A Long-Forgotten Divorce Case Recalls Cincinnati’s Strong German Heritage

This vignette from a Cincinnati courtroom reminds us that German influence extended beyond the Over-the-Rhine district.
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Just how German was Cincinnati? A vignette from the courtroom of Frederick S. Spiegel one day in January 1898 reminds us that German influence extended beyond the Over-the-Rhine district.

The matter under review that day was a petition for divorce from Anna Weiss against her husband Christian Weiss. As in most divorces, there was a sad backstory. Anna and Christian had married in Switzerland in 1884. Christian was a violent man and abused his wife terribly. Anna put up with the abuse throughout the long voyage to America and Christian’s struggles to find work in the new country.

There is no question that Cincinnati’s German population was concentrated in the Over-the-Rhine district, but its influence was felt even in the halls of power.

From Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper 13 January 1883 Digitized by Google Books

When he did find work, his abuse intensified. Christian was a carpenter at a brewery. Like all Cincinnati breweries at the time, workmen were allowed almost unlimited glasses of beer throughout the workday. Christian came home drunk and beat Anna every night. One day, he declared that he would no longer support her. Anna found work as a nurse, but Christian continued to hit her and she often had to seek refuge at a neighbor’s house.

Anna filed for divorce in 1896. Christian hired the best attorneys he could, because he had $2,000 in a building association account and intended to prevent Anna from getting any of that money. The case dragged on through 1897 with restraining orders and a debate over whether Christian posed a flight risk.

Caricature of Judge Frederick Spiegel

From Cincinnati Enquirer 13 September 1893 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

And so we come to that January day in 1898. With all the lawyers, court staff and principals assembled, it was found that one key participant was missing, the court interpreter. A long list of witnesses awaited questioning, and few of them spoke much English. According to the Cincinnati Times-Star [19 January 1898]:

“So much the better,” said one of the lawyers, who added: “Your honor, suppose we conduct the case in German.”

Judge Spiegel, born in Germany, was agreeable, and polled those in attendance. Colon Schott, attorney for Mrs. Weiss, approved. Vincent Schwab and Joseph Schultz, attorneys for Christian Weiss, had no objection.

Turning to the clerk of the court, Judge Spiegel said: “How about you, Mr. Clerk?”

“Go ahead,” was the reply.

As it turned out, Bailiff Henry Kleemeyer, messenger Howard Legner and even the janitor, Michael Heintz, were also fluent in German. According to the Times-Star:

“The hearing then proceeded, the questions, answers, all the testimony and even the arguments of the attorneys being in the language of the Fatherland. During the proceedings, the attorneys had several lively spats, which were also in German.”

The Times-Star claimed the case had set a historic precedent.

“It was the first time in the history of Hamilton county courts that a case was tried in the German tongue exclusively.”

Although the litigants and their attorneys found a common tongue, they did not find common ground. The Weiss case dragged on for another year. Sadly, Anna Weiss did not live to see the resolution. She died of heart failure in July 1898. It was late the next year before the court ruled that Christian Weiss had to pay $275 to his late wife’s estate.

For Judge Speigel, the Weiss divorce was neither the first nor the last time his German-language skills came in handy. In 1904, Margaret Centner sought a divorce from August Centner, a printer. Margaret and her abusive husband were both born in Germany as were many of their friends and acquaintances, so the courtroom was full of German speakers.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Centner’s attorney, Frank J. McCabe was not one of them. When he attempted to interrogate the first witness in support of Mrs. Centner’s claims, a neighbor by the name of Carrie Meyers, her only response was “Ich spreche kein Englich.”

Attorney McCabe tried again and got the same result. Judge Spiegel translated that the witness knew little English. McCabe, a proud son of the Auld Sod, knew little German, so it appeared matters were at a stalemate. The judge suggested that Counselor McCabe direct the witness to answer the question in her own way. McCabe asked the judge if he would pass that message along to the witness in her native tongue, and so he did.

It is notable that Judge Spiegel was not only German, but he was also Jewish. Spiegel was elected mayor of Cincinnati in 1914 and served a two-year term. He was not the first Jewish mayor of the city, that precedent being set by Julius Fleischmann in 1900.

Spiegel was born in Germany in 1858 and traveled to the United States to further his education. He arrived in Cincinnati as a reporter for the Volksblatt, the Republican vehicle of the local German community. He earned his legal degree from the Cincinnati Law School in 1880 and held several offices in Republican administrations throughout his life.

Judge Spiegel may have presided during a time we remember as the height of German influence in Cincinnati, but the Ohio Writers Project in their classic, “Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors” note that the Teutonic flavor of the city was still strong in 1943.

“The Germans are a distinctive feature of Cincinnati. There are more than 100,000, and no other class of citizens is more loyal. At one time the ‘Over the Rhine’ district contained nearly all the German population, but now they are found in every quarter of the city, and they own much property. The city has several German newspapers—the Volksblatt and Volksfreund being respectively the leading German Republican and Democratic organs—German book stores, a German theater and many German societies. Many of the leading spirits in art, musical, business and social movements are among them.”

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