The North Shore Limited departed Manhattan at 4:50 each afternoon in 1891. A swirl of steam and soot enveloped the crowds on the platform. The cacophony and oppressive heat were the same for the woman who had packed her meager possessions in a tenement on the Lower East Side and the one who had directed her maid to prepare her trunks in the parlor of a Fifth Avenue mansion. But the well- to-do booked tickets for a Wagner Palace Car, a serene mahogany and brocade escape from the overflowing second-class and dismal third-class options. A woman of means traveling alone booked four seats across two upholstered benches, an expensive but necessary signal of her propriety.
Before sunset on the second day, the train arrived in Chicago. It was not unusual to see a lady disembark alone in Great Central Depot, a fire-scarred structure that could not rival its grand New York counterpart. But for a few, their destination was still farther west. After an overnight stay in Chicago, they boarded the Illinois Central, speeding across the prairie toward the setting sun. As the train approached its final destination in the early hours of the next day, those on board became watchful, casting sidelong glances at any unfamiliar woman not accompanied by a man. For her, there could be only one reason to undertake this 1,500-mile trip: She had come to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for a divorce.
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States had a hodgepodge of state divorce laws. South Carolina had no allowances at all for divorce. New York was only slightly less strict, severing the marriage bond only with proof of adultery. The most permissive divorce laws in the United States existed at the edges of the settled country, where a settler fell under the jurisdiction of local courts after a brief residency. This was a simple acknowledgment of the itinerant nature of pioneer life, but it was also an opportunity for divorce seekers.
In the 1840s and ’50s, Ohio and Indiana were popular destinations for divorce, before their residency requirements were lengthened. In the 1860s, Illinois earned a reputation for quickly severing marriages, and Iowa gained similar fame in the 1870s and ’80s. These “migratory divorces” inflamed a country already worried about an epidemic of broken marriages. In 1889, the newly formed Bureau of Labor counted 328,716 divorces between 1867 and 1886. In 1891, South Dakota—with one of the shortest residency requirements in the country at just 90 days—became the top destination for wealthy divorce seekers from the East.
For as long as there has been marriage, there has been a debate over its dissolution: Who has the right to end a relationship? When, why and how? In most countries, the institution has been deemed too integral to society to leave the decision to the spouses alone. Starting in the 1890s, the effort to limit divorce allied the United States’ clergy, large swaths of its political and judicial classes, and many of its social leaders. For them, the stakes of the divorce debate were no less than the future of the American family, the very building block of the country itself. It was, President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1905, a struggle for “our own national soul.”
On the other side of this battle were those who did not want a fight. They wanted release. Some had endured abuse, infidelity and desertion. Some were just unhappy and saw, for the first time, an escape. They had few champions and little political power of their own. In the last half of the 19th century, most divorce seekers—nearly two out of every three—were women.
The story of marriage in the United States is often told in lofty and heroic terms—the expansion of the institution and its attendant benefits to interracial and same-sex couples heralded as civil rights victories. Divorce is rarely celebrated in the same way, but the two are inextricable. The women who migrated to Sioux Falls more than a century ago saw this clearly: To be free to divorce as well as to marry is to be free to choose whom to love and how to live.
The 28-year-old woman who strode across the lobby of the Cataract House Hotel in Sioux Falls on Sunday, November 16, 1902, wanted anonymity, but she had not dressed for it. She was wrapped in luxe furs, and when she unbuttoned her black silk traveling gloves, she revealed long, slender fingers heavy with diamonds. Her burnished chestnut hair was piled atop her head in the intricate pompadour of a Gibson Girl, adding several inches to her 5-foot-10 stature.
