Thursday, October 26, 2017


King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 11 Part 3


 King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 11

The Ordeal of the Red Handkerchief (part 3)

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The issuance of an extra edition brought my most trying crisis —when a red handkerchief failed to flutter the signal on which hung my professional career. The ordeal capped one of my proudest scoops, the trapping of a Bluebeard whose uxoricidal industry left his story-book prototype far in the rear.

It was my practice to hunt for hidden tips among the municipal bureaus’ daily lists of weddings, interments and buildings authorized. In January, 1905, this search won a reward that made journalistic history. A name figuratively jumped at me from the roll of burial permits. Johann Hoch—it was commonplace enough to make my pause seem like a waste of time. It suggested neither romance nor drama. It had not figured in any unusual crime. Yet it twanged a memory chord. George H. Shoaf, one of the most tenacious diggers that ever gladdened a news editor’s heart, was assigned to investigate Johann Hoch’s interest in necrological matters. The address was on the northwest side of Chicago. In less than two hours, we knew that he was on the track of an extraordinary story.

Johann Hoch
Johann Hoch was the subject of more rumors than the secretly excited neighborhood wanted to digest. Most of them were discussed in subdued voices. There was something about the man that laid a cautious rein on gossip. Nevertheless, there were whispers of uncounted wives in his life. An enigmatic fatality pursued them. Few survived more than several weeks’ honeymoon. The deeper Shoaf dug, the longer grew the calendar of Hoch’s hymeneal activities. Of course, we must first check the names and dates against official records. That work was under way when Hoch forced our hands to quicker action.

Four weeks before, he had espoused Marie Shippnick Walcker. Five days later, she fell ill. Three weeks after the nuptials she died. It was the Vital Statistics Bureau listing of Johann Hoch as her husband that had nudged my recollection of his name. Seventy-two hours after her death—on the day of the funeral— the bereaved widower married her sister, Mrs. Emily Fischer. The marriage license at first challenged my credulity. Then it aroused fears for the bride’s life. But these apprehensions did not dismiss the desire for exclusive news. The cooperation of the state’s attorney and the coroner was pledged. Information gathered by Shoaf was of paramount importance in directing the course of justice. It ensconced me in the driver’s seat.

Two exhumations were made with all the secrecy possible. Autopsies were held on the cadavers of Hoch’s two last deceased wives—Marie Shippnick Walcker and another who had preceded her to the grave by a few months. The viscera of each yielded deadly quantities of arsenic. The state’s attorney had agreed with me to withhold public disclosure until a mutually satisfactory juncture. But Hoch, always on the alert, learned of the disinterments. He disappeared. With him went $7,500 in cash belonging to his bride. His flight compelled us to break the story. The publicity would facilitate Hoch’s capture. Our scoop was published on January 20, 1905. During the next fifteen months that triumph recurred almost weekly in sequels under first page or top headings.

Hoch was caught in New York with the collaboration of Das Morgen ]ournal, a German' daily then owned by W. R. Hearst. Brought back to Chicago, he was convicted of the murder of Marie Shippnick Walcker Hoch. Judge Kersten sentenced him to be hanged. The date of execution was fixed for June 23, 1905. Hoch never confessed the taking of human life. When confronted with a list of thirty-nine marriages, he shrugged his shoulders. He may have engaged in some bigamous adventures, but that, he claimed, covered his worst offense.

With a dark, glossy beard and mustache, a compact frame, the air of a continental gallant and a pleasant voice, he was looked upon in quite a few centers as a veritable lady-killer. His love songs and hints of a large fortune carried the day when other wooing devices failed. His method of operation was sardonically clever. He, too, studied the burial permits. He sought out widows whom he might assist in the collection of insurance funds. He chose women in their late forties—those who betrayed uncomfortable awareness of the menopause. A smattering of therapeutic terminology enabled him to talk to them with seeming authority about their symptoms.

