Lost Milwaukee: The Schandein Mansion
Brewery heiress Lisette Best Schandein’s golden years were filled with tremendous wealth — and tremendous controversy.
By the 1890s, Lisette was the most extraordinarily well-connected woman in Wisconsin: she was the daughter of Philip Best, founder of Milwaukee’s first breweries; the wife of Emil Schandein, founder of the Milwaukee Deutsche Gesellschaft; and the sister of Maria Best, the wife of Captain Frederick Pabst. As stakeholders in the Second Ward Savings Bank, Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, and the Milwaukee Brewers Assocation, Emil and Lisette Schandein were royalty in the German Athens. They held their heads high above the wealthiest people in Wisconsin, the United States and the world.
Lisette’s most notable act of charity destroyed her family three decades later, in a sensational courtroom trial that could have easily ruined the Pabst brand name as well.
The New York Times would later say, “The story of the rise of Jacob Heyl is a remarkable one.” In 1874, Lisette met Heyl as a penniless young boy in Berlin, Germany, and brought him to Milwaukee out of pity when he was 10 years old. He lived in the family home free of charge for many years, working in the Pabst Brewery as a $1/day laborer, quickly charmed Lisette with his book-keeping skills, and was named “business manager.” Twelve years later, he was married to one of the Schandein daughters, Louise — a marriage widely believed to be a cover story for his affair with her mother.
Louise Schandein Heyl died on January 19, 1888, only two years into her sham marriage. Some suspected foul play. Others suspected she died of a broken heart. Her father, Emil, retired alone to Weisbaden, Germany to grieve. Never a well man, he died there shortly after.
And remarkably, the Schandein family scandal hadn’t even started yet.
After Emil died, his wife’s magnificent 40,000-square-foot, 43-room mansion on 24th and Grand (Wisconsin) Avenue, was finally completed in 1889 at the cost of $300,000. It was the first German Renaissance mansion built in Milwaukee — specially modeled after a Viennese villa — and the first Wisconsin home with an indoor furnace. Decorated in rare (and now extinct) woods, and featuring one of the most extensive private art collections in the world, the house was specially designed to be Milwaukee’s showplace for famous guests — ranging from President Cleveland to the Crown Princes of Europe.
And the mansion opened with a highly unusual society event. The widowed Jacob Heyl was married off to Lisette’s oldest daughter, Clara, in a awkward ceremony the Milwaukee Sentinel declared “the prettiest wedding in a long time.” Bride, groom and mother-in-law would live comfortably — and controversially — under the same roof. This arrangement stirred up vicious gossip, which was greatly embarrassing to Captain Frederick Pabst. Even more concerning to the Captain: Jacob Heyl now owned more stock in the Pabst Brewery than either of the Pabst sons.
The Best family was no stranger to scandal. Suicides, prison sentences, and excessive behavior had polluted the Jacob Best brand name, convincing Captain Pabst to rename his company in 1889 and distance his product from his in-laws’ mistakes. Captain Pabst would not live to see the Schandein scandal play out, but the rebranding was successful in protecting his good name.
Lisette Schandein died of a stroke on March 24, 1905 at the age of 57. Her last will and testament left $800,000 to be shared by two of her children, Emil Jr. and Ella — and the remaining $7 million to Clara Heyl and her husband, Jacob, who was also conveniently named executor of the will. Emil Jr. and Ella immediately protested, claiming the will was “procured under fraud and duress under the undue influence of Mr. Heyl.” The Schandein children also argued that their brother-in-law was not a “fit or suitable person” to act as executor. Heyl had already accumulated $1.5 million between 1896 and 1904 — through secret contracts with their mother — and they weren’t ready to let him walk away with their inheritance. The resulting “bitter fight for millions” was a national scandal that packed courtrooms and Hearst newspapers with a daily tale of “unspeakable family relations.”
Milwaukee society was shocked to learn that the “Schandein whispers” had been true all along. Testimony alleged that there were “improper incidents” between Lisette Schandein and Jacob Heyl, who the matriarch had taken to calling “Papa” after her husband’s death. Eva Kratschmer, a maid in the Schandein home since 1871, testified that she saw Jacob and Lisette kissing on multiple evenings in 1884 and 1885. This testimony was corroborated by other servants who reported Heyl and Lisette often locked themselves into bedrooms, with one or the other emerging late at night, while Clara Heyl was locked into a bedroom alone in another wing. The court heard how Lisette and Jacob registered themselves as husband and wife while traveling to Europe for her husband’s remains — and during their six month tour following the funeral. There were even accusations of Lisette and Heyl had produced an illegitimate child in 1891.