The Cataract, which had served western travelers since 1871, boasted well-appointed parlors, dinner menus overflowing with fresh seafood and fruits, and a constant swirl of social events. That hospitality—paired with South Dakota’s brief residency requirement and Sioux Falls’ five railroad lines—made the Cataract the country’s headquarters for people seeking divorces. In 1891, front pages across the country began carrying stories of prominent and wealthy men and women—but especially the women—from East Coast cities who were seeking their freedom in Sioux Falls. The newspapers called the dwelling of unhappy spouses “the divorce colony” and rejoiced in reporting on the exploits of its members. In 1893, South Dakota raised its residency requirement from 90 days to six months. But even in the early years of the 20th century, divorce seekers from more restrictive states were willing to spend half a year at the Cataract in exchange for their freedom.
The new arrival introduced herself to the hotel clerk as Mrs. L.C. Johnson, and asked him for his best room. The clerk led her to a suite on the fourth floor of the hotel, with solid oak furniture, leather upholstery, and two large, lace-fringed windows looking out onto Phillips Avenue.
Back in New York, Mrs. L.C. Johnson was known as Blanche Molineux. It was a surname she had come to despise, because it yoked her to her husband of four years. She traveled to Sioux Falls for the same escape others had, but her reason for seeking a divorce was more dramatic than any the city had heard before: She believed her husband was a murderer.
Blanche Chesebrough first met the man who would become her husband in August 1897. It had been a stunning summer day in the harbor of Portland, Maine. “Bluest of skies were above,” Blanche remembered, “bluest of waters below.” Blanche and her eldest sister, Izcennia Stearns—whom Blanche called Isia—were aboard a friend’s yacht. Blanche was wowed by the wealth Isia had married into. She thought the boats bobbing in the Atlantic to be “luxurious toys,” and she and Isia had been invited to lunch on the most extravagant of these playthings, the Viator, skippered by Albert J. Morgan, heir to the Sapolio soap fortune.
Late in the afternoon, giddy from the spread of Russian caviar and iced Moët & Chandon, Blanche turned her attention to a guest reclining in a deck chair with his feet balanced on the boat rail, reading and smoking a cigarette. He had the body of a gymnast, she later recalled, “slender, muscular and beautifully proportioned.” Blanche admired his nonchalance and poise. When he offered her a “quiet, infectious smile,” she later said, “something flashed between us.”
He was Roland B. Molineux. His father—known to most as “the General”—had been the Civil War commander of the 159th Regiment of the New York National Guard. When the General returned to Brooklyn, he brought that same energy to business, politics and civil society, earning the family a place among the city’s commercial aristocracy. Roland flourished as a chemist in his father’s paint company and then as the superintendent of another firm, a position that brought him the money and prestige necessary to take a room at the prestigious Knickerbocker Athletic Club on Central Park.
Blanche had lived a very different sort of life. Her father had been a largely luckless inventor whose pursuits had taken her mother and the six Chesebrough children from the Northeast to the Midwest to the South and back again. Sometimes there was money; sometimes there was not. The family had grown smaller as they traveled, the older siblings marrying and scattering across the country. Blanche ended up living on her own in New York City, where she earned $10 a week singing at Hill Church in Brooklyn.
After they returned to New York, Roland sent Blanche nearly daily gifts. Fruits, flowers and sweets filled her rooms—first at Mystic Flats, just off Broadway, and then at a smaller boardinghouse on the Upper West Side. Most evenings found the pair at the Casino Theater or the Metropolitan Opera. After a show, they would dine at the Waldorf or Delmonico’s.
Through the fall, Roland’s gifts grew more and more expensive: an opal brooch, a butterfly pin encrusted with 100 diamonds, and, most precious of all, a custom-designed ring from Tiffany & Co. The ring sparkled with diamonds that spelled out the word mizpah, Hebrew for watchtower, and the gleaming metal was engraved with a reference to a biblical verse from Genesis: “The Lord watch between me and thee when we are absent from one another.”
Blanche accepted the ring as blithely as she received his other gifts. She enjoyed his company, but he possessed none of the “brute masculine force” she craved. “I wanted passion and love in my life,” she later said. When the topic of marriage came up, she joked it away. To be a wife, she believed, was “a narrowing of horizons” and “a curtailment of freedom.” So on Thanksgiving Day 1897, when Roland knelt before Blanche and asked for her hand in marriage, Blanche said no.