Each bride readily accepted Hoch’s plan of medication. It would not only alleviate pain, but it would also tend to invigorate if not actually rejuvenate the dearly beloved patient. But the bridegroom would not apply the treatment. Certain scruples stood in the way. He had no license to practice medicine in America. And he would not let even his own conscience accuse him of stretching the law. In addition, in the present state of his romance, he explained, a sort of diffidence deterred him. So, a female relative of the new Mrs. Hoch was persuaded to act. She administered rectal injections. Hoch did measure the amount of arsenic he supplied, but since his own hands did not insert the poison, he convinced himself that he was really guiltless.

The case of Johann Hoch attracted worldwide notice. Letters reached him from all parts of the universe, many from his native Germany. Some were offers of marriage. A number contained money to aid his fight for release. Sufficient funds were raised to clog the machinery of the courts for the greater part of a year. At last, after three reprieves, the execution was set for February 23, 1906.

Hangings in Chicago occurred between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. According to one legend, the custom began as a favor. The trial judge in a celebrated homicide case accommodated a crony, the owner of an afternoon daily. The publisher looked forward to a large demand for extra copies on the day the culprit made supreme atonement. He wanted the execution to take place too late for special editions of the morning papers and yet early enough to allow a protracted daylight sale. So the sentence set the fatal moment in the midday arc. On that occasion, the gibbet claimed its victim at 10:15 a.m. For more than a quarter of a century, there had not been a variation of five minutes from that time in the functioning of Cook County’s gallows. And from this fact flowed the misery of my most torturesome journalistic trial.

No modern instruments of communication were permitted in the jail premises. Each reportorial squad attending the last moments of a condemned man evolved their own code for transmitting news to co-workers watching on the outside. The Chicago American staff used colored handkerchiefs. One reporter was stationed at a window alongside the tier of death cells—on “the doomsman’s grating.” He was distinctly visible to another reporter sitting at a telephone in the state’s attorney’s office in a separate building. They were on the same level. A hundred yards of clear space lay between them. The wire was open. The man in the state’s attorney’s suite kept up a running conversation with a rewrite man at the phone terminal in the American plant.

When the door of the doomed felon’s cage swung open for the death march, the man in the window wigwagged a piece of blue cambric. He remained at his coign while the macabre procession passed down the iron staircase to the scaffold, plainly in his view, in the center of the prison yard. That was usually at 10:05. Ordinarily, ten minutes elapsed while the man at the telephone, his watch in hand, awaited the next signal. That would be a handkerchief of brilliant scarlet waved by the watcher on “the doomsman’s grating.” It would indicate the drop of the hangman’s trap.

Hoch’s retribution to society was to mark a red-letter day for the Chicago American. The newspaper had not only unearthed his crimes, but it had also encompassed his arrest when he fled. These exploits warranted an institutional celebration. Public interest had been fanned to a high pitch. Max Annenberg predicted a far higher one-day’s circulation than we had yet attained. He expected a sale of more than half a million, nearly 200,000 above normal. Seventy-five thousand copies of a “flash” edition were printed at daybreak. The headline—extending from the first page title to the fold—consisted of only two words, “Hoch Hanged.”

Packages containing from 500 to 5,000 each were expressed by fast trains to outlying towns within a circle of eighty-five miles. They were picked up by road men all of whom had been instructed in minute detail. At 10 a.m. they were to “come in” on a temporary telephone circuit that would be meanwhile rigged up out of the Chicago American switchboard. With one hand on his bundles and the other on the phone receiver, each was to await a release order. It would be spoken simultaneously to more than fifty points, such as Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine in Wisconsin, Valparaiso and Crown Point in Indiana, and Aurora, Elgin, Joliet, Geneva and Rockford in Illinois. Of course, at each place crowds of newsboys would be assembled eager to grab the “flash extras.”

At three minutes past ten, James P. Bicket, my assistant, sitting at the desk beside mine, turned to me from his phone with a grim smile. “The death march has started,” he announced. My “Okeh on the Hoch extra” set the machines grinding in the press room at the same instant that it turned loose in outlying districts the 75,000 printed copies that had been held in readiness. Not a hitch marred the smoothness of Annenberg’s distribution plans. All the presses were manned to extract their maximum capacity of something over 130,000 papers an hour. At ten-thirty, Annenberg came to boast, with an exultant grin, “We’ll beat all records.”

