Those who gathered outside St. Paul’s Church on Tremont Street on the fair, clear evening of Wednesday, April 13, 1887, were hoping for a glimpse of the bride. Twenty-one-year-old Katherine Henshaw Jackson — Kate, to her friends — was a noted beauty. Arriving in an ivory satin dress with a long tulle veil and a diamond tiara, on the arm of her father, a Navy man, she did not disappoint the spectators. Her husband-to-be, Charles S. Andrews, waited for her inside at the chancel rail. Twenty-year-old Charles was not as handsome as Kate, but he was a fashionable young man from a respected, well-to-do Boston family — ”a blood,” in the parlance of the era. The groom was “proud,” the bride “blushing,” the ceremony “beautiful,” and the Beacon Street reception “brilliant,” wrote the Boston Herald of the nuptials. Charles was a reporter for the paper, and his father, Charles H. Andrews, was one of its proprietors.
“Wedding bells rarely have rung for a more promising marriage,” another newspaper opined. But despite its auspicious beginnings, Kate and Charles’s union quickly soured. Charles thought Kate to be a shameless flirt; Kate thought Charles to be extravagantly jealous. She accused him of being a disagreeable drunk; he claimed she matched him drink for drink. Both were spendthrifts, burning through tens of thousands of dollars gifted to them by their parents. Behind the facade of their Back Bay brownstone — another gift from Charles’s father — insults, threats, and scissors flew.
Both wife and husband wanted a divorce, a relief denied to many by law and society in the last years of the 19th century: In Massachusetts, and throughout the country, one spouse had to be found guilty of something for the other to be awarded his or her freedom, an escape that also came with great social stigma. And so, instead, after three years of marriage and the death of their infant child, the pair negotiated their own separation. They would remain married, but live apart. Kate kept the Commonwealth Avenue brownstone and Charles moved back in with his father.
This failed love story might have been nothing more than a brief ripple in the society pages had Charles not decided he wanted a divorce after all. He left Boston for Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in the summer of 1891. In the new state, Charles would become a pioneer of sorts, one of its first “divorce colonists.” This cadre of unhappy spouses made the small frontier city the epicenter of a fiery national debate over who should be allowed to divorce, and Charles and Kate set in motion a legal battle over marriage that would end in the US Supreme Court.
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was a hodgepodge of state divorce laws. South Carolina had no provisions at all for divorce, and New York was just slightly less strict, severing the marriage bond only with proof of adultery. In Massachusetts, there were nine causes for divorce — including drunkenness and cruelty — but there was also the fearsome judgment of Boston society. Farther west, however, were new states and territories with lenient laws and, divorce seekers hoped, less intense scrutiny. In South Dakota, anyone who lived in the state for 90 days fell under the jurisdiction of its courts. Those who could afford to make the trip — an expensive proposition — could find refuge on the frontier and a release from marriage on their own terms.
These tentatively legal “migratory divorces” inflamed a country already worried about a growing epidemic of broken marriages. In 1889, the newly formed Bureau of Labor Statistics put a number on those fears, counting 328,716 divorces in the 20 years between 1867 and 1886. Even more alarming to many, there were more than twice the number of decrees in the mid-1880s as there had been in the mid-1860s, an increase that could not be explained by population growth alone — and nearly 2 out of every 3 divorce seekers was a woman. Newspapers nationwide heralded the finding with ominous headlines such as, “Is Marriage a Failure?”
Through the 1890s and the first decade of the 1900s, the effort to limit access to divorce allied the country’s clergy, large swaths of its political and judicial classes, and many of its social leaders. For them, at this moment of rapid social and economic change, the stakes of the divorce debate were no less than the future of the American family, the very building block of the country itself. They would attack this scourge with religious condemnation, legal obstacles and expense, new legislative restrictions, and the threat of ostracism.
On the other side of this battle were those who did not want a fight. Like Kate and Charles, they wanted nothing more than release from their marriages.
When Charles arrived in Sioux Falls in August 1891, he joined a small but growing contingent of others seeking migratory divorces in the most accessible of South Dakota’s cities. The phrase “going to Sioux Falls” was already on its way to becoming a euphemism for divorce among Eastern elites, and the Cataract House, the nicest hotel for hundreds of miles, became the headquarters of the divorce colony. The guest ledger where Charles’s name was recorded read like the courthouse docket. Among the long-term guests were Edward Pollock, the son of a millionaire merchant, who had been sent from New York by his father with instructions to sever his ties to the household maid with as much secrecy as he had maintained when marrying her; Maggie De Stuers, a niece of the prominent Astor family, who was seeking her freedom from a titled Dutch diplomat; and Mary Nevins Blaine, the young, unhappy wife of Jamie Blaine, who lived in the glare of the media spotlight because her father-in-law was Secretary of State James G. Blaine, a likely 1892 presidential candidate.