Blanche continued to wear Roland’s mizpah ring. But having explained herself to him, she also felt free to pursue another man: Henry Barnet. Barney, as Blanche knew him, was a friend of Roland’s from the Knickerbocker. Roland himself introduced the pair at the opera. From the start, Barney was an incorrigible charmer, and Blanche delighted in the attention.
On a blustery evening in late January 1898, Blanche arrived at a party near Washington Square with Roland. Barney arrived with someone too, but he found Blanche and suggested they slip away to an apartment uptown. He set the scene for a seduction—a roaring fire, a carefully placed chaise piled with damask pillows, and two crystal glasses filled with scotch and soda. When the couple returned to the party hours later, Barney’s hand bore a long scratch from the butterfly pin on Blanche’s breast.
Within a few weeks, Roland discovered the relationship and confronted Barney. Then Blanche demanded to see Roland. Facing him in her parlor, she threw the mizpah ring across the room. Roland scrambled to retrieve it and stormed out. “Tell Barnet the coast is clear,” he shouted. “He wins.”
For a few months, Blanche had felt like the victor, but she quickly realized that Barney, who worked at the Jersey City Packing Company, did not earn the kind of money that Roland did. Nor did he have the Molineux family accounts at his disposal. He was so stingy, in fact, Blanche wondered if Barney was seeing other women.
So, that fall, when Roland invited her to lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria, Blanche accepted. She still did not love Roland. But to finance her musical education and the lifestyle she desired, Blanche realized she would need to become someone’s wife. When Roland reached across the table and slipped the glittering mizpah ring back on her finger, Blanche engaged herself to Roland and the life he promised her.
But a terrible plan was already in motion. In the late summer, Barney had received an unsolicited package in the mail. It contained a tin marked with the logo of Kutnow’s Improved Effervescent Powder patent medicine. He was familiar with the stuff, said to be made with salt from the Carlsbad mineral springs, and sometimes used it to treat a hangover. On the morning of October 28, following a night of overindulgence, he took a dose of Kutnow’s Powder. Within moments, he was racing for the bathroom.
The vomiting and diarrhea lasted a day. Then came the inflamed throat and tongue and the loss of appetite. Blanche sent a bouquet of chrysanthemums and a desperate note to her former suitor’s bedside. “I want so much to see you,” she wrote. “Do not be cross anymore and accept, I pray you, my very best wishes.” She signed it, “Yours, Blanche.” Three days later, Barney was dead.
Blanche married Roland on a snowy day just after Thanksgiving, believing her former lover’s recent death was an inexplicable tragedy. By Christmas, she was already bored with marriage—“somehow, all glamour seemed gone,” she reflected—but she did her best to enjoy her first holiday with the Molineuxes.
It wasn’t until the knock on the front door at 6 a.m. on January 2, 1899, that Blanche learned that her Barney had likely been murdered. Roland’s father had rushed to the newlyweds’ house with a copy of that morning’s New York Journal. By the light of the bedside lamp, Blanche, still in her nightclothes, saw the headline: “Police Want Roland Burnham Molineaux [sic] in the Poisoning Case.”
The people of Sioux Falls, who soon discovered the true identity of Mrs. L.C. Johnson, were already familiar with Blanche’s trials. Roland’s name had been on the front pages of the country’s newspapers for years. Now Blanche’s presence was putting Sioux Falls in the headlines again, too, angering residents who felt the divorce colony was a stain on the city’s reputation and wanted to abolish it.
Roland’s case had been a complex one, in large part because the murder at the center of it was not Barney’s, but that of a 52-year-old widow named Kate Adams, who died on December 28, 1898, in a manner similar to Barney, after taking what she thought was Emerson’s Bromo Seltzer patent medicine. Roland did not know Kate Adams, but it was her cousin Harry Cornish who had actually received the Emerson’s Bromo Seltzer bottle. He had offered it to Kate without knowing it held mercuric cyanide—a lethal poison. Roland did know Harry Cornish. He was the athletic director at the Knickerbocker, and Roland had clashed with him over management issues. Roland had tried to get Harry fired, but instead Roland was forced out of the club. “You win,” Roland had said at their final parting, in December 1897. Barney’s death was not part of the inquest, but it was eerily similar, down to Roland’s pique that his enemy had “won.”