It was at that moment that a sensation seized me unlike any other in my experience—a real chill along the spine, accompanied by a sense of disastrous deprivation. Something vitally important was missing. Annenberg’s show of expansive satisfaction suddenly seemed a sinister smirk. A still voice whispered that the greater his gain the greater my loss would be. And then the cause of this unaccountable discomfort burst upon me. “What happened to the red handkerchief?” I blurted out, glaring at Jim Bicket as if I had caught him in the commission of a heinous offense.

Never before had there been occasion to ask this question. My interest in the routine of a Chicago hanging had stopped when the death march began. The execution had invariably followed. But there was always a mechanical consciousness of the final bulletin. Now, more than a quarter of an hour had passed since it was due; and it had not come. Beads of perspiration were rolling down Bicket’s face. Something inexplicable had happened. Hoch had not been led to the gallows. Instead, he was whisked out of the county jail.

Prison restrictions had retarded the newspapermen in relaying the intelligence to their respective headquarters. Now, messages disentangling the puzzle poured in from all directions. Sheriff Thomas E. Barrett had been at the head of Hoch’s solemn escort. Just as he reached the floor of the prison inclosure, he was halted by two men in frantic excitement. They were in the nick of time, they shouted, to save Hoch’s life. They were Frank Comerford and J. Julius Neagle, attorneys for the prisoner. The United States marshal accompanied them. They presented a writ of habeas corpus. It was returnable in a United States District Court. The sheriff surrendered the person of Johann Hoch to the federal officer, who hastened him before Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

A thunderclap out of a clear sky could not have been more stunning to me. The American building was swaying with the roll of the presses whirling at full tilt on the street level two floors below. The hum of the machines was plainly audible. Only a moment before it had been a lilting accompaniment to my triumphal calculations. Now it came to my ears as a dirgeful monotone. More than 140,000 copies of the American were already on the street announcing that Hoch had paid the forfeit of his life. Were those papers to make a cerement for my editorial career? How could any publication retain or engage an executive who had so stultified himself and his newspaper as to issue two separate editions reporting the execution of a notorious criminal who was not executed? Every printed impression that came off the whirring cylinders downstairs would swell the funeral pile growing for the burial of my professional future.

Could anything be done to stave off this disaster? Stop the presses? What would that gain? At best, it would be an odious confession of blunder. It could not recall the 140,000 papers already issued. It would not hush—it would actually stimulate derision— such ridicule as might be ruinous to the American. Moreover, it would destroy all chance of retrieval, closing every line of retreat and every refuge to which a benign providence might at the last moment point the way. No; there must be no thought of hopeless surrender. And this was true even though every passing minute raised the odds against me.

There may have been more pious considerations; there may have been worthier thoughts for my contemplation; but in my mind, the crisis, boiled down to an irreducible minimum, left only one alternative. Either Johann Hoch must be promptly hanged, or I must slink in shame out of the Fourth Estate. Incidentally, I might do less slinking than staggering. That would depend upon the manner in which the adversity was laid across my shoulders by the Chicago American.

Hoch’s petition for release presented a formidable problem. It alleged violation of a Constitutional right. Hoch set forth that though he had been extradited from New York to Illinois on a charge of bigamy, he was tried and convicted in the latter state on an indictment for murder. This, he pointed out, was, of course, without due process of law. There were also allegations that not only had his wife been coerced into testifying against him, but that he, too, had been forced to give evidence against himself. Even if his lawyers were animated as much by a craving for publicity as by a genuine concern for his health and happiness, they had organized an impressive eleventh-hour sortie for his freedom.

Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis
By eleven o’clock more than 175,000 Americans had been distributed with the heading “Hoch Hanged.” And the presses were continuing to fan them out at top speed. Could nobody relieve this strain? A telephone call to Sheriff Barrett had already proved futile. He was helpless. He couldn’t chart his own course. The great lawyer, Levy Mayer, was definitely discouraging. No one could forecast the decision. This judge happened to be more than unpredictable. It was a year later that Kenesaw Mountain Landis fined the Standard Oil Company $29,240,000. Already, he was evidencing the qualities that afterward prompted his selection as the savior and the czar of baseball. “Landis decides the way his conscience guides him,” Mayer commented. “We never know in advance what path he’ll pick and sometimes some of us don’t recognize the path after he’s picked it.”

