One of the stereotypes of the Midwest is that we are decent. It comes up all the time in discussions about regional differences. You know the types—east coast people are pushy and impatient. West coast people are so laid back they’re nearly dead. The south is overrun with bigots and the Midwest is full of just plain folks.
For hard-working, decent folk we seem to have a lot of murderers in our midst. John Wayne Gacy, H.H. Holmes, Richard Speck, Leopold and Loeb for starters. In his recently released book, Heartland Serial Killers, Richard Lindberg brings to life two pragmatic criminals who married and murdered repeatedly for money—Johann Hoch and Belle Gunness.
Neither party was particularly glamorous, at least by today’s standards, but they both managed to swindle, strangle (among the diverse ways they dispatched inconvenient spouses) and have sexual liaisons with many, many people. The aim for both was money and sexual gratification. Aided by the primitive forensics of the time, poor communication between law enforcement agencies and the intense desire of their victims for marriage, these two practiced serial monogamy on a grand scale. However, instead of disposing of their unwanted partners in divorce, which can be so messy and costly, they resorted to murder.
The author discusses the social milieu of the time as one where people married for economic stability. Immigrants had left behind in the old country the social fabric of large, interconnected families that provided a cushion against the ravages of time. Instead, they hoped that marriage, particularly with another person of modest means would be a hedge against penury and loneliness in old age. And of course, they hoped they would like one another and find some physical comfort.
Hoch and Gunness practiced their scams for several years and within a few miles of each other, although there is no evidence that they knew one another, before serious suspicions were aroused despite the seemingly hap-hazard way they chose their victims through marriage bureaus and lonely hearts ads. Even today, first generation immigrants tend to be insular and prefer to marry within their own groups. This phenomenon was even more pronounced in the 1880s. Hoch preyed on middle-aged German women and Gunness specialized in Scandinavian men.
The ability of Johann Hoch to escape detection for as long as he did was more understandable than how Gunness managed to avoid discovery. He traveled incessantly and stayed ahead of suspicious police and others in authority by taking off to Pennsylvania, Germany and back to Indiana on a whirlwind schedule. This guy was a fast talker too—within hours of meeting a suitable woman he would propose marriage. A surprising number of supposedly sane and normal women took him up on it. All of his victims are not known, but it is estimated that he murdered twelve women and at least nineteen more were swindled out of their life savings and left abandoned and destitute. In the end, he was caught and hanged but he never admitted his guilt.
He must have had tons of charisma, though. One of his swindled “wives” (it was not a legal contract since he was still married to someone else) testified against him and then threatened suicide when he was sentenced to death. This was after she was well aware of his part in the poisoning death of her sister.
Belle Gunness, on the other hand, was never caught but did most of her known nefarious crimes in La Porte, Indiana and brought her victims to her house where she stabbed them, cut them up and buried them in her pasture. She wasn’t well liked by her neighbors and there were strange rumors that circulated about her, but she was still not seen as a murderess until the day she allegedly drugged her children and her current boarder, put the headless body of a homeless woman in her house and set the whole thing on fire that real questions began to be asked. Then the authorities unearthed many bodies, one of them a corpse preserved enough to be identified by the man’s brother, on the farm she owned.
Belle would send letters to men promising a quiet life (well, death IS quiet) with a loving woman who owned a farm. She was only interested in men who had assets and would pepper them with requests for help with her mortgage. Once they got to her house, they stayed awhile and then they all left on “trips”, conveniently leaving all their earthly possessions behind. Gunness may have had as many as thirty-nine victims, mostly men. She also dispatched at least four children and two women.
The author appeared at Centuries & Sleuths a few weeks ago. He agreed to talk to me later at Panera’s where I asked him who he’d written the book for. It is well-researched but the prose is more academic than sensational. Lindberg presents the crimes as reprehensible and the victims as forgotten but still deserving of the reader’s serious attention. He is perplexed by the tendency to trivialize the suffering of the victims, particularly in the case of Gunness’s crimes.
Lindberg said that he hadn’t really thought about the audience when he wrote it. He’s fascinated with true crime and history. A Chicago native, he has written about the White Sox, crime and politics in the city. His book, The Gambler King of Clark Street has won multiple awards. He also gives tours through the Chicago History Museum and is the past president of the Midland Authors Society. Lindberg confesses that he loves the Gas Light Era of the City and can imagine himself living at that time. It shows in the book which has rich detail about the city in the late 19th century.
This is a book for the serious reader of true crime. It provides detail about the era and the criminals, but is not a page-turner which will keep you up late. However, it will make you consider that maybe the good old days weren’t so good after all.
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