rooster. She was already under medical care, he maintained. “Dr. Ford is treating her,” he said.
Ackerman hesitated, for there was a matter of professional ethics involved. He had no right to interfere in Dr. Ford’s case without the specific rc(|uest of that physician. Ackerman bowed himself out of the sickroom and out of the case. Ten years later, when lie described his visit in an interview with the New York American , he made medical ethics look foolish in many eyes. The woman, he said, had been dying when he saw her. Her hands were swollen and her stomach was distended; she vomited continually. Either she had peritonitis or she had been poisoned—but Dr. Ford was the regular attending physician, and that meant Ackerman could not interfere.
At three o’clock in the morning following Ackerman’s visit the widow died. Two hours later Haass was notified that Mrs. HuIf was dead. When he reached the widow’s house at 8 A.M. he found the body unattended. Thoroughly indignant, he scoured the town until he found HuIf in a barbershop. The bereaved took one look at the furious parson and began to weep. Eut the minister’s suspicions were not allayed.
By early afternoon of the following day, Airs. HuIf had been buried at Red Men’s Cemetery on the outskirts of Wheeling, and shortly thereafter Haass began an investigation.
Soon he learned that Hull had been in financial (rouble. The saloonkeeper was heavily in debt to a brewery, and the saloon had been shut down. Now Haass concentrated on the white-powder meditation. Where did Huit get it? What was it? The pastor methodically visited all of the drugstores in Wheeling and fotmd that Huff had brought in no prescriptions (o be filled. Dr. H. T. Ford, the attending physician, had not written any: he had believed that the widow was suffering from nephritis, a disease of the kidneys, for which there was then no treatment.
Pastor Haass next made a surreptitious trip to the sickroom to see if he could get sonic of that white powder for analysis. He found that all traces of it had disappeared. For the first time it occurred to him that Hull was aware of his suspicions and was taking steps to cover up his trail.
At about this time the pastor fell ill, but by the second Sunday following Mrs. Huff s death, he was up and around again. That same day, while at dinner with his wife, he heard a noise in his bedroom, directly over the dining room. Rushing upstairs, he found Hull in his room. The pastor asked for an explanation of this strange visitation. Huff replied weakly that he had been looking for the pastor in order to have a talk with him, but it could wait. Why the bedroom? Why so furtive? Huff backed out of the room without saying—and that was the last Haass saw of him.
Fearing that Hulk might have tampered with his own bottles of medicine, in open view over the fileplace in the bedroom, the minister emptied the bottles down the drain—and immediately regretted it. Of course it would have been wiser to have had their contents analyxed.
The next day Pastor Haass learned just how uncomfortably warm his investigation had been making it for the saloonkeeper. He was notified by the Wheeling polite that they had found Hull’s clothes, his derby, an old German silver potket watch with his picture in it, and a suicide note lie had written, on lhc banks of the Ohio. Footprints led down to the water. Evidently he had committed suicide, the police said, in a fit of depression over his wife’s death.
For two days the police dragged the river at the point where Hull had left his clothes, but they found nothing. During this time it was discovered that Mrs. Hull’s grave had been tampered with. obody could figure out why, and the matter was soon forgotten. The explanation for the opening and dosing of the grave would not become apparent for almost three years.
Just one week after Huff’s supposed suicide, a drummer in religious articles called on Haass and told the pastor that he had seen Huft—or Johann Hoch, as he was now calling himself—very much alive on the other side of the river, in Jancsvillc, Ohio, with a middleaged woman on his arm. The pastor sent a description of Hoch to the Jancsville police and warned that he was dangerous and a swindler, but there was no reply, the use of the name [ohann Hoch demonstrated a curious side of the killer’s personality. He had a penchant for adopting as an alias the name of the deceased husband of the widow he had most recently married and murdered or abandoned.
From the moment when he knew that Huff-Hoch was still alive, the parson stuck to his trail like a bloodhound. Haass was a devoted reader of newspapers, both English and German. He was a fine-print man, and took a professional interest in (hose columns of a newspaper normally skipped over by the casual reader: the obituaries and routine birth and marriage notices. Thus, as time went by, he frequently thought he caught sight of his quarry, flitting in and out of the newspaper columns when he married under a recognixable name, when a former widow suddenly died and her husband disappeared, or when a husband abandoned his wife shortly after the marriage ceremony with all of her portable assets except for her whalebone corset.
In the course of his meticulous scanning uf the many newspapers he subscribed to, the parson spotted an item about one Otto Hoch who had married a woman in Dayton, Ohio, and deserted her a few days later, taking her savings. In 1897 he scissored out a clipping describing the mysterious death in Cincinnati of a Mrs. Clara Bartels, who lasted for three months after her marriage to pudgy, zither-playing John Schmidt. Parson Haass next found a three-line item in a German-language newspaper, describing a Jacob Otto Hoch who married in Milwaukee. This time the minister fired oft a letter to the police of that city, but Hoch had already absconded, leaving one wife dead and another swindled out of her savings.