The deadline for the Country Night edition was noon. A new introduction and heading must be provided for the Hoch story. The work must be done by my hands only. No one else should be asked to share any of the onus. It was shocking to realize that I dare not risk a refusal. Here was no crucible in which loyalty could be assayed. Good faith might be demonstrable with directly contrary actions. It had always been my preachment that an honest journalist owed his first duty to the institution. What would that mean to a subordinate if offered the option of defying ruin with me or of interposing disobedience as a show of fidelity to the American? Bicket had already become speechless. He was using an improvised sign language. Between gestures, he looked at me from time to time, much as the chief mourner at a funeral might glance at “the cause of it all” in the casket.

Johann Hoch was positively hanged in two more issues of the Chicago American that day, while he sat listening to the arguments on his plea for freedom. The story did make one concession to the stark verities. It told of the “eleventh-hour attempt to snatch the arch-bigamist and wife-murderer from the gallows.” The succeeding statement that Judge Landis had denied the motion for a writ of habeas corpus rested on no more definite basis than the managing editor’s fervent hope. It didn’t lift my spirits to read the headlines in the other evening papers—the News, the Journal and the Post. Each told how much alive Hoch really was.

No detail of that grueling dilemma left a clearer picture in my memory than the deportment of Foster Coates. He was sponsor for my membership in the Hearst organization. Shortly before noon, he pulled a chair to my desk. He had just arrived in Chicago on a visit of inspection. He had never been known to spend an idle moment in a newspaper office. He sat beside me during the next hour, absolutely mute. Coates could have given no more eloquent expression of sympathy. Advertising Manager Charles F. W. Nichols came up to greet Coates. The interruption turned loose some of the emotions that had been churning my inwards.

“There, in the form of our friend, Nichols,” I remarked to Coates, “moves a paradox of journalism. He demonstrates how, on a newspaper staff, the just may be amputated from justice without leaving a scar. Charlie’s salary is twice as large as mine. In a whole month, no business matter should arise to drag him from breakfast or keep him late for dinner. He has no authority and therefore no responsibility for the formulation of important decisions. The problems that reach him are for deliberate consideration in conference. Even a collision with a new sales idea need not precipitate a sudden determination. If the thought survived, it would probably be referred to a session of master minds.

“Compare all that with what happens in the news department, usually at much lower rates of compensation. One can take no editorial action that does not of itself involve the exercise of individual judgment. And—petty or portentous—the verdict must be instant. Thus, the pressure of time and the singleness of liability combine to parlay the hazard which the editor faces with every indication of his professional opinion. Perhaps not once in a hundred cases does he wait to figure the amount of the stake. But the time comes when he can’t shut his eyes to the size of the bet he’s made. Like mine on the hole card now. And nobody—not even you—can take any part of the play off my hands. It’s my neck against Hoch’s! So, Charlie Nichols chooses this moment to strut his stuff as a reminder of the crazy economic system that makes a prince out of a space pedler and a galley slave out of an editor.”

“Brace up!” was Coates’s only comment. It acted like a tonic. It nerved me to endure without further complaint the remainder of that afternoon’s torment. At one o’clock, a memorandum slip reached me showing the press run thus far. “Hoch Hanged” was the heading of 365,000 papers already printed. And only one hour remained of the four during which the execution must take place if it were to occur that day or at all. At 1:15, Coates murmured an almost inaudible apology and left me. He sought the shabby solitude of the “throne room.” He was racking his brain for a cushion to absorb as much as possible of the impending crash.

A moment later came my deliverance. Judge Landis denied Hoch’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus as well as his motion for an appeal. The unbelievable Bluebeard was hustled back to the county jail. His custodians literally dragged him through a race between time and the gallows. At 1:34 the trap was sprung. At 1:47 Hoch was pronounced dead, just thirteen minutes before the termination of the period fixed in the court’s sentence for his hanging. Hundreds of thousands of readers and many employees of the Chicago American accepted as an evidence of extraordinary enterprise and possibly clairvoyant anticipation the extras that informed them of Hoch’s end hours in advance of its occurrence. Apparently, they considered it appropriate that the newspaper which exposed the murderer’s crimes should have an inside track in chronicling their atonement. With which view and the faintest of blushes, the writer desires to close the episode. 

 The call of the crusade seemed to hold an enchantment for most Hearst editors during the first decade of the current century. Not one link in the newspaper chain failed for a whole week to clang a protest against some public abuse. But many of these campaigns were ill-advised. Some of them evoked considerable disfavor. Various elements of the community, choosing between an existent evil and material disadvantages that might fall to them through its removal, aligned themselves against the proposed reform. No system of graft can be excised—there can be no retrenchment in organized expenditure—without arousing opposition among those to be adversely affected by the transition. And there are always abundant vestments of piety for laissez faire. They sometimes dignify threats of violence to maintain the status quo.

The reformer must hurdle both farce and force. Take the case of the Illinois landlord who rallied friends to the defense of his property near Fort Sheridan. His tenants, he explained, were conservators of temperance. They allowed no drunken soldiers on their premises. They knew they’d be evicted if they trafficked in intoxicating liquors. The neighborhood should be grateful to them for displacing disorderly blind pigs with well-regulated bagnios. More bizarre than this protest itself was the fact that it postponed a local reformation.

The most fertile field for crusading results, with the largest likelihood of popular approval and the least danger of untoward reactions, lay among the inequalities that harassed tax payers in Cook County, particularly, and in centers of wealth generally. Ordinarily, the tax dodger was considered as nearly friendless in those days as any baneful form of civic existence. But in Chicago, he was the progeny of crooked politics—the more or less unwilling creature of manipulators who pinned his assessment ratal to the customer lists of firms they owned either secretly or openly. No public scandal was more familiar to Chicagoans. And none had baffled investigation more successfully.

Analysis convinced me that previous efforts at exposure had been balked because they were too diffuse. Where attempts to uncover a whole system had failed, the tracking down of a single case might succeed. The International Harvester Company—the most conspicuous prospect—was my choice. The corporation, founded by the famous inventor, Cyrus H. McCormick, paid taxes on an appraisal of $16,000,000. But the individual holdings of stock remained untaxed. Credible evidence set the value of assessable shares in Cook County at $100,000,000. The Chicago American undertook to subject those securities to taxation. The job was assigned to William H. (“Bill”) Stuart, one of the most versatile journalists on any staff I ever directed. Stuart’s experience had included the managing editorship of a Grand Rapids daily. It would require a type of wool not yet grown to be pulled over his eyes.

Three bureaus handled four successive stages of taxation— through appraisal, assessment, equalization and review. They evinced a unanimous disinclination to bother about the affairs of the Harvester trust. The company itself remained discreetly silent. It did not discuss its tax matters with outsiders. We found a way to become insiders. The Square Deal Tax League was formed. Charles E. Erbstein, a bright young attorney with a talent for demolishing an opponent’s reserve, was made counsel. He assented to my terms. His reward would consist of the sense of righteousness accruing from service to the public, plus the inevitable publicity. The Square Deal Tax League purchased three shares of International Harvester Company. Then Erbstein, as attorney for a stockholder, demanded the right to examine the corporation’s books. This would give us access to a complete list of the share owners with the exact amount of securities held by each individual. Thereupon the Harvester trust capitulated.

News of our victory was brought to me by Clarence S. Darrow, of Darrow, Masters & Wilson, attorneys for the Chicago American. Edgar Lee Masters, the second partner in the firm, had not yet written Spoon River Anthology, but was already preparing to abandon the law for poetry. Darrow had been approached by Edgar A. Bancroft, counsel for the International Harvester Company. Bancroft was eager to “shut off this hurly-burly about tax dodging.” Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if this difficulty were adjusted in orderly conferences between lawyers? Bancroft’s client was fully disposed to be reasonable. It would be quite all right for the American to claim full credit for the success of its campaign. In fact, that was most desirable. It would terminate the newspaper’s bombardment of the Harvester Company.

