Johann Otto Hoch hardly looked the part of a seductive lothario and yet he married as many as 50 women --- and murdered an unknown number of them (Chicago Historical Society)

The Serial Murders of Johann Otto Hoch

In order to try and adequately understand the life and crimes of a man who was known by various names, including that of Johann Otto Hoch, we have to begin looking at the end of his criminal career, rather than the beginning. It would not be until the investigation that was started by Chicago police inspector George Shippy that the extent of Hoch's crimes would be discovered. Thanks to his tedious and detailed investigation into the murky past of the killer, Shippy would come to believe that the scores of false names and identities concealed the presence of a single murderer -- a man who had taken the lives of at least a dozen women. It would be after an arrest for swindling that Shippy would be able to reveal a devious criminal who was then unequaled in the annals of American homicide.

Johann Otto Hoch, who married and murdered for 19 years before his capture, was born John Schmidt in Horweiler, Germany in 1862. He married for the first time to a woman named Christine Ramb and he deserted her and three children in 1887. While investigating a charge of bigamy and another charge of swindling a furniture dealer, Inspector Shippy first came into contact with Hoch in 1898. At that time, he was using the alias of "Martin Dotz".

The inspector had no way of knowing that Hoch / Dotz has murdered a dozen women from all over the country but he became suspicious of him when he received a letter from Reverend Herman Haas of Wheeling, West Virginia. Reverend Haas had recognized Hoch's photograph in a Chicago newspaper and he sent along to the police another photograph of a man who was suspected of killing a Mrs. Caroline Hoch in the summer of 1895. There was no mistaking the fact that the man in the photo and the man in the police station holding cell were the same person. The problem was that the man in the photograph was supposed to have committed suicide in the Ohio River three years before! Shippy attempted to pursue this lead but realized that it was going to take a lot of time. He needed to keep Hoch in jail so he turned his efforts to the swindling charge instead. He soon had enough for a conviction and Hoch was sentenced to a year in the Cook County jail. Shippy then turned his attentions back to Hoch's other illegal activities and acting on a tip, began to search for what became a dozen missing wives. He started in West Virginia.

Hoch first appeared in Wheeling in February 1895 and used the name "Jacob Huff". He opened a saloon in a German neighborhood and became a popular man in the community. He also began to seek out marriageable widows or at least divorced women with money. One of those he found was Caroline Hoch, a middle-aged widow. The couple married in April and the service was performed by Reverend Haas, who had alerted Inspector Shippy to the identity of the man he had in custody. It was the minister who had discovered Caroline dying in agony after he had spotted her husband giving her some sort of white powder. He did not act however, and the woman died a few days later in great pain. Huff (as he was known) insisted that his wife be buried right away. He then collected on Caroline's life insurance, sold her house, cleaned out her bank accounts and disappeared.

George Shippy in 1908, after he had become the Chicago Chief of Police. His obsession with proving that Johann Hoch was a killer may have saved the lives of countless women

Haas later explained to Inspector Shippy what he believed happened next. Huff walked to the nearby Ohio River on the night of his disappearance, stripped off his clothes and walked into the water. Hoch placed his good watch, with his photo in the locket, and a suicide note on his pile of clothing and then, holding a heavy sack over his head, walked into the river to a rowboat. He climbed into the boat, which he had earlier anchored there, and dressed in the clothing that had been hidden there. Afterwards, he rowed up the river, only pausing in the deep water to drop the bag that he had carefully carried with him. He continued on to the Ohio side of the river, set the boat adrift and then continued on with his journey. He was no longer Jacob Huff but Johann Otto Hoch, taking the last name of his victim.

For almost a year, Shippy followed Hoch's strange trail across the country and he found a score of dead and deserted women, from New York to San Francisco, with most of the victims being in the Midwest. Years later, he would unearth even more -- as many as 50 or even more than that --- in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Philadelphia and beyond. Incredibly though, Shippy could not produce enough hard evidence to convict Hoch of anything and the man was soon due to be released from jail. Desperately, he contacted the authorities in Wheeling and begged them to exhume the body of Caroline Hoch and to look for signs of arsenic poisoning.