Defense witnesses, such as Anna Reichart of the Pabst Theater, testified that Lisette felt “crucified” and “tormented” by her daughter Ella and daughter-in-law Stella — and had planned to leave Milwaukee because of her ungrateful children. Mrs. Reichart explained that Lisette had not only purchased a new Prospect Avenue home for her son and daughter-in-law, but paid all of their household expenses, and yet they wanted more and more. Other witnesses tried to create sympathy for a victimized Lisette, whose husband spent years frequenting the Kitty Williams whorehouse.
Testimony often became so seamy that girls considered too “thoughtless and immodest” were asked to leave the courtroom. The audience learned Heyl was once accused of molesting a 10-year-old Schandein niece. Ella Schandein Frank revealed that she had been molested in her own bedroom between ages 15 and 18 — during which time, Heyl was married to her older sister. Heyl commonly hugged and poked Ella, and set her on his lap at gatherings — something that had raised many eyebrows among guests. Ella spoke of waking to find him sitting on her bed with a knife, talking about stabbing people and pleading with her to “like” him. When Ella reported this to her mother, Lisette simply told her to lock her doors — and tell no one else about the incident. Under oath, the “affectionate brother-in-law” admitted to creeping along a 10-inch-wide window ledge, 20 feet above the ground, to access Ella’s quarters via an open bathroom window — just to leave behind a skull-and-crossbones note card reading, “Touch Me Not.”
The claims became more and more bizarre. Witnesses claimed that Emil Schandein, Sr. had once threatened to wring Heyl’s neck and throw him out into the street. Emil Schandein, Jr., claimed that Lisette had sent him off to boarding school to keep him out of the household, and had blocked him from accepting a Pabst Brewery position to keep him out of the business. A family friend revealed that Lisette paid her son an allowance of only $50/month — which forced him to sell off furniture to pay his debts. Heyl was even accused of regularly visiting a Center Street fortune teller between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. and paying handsomely for her “services.”
What was really going on in the Schandein house? People were convinced that Lisette’s relationship with Heyl was anything but maternal. It was clear that neither Louise nor Clara ever loved Heyl, but were basically forced into loveless, painful marriages by a domineering mother. It was obvious that Heyl had designs on young women within his own “family.”
When Clara finally took the stand, there was only one question left to ask. Why would anyone marry their adopted brother, who had already married their younger sister? A tearful Clara revealed that the marriage was her attempt to prevent Heyl from taking Eric, his son, her nephew and favorite Schandein grandson, and leaving Milwaukee forever.
In April 1906, the judge upheld Lisette’s last will and testament. Clara was declared the “triumphant heroine” of the will contest, received possession of the $8 million fortune, established generous settlements for her sons and siblings — and promptly filed for divorce from Jacob Heyl for his “cruel and inhumane” behavior.
Six months later, Clara fled the country with a $3 million settlement, her two young sons Reinhard and Helmuth, and no desire to ever return to Milwaukee. Her no-contest divorce, granted January 5, 1907, ordered Jacob Heyl to relinquish all claims on the Schandein estate, as well as $325,000 in life insurance policies. Heyl quietly relocated to Buffalo, New York, where he later died. The divorce settlement forbid Clara from marrying again within one year — so she remarried one day after its expiration on January 6, 1908. Clara Scandein Heyl Schulbeck built a villa in Grunewald, on the western outskirts of Berlin, where she too would entertain the Crown Prince and Princess of Germany, far away from the accursed Schandein mansion.
In an 1904 letter, Lisette Schandein reflected on her “big box” mansion, admitting “it has never brought me luck.” The family sold the abandoned home to the City of Milwaukee, who gracelessly chopped up the 43 rooms into less opulent apartment units that they couldn’t afford to heat or maintain. The gilded mansion quickly became tarnished.
Twenty years after Lisette’s death, the house at Grand 38 was an increasingly shabbier reminder of a family’s shame. On January 18, 1927, a snide Milwaukee Journal columnist remarked, “If walls could talk, the ‘beautiful’ Schandein mansion…would provide a best seller.” It was time to stop the chatter. The Schandein mansion was torn down to make room for the Milwaukee County Emergency Hospital, which opened in 1929. Many, many more of the city’s finest West Side mansions would be razed or ruined over the next five decades as wealth fled the neighborhood.
The Pabst mansion, last man standing, is now a tourist attraction that welcomes over 300,000 annual visitors. But the Schandein palace exists only in historical exhibits, rare lithographs, and the ghostly echoes of a once Grand Avenue.