Prosecutors pursued charges only in the Adams case because the evidence of that crime was far stronger. But a love triangle was a more believable motive than a tiff over gymnasium equipment, so the prosecution also introduced evidence from Barney’s death. Blanche was forced to take the stand and defend the affectionate note she had sent to Barney. Blanche felt obligated to issue a public statement defending her own history and character as though she were on trial. While Roland spent months in jail in Manhattan, Blanche was confined to the Molineux family home in Brooklyn, unable to venture out without attracting a crowd. She visited Roland regularly, and when she appeared in court, she kissed her husband with a smile.
But just what kind of man Blanche had married became clear over the course of the investigation. In 1883, at the age of 15, Roland had been named in a divorce suit as the adulterous companion of a married neighbor. Six years later, Roland started a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl employed at his father’s company. Roland promised he would marry the girl, but after meeting Blanche, he fired her instead. Roland was also a habitué of dives in Chinatown, and he admitted on the stand that he smoked opium.
In his closing remarks, Assistant District Attorney James Osborne addressed the jury as if they would be delivering a verdict on Barney’s death. “Gentlemen, it is not often that a motive assumes a real, concrete personality. This one is endowed with flesh and blood. It has the form of a human being. And there”—Osborne swung around and pointed at Blanche—“there the motive sits.” Even though Blanche had no connection to the case that was actually on trial, Roland was found guilty of murdering Kate and scheduled to be executed six weeks later. Blanche saw her escape: She would soon be a widow.
But the well-connected Molineux family appealed the verdict. Blanche visited her husband on death row at Sing Sing Correctional Facility at the urging of her father-in-law. In October 1901, the court of appeals overturned Roland’s conviction and ordered a new trial, in large part because the first trial had focused so heavily on Barney’s murder, which, the judge noted, had no relevance to Kate’s case.
Blanche did not attend the new trial, which commenced on October 13, 1902, and lasted a little less than a month. The jury deliberated for 13 minutes: not guilty. Roland was free; Blanche was trapped. Roland had been tried for murder, but he had not committed adultery—the only approved cause for divorce in the state.
Blanche left New York City the next day. The Molineuxes thought their daughter-in-law was going shopping. The family lawyer who handed over some money believed it was for dresses, not train tickets.
In Sioux Falls, a lawyer named Wallace D. Scott was following Blanche’s story in the press. “What if she should come to Sioux Falls?” he proposed to friends gathered in the clubroom of the new Elks Lodge. “It would be a big advertisement for the town.” Then he delivered the punch line. “It would be a bigger one though if she should fall in love with and marry some local man. He would probably get more advertisement out of it than would please him.”
Scott knew that for all the charges leveled against Roland, few were actionable causes for divorce. South Dakota did allow for divorce when one spouse was convicted of a felony, as Roland had been, but his subsequent acquittal closed that legal path. A claim of desertion was also legally fraught. She had not lived with her husband for years, not since February 27, 1899, but Roland did not leave Blanche willingly; he had been imprisoned by the state.
The Monday after Blanche arrived in Sioux Falls, she visited the law firm of Kittredge, Winans & Scott. “By George, there’s a handsome woman,” Wallace Scott marveled. When he realized who she was, though, his interest shifted. Blanche Molineux was striking, yes, but it was her legal predicament that intrigued him. Scott asked his colleagues if he could take the case.
On the second evening of her stay, Blanche received a note from the offices of the Sioux Falls Daily Press. Blanche scrawled a response: “There is really nothing to say save that it is true that I am in Sioux Falls for the purpose of instituting divorce proceedings. My plans? I only know I shall, of course, be a resident here the coming six months.”
How her new attorney must have cringed when his client’s statement appeared in print. Everyone in town knew why the East Coast women were staying at the Cataract, but until their divorces came through, they had to at least give the appearance of wanting to become actual South Dakota residents. Those 12 words—“I am in Sioux Falls for the purpose of instituting divorce proceedings”—were a legal minefield, both for Blanche and for her fellow colonists.
Blanche had hoped to live in Sioux Falls without the scrutiny she’d endured back in New York. She wanted to go to the theater—a comedy entitled Divorce was opening in town—play a round of golf, take a drive. It would have been too much to expect the residents of Sioux Falls to embrace her—they merely put up with the divorce seekers—but perhaps, she thought, she would make some friends among her fellow colonists.
Instead, she spent Thanksgiving of 1902 alone. At the request of her lawyers, a holiday meal for one—breaded turkey, sweet potatoes and cranberry jelly—was delivered to her room at the Cataract. Elsewhere in the hotel, champagne corks popped, and revelers chattered. Her social standing was no better by Christmas.
But the sorority of divorce seekers determined to ostracize Blanche did not realize that the true threat to the colony’s continued existence had arrived—and departed—long before she had. His name was Charles Andrews.
Charles had been a fixture of the early days of the divorce colony in the 1890s. He was young and brash, and his father owned the Boston Herald. He “engaged in a good deal of pleasure, but not any business that I ever knew of,” one Sioux Falls lawyer remembered. Charles’ wife, Kate, had ultimately agreed to the divorce without filing an appearance with the court. (A $2,050 payment from Charles—certainly illegal under South Dakota’s collusion laws—aided her decision.) There was no trial, just a decree, signed in the judge’s shaky cursive, on the grounds of abandonment.
Then came Andrews v. Andrews. The parties in this case were not Charles and Kate, but Kate and Charles’ second wife, Annie, whom he married eight months after the divorce. Charles died of tuberculosis in 1897 at the age of 31, and his wives began battling each other over his estate and the legal status of the two young children Annie had borne. Kate, who had not remarried, claimed that she was Charles’ lawful widow. His Sioux Falls divorce, she said, was invalid. The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts sided with Kate, ruling that Charles’ divorce was of “no force or effect.”
Annie appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Monday, January 19, 1903—just weeks after Blanche’s lonely holidays at the Cataract House—the highest court in the land handed down its decision: Massachusetts had the right to dictate the terms of marriage and its dissolution among its residents. Charles’ brief stay in Sioux Falls, though sufficient for South Dakota’s courts, did not change his Massachusetts residency. Suddenly, it seemed that a Sioux Falls divorce might not be worth the paper it was printed on.
But the truth was, most divorces that took place in South Dakota were at least grudgingly mutual. The real surprise of the Andrews case had been not the Supreme Court’s decision but Kate’s. She had broken the unwritten contract she and her late husband had reached.
So when Blanche received her South Dakota divorce decree, there was still one hurdle ahead of her: She needed to persuade Roland to accept that decision as final.
In September 1903, Blanche returned to New York from Sioux Falls. Seated in a lavishly decorated parlor at the Murray Hill Hotel in Manhattan, she looked the part of a Victorian widow emerging from a long period of mourning, dressed in an expensive black silk gown with a wide-brimmed black hat adorned with ebony ostrich feathers. Her right hand sparkled with three hulking diamonds. On her left, where she had once worn Roland’s mizpah ring, were two shimmering Tahitian pearls.
“Mrs. Blanche Chesebrough, as she now wishes to be known, makes this statement simply to set at rest all rumors regarding her case,” began Alexander C. Young, the attorney she’d hired the day before. “She got her divorce about a month ago and is now absolutely free of her former husband, Roland Burnham Molineux.”
The reporters lobbed questions at Blanche. On what grounds was the divorce granted? No one “will ever know any of the details of the case,” Young answered for her. Would Blanche receive alimony? “Absolutely none.” Would she marry again soon? “The idea is ridiculous.” Where would she live? “She expects to return in a few days to Sioux Falls, which town, she says, will be her future home.”
