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Johann Otto Hoch aka The Stockyard Bluebeard
On February 23, 1906, serial killer Johann Otto Hoch was hanged in Chicago, Illinois. Hoch was born John Schmidt in 1855, at Horweiler, Germany. He immigrated to the United States as a young man in the 1890s and dropped his surname in favor of assorted pseudonyms where he began to marry a string of women, frequently taking the name of his most recent victim.
He would swindle all their money and either leave them or kill them with arsenic and then begin his pattern all over again. At age 51 Chicago police would dub him "America’s greatest mass murderer," but statistics remain vague in this puzzling case. We know that Hoch married at least 55 women between 1890 and 1905, bilking all of them for cash and slaying many, but the final number of murder victims is a matter of conjecture. Sensational reports credit Hoch with 25 to 50 murders, but police were only certain of 15, and in the end he went to trial (and to the gallows) for a single homicide. Hoch's first and only legal wife was Christine Ramb, who bore him three children before he deserted her in 1887.
By February 1895, as "Jacob Huff," he had surfaced in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he won the heart and hand of Caroline Hoch, a middle-aged widow. They were married in April, and Caroline fell gravely ill three months later. Called to her beside, Rev. Hermann Haas watched "Huff" administer a potion that Haas believed to be poison, but the minister took no action and Caroline died days later in agony. "Huff" cleaned out her $900 bank account, sold their house, collected $2500 in life insurance benefits—and vanished. Suicide was suspected, with his clothing, his watch, and note found on the bank of the Ohio River, but nobody was ever recovered. Hoch kept his latest victim's surname, described by prosecutors as "a warped keepsake stored in an evil mind"and moved on to Chicago, finding work in the meat-packing plants when he was not engaged with the business of spent a year in jail for defrauding a used-furniture dealer. Police Inspector George Shippy also suspected Hoch of bigamy, and murder was added to the list upon receipt of a letter from the Rev. Hass in West Virginia. Shippy started digging into Hoch's background, turning up reports of dozens of missing or deserted women from San Francisco to New York City, but solid evidence remained elusive.
In Wheeling, Caroline Hoch was exhumed in a search for arsenic traces, but surgeons found the body gutted, all her vital organs missing. Hoch was released at the end of his jail term, chalking up another 15 wives before his ultimate arrest in 1905. Aware that Shippy and others were charting his movements, Hoch killed more often and more swiftly while swindling women. Selecting his victims from newspaper "lonely heart" columns, Hoch went merrily about his business by relying on primitive embalming fluids with their high arsenic content to cover any traces of poison in his victims. On December 5, 1904, he married Marie Walcker in Chicago, killing her almost immediately. Wasting no time, Hoch proposed to his sister-in-law on the night of Marie's death, and they were married six days after the hasty funeral. Amelia Hoch bestowed a gift of $750 on her husband, prompting him to vanish with the cash, and she immediately summoned the police. Modern science was Hoch's downfall. His late wife's mortician employed a new embalming fluid with no taint of arsenic. Medical examiners found poison in Marie Walcker's system and Hoch was charged with her murder, his picture was then mailed to every major American newspaper. In New York City, a middle-aged landlady recognized "Henry Bartels," a new tenant who had proposed marriage to her 20 minutes after renting a room. At his arrest, police seized a revolver; several wedding rings with inscriptions filed off, and a fountain pen filled with arsenic, which Hoch claimed was intended for himself, a failed attempt suicide.
Chicago journalist dubbed Hoch the "Stockyard Bluebeard," trumpeting the speculative details of his criminal career. At the trial he whistled, hummed, and twirled his thumbs throughout the prosecution’s case. Apparently he was well pleased with his position in the limelight. Upon the conviction of Marie Walcker's murder, he was sentenced to hang, telling the court, "it's all over with Johann. It serves me right." Mounting the gallows on February 23, 1906, Hoch reverted to a claim of innocence, declaring "I am done with this world. I have done with everybody." As the trap was sprung, a local newsman quipped, "Mr. Hoch, but the question remains: What have you done with everybody?" Part of the solution was unearthed in 1935 when human bones were found inside the wall of a Chicago house once occupied by Hoch. It was a meager bit of evidence, the victim unidentified, and Johann's body count, the names and number of his murdered wives, will probably remain a mystery forever.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: