Sioux Falls, SD, was America’s divorce capital amid widespread bans

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Dark clouds and driving rain greeted the steam train as it stopped in Sioux Falls, SD on June 1, 1891. Accompanied by her maid and private secretary, an elegantly dressed and of high standing stepped out of the plush first-class wagon and took stock of the small town ahead of her on the banks of the Big Sioux River.

The entourage, which also included his dog, Tweedles, then boarded a horse-drawn carriage and drove to the well-appointed Cataract Hotel. This oasis of opulence on what was then the edge of the American border would be their home for the next three months.

The woman – 37-year-old Baroness Margaret Laura Astor De Stuers, known as Maggie since childhood – had embarked on the four-day trek from the east coast so she could take up legal residence in Sioux Falls . Although this was the end of her 1,500 mile train journey, it was only the beginning of the New York socialite’s journey to find her personal independence and a new life.

The Baroness – like tens of thousands of other women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – traveled to this remote outpost in search of a divorce. They sought marital emancipation by moving — temporarily, in most cases — to the state with the most lax divorce laws in the nation. All that was required was 90 days of residency.

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Before Nevada allowed speedy divorces in 1931, South Dakota held the title of divorce capital. For a period of about 20 years, the state was known as the Colony of Divorces – so labeled by the media, cultural critics and evangelicals alarmed by the trend of migratory divorces. Prior to statehood in 1889, the Dakota Territory had the highest increase in divorces in the nation — 6,691 percent — between 1882 and 1886.

In the culturally repressive era of the 1890s, ending a marriage was a social anathema – and virtually impossible legally. Most states had near-general laws against divorce, considered a form of moral decay.

Just like anti-abortion regulations before Roe vs. Wade — and perhaps again now that the Supreme Court has reversed that decision — divorce laws reflected the religious and political ideology of the time. Many states only allowed divorce in cases where adultery could be proven – a difficult legal process. A few states, such as South Carolina, had no divorce provision.

“Women were at a huge disadvantage then,” said April White, author of the book “The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier,” published last month. “A man could simply walk away from a marriage, but a woman had few rights under the law and faced extreme social prejudice if she had no husband.”

It was different in the West, however. The new states and territories had some of the most progressive laws in the country. The pioneers recognized that the legislation needed to reflect the reality of life on the frontier, where life was hard and sometimes short.

White said Sioux Falls has become a top divorce destination because of its relative accessibility. “Sioux Falls was most like the experience these people would have had in New York and Chicago. It offered many of the amenities they were looking for, even though it was a town of 10,000 people.

While divorce was available to both sexes in South Dakota, it was embraced by women at a ratio of nearly 2 to 1 – not surprising given the legal and cultural constraints placed on women at a time when they had virtually no political power.

“The absence of divorce had a very profound impact on how women could function in the world,” White said. “Like abortion in the 20th century, divorce has enabled women to better participate in society, whether through their careers, education or other factors. It has improved the lives of many women.

Due to its location in the High Plains, Sioux Falls was a hub of commerce. Five major rail lines served the city, and the Cataract Hotel became a luxury train station. As news of the lax divorce laws spread east, the grand hotel — equal to those in New York, Boston and Chicago — was the perfect place to live until residency could be established in waiting to deny the nuptials.

In 1891, Maggie rented a suite of rooms at the Cataract. She later bought a house to cement her application for residency in South Dakota. Although she did not announce her intentions, she caught the attention of locals and the media as a woman without her husband. At the time, the phrase “going to Sioux Falls” was a euphemism for getting a divorce.

On July 14, six weeks after Maggie’s arrival in the city, the New York World reported on its front page that she was living in “divorce colony.” This was considered a major scandal, since she was a descendant of real estate magnate John Jacob Astor and the niece of Caroline Astor, matron of the ultra-rich family and leader of “The Four Hundred” club, a group of New -Most influential Yorkers at the time.

Sixteen years earlier, Maggie Carey, 22, had married Baron Alphonse Lambert Eugene De Stuers, a Dutch diplomat 12 years her senior. The couple had three children and lived grandly in Paris for several years, thanks to Maggie’s wealth and De Stuers’ social status.

However, cracks in the facade soon appeared. Maggie attempted to divorce her husband in 1890, but her aunt sniffed out the plot and convinced her to return to Paris. Even if Mrs. Astor’s own marriage was a sham – she essentially lived apart from her husband because of his drinking and binge drinking – she would not tolerate the shame of divorce within the family. This left Sioux Falls as one of Maggie’s only options.

“She’s one of the first big names to come out,” White said. “Maggie really sets the dominoes in motion. She is the spark that draws everyone’s attention to Sioux Falls.

Maggie’s plans became more apparent when her attorney filed her case at the Minnehaha County Courthouse in Sioux Falls on September 3, 1891, 94 days after she moved to South Dakota. These files were sealed until her husband could receive papers in Paris three weeks later. That’s when the media storm descended like a Great Plains tornado. Reporters from major newspapers nationwide began publishing stories about Sioux Falls.

In her divorce lawsuit, Maggie alleged cruelty to De Stuers and feared he was plotting to steal her inheritance. She described how he took control of the finances and tried to commit her to a mental institution.

De Stuers countered that it was his wife who was the villain, displaying a lack of affection towards him and their children. He also alleged that Maggie was involved in an adulterous affair with a man posing as his private secretary by the name of William Elliott. In reality, it was William Elliott Zborowski, also a wealthy New York socialite.

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The case came before Judge Frank R. Aikens on February 8, 1892. The only testimony given was that of Maggie and her maid. De Stuers did not travel from Paris for the trial. Instead, he asked his attorney to argue the case while presenting numerous depositions in his defense.

Aikens issued his decision a month later, on March 5. Granting the absolute divorce, he found De Stuers guilty of “acts of extreme cruelty” against his wife.

Two days after the judgment was announced, Maggie was back at the courthouse. This time she was there with Zborowski, applying for a marriage license. They married about half an hour later in his suite at the Cataract Hotel.

“Most women in this era had to remarry,” White said. “It was a path to security and respectability. Maggie probably didn’t have to remarry. She had a name and lots of money. I think she really loved her second husband and wanted to be with him.

The divorce colony would be closed in 1908, when South Dakota changed its residency requirement to one year. By then, public opinion had changed. Two years earlier, President Theodore Roosevelt had proposed a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to set national standards for marriage and divorce. When this effort failed, many states began to change their divorce laws to reflect changing cultural attitudes, although the first no-fault divorce law was not enacted until 1970 in California.

White’s book cites the struggle of women like Maggie De Stuers to try to break free from marriages they no longer wanted. In many ways, they were pioneers in forcing legislatures and society to re-examine how divorce was applied and viewed.

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“These women changed the way we view divorce today,” the author said. “These courageous acts were only meant to be personal, but they ended up turning the tide toward attitudes and access to divorce.”

Maggie has found freedom and love in her new marriage, though her joy is short-lived. The couple had a child together after joining high society in New York. Zborowski took up the new sport of motor racing and was killed in an accident in 1903. Maggie died eight years later. Their son also died in a racing accident in 1924.

In 1891, Maggie could not have foreseen these tragedies. She only wanted the freedom to live the life she wanted. She told a reporter that year, “I decided to leave my husband to save myself.


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