- Historic Sites
Liberty And Disunion
Three Centuries of Divorce, American Style
October 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 6
South Dakota conservatives like Episcopal bishop William H. Hare were revolted by such proceedings. Bishop Hare led trainloads of protesters to the state capital to demand tightening of the laws. But Sioux Falls fought back, employing the classic argument that if it did not furnish a divorce locale other places would, and pointing out that in six months a rich and unhappy visiting lady could patronize merchants far more handsomely than local farm wives. A judge summed up town opinion when he declared that divorce seekers came for a lawful purpose, “as much so as if they sought the pure air and salubrious climate of the State for the benefit of their health, or its fertile soil for agricultural purposes.”
Nonetheless, the divorce reformers finally got the state to lengthen its residence requirement to a prohibitive one year, in 1907. In that same year an attorney named William H. Schnitzer moved from New York to Reno and energetically began to call attention to Nevada’s divorce advantages: the six months’ residency, the lenient grounds, the private hearings where there was no contest, the privilege of immediate remarriage. Collecting these facts in a pamphlet, Schnitzer then took ads in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia papers. “Have You Domestic Trouble?” they asked. “Are You Seeking DIVORCE? Do You Want Quick and Reliable Action? Send for My Booklet.”
Thousands did. Despite an eight-month suspension by the Nevada supreme court in 1911 because of such solicitations, Schnitzer prospered. So did Reno’s innkeepers, enriched by a rising number of divorce seekers, and in a newspaper jingle they reminded those who objected:
All Nevada, in fact, preferred to thrive. By the early 1920’s the Reno court was granting a thousand divorces a year. (Las Vegas was then only a wagon stop between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles and did not emerge as a pleasure dome and divorce factory until late in the thirties.) Intoxicated with such success, the legislature in 1927 passed a bill cutting the residence requirement to three months. It went through at an all-night session, and a complaisant governor signed it before breakfast, and before conservatives could react. The result was all that enterprise expected. Reno, whose legalized gambling parlors were especially diverting to bored wives, was soon doing two million dollars’ worth of business annually. Lush times were reflected in the sight of crowds strolling in “Alimony Park” across the street from the courthouse. (Alimony, however, was not an important factor in divorce history until relatively recent times. In 1916 it was awarded in only 15 per cent of all cases.∗)
∗Originally derived from the Latin word alimentum , or nourishment, alimony was a payment required of husbands in the days when they were masters of their wives’ property. If a husband received a bed-and-board divorce, he retained control of the spouse’s assets but had to provide for her support out of their income. Time and feminism have changed the law so that men are no longer masters of their wives’ wealth —but the obligation to support a divorced spouse (unless she is found to be the “guilty” party in a divorce) remains. While there are often good and sufficient reasons for alimony, many men are outraged at a pattern of past judicial practice which holds that in awarding alimony courts should exercise “a just liberality” with the ex-husband’s means. Wives may receive alimony sufficient to maintain their former standard of living even from a husband thrown on hard times; they may receive it even when remarried; incredibly, some have even gotten alimony awards when “living in sin” with another man. For in the words of one judge who made such an award, the divorced woman owes her former mate “no duty to lead a virtuous life” in return for support.
Then, in 1931, Reno met a challenge. Other states, sinking deeper into the Depression, determined to override scruples and bid for vacationing marital refugees. In February, Arkansas, already attracting tourists to its hot springs, reduced its residence requirement for filing divorce suits to three months, despite one Bible Belt legislator’s cry: “It looks as if we have reached the same point reached by Judas Iscariot when he sold the Christ.” The following month Idaho likewise cut its residence time to three months, and in 1935 Wyoming and Florida followed suit.