Divorce, 1800s style was frontier feminism

What God has united, let no one tear it apart – unless he is a judge in Sioux Falls, SD

That was pretty much how divorce worked in late 19th century America. In New York, a spouse had to prove adultery to legally end a marriage, which wasn’t as easy before smartphones. Requirements in other states were at least as stringent.

South Dakota, however, only required three months of residency and a sympathetic judge.

And so, writes April White, unhappy wives went West, unofficially establishing “The Divorce Colony” in Sioux Falls. It is the story, says White, of “How women revolutionized marriage and found freedom on the American frontier.”

“For each of them, the decision to end their marriage was a private decision,” White writes. “But what could have been a low-key act of personal empowerment and self-determination became, in the national spotlight, a radical political act.”

This is the essential feminist story. In White’s story, it’s also a story of misogyny gossip, millionaires and murder.

White focuses on a few women, starting with Maggie Carey. The 22-year-old wealthy was at the pinnacle of New York society, a descendant of John Jacob Astor. In 1875, she married into the European aristocracy, exchanging vows with Baron Alphonse Lambert Eugene De Stuers, a 34-year-old Dutch diplomat. She was planning a life of royal galas.

She was soon disappointed.

Her husband seemed much less interested in pleasure than in his fortune. When the death of his parents increased him exponentially – they left him $80,000 a year and a property worth $1 million – his interest became an obsession. Always authoritarian, he now took everything in hand; she had to beg for pocket money.

Then he slowly started spreading rumors that she was “mentally unbalanced”, even bringing in doctors to examine her at their Paris home. Carey realized her husband didn’t just want her money. He wanted her apart, committed to an institution. She ran away.

In the summer of 1891, she resurfaced in Sioux Falls. Accompanied by her maid and a private secretary, Carey took six rooms in the finest hotel in town, the Cataract House. She redecorated and ordered new furniture and a piano.

And then she started counting the days until she could file for divorce.

When Carey finally appeared in court, the Baron was ready, with a local lawyer representing him in absentia. He insisted the Baron would never agree to a divorce, even though the Baroness had “the most unequal and irritable temper”. The baron would refuse to divorce even despite his “adulterous relationship” with Elliott Zborowski, who now passed for his secretary, William Elliot.

Carey fired back.

She laughed at the idea that she was in love with her secretary. She testified that the Baron spat in her face, yelled at her and called her a “savage American”. When a diplomatic negotiation he was engaged in turned sour, he even tried to extort her, suggesting that she seduce the Spanish trade minister.

That was enough for the judge. On Saturday March 5, 1892, he granted the divorce, considering that the Baron had engaged in “acts of extreme cruelty”. On Sunday, Carey rested. On Monday, she married Elliott Zborowski.

Although the story of the Baron and Baroness was juicy, there were plenty of other cases to occupy the Sioux City gossip.

There was the soap opera of Mary Nevins’ marriage to Jamie Blaine, the perpetually dissolute son of Republican presidential hopeful James G. Blaine. And the story of the woman ahead of her time, Flora Bigelow, who got rid of her husband Charlie Dodge once she found her calling as a writer. She said nothing against annoying Mr. Dodge, but “I can be a best friend to him when I’m free.”

Few compared, however, to Blanche Chesebrough’s melodramatic wedding. When she met Roland Molineux, he was a wealthy Manhattan businessman; she earned $10 a week singing at a church in Brooklyn. Molineux was “lean, muscular and beautifully proportioned,” she said. He was also a gentleman.

May be too much. Chesebrough craved “raw male strength”, she later confessed, but even persuaded to stay the night, Molineux did not touch her. Bored, she started dating one of her friends, Henry Barnet. He didn’t hesitate to push her onto the couch once they were alone. “It was ecstasy!” she confessed.

But ecstasy can be fleeting, and Barnet was not particularly wealthy. When Molineux returned, Chesebrough took him over. They married in October 1898. It was a small ceremony, made smaller by Barnet’s absence. He had died a few days before, mysteriously.

Not so mysterious, the coroner later concluded. Barnet was poisoned with mercuric cyanide, which was mixed with a patent drug. Molineux placed him there. During a dispute with the manager of his athletic club, he also accidentally poisoned that man’s cousin with a can of doctored Bromo-Seltzer.

This case provided better evidence than Barnet’s, so Molineux was only tried for it. Much to Chesebrough’s shock, her seemingly lackluster husband had a dark and dirty past. At age 15, he had been named in a divorce action; at 21, he had seduced a 13-year-old girl. He collected pornography and smoked opium.

Molineux was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. His lawyers appealed, arguing that the mention of Barnet’s death in court had been prejudicial. They won Molineux a new trial, and when he was acquitted, Chesebrough boarded a train the next day.

Destination: Sioux City.

She was not particularly well received. Even by Divorce Colony standards, her story was sordid. But Chesebrough obtained her divorce over Molineux’s objections. Once he announced his intention to contest it, one of his attorneys threatened him with a $100,000 countersuit for mental anguish. “The true story of Molineux has never been told,” his lawyer teased to the press. “It will only come out when this case goes to trial.”

Molineux fell silent, his family paid and Chesebrough went on with his life.

Soon other women would find it harder to do the same. Following a campaign by an outraged clergy in 1908, voters in South Dakota agreed to increase the residency requirement to one year. America’s hapless bride and groom now had to travel to Nevada. In the 1930s, however, applicants could file for divorce there after just six weeks. Gossip columnist Walter Winchell called it “being renovated”.

Others resorted to subterfuge; in New York, where the only motive remained adultery, women charged $10 to get caught in a hotel room with a married man. But eventually the laws were relaxed, thanks to two Republican governors, both divorced.

In 1966, Nelson Rockefeller of New York – whose first wife had been renovated – expanded the accepted legal grounds. And in 1969, Ronald Reagan of California signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law.

And it all started with the women of the Divorce Colony, who had “quite unwittingly set the country on a winding road toward the acceptance and accessibility of divorce,” White writes. “They had strong ideals and a new vision of marriage, and for each of them divorce was a declaration of independence. That’s what Maggie (Carey) tried to tell a reporter in 1891, before her divorce from the baron: “I decided to leave my husband to save myself.”

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