The Divorce Colony

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1867, the Dakota Territory’s legislature reduced its requirement for legal residency to 90 days, an acknowledgment of the peripatetic nature of life on the American frontier. While the three-month rule granted eligible settlers the right to vote and other privileges, it also had an unintended consequence: Women began traveling west to take advantage of what was, at the time, the quickest path to a legal divorce.

April White tells the tale in “The Divorce Colony,” an entertaining and edifying account of the divorce industry that emerged in Sioux Falls, S.D. Sioux Falls became the go-to destination for those looking to escape a marriage—it was easily accessible by train and boasted an upscale hotel, the Cataract House, that was palatable to the East Coast elites who could afford to wait in luxury.

While some men traveled to Sioux Falls to dissolve their marriages, Ms. White reports that in the second half of the 19th century, nearly two out of three divorce-seekers were women. In addition to outnumbering the men, the women attracted much fiercer interest. As the author observes, “a man who expected his freedom was not as outlandish as a woman who demanded hers.”

Accordingly, along with dozens of law firms and various shops and restaurants catering to the city’s new high-end female clientele, the divorce industry supported a steady stream of newspaper correspondents. They hung around the Cataract hoping to break the news of the latest high-society wife to decamp to Sioux Falls from, say, New York, where the only path to divorce was proof of adultery, or Rhode Island, which required a full year of residency in order to petition to end a marriage.

Ms. White, a writer and editor at online travel magazine Atlas Obscura, benefits from the period’s fascination with the would-be divorcees, quoting liberally from lurid tabloid reports of their travails. She acknowledges that most of the Dakota divorces were quiet, mutual proceedings, but her book ends up being skewed toward the salacious cases. While they might not be representative, they surely make for more enjoyable reading.

The narrative is divided into four parts, each focused on a woman whose divorce featured prominently in the headlines at the turn of the 20th century. Maggie De Stuers, a descendant of John Jacob Astor, married a Dutch baron low on funds. She accused him of attempting to have her institutionalized so he could gain control of her fortune.

Mary Nevins eloped at 19 with Jamie Blaine, the dissolute 17-year-old son of the former senator and secretary of state, James G. Blaine. Her mother-in-law opposed the match, practically locking Jamie in the family home to keep the two apart. Mary arrived in Sioux Falls, charging her husband with abandonment. When the judge granted her divorce, he declared that Jamie’s family was to blame—“especially his mother.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal