Tales of the Gallows: Johann Hoch

When they caught Johann Hoch in New York, where he had fled from Chicago, he had already proposed to what would have been something like his 45th wife. His habit was to marry women and take their money within about a week or meeting them.He was not an attractive guy, but he was charming as all get out. “All of der vimen for Johann go crazy,” he explained, merrily, as his trial went underway in 1905. In fact, he preyed on lonely spinsters. Here are a few of his wives – not a rosy cheek among ’em.

But he didn’t just steal from his wives. About a third of the time, he killed them, too.

One of the more interesting aspects of the story is that the police initially claimed that he was a protege of H.H. Holmes of the Murder Castle. The press made this sort of claim all the time; playing “connect the dots” with killers sold papers. But in this case, the police and press both reported that Hoch had been a regular at the murder castle under the name Jacob Scmidt (or Edward Hatch, depending on you asked). One by one, several of the major players in the Murder Castle story from a decade before were marched into the jail to identify him. Only E.C. Davis, the jeweler who never seemed to play along with this sort of thing, said he didn’t recognize Hoch. However, all of these reporters were almost certainly mistaken; Hoch wasn’t even in the country yet when Holmes was operating the murder castle. This is one of the things we have to consider when we try to separate fact and fiction when it comes to Holmes – much of what we know comes from stories told by gossipping neighbors, and we have to wonder just how much of it they were making up.

The killing that got him in trouble was that of his 43rd wife in Chicago. He had poisoned her, then proposed to her sister before she was cold. He married her, robbed her, and fled the city. He was captured after a massive manhunt, and eventually hanged – a more detailed version is in FATAL DROP

Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows by William Griffith(Click for ordering info!)
In honor of our first spin-off book, it’s Hangin’ Week on the blog!

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Another Nearly-Revived Hanged Man…

Weird Chicago Presents:

The attempts to revive Cardinella and Viana were not the first time anyone in Chicago had attempted to bring a hanged man back to life. In fact, a similar experiment had been made by prison officials in 1882!

When murderer James Tracy’s body was cut down from the gallows, it was immediately brought into the prison bathroom, where a team of three doctors pumped electricity into it to see if he could be brought back to life.

Tracy’s neck was broken, so there was no chance he was ever going to be up and walking again. However, by pumping massive amounts of electricity into his chest, they were able to get his heart beating again at a regular rhythm, and by moving the wires around, they were able to change his facial expressions (“Look! Now he’s happy, now he’s sad…now he just smelled a fart….”) The doctors concluded that, had he strangled to death, there WAS a chance he could have been revived.

The full story of Tracy, and the full physicians report on the bizarre incident, is in FATAL DROP: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows, the first spin-off to the Weird Chicago book. It’s available today from White Chapel press!

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The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang, Part 4

The reason Cardinella had been saying viana’s name was to assure them that he was going to be brought back to life the next day. Apparently, the great revival plan had already been tested on Viana – and it had worked.

The story is impossible to confirm; it was told in whispers by prisoners over the years, and got back to the county physician. They were able to confirm that Viana’s body had been transported by his friends in a basket lined with hot water bottles into a waiting ambulance that was filled with nurses and doctors, but THAT ambulance was allowd to leave.

According to the stories told for years by prisoners, that ambulance had been driven to a nearby funeral home where the body was laid out on a slab. A team of doctors ministered to it while strange men in robes stood around chanting something – no one knew what – in Sicilian.

And, after several minutes, The Choir Boy opened his eyes and began to groan.

The doctors stepped back and the chanting ceased, and soon the boy’s eyes closed again. He was a traitor to the gang; no one ever intended to allow him to live. The whole thing had only been an experiment to see if Cardinella, too, could be brought back to life later on…

Whether this story was quite true will never be known; at least one book states that the whole story about Cardinella was made up by reporter Ben Hecht in his book “Gaily, Gaily.” This is incorrect; the story there was about a gangster named Frankie Piano who was hanged in 1910 (there was no Frankie Piano, no one was hanged in 1910 in Chicago, and the story about Cardinella was first told by the county physician, an eyewitness, nearly 3 decades before the Hecht story was published). From eyewitnesses, it can be fairly well determined that there was, at least, an attempt to revive Viana, and that Cardinella believed that it had been a success. His friends, those who had been involved in the experiment, must have come out of it with at least enough faith to try it on Cardinella himself.

But maybe they knew that it would never work. Cardinella was a master at using people’s supersitions to frighten them, to hold them in his power. Perhaps his friends were afraid to refuse to carry out his wishes, even after his death.

Fatal Drop: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows contains a long chapter retelling the whole sordid tale of the Cardinella gang for the first time. While gangsters like Capone have become legends, the equally deadly Cardinella has been totally forgotten by history – until now.

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The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang, Part 3

Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows by William Griffith.
In honor of our first spin-off book, it’s Hangin’ Week on the blog!  

After an hour, the prison officials opened the ambulance and saw a team of doctors trying to revive Sam Cardinella’s corpse. One was injecting stimulants into his chest. Another was pumping him with electricty. A nurse was rubbing his wrists.

Suddenly, the reason for Cardinella’s behavior in prison, and his gallows break down, became clear: it had all been a ruse to insure that he would strangle to death. Most prisoners wanted their necks to be broken by the drop, but if the neck was NOT broken, there was a chance – a very, very remote one – that the prisoner could, in theory, be brought back to life.

By losing forty pounds, Cardinella decreased the amount of pressure that would be put on the noose. By faking a break down and being tied to a chair, his neck began the drop a foot or two lower than it would have if he had been standing, leading to a shorter, less violent drop. Indeed, his neck hadn’t broken – he had strangled to death.

The warden ordered the ambulance to go straight to the undertaking parlor. They were followed by the county physician, who confirmed was Cardinella was, in fact, dead, and would stay that way.

It was only later, though, that they realized why Cardinella had been talking about Nicholas Viana the night before…

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The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang: Part 2

Sam Cardinella himself scared the hell out of the guards, who had seen everyone do everything twice. The county physician later said “If I were superstitious, I would say there was something satanic about it.” Others would later describe him as “a human spider, crawling the city, spinning a web of death, and sending boys to carry out his fatal instructions.”

In prison, he was surly and unpleasant. Most of the prisoners ended up making friends with the guards, but Cardinella freaked them out. In prison, he began to refuse to eat, and eventually lost about forty pounds.

The night before his hanging, he was visited by his wife and six children, and finally broke down, crying. The site of this evil, frightening man weeping like a remorseful family man only freaked the guards out further. He spoke in such a thick sicilian dialect that even those who spoke the language couldn’t understand a word he said – except for the name “Viana,” which he repeated over and over.

The next morning, as he was led to the gallows, the frail Cardinella broke down completely, collapsing into hysterical fits. Unable to get him to stand, the guards eventually had to tie him to a chair, and he was hanged chair and all. When he was dead, the body and chair were cut down and released to the custody of his friends, who brought it out to a waiting ambulance.

Weird Chicago Presents:

Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows by William Griffith(Click for ordering info!)
In honor of our first spin-off book, it’s Hangin’ Week on the blog! We’re telling short versions of a few of the tales from the book, and presenting a new Podcast of our gallows ghost hunt!

Inside the ambulance, prison officials noticed a couple of men who appeared to be doctors. Wondering what was going on, the warden ordered the men to hold the ambulance in the jail yard for an hour. Soon, the reason Cardinella had been talking about Viana would become chillingly clear…

The Strange Tale of the Cardinella Gang: Part 1

Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows.
Click for info! We’re telling short versions of a few of the tales here on the blog this week!

In December, 1920, Nicholas “The Choir Singer” Vianna was hanged in the old Cook County jailhouse on Illinois Street. His hanging was a bizarre present for his 19th birthday.

Nicholas was, in fact, a teenage choir boy – and a heck of a singer – when he wandered into a 22nd street pool room around 1917. A week later, he was a criminal. The pool hall was run by a man known only as Il Diavolo – Italian for “The Devil” – who taught the kids who came into his pool room to commit crimes.

The gang was an offshoot of The Black Hand, the Italian gangs that had terrorized the city before prohibition – whenever an Italian came into property, he could expect to get a letter from the Black Hand demanding money. If he didn’t pay up, that property would be bombed. If he STILL didn’t pay up, his family could end up murdered. The Black Hand was responsible for hundreds of bombings over the years, and Death Corner, an intersection in Little Hell (a sicilian neighborhood that would eventually be torn down to make room for Cabrini Green) averaged about a murder a week for most of the 1910s.

But Black Hand operations were only a sideline to the gang on 22nd street, led by the mysterious Il Diavolo, who was, in reality, a shadowy mug named Sam Cardinelli (or Cardinella; the records vary). In his pool room, he taught kids to run hold ups, and how to kill. He’d send them out on errands, then take a cut of the the money. As often as not, he’d then cheat the boys out of their cuts with loaded dice. One wonders if Cardinella thought “Oliver Twist” was a how-to manual.

Each crime the gang commited was a puzzle to the police – no thread seemed to connect them until a few members of the gang were captured in 1920. When they began to confess, it came to light that they’d been responsible for about 400 hold ups, and a few dozen murders, in just the last six months.

“I was only a boy when I went into the pool room,” said Nicholas Vianna, who had killed over a dozen people. “A week later, I was a criminal.” Vianna gave crucial information that helped send Cardinella to the gallows, but withheld a great deal more, even though it sealed his own fate, for fear that Cardinella would have his mother and sister killed.

While awaiting his own execution, he regularly entertained the prisoners by singing – his voice was exceptional. “Beat any show you ever saw!” said one guard. As he was led to the Death Cell (the library, the nicest room in the jail, where condemned men spent their last nights), he sung the aria Il Miserer to the applause of all, then shouted a good-bye and good luck to all of the prisoners “Except for you, Sam Cardinella. May your soul go to hell!”

None the guards could understand why, a few months later, on the night before his own execution, Cardinella kept repeating the name “VIana” over and over….

Note: Records vary on whether Sam Cardinella’s name was Cardinella, Cardinelli, or some variant thereof. This is often the case in these things; the records don’t clear anything up, they just confuse things further. I’m going with Cardinella for this series. Sam’s is the longest story in FATAL DROP – I can’t believe that it isn’t in every Chicago crime book already, but as far as I know this is the first time the story has been retold in book form.

Tales of the Gallows: The First Hanging in Chicago

There were three public hangings in Chicago – far fewer than most people think. The first was in 1840, and was the hanging of a fellow known as John Stone – it was in the middle of what was then the prairie, but is probably close to where Chinatown is today on the near-south side.

Stone was charged with the murder of a young woman. The main evidence against him was that shortly after the woman’s death, he had set fire to his clothes.

When asked why, he had explained that they were too dirty to wear. Just how dirty clothes had to get before a woods-dwelling logger in 1840 would burn them doesn’t bear thinking about.

“Why, then,” asked the prosecuting attorney, “didn’t you burn your shirt?”

“Because there was no blood on it,” said Stone, carelessly. It was a slip of the tongue that sealed his fate.

A full account of his crime, his hanging, and life in Chicago as of 1840 is in “FATAL DROP: True Tales of the Chicago Gallows” by Weird Chicago historian William Griffith – it’s due out Jan 9th. We’ll be posting LOTS of stories from here around then, including some FANTASTIC stuff that’s NEVER been in Chicago crime/ghost book before!

A Short Drop and a Sudden Stop: The Gallows, Part 1

Sure, this LOOKS like a regular old pile of wood….

In fact, this is the Chicago gallows as they appeared in 1950.

This particular set was first assembled in the 1880s to hang three guys who had murdered a lemon-cart operator (the kind who are always getting knocked over in urban car chase movies), stuffed his body in a trunk and mailed him to Pittsburgh. A couple of years later, it was expanded to handle to the Haymarket anarchists. It remained in service for decades; inhabitants of the old jail would say that they heard the sounds of it being erected in the middle of the night – even when no workmen were present.

The method of execution was switched to the electric chair in the 1920s, but the gallows had to be kept in the basement of the old courthouse on Hubbard street for half a century, because one man, “Terrible Tommy O’Connor,” had escaped from the jail with a death sentence on his head. They had to hang on to the gallows because O’Connor’s sentence specified that he be hanged, and if they ever caught him, then by God, they were gonna hang him!

Eventually, in the 1970s a judge ruled that O’Connor was probably dead anyway and ordered that the gallows be sold off. They were sold to a Wild West museum who sold them to Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum last year. But rumors have persisted that some of the gallows are STILL in the courthouse – along with a handful of ghosts. Stay tuned for more!

For more on the courthouse/gallows in Chicago, see

Fatal Drop: True Tales from the Chicago Gallows by William Griffith(Click for ordering info!)
and check out the courthouse/gallows episode of our podcast