Charles quickly became known pejoratively as the “dude of the colony” — an Eastern dandy with no place on the Western frontier — but his antics were mostly a source of amusement. The husbands who came to Sioux Falls for a divorce did not attract the same derision as the wives who did the same and were not held to the same impossible standards. A man who expected his freedom was not as outlandish as a woman who demanded hers.
Charles lived a louche life in the frontier city, spending his days prowling the city’s illegal saloons, its billiard tables, and its frowned-upon gambling dens. In good weather, he took horseback excursions across the countryside and when snow blanketed Sioux Falls, he could be seen sledding through town. Perhaps Charles’s ease came from his belief that his divorce would be granted without objection after he filed court papers attesting to his South Dakota residency and charging his wife with desertion. Charles and Kate had already reached an agreement to separate, so it was a surprise when Kate hired a lawyer.
For a time, the couple seemed headed toward the type of scandalous trial that had become the city’s entertainment in the winter of 1892. In Pollock v. Pollock and De Stuers v. De Stuers, townspeople had crowded into Sioux Falls’s two-story courtroom to hear tales of adultery, attempted institutionalization, poisoning threats, and kidnapping. But before either husband or wife in the Andrews case was forced to take the stand, Kate agreed not to contest the case. A $2,050 payment from the Andrews family (about $65,000 in today’s dollars) — almost certainly illegal collusion under laws that forbid a couple to mutually agree to a divorce — persuaded her to acquiesce.
For Kate and most women of the era, marriage and divorce were both social and economic issues. Many men could walk away from their wives and still remain secure in their fortunes, their places in society, and the legitimacy of their children. Women, who for centuries lacked economic independence and social standing outside marriage, rarely had that luxury. They needed the government sanction that was often just out of reach.
Finally, on May 6, 1892, more than nine months after arriving in Sioux Falls, Charles was granted his divorce. He left soon after to return to Boston, believing himself and Kate to both be single again.
The marriage that took place in Boston on a frigid early January day in 1893 did not merit a mention in the Herald. Without any of the fanfare that accompanied his first trip to the altar, Charles S. Andrews, now 25, wed 27-year-old Annie Paul, the sister of his brother’s wife, in a small, private ceremony. The union was blessed by a minister of the Second Church in Copley Square; unlike most religious institutions in the country, the Unitarian ministry accepted that divorces were an unfortunate “necessity” and committed itself to reducing their number not through restrictions on such separations but by improving marriage.
By Annie’s account, her marriage to Charles was a happy one. Ten months after their wedding, she gave birth to their son, and their daughter was born a year later. Annie knew the basics of Charles’s trip to Sioux Falls. She had seen Charles at his father’s house in 1890 — after his marriage had collapsed but before his trip West. “He said he had lost everything he had to live for in Boston, and he was going to leave the city,” she later recalled. When he began to woo Annie after his divorce, Charles asked her to return to South Dakota with him. He liked it there, she said. But instead, they settled into an apartment on Massachusetts Avenue, and then, as Annie put it, “Death came into our family.”
In June 1897, Charles’s father died, leaving behind an ample estate to his children and their spouses. Barely four months later, Charles died of consumption at the age of 31. He was survived, his obituary in the Herald noted, by “a widow and two small children.”
The identity of the children was clear, but who was the widow? That had become a legal mystery when Kate reentered the Andrews’s lives.
Boston society was a small world and Charles had occasionally encountered his first wife on the street or at the theater in the years after their divorce. But after the death of Charles’s father, Kate, who had not remarried, filed a suit in probate court for “separate maintenance” — a financial arrangement that allowed spouses to live apart while remaining married. She asked for $20,000 (about $700,000 in today’s dollars). When Charles had come into possession of a portion of his father’s fortune, Kate, in a move that took advantage of the country’s conflicting and unrealistic divorce laws, had decided to reclaim the title of Mrs. Andrews.
On Monday, January 19, 1903, Charles S. Andrews was again — posthumously — the talk of Sioux Falls. The Supreme Court of the United States had handed down its decision in Andrews v. Andrews, which pitted the first Mrs. Andrews against the second Mrs. Andrews. Charles — barely remembered in the city he had briefly called home — had been dead more than five years, and his wives had been battling ever since over his estate and the legitimacy of the children Annie had borne. For those in Sioux Falls and all the divorce colonists who came before them, the stakes seemed higher still: In choosing between Charles’s wives, the court might decide that no state was required to honor any South Dakota divorce.
The case had begun when a probate court named Annie the administrator of Charles’s estate. Kate appealed, claiming that his Sioux Falls divorce was invalid and that she was his lawful widow.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts found that Charles had been a bona fide resident of South Dakota under the state’s laws in 1891 and 1892. He had lived in Sioux Falls for more than 90 days and voted in the state election in the spring of 1892. That’s where most inquiries into the validity of a South Dakota divorce ended. But things were different in Massachusetts. A state law put it starkly: Those who resided in the state could not go elsewhere for a divorce. Charles’s divorce thus was ruled to be “of no force or effect.’’
Annie appealed the decision to the US Supreme Court, claiming that Massachusetts was bound to recognize another state’s divorce under the “full faith and credit” provision of the Constitution. The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, disagreed. It found Massachusetts had the right to dictate the terms of marriage and its dissolution among its residents. Charles’s brief stay in Sioux Falls, though sufficient for South Dakota’s courts, did not change his Massachusetts residency. To strike down the Massachusetts statute would have dangerous consequences, the court wrote. If a resident of Massachusetts could freely go to South Dakota, obtain a divorce, and require Massachusetts to recognize it, that state — and therefore every state — would lose all power to legislate divorce. “This would be but to declare that, in a necessary aspect, government had been destroyed by the adoption of the Constitution,” Justice Edward Douglass White Jr. opined.
Charles’s divorce from Kate was deemed invalid. His second marriage to Annie was bigamous. His children were bastards. And a Sioux Falls decree, it seemed, was not worth the paper it was printed on.
In Sioux Falls, would-be divorcees rushed to see their lawyers: “What’s going to become of us?” In one law office, an attorney ran his fingers through his hair in distress and asked his clients to wait outside. For half an hour, he waded through his law books. Then he called the divorce colonists back in. “Things are not so bad as they seem,” he told them. “Just keep a stiff upper lip, serve your time, and you will get what you came here for.”
The attorney’s legal analysis was flawed but his conclusion was not. Under the decision, a South Dakota divorce issued to a resident of Massachusetts, as well as of Maine and Delaware, which had similar statutes, was in danger of being overturned — but, as a practical matter, the courts wouldn’t get involved if neither former husband nor former wife complained. As the Sioux Falls attorney knew well, for all the attention paid to the divorce colony, most decrees issued there were at least grudgingly mutual. No Supreme Court precedent could change that.
The Andrews decision did not reduce the number of unhappy spouses seeking relief in South Dakota, nor did subsequent cases. Legal threats like the one posed by the Andrews’s Sioux Falls divorce, it became clear, would do nothing to stop those who wanted freedom. When the US government released an updated report on marriage and divorce in 1908, it found that two decades of legal, legislative, religious, and social pressures had not slowed the climbing divorce rate: In 1906, there had been 1 divorce for every 12 new marriages.
But that did not alarm Cornell University professor Walter Willcox, a leading authority on American marriage and divorce. “We are slowly awakening to a new ideal of the family based not upon the subordination of the wife in all phases of family life,” Willcox told his students.
In asking for their own freedom, those who traveled to Sioux Falls had, quite unintentionally, set the country down a winding path toward the acceptance and accessibility of divorce. The divorce colonists led messy lives, and their personal foibles, failed romances, and hopes for the future filled the country’s newspapers. But they also had a new vision for marriage, and for each of them, divorce was a declaration of independence.
The evolution of marriage in the United States is a history told in lofty and heroic terms, the expansion of the institution and its attendant benefits heralded as civil rights victories. Divorce is rarely celebrated in the same way, but the two are inextricable. The divorce seekers in Sioux Falls more than a century ago saw this clearly: To be free to choose whom to love and how to live is to be free both to marry and to divorce.
April White is a writer in Washington, D.C. This story was adapted from her forthcoming “THE DIVORCE COLONY: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier.” Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, New York, USA. All rights reserved.
White will discuss “The Divorce Colony” in person at 6 p.m. on June 28 at lala books in Lowell, lalabookstore.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.