Friday, February 24, 2012

Dying for Love

Famed Chicago historian Richard C. Lindberg has excavated the long-buried stories of Belle Gunness and Johann Hoch, two serial killers who preyed on the lovelorn during the closing years of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twentieth. It’s a darkly fascinating look at a ruthless pair who profited from their respective marriage-murder sprees until the law caught up with one and fire destroyed the other… maybe.
Belle Gunness was a homely middle-aged widow whose Northwest Indiana farm included an unmarked graveyard for all her slain suitors. From 1900-1908 she lured well-to-do men to her home, promising love and material comfort and delivering a horrific death instead. She is arguably the most prolific female serial killer of her era, and Lindberg enlivens her story with details about recent DNA testing of human remains found on the old Gunness farm site in LaPorte. When a fire destroyed the place in 1908, apparently killing the murderess along with her children, some investigators were convinced that the adult female skeleton found was not Belle’s. The authorities had been closing in on her, alerted by the suspicious relatives of her victims, and many believed that she’d murdered a homeless woman to aid in her escape. The mystery isn’t solved yet, but this modern postscript suggests that one day it may be.
Johann Hoch’s legend is not as well remembered, but no less intriguing. A squat, balding man who somehow appealed to women, Hoch spent some time as an apprentice to serial killer H.H. Holmes (a fact that Lindberg’s masterful research has brought to light), whose Englewood “murder castle” claimed dozens of lives. Hoch married thirty-five women for their money and assets and killed at least ten of them. Forensic science proved his undoing: one of his victims, Marie Walcker, had arsenic in her system, and when the mortician proved that the poison had not been a component of the embalming fluid, Hoch was charged with murder. He was convicted after a sensational trial and hanged in 1906.
Lindberg documents the murder for profit sprees of Gunness and Hoch in alternating chapters, and in a gritty, intense style that makes the events he describes as chilling today as they were at the time of their discovery. Heartland Serial Killers will appeal to True Crime fans, lovers of Chicago history, and anyone who enjoys a literary foray into the underworld of human nature.

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