It would have been difficult even for Scotland Yard to have kept a perfect score card on Johann Hoch in the years 1895-98. The parson missed a Mrs. Janet Spencer of Chicago, who married and lost $700 to C. A. Calford two months after the wedding late in 1895 he did not hear of Mis. Minnie Rankin, who married a Mr. Warneke in January, 1897 no word reached him of Callie Charlotte Andrews, who was deserted two hours after the nuptial ceremony in 1897 by one DeWitt C. Cudney and $500. And there were many others.
In 1898 Haass’ newspaper detective-work finally began (o pay olf. Hc found his man, or one just like him, in between wives, in Chicago. According to the newspaper accounts, the Chicago police had collared a man who claimed his name was Martin Dotz. He had been arrested on two counts, one of bigamy and the other of having swindled one F. J. Magerstadt, a Chicago used-furniture dealer, out of some merchandise. What caught the minister’s sharp eye was the physical description of the culprit, his height, weight, beard, side whiskers, mustache, drooping left eyelid, and large teeth, all of which tallied exactly.
Haass now wrote at once to Captain Luke Colleran, chief of detectives of the Chicago police. The pastor said he believed the man the police were holding was the very same he suspected of murdering Mrs. Caroline Hoch in Wheeling. Would the police check their prisoner against the photograph he was enclosing? It was a copy of the picture the killer had left behind in his pocket watch.
The pastor’s letter and the picture were turned over to Inspector George Shippy, who confronted Hoch with the photograph. Hoch admitted it was his picture without realizing he was incriminating himself. He denied, however, that he had ever been in Wheeling.
The inspector next visited the businessman who had brought charges against Hoch. Magerstadt had furnished Hoch’s new Hats alter several ol his marriages. His records went back to June, 1891, when Hoch had married under the name of H. Frick and furnished an apartment at 418 Franklin Street in Chicago tor $115. There were two or three entries each year, and each time Hoch came in to the Möbelhaous with a new wife, his new name was the former married name ol the widow he had most recently married and buried.
It was Magerstadt’s unique role, according to his laborious explanation to the inspector, to be introduced to each one ol the new wives, listen to her trill of her new romantic bliss, and help her select the furniture for the new love nest. In turn the doomed brides confided the intimate details of Hoch’s courtship to Magerstadt—the musical background of Schubert on the either,the groom’s assurance that mutual loneliness would now be ended, the asserted need for the companionship of a woman, the old, old song. “With my money,” one of the women had told Magcrstadt, “and his brains, he’ll make a fortune for both of us.”
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.
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.”
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.
The prisoner was taken to the West Forty-seventh Street station house, where he was subjected to roundthe-clock questioning. He denied emphatically that he was Johann Hoch, the wanted murderer, claiming that it was a case of mistaken identity. He insisted that he was Henry Bartels, a drummer in Rhine wines for a vintner with home offices in Frankfort on Main. This pose lasted until a Chicago newspaperwoman brought one of his living victims, Mrs. Anna Hendricks Schmidt, to New York to identify him. This was too much even for Hoch. He admitted his identity and unburdened himself of an extraordinary statement.
“I am Hoch,” said the man who had married some fifty women and murdered at least a third of them, “and I am a much abused man.”
Hoch-Bartels-Schmidt was extradited to Chicago for confrontation by those of his wives who were still among the living—an experience that left him unmoved. “Believe me,” he told the newspaper reporters, “all those women married me, not because they loved me, but because they thought I was wealthy … they gave me their money because they thought they would receive it back with more.”
One man who felt he had come to the end of a long trail with the arrest of Hoch was the Reverend Mr. Haass, who had left Wheeling to become pastor of St. Matthew’s German Lutheran Church in Utica, New York. Mr. Haass, who was dubbed “Hoch’s Nemesis” in the newspaper headlines, gave a lengthy interview to the Hearst papers, telling how the death of Mrs. Caroline Hoch in Wheeling had put him on the murderer’s trail and how he had pursued the villain doggedly ever since. Pastor Haass closed his interview with this stern judgment on his long-time adversary: “No punishment that can be meted out to this man Hoch will be too severe. I have followed him for ten years and I know him to be the biggest scoundrel of the century. Certain it is, whatever may be proven, he is a murderer, and a multi-murderer. …”
Hoch went on trial for the murder of Mrs. Marie Welker Hoch on April 19, 1905, and was found guilty exactly one month later. The first words he uttered after getting the verdict were these: “It serves me right.”
While awaiting execution Hoch actually received several proposals of marriage. Fortunately the inexorable processes of the law saved the authors from their own folly. The multiple murderer was hanged in Chicago’s county jail on February 23, 1906. The legacy that Hoch left us, based on his travail as an experienced husband, was summed up in a terse bit of personal advice he gave to a reporter after his arrest. “Women are all right in their place,” Hoch said, “but marry only one at a time.”