Split City, U.S.A.

April White on the hottest place to untie the knot in 1890s America

Mary Nevins Blaine in 1889 (Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, Harvard University)
Mary Nevins Blaine in 1889 (Special Collections, Fine Arts Library, Harvard University)

In 19th-century America, unhappily married couples faced divorce laws that varied wildly by state. Some states only allowed suits for “divorce of room and board”—but not the end of a marriage. In New York, divorce was permitted only in cases of proven adultery; South Carolina banned it entirely. But in South Dakota, things were different, and by the 1890s, people were flocking to Sioux Falls to take advantage of the laxest divorce laws in the country. In particular, the women seeking separation caught the most attention, as historian and senior Atlas Obscura editor April White writes in her new book, The Divorce Colony. These women—usually wealthy, almost always white, and trailing newspaper reporters—dared to challenge the status quo barely a generation after married women had won the right to own property, and well before they achieved the vote.

Go beyond the episode:

Meet the women profiled in the book:

And the scenes of these culture-shifting separations:

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Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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