The gruesome saga of serial killer H.H. Holmes was still fresh in the minds of Americans (he had been executed less than a decade before) when news surfaced that another man with ties to Chicago was also very likely a murderer many times over.
Johann Hoch was a German immigrant who arrived in the United States by way of London, Paris, and Horrweiler, Germany, sometime in the 1880s. Hoch claimed it was in 1885, but others place his arrival in 1881. Regardless of the date, Hoch was known to have been in Chicago around the same time that Holmes was actively killing.
Hoch’s modus operandi was remarkably similar to that of Holmes, who had a knack for luring gullible women to his murder castle and then dispatching them after stealing their money.
While Holmes’s body count is probably higher, Hoch was more audacious. Holmes was a spider who waited until a victim stumbled into his web while Hoch was a marauder who crisscrossed the United States in search of targets.
By the time Hoch’s career came to an end on the gallows in Chicago, an estimated 60 women had been swindled by him. He liked to place advertisements in German-language newspapers looking for single women — divorced or widowed, it made no difference — who were looking for a successful mate. Then he would court the ladies following his tried and true rules:
- Nine out of every 10 women can be won by flattery.
- Never let a woman know her own shortcomings.
- Always appear to a woman to be the anxious one.
- Women like to be told pleasant things about themselves.
- When you make love, be ardent and earnest.
- The average man can fool the average woman if he will only let her have her own way at the start.
He would also ply his marks with such sweet nothings as “If you only feel toward me as I feel and could bring one-half your love to me as I to you, how lucky I would be. If you could wed your heart to mine for the rest of our days I would be the luckiest man alive.”
The formula apparently worked, because after his arrest, the bigamist admitted to at least 13 marriages and police suspected at last another dozen. Authorities assumed that many women conned by the short, balding Bluebeard simply were too embarrassed to come forward.
His scams are remarkable for their temerity. Portraying himself as Count Otto von Kern, he arrived in St. Paul, Minn., and romanced Hulda Nagel. After a brief courtship they were married in May 1902 and “Count von Kern” convinced the new “countess” to liquidate some of her real estate so that they could travel in luxury back to the family castle in Germany. While Hulda was purchasing some clothes for the trip, Hoch went into the city to purchase tickets for the voyage. Hulda never saw her “husband” again.
Another woman was conned with the same scam but while she was out shopping and Hoch was out purchasing the tickets, their $3,000 nest egg was “stolen.” Shortly after the break-in, Hoch vanished.
“My husband told me he was heir to an estate in Germany,” one victim told police. “A few hours later he hurried in from downtown with a cablegram which read ‘Father is dead. Your brother, William.’ He told me I must prepare to leave for Germany with him the next night. He told me he had no money for the voyage and asked how much I had. I told him $500.
“He asked me to draw it out and give it to him for our trip,” she continued. “Just to show me that he was on the square, he made his will in my favor. Then he hurried away to buy the tickets. That was the last I have ever seen of him.”
Police in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee and a dozen other cities reported similar scams. In once case, Hoch appeared twice before the same Justice of Peace in one year with two different wives.
The number of women whom Hoch murdered is also speculative, but 14 women with connections with Hoch ended up dying under mysterious circumstances.
Hoch was only charged with murdering one woman, Marie Welcker-Hoch, a wealthy Chicago widow and operator of a confectionery store. Hoch found Marie when she answered one of his ads and after a short romance, they were wed. Hoch induced her to sell her store, telling her that he would invest it for her.
Ten days after the December 10, 1904 wedding, Marie became seriously ill. A physician diagnosed nephritis, a kidney problem. Had anyone known, at least two of his previous wives were fatally stricken with an identical complaint. Several others simply “died suddenly” shortly after their wedding day.
By January 12, Marie was dead. Her doting husband was the only person with her when she passed.
Within hours of Marie’s death, Hoch turned his affections to Emelie Fisher, her sister who had just finished preparing her sister’s corpse.
“I am an unfortunate man,” he told her. “I was married before and my first wife was an invalid. I am lonely and have no means. You are a good woman and a good housewife and I want you to marry me.”
Not surprisingly, Emelie was aghast.
“I resented his proposal and told him so,” she testified at Hoch’s murder trial. “January 15 I rode with him to the cemetery and over his wife’s grave he asked me to marry him.”
Despite her initial reluctance, Emilie quickly surrendered to Hoch’s wishes when he promised to bring her children over from Germany.
“The following Wednesday he came to my home and I consented to become his wife,” she continued. “He told me we would go out of town and no one would know of it until my sister had been dead a long time.”
That evening, Emilie and Hoch traveled to Joliet and were married.
The next morning, they went to her bank and Emilie withdrew $750 which Hoch said he needed to pay off a mortgage on some property he owned.
“Then he disappeared,” Emilie said.
Emilie was not like Hoch’s other victims and when she realized she had been duped, she began to wonder if Hoch wasn’t more than a simple con man. She convinced authorities to have Marie’s body exhumed and the autopsy revealed a large amount of arsenic.
The chase for Johann Hoch was on. From across the country, reports filtered in about three-score women who had been gulled by Hoch. He was arrested within days in New York City and returned to Chicago to face a throng of women who wanted a piece of him.
Hoch admitted his bigamy, but denied having anything to do with Marie’s death.
“Arsenic? Pooh!” the papers reported him as exclaiming. “It was her kidneys that killed her. She was sick.”
In May 1905 Hoch was condemned to death. He took his sentence with aplomb and only uttered the confusing response, “Another one?”
The press reported that “several women” who had been awaiting the verdict fainted in the courtroom.
Hoch fought his death sentence with the same vigor in which he pursued women. He managed to put off his punishment for nearly a year — an unheard of delay at the time, and even offered up the then-unique argument that the 14th Amendment demanded that he be granted a writ of habeas corpus because of the unconstitutionality of the death penalty.
The judge who heard his case was the Hon. Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who would go on to become the first commissioner of major league baseball. Landis had no sympathy for Hoch.
“My oath of office demands that I do what I consider right,” he told Hoch’s attorneys. “I do not think that I would be complying with my oath if I delayed the execution.”
Landis then told the deputy sheriff, “I have refused to do anything in the Hoch matter. You need not delay the execution on my account.”
Hoch, however, had other ideas.
The death warrant was good until 2 p.m. on February 13 and Hoch told authorities he would put up a fight if he was taken from the holding cell before 1:30 p.m.
The sheriff granted his wish and at precisely half-past one, Hoch began what the newspapers called the “death march.” He ascended the scaffold, proclaimed his innocence, and was hanged.
Afterward, his minister told reporters that Hoch admitted his bigamy and swindling, but denied being a murderer.