Clarence Darrow
All this was entirely agreeable to me. The only item remaining unsettled was the amount to be paid in taxes. I mentioned a figure. It seemed to impress Darrow favorably. He offered to discuss it with Bancroft and report the outcome to me. Darrow’s apparent satisfaction pleased me greatly. He had always seemed a dear fellow, holding the affections of all his associates. His opus, Resist Not Evil, was yet in the offing. His championship of the underdog had already won him friends the world over. His reputation as America’s foremost criminal lawyer was in its incipiency. Our parting handshake gave me an emotional lift. Five minutes later he had turned that sentimental rise into an ethical slump.

Darrow returned to ask a favor. Evidently, he had forgotten to make the request earlier. It always grieved me that the matter didn’t escape his memory altogether. He asked and received permission to accept a fee from the International Harvester Company. The idea turned me roundabout. Darrow was on the regular payroll of the Chicago American. How could he think of taking compensation from the other side—even with our consent— in so delicate a negotiation? Our sanctimonious opponents had offered him an honorarium. What did they expect to get in return? What were they trying to buy? The only pending dispute involved the amount of cash to be deposited in the coffers of Cook County. Darrow’s regular client, the Chicago American, demanded a maximum while the opposition strove for a minimum. How could a lawyer serve both parties in this contest?

Darrow’s own understanding of the facts was shown in a memorandum he wrote on August 28, 1907. This summary reviewed my demand that the Harvester Company pay taxes on $25,000,000 as compared with Bancroft’s counter-proposal of $10,000,000. It argued that a point between those figures would mark a great public service and record a signal victory in the Chicago American’s crusade for just assessments. It set out clearly Darrow’s judgment that the sum should be as high as “the Harvester people" could be persuaded to accept.

Having established what he described as “a basis for amicable negotiation” between Bancroft and me, Darrow left for Boise to defend the men accused of the murder of Governor Steunenberg. He delegated his partner, Wilson, to dispose of the reaper trust matter. But during Darrow’s absence the Chicago kettle of tax fish simmered too slowly for my liking. It required sharp stirring to bring a bubble to the surface. At last Wilson notified me that the Harvester group would meet my terms. Stuart wouldn’t believe this. An ebon-hued figure in the lumber stack was clearly discernible to him. The Harvester trust did assent to the $25,000,000 figure. But little more than half of it went on the regular assessment roll.

The balance disappeared in a haze created by acrobatic arithmetic spinning around some unenforceable promises of back tax payments. Actually, the personalty holdings were assessed at $10,729,370 and $4,136,533 was added to the company’s corporate valuation, making a total tax increase of $14,865,903. Bancroft had not been without sagacity in enlisting Darrow’s assistance. Still, as Wilson pointed out, the immediate contribution of nearly $300,000 and the addition thereafter to the county funds of more than $200,000 annually should match a handsome feather in my cap.

No matter how attractive the haberdashery Wilson suggested, it didn’t offset the halving of my promised triumph. Nor did it restore Darrow to unchallenged occupancy of his pedestal. It was less disconcerting to be taken in by the wiles and guiles of a great corporation than to suffer from the misstep of a great humanitarian. Cyrus S. Simon, Darrow’s protege and junior partner, shed an uncertain light on his patron’s vagary. Simon was woefully indignant. “No man on earth needs a manager so much as Darrow,” he wailed to me. “I know he’s the world’s worst sucker, but what I object to is that he works overtime at the job. He should never have accepted that fee from the Harvester people. There isn’t any question that he earned it. The point is that if he took anything at all, it should have been his size. And he could have gotten it. The job was worth at least a quarter of a million dollars. Think of him fixing his charge at $10,000! Cyrus McCormick should be ashamed to pay that fee.”

Though I heartily concurred with Simon’s conclusion, we reached it from widely different angles.

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