The request was carried out and the coffin was exhumed from the cemetery. However, officials were stunned when the lid was opened and it was discovered that all of the cadaver's vital organs had been surgically removed. It was later decided that this must have been what was in the weighted bag that Hoch carried with him and then dumped in the middle of the river. The body could not be examined, which meant there was no real case to be made against Hoch for Caroline's murder. At the end of his term for swindling, Hoch was released, much to the dismay of Inspector Shippy. He was convinced the man would murder again.

From 1900 to 1904, Hoch, using various names, married and murdered as many as 15 more women. Prior to his prison term in Chicago for swindling, Hoch would marry women and then slowly poison them to death, calling in doctors who he knew would innocently diagnose his wife's ailment as a disease of the kidneys, for which there was no treatment. He took his time, spending patient months and murdering his wives very carefully. After his release from the Cook County jail however, Hoch's careful method fell to pieces. He began killing in record time, marrying rich widows and then within days of the wedding, heavily dosing them with arsenic. He murdered some of his wives within a week of their nuptials. He married his last victim, Marie Walcker, in Chicago on December 5, 1904 and he poisoned her days later.

On the night of her death, the victim's estranged sister, Amelia, appeared at her home. As his wife lay dying, Hoch embraced and kissed Amelia and asked her to marry him after the death of her sister. Amazingly, she agreed. Marie was buried a day later without being embalmed and Hoch married Amelia six days after the service. The killer had received $500 from Marie's life insurance policy and Amelia gave him another $750. He disappeared immediately after and Amelia went to the Chicago police. Inspector Shippy immediately had Marie Walcker's body exhumed and the poison was found in her organs. The search was now on for the devious killer!

Shippy sent photographs of Hoch to every major newspaper in the country and a short time later, a landlady and widow in New York, Mrs. Katherine Kimmerle, recognized the likeness as being that of her new boarder, Henry Bartels. She recalled him so vividly because the strange man had proposed marriage to her only 20 minutes after he had taken the room. The authorities soon had Hoch in custody.

When he was arrested, Hoch claimed that he was being framed and the "truth" about him was misrepresented. Discovered in his room was $625, several wedding rings with the inscriptions filed off, a loaded revolver and a fountain pen that contained 58 grams of arsenic. Hoch claimed that he had planned to commit suicide with the poison. He was soon on his way back to Chicago. Inspector Shippy was waiting for him when the train arrived in the station.

During his trial, the killer hummed, whistled and twirled his thumbs in court. Until the very end, he insisted that he was innocent. When he was finally convicted of Marie Walcker, Hoch only whispered: "It's all over with Johann .. it serves me right." He clung to the hope that he would be released until the very hour of his death. He remained awake all night before the day of the execution, eating huge meals and demanding more and more food. Every now and then he was smile at his guards and say: "Look at me, boys. Look at poor old Johann. I don't look like a monster now, do I?" The guards did not reply.

Hoch finally went to the gallows on February 23, 1906. He once more declared his innocence and then nodded for the sheriff to place the noose around his neck. "I am done with this world," he declared. "I have done with everybody." Moments later, the trap was sprung and Johann Hoch went to his death.

Inspector Shippy came to believe that Hoch married at least 44 women (and perhaps more) in his career as a bigamist and a swindler and he murdered an unknown number of those. Oddly, Hoch was a middle-aged, balding and burly man with light-blue eyes and a handlebar mustache. There was nothing about him to suggest that he would be so attractive to the fairer sex that they would agree to marry him within days of an introduction -- and yet many of them did so. Hoch did have a set of rules that he lived by in which to make women fall in love with him. He imparted them on the Chicago Sun newspaper just a short time before he was executed:

- Nine out of every ten 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

Good advice or bad -- it certainly makes you wonder what Hoch had that made him so irresistible? And it was not always just women who felt that way. Remember that Reverend Haas failed to act against the man, even when he suspected him of poisoning his wife. It was not until Hoch was long gone that he decided to act on his suspicions. Others were not so easily won over though, namely Inspector Shippy, who sensed that Hoch was wrong from the start. And it's lucky for the scores of other women who might have followed his previous wives to the grave that he did!

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Copyright 2004 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.