How Sioux Falls in the 19th Century Became the ‘Divorce Colony’ for Women

Residents crave for their state to become famous for something positive to have bragging rights among other states in the union. In our daily news, we hear affirmations of our greatness compared to other states. However, states are far more likely to become famous for their ills than for their strengths.

South Dakota is famous for its winters, whether we should or not. Likewise, Florida for its hurricanes and California for its fires. When do you remember a state becoming famous for having the best tax structure in the country, the fairest judicial system, or the best education system?

South Dakota became famous in the late 19th and early 20th century for its favorable divorce laws, which made us a haven for the wealthy to come and divorce. For the most part, these wealthy women came to one place. It wasn’t Webster or Watertown, but it was Sioux Falls.

National writer April White found this divorce connection between the nation and Sioux Falls very interesting, hence her book “The Divorce Colony”, published this year by Hachette Books. It is 186 pages and sells for $30.

We currently live in a country where the divorce laws in most states are similar. However, the United States has grown from east to west. In matters such as divorce, the eastern states were influenced by conservative Puritan beliefs, while the new western states had more liberal women’s laws to attract women to the frontier. Remember, women’s suffrage was led by western states, with Wyoming being the first to grant women the right to vote.

Donus Robert

For women to divorce in most Eastern states in the late 19th century, the wife had to prove adultery by the husband. South Dakota had more lenient provisions, including a man calling the woman vicious or ugly names, acknowledging the right to have comparable incomes, or spending the woman’s inheritance money. South Dakota also had a three-month residency law, while most eastern states had a year or more.

There was a catch: you had to be rich to get a divorce.

Take the case of Mary Cahill, who traveled from her home in Brooklyn, NY, to Sioux Falls. First, there would be a multi-day first-class train ride. Then Cahill would have to live in South Dakota for three months to gain residency with no guarantee that the case would go to court at the end of that period.

There was also the cost of residence. Some women bought a house to live in. Cahill, however, used the more common method, renting a suite at the Cataract Hotel in Sioux Falls.

The Cataract was the hotel that made Sioux Falls famous in the divorce industry and among the Sioux Falls social community. It was in the heart of downtown Sioux Falls on Phillips Avenue. Cahill had a modest six-room suite in the hotel; some other wealthy women rented suites of up to 12 rooms. Then there would be waiting, catering, shopping and renting cars for rides.

After a long and unusually cold winter in this tiny town on the American border, a judge granted Cahill the freedom she sought.

Mary Walsh was a privileged woman. She was a highly successful novelist and playwright. After her successful divorce, Mary coined the term “divorce colony” and wrote about it so other wealthy women seeking a divorce knew they could find their solution in Sioux Falls.

Even more publicity came to Sioux Falls when a niece from the influential Astor family and the United States Secretary of State’s daughter-in-law arrived in Sioux Falls for a divorce. Astor’s divorce caught the attention of future President Theodore Roosevelt, who felt that easy divorces ruined the moral integrity of the American family. Roosevelt pressured South Dakota to strengthen its laws.

That Roosevelt had an effect, after several high-profile divorce cases, the South Dakota Legislature tightened its waiting period from three months to six months. However, this change turned few away.

Sioux Falls was the place to go, and the railroad from anywhere east went to town.

Most western states had laws similar to South Dakota, so divorce was accessible. Fargo, ND tried very hard to snatch the “Divorce Colony” label from Sioux Falls, or at least share it, but to no avail, at least temporarily.

At the start of the 20th century, the automobile greatly affected marriage and divorce throughout America. We didn’t need a train going to one place. By 1906, South Dakota’s dominance over divorce had ended. Reno, Nevada had become the new divorce center. He became No. 1 by making a simple change: six months to 30 days. As wealthy women stayed 30 days in luxury hotels, they could also have a new way to pass the time: gambling.

Readers of this book will find that it is not just about divorce. It’s about the American social changes that have affected us all.

For December, I’ll be reviewing Michael Connelly’s latest mystery novel, “Desert Star.”

Donus Roberts is a former teacher, avid book reader/collector, owner of ddrbooks, and encourages readers to connect at [email protected]

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