After the Andrews decision, Blanche knew she needed a plan in case Roland chose to challenge her decree in a New York court. So she had hired Young, a lawyer known for his unconventional methods. He drew up an unusual suit seeking $100,000 from the Molineux family for the mental anguish Blanche endured during the years she stood by Roland. “The real Molineux story has never been told,” Young announced to the press a few days later. “It will only come out when this case is brought to trial.” That was the leverage Blanche needed to keep her divorce legal; the case was soon settled. Roland would not challenge Blanche’s divorce.
Meanwhile, in May, just before Blanche gained South Dakota residency, dressmakers had been seen visiting her rooms at the Cataract. The divorce colonists who still refused to associate with the woman counted 15 new frocks—a wedding trousseau, to be sure. As to who the groom might be: from Brooklyn came word that he was a Wall Street man, age 35 and never married. A dispatch from Duluth, Minnesota, asserted that Blanche would instead wed the married actor Chauncey Olcott. The source was a Bell Telephone employee who claimed to have eavesdropped on the couple’s declarations of love.
The Boston Herald later speculated that Blanche would marry her lawyer Alexander Young, but it was, the paper noted, “a report that lacks official confirmation or denial.” Still, the Herald report was more accurate than Blanche was willing to admit. She was planning to marry her lawyer—not Alexander Young, but her Sioux Falls counsel, Wallace Scott. It was another scandal in a city famous for them. When Blanche settled in Sioux Falls with her new husband, residents were forced to recognize that divorce—despite more than a decade of religious, legislative, judicial and social pressure—was not going away.
Blanche and the other women who traveled to Sioux Falls at the turn of the 20th century were not activists. For each of them, the decision to end her marriage was a private one. But what might have been a quiet act of personal empowerment and self-determination became, in the glare of the national spotlight, a radical political act. Though married women had secured the right to own property only a generation earlier and the right to vote was still a distant dream, these divorce seekers collectively forced the issue into the national conversation.
The women of the divorce colony—most wealthy white socialites—were not representative of the legions of unhappy spouses in the country. The challenges faced by those without financial resources were more formidable, especially Black women in the South. Nor were they perfect test cases for a new era of divorce rights. These women, the men they had married, and the men who would determine their fates led messy lives.
They were thrust center stage by the men who opposed their quest for freedom and by the religious, political, legal and social impediments they faced. And in their notoriety, these women reshaped the country’s attitude toward divorce. They themselves—not their families, the clergy, the judiciary, elected officials or nosy neighbors—would set the terms of their most intimate relationships.
Slowly over the decades, the laws followed this fundamental shift. By the 1930s, one could obtain a divorce after a six-week stay in Nevada. In the late 1940s, South Carolina, which had, for most of its existence, no provisions for divorce, changed its constitution to allow unhappy spouses to go their separate ways. It took until the 1960s for New York to expand its grounds for divorce beyond adultery. By then, New Yorkers had figured out other creative ways around the law. Some went to Mexican states where a divorce could be obtained in just one day. There was even a cottage industry of actresses willing to play the role of the other woman for couples who wanted a divorce on the grounds of adultery without actually committing it. In 1966, New York governor Nelson Rockefeller—whose wife, Mary, had divorced him in 1962 after six weeks in Reno—signed into law a bill recognizing five grounds for divorce in New York, including cruelty and abandonment.
Then, in 1969, California governor Ronald Reagan, who had been divorced himself, signed the first no-fault divorce law, allowing spouses to separate without a finding of guilt. By 1977, all but three states had such an option. (New York was the last to institute a no-fault statute, which it did in 2010.) The newspapers called it the “divorce revolution.”
In asking for their own freedom, the divorce colonists in Sioux Falls were among the first rebels of this revolution. Collectively, they had, quite unintentionally, set the country down a winding path toward the acceptance and accessibility of divorce. They had rising ideals and a new vision for marriage, and for each of them, divorce was a declaration of independence.
Adapted from The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier by April White. Copyright (c) 2022. Printed with permission of Hachette Books, New York. All rights reserved.
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