There are stories you don’t want to write but you know you must. When we talk about history – and we commit to telling stories that bridge the gaps in our collective knowledge – it’s important that we consider what makes us uncomfortable because our stories aren’t fabrications. They’re all too real. Many don’t always have the artistic success of the Thompson clan, the Industrial prestige of the Kauffman family, the show-stopping drama of Blanche Beekman … sometimes stories flash up from a point in time and see fit to wound (even horrify) you. But those stories deserve to be told, too.
Reader, meet Christina Windisch Britting. The Windisch name should be familiar; together with the Muhlhausers, they built what became one of the largest breweries in Cincinnati: the Lion Brewery. They also had a hand in the Hauck Brewery. Johann Ulrich Windisch and John Hauck incorporated the Dayton Street Brewery. Johann passed away at the age of 49 and Hauck bought his shares for $550,000. Johann’s first son Conrad is a well-known figure and beer baron in his own right. His second child, the aforementioned Christina, became not just an upstanding young lady but also an heiress. Johann and his wife had seven more children after Conrad and Christina.
What I’ve learned of Christina has been a pastiche of newspaper articles about the story I am going to tell in addition to the celebration of the Windisch family whose legacy is still an important part of the greater Cincinnati area in art and in industry. I plan to visit the Archives to see if I can learn more about her and follow the rabbit trail more through the public libraries. But I also found it important to write her name and tell her story to you. What’s more, if anyone reads this and knows anything else about Christina, please reach out to us. So with that preamble, here is what we know.
Christina Windisch married John Britting in January 1879. She was 22 years old and she was rich. John Britting was a successful and well-known “piano maker” and salesman. They set about creating a life. Christina had a comfortable living for her family thanks to her father’s business, so it can only be assumed that this was a consideration in the marriage. (It is interesting to note that Christina seems to be the only surviving female child of Johann – she is otherwise hemmed in by brothers.) Nevertheless, she and John set up house and they began having children. Ida lived to be five years old. Olga didn’t make it past her first birthday. The third child – John – was born in 1887 and lived into his twenties. The Enquirer picks Christina back up in 1889 to begin recording her legal troubles.
On March 7, she sued for divorce. The newspaper cites that John physically and mentally abused her, taken the living provided by her inheritances from both her mother and her father, left her with little allowance, and even taken her child. She “asks for a divorce, the custody of her children and that he be enjoined from interfering with her property and be deprived of interest therein.” Wow. Again, let’s remember the socio-political landscape for women during this time period: they couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property, could barely be seen as independent within the eyes of the law. But Christina wasn’t going to let that stop her; she had a strong case and a desire to be safe, secure and in comfort.
It didn’t end there.
Another story pops up in 1894. Because Christina was referred to as “John’s wife” it’s safe to guess that the divorce was not finalized. In fact, John is in the custody of Cincinnati’s finest because he has attempted to murder his wife for the control of over $70,000 in assets. (In 2019 terms, that’s about $2.1 million.) On July 28th, he appeared in court and was released to his brother on $1,000 bond because Christina could not appear in court. She was, after all, wounded. Judge Gregg continued the case to give her time to heal and appear in court to confront her attacker. On August 9th, she still did not show in court. As soon as she could be moved, the family sent her out of town to Old Point Comfort in Hampton, VA. By August 22nd, Christina was still absent from court. Speculation reigned that John had followed her to beg forgiveness, further indicating they were “having a big time” and she extended grace to her husband, determining that she would not act as a prosecuting witness in court. Since only she and their son were witnesses to the crime, there was no case to further try. As of September 16th, the case against John was dismissed in court. Fourteen years afterward, there is an announcement in Buffalo, NY that Mr. and Mrs. John Britting are visiting Niagara Falls.
There is much to unpack about Christina Windisch Britting. Did society miscarry justice? Yes. In a time when women were not granted the social mobility to act independently, it is absolutely unique that she sued for divorce. (NB: when I search for Christina, I generally have to search for John. This is part and parcel with historical recovery and sad evidence of the erasure of women’s history.) It is also likely that her family’s name as well as her assets gave her the social and lawful strength to act. But lacking the social support, even with a compassionate judge, confronting her attacker in court would not only be scandalous it would be an outright danger. Today, we have support for women in Cincinnati who are undergoing abusive conditions. Women Helping Women is one of our favorite organizations.
It also seems interesting that the Windisch heiress didn’t marry into another brewing family. Our previous beer baroness articles have chronicled the intertwining family trees of many beer families that made their millions in Cincinnati. Why not the only surviving female Windisch? I choose to believe that the Windisch family supported Christina. She is, in fact, a named beneficiary in her younger brother George’s will. She also outlives them all: John Britting, her siblings, her children. She lives until 1926 and passes away in Detroit at age 70.
I celebrate this American heiress, whose family made millions from having nothing, and I celebrate this survivor. Christina Windisch Britting carried the physical and mental scars of trauma through the length of her life. But we also know that she stood up for herself, that she managed property and money, that she survived despite the odds.
Let’s also celebrate this resilient family underpinning some of our beloved cornerstones of art and history in the Greater Cincinnati Area. Would Christina have been a patron or a fan of the arts? It would be considered an accomplished past time for a young lady of the aspirational nouveau-riche. I wonder what she would think about the Cincinnati Ballet using the family’s brewing tunnels and spaces to preserve their costuming. I like to think she would be pleased.
The Butler County area still celebrates Christina’s family. Hop up to Fairfield, OH to visit brother Conrad’s house in Fairfield. You can drive down Windisch Road past the site of Johann’s estate. You can walk the Miami-Erie Canal towpath and know you’re crossing Windisch and Muhlhauser property. There are also spaces honoring the Muhlhauser and Moerlein families (you can even get married in the old barn and hang out at a gazebo named in their honor). Christina’s family left an indelible mark on the landscape; a legacy that deserves to be celebrated. Let’s raise a glass not just to the Windisch family. Let’s remember Christina.