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Till Divorce Do Us Part
It has been with us since Plymouth Colony. But that’s not why it’s an American institution.
November 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 7
Whichever sex was responsible, by the second half of the nineteenth century, both men and women were clamoring for reform. They banded together in leagues and collected statistics, lobbied for a uniform code, and even talked of a constitutional amendment. The word reform , however, can be misleading. A uniform law did not mean a liberal law. While suffragists were divided on the question of divorce, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was clearly against it. Its members wanted to protect women rather than emancipate them. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest women’s organization in the country, found itself in a particular bind. Opposed to liberalized divorce, it nonetheless fought to extend the grounds to drunkenness. The various Protestant denominations stiffened their positions against the institution, and Theodore Roosevelt raised his shrill voice against it in public and nipped it in the bud at home when he forbade his daughter Alice to bring suit against her prodigiously unfaithful husband, Nicholas Longworth.
But where some found moral laxity, others saw economic opportunity. The reformers were up against nothing less than the American entrepreneurial spirit as embodied in the divorce mill. The mill was highly mobile. It moved from Indianapolis in the 1850s, through Utah and the Dakotas, on to the Oklahoma Territory, settled briefly in Wyoming, and in 1910 finally put down roots in Reno. The scenery varied, but the conditions remained the same. The first was a short residency requirement; the second, “omnibus grounds,” which gave broad definitions to cruelty and incompatibility. Other accommodations and amenities followed. In the 1890s, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, boasted 10 gambling halls, 37 holes-in-the-wall, and 100 prostitutes. Meanwhile, The Nation lamented that at the city’s hotels “a divorced husband may be seen introducing his new wife to his old one, who, in her turn, presents her new husband, while the bewildered children involved in this scandalous mixture wander about in disconsolate uncertainty.” But the moralists were no match for the entrepreneurs. In 1913, reformers persuaded the Nevada legislature to extend the residency requirement to 12 months, but two years later the Reno Businessmen’s Association succeeded in rolling it back, and by 1931, with Idaho and Arkansas hot on the trail of the divorce dollar, the requirement was down to 6 weeks.
The perception of an entire population crisscrossing the country in pursuit of quick and easy divorce was widespread. “I’ll reside in Athens six weeks, while I get me a divorce,” wrote Lorenz Hart in the 1938 musical The Boys From Syracuse . But unlike the men-hating wives and social-climbing home wreckers in The Women , Clare Boothe Luce’s hit play of the same period, few people had the time or money for Pullman fare and several weeks on a dude ranch. The ones who did, however, tended to make headlines. In 1869, on his way from St. Petersburg to his destiny in Troy, Heinrich Schliemann made a stop in Indianapolis, where he bought a house and a share in a starch factory to convince the legislature he was a serious resident and therefore entitled to a speedy divorce. (From colonial times until well into the nineteenth century, both legislatures and courts granted divorces.)
The mills may not have been undermining personal morals, as the reformers argued, but they were subverting the rule of law. “How intolerable … that citizens of New York, for example, should be able to set the laws to which they are subject at defiance by temporarily removing to another State,” The Nation scolded in the article cited earlier. The problem was not new. Law and practice had been on uneasy terms ever since the colonies, taking a cue from the mother country, had made divorce an adversarial action. If one unhappy spouse sued, it was legal. If both opted to end the marriage, it was collusion. The result was a nation of pillars of the community, leaders of society, and otherwise honest folk busily breaking the law. In New York, which retained Alexander Hamilton’s 1787 statute designating adultery as the sole ground until 1966, a cottage industry of accessories to the crime grew up. A 1934 series in the New York Mirror ran under the headline I WAS THE “UNKNOWN BLOND” IN 100 NEW YORK DIVORCES ! A decade and a half later, another newspaper published a feature about a wife and mother of three who moonlighted as an “unknown woman” in staged adulteries all over town. As a result, the district attorney’s office opened 600 recent divorces to review. The number of matrimonial actions in New York County fell by 43 percent the following year.
The tabloids’ focus on corespondents reveals a home truth about divorce. The blush of shame it has always worn goes back to the early company it kept with adultery. By the late seventeenth century, fornication had ceased to be a capital offense in most colonies, but it was still seen as the devil’s work, and some warned that a society that failed to punish adultery by death would itself be punished by God. Thus were laid the philosophic grounds for an intrusive priggishness that would lead to a presidential impeachment destined to astound and amuse the rest of the world.