White: The Divorce Colony

https://read.atavist.com/the-divorce-colony

THE DIVORCE
COLONY

The strange tale of the socialites who shaped modern marriage on the American frontier.

The morning of Monday, February 8, 1892, dawned clear and cold in the frontier town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The previous night’s snow had made the roadways treacherous for horse-drawn carriages, but the Baroness Margaret Laura De Stuers was undeterred. Just before nine o’clock, she approached the Minnehaha County courthouse. In the morning light, the imposing quartzite edifice shimmered purple against the white snow. Its tower—the clock faces still missing from the as yet unfinished building—rose 165 feet into the clear Dakota sky, a beacon visible from anywhere in the small town. It would soon become a landmark known nationwide by the nickname the Temple of Freedom. The baroness was here, 1,200 miles from her hometown of New York City, for a divorce, one that her husband, the law, and society had conspired to deny her.

Margaret—Maggie to her friends, of which, at this point in her life, there were few—climbed the staircase to the second-floor courtroom and walked with her lawyers to the plaintiff’s table. Even in these spare surroundings, the 39-year-old baroness exuded an aristocratic elegance, though her sloping shoulders lent her an air of perpetual sadness. Accompanying her were her chaperone, William Elliott, and her maid, Maria. William seated himself in the first row of opera chairs reserved for the public, and Maggie glanced at the defense table with relief. Despite the rumors, the defendant was not in attendance. Maggie’s husband, the Baron Alphonse Lambert Eugene Ridder De Stuers, had declined to travel from Europe to confront his wife of almost 17 years. But even in his absence he caused a sensation.

The rest of the two-story courtroom was largely empty, with the exception of a clutch of newspaper correspondents who had reported on every scrap of news about Maggie, a niece of the late John Jacob Astor III and the first of that leading New York family to seek a divorce. Her life, the New York World wrote, had “furnished a series of very romantic chapters during the past two or three years, and society has been prepared for an additional chapter more romantic and fascinating than any of its predecessors—very possibly, in case she obtains a divorce, her marriage to the devoted lover of her girlhood days.”

Just after 9:15, Judge Frank Aikens gaveled the court to order, and Maggie’s lawyer, Captain William H. Stoddard, called her to the witness stand. Captain Stoddard came primed for a fight, but he questioned his client gently. There was much ground to cover, from her New York society wedding in 1875 to her desperate flight from her Dutch husband and their home in Paris in 1890. To secure a divorce, Maggie had to convince Judge Aikens that her husband had treated her cruelly. But first, Captain Stoddard asked Maggie for her name, for the record, and then posed one of the most important questions of the trial: How long have you been a resident of Sioux Falls?


In 1892, the young state of South Dakota was a refuge for divorce seekers. It had among the laxest divorce laws in the country, offering numerous grounds and, more importantly, requiring only 90 days residency to fall under the court’s jurisdiction. Meanwhile, Maggie’s home state of New York had some of the strictest laws, granting absolute divorce only for adultery; some would resort to hiring actresses to play the part of the mistress. In other states, one could sue for a divorce of room and board, which allowed for physical and economic, not marital, separation. South Carolina was stricter still, forbidding it entirely. This hodgepodge of laws created the legally debatable phenomenon of the “foreign divorce,” in which one spouse traveled to a jurisdiction with more favorable laws.

Divorce was anathema in the United States in the late 19th century. Yet demand was on the rise, especially among women, for whom the hurdles of escaping an unhappy marriage were high. Historically, the decision to end a marriage was most often the domain of the wealthy man, who had the money and influence to shape, circumvent, or simply ignore the law. Many men could walk away from their wives, secure in their fortunes, their place in society, and the legitimacy of their children. Women, who for centuries lacked economic independence and social standing outside marriage, were often hesitant to divorce. But as Maggie traveled to Sioux Falls, that dynamic was shifting.

Throughout the United States’ history, the most permissive divorce laws had existed at the edges of the settled country, before the land and the laws had been tamed. In earlier years, Maggie might have traveled to Pennsylvania, Indiana, or Illinois; each of those states was briefly a destination for divorce seekers before residency requirements were lengthened. South Dakota’s laws were not written to encourage divorce—the short residency requirement was a holdover from the peripatetic nature of pioneer life—but divorce seekers did not concern themselves with the intention of the law, only the opportunities it afforded.

Sioux Falls, at the eastern edge of the state and the nexus of six railroad lines, was the most convenient South Dakota destination for foreign divorce seekers from the East, and the Cataract House hotel, at the corner of 9th and Phillips, was their comfortable if expensive way station: steam heat, elevator, and electric bells to summon the help, all for three dollars a day. After 90 days, they would be recognized as residents of South Dakota. Across the street, the Edmison-Jameson building housed nearly a quarter of the town’s outsize legal community: 38 law firms and counting. In Sioux Falls, Maggie found a community of divorce seekers from New York, Boston, Chicago, even England—the pioneers of the “Divorce Colony,” as newspapermen christened it.

“Now that a niece of William Astor has joined the divorce colony in Sioux Falls,” the Philadelphia Record had written following her arrival on June 1, 1891, “the South Dakota style of severing matrimonial bonds may become more popular than heretofore. The amazing elasticity of the complaisant South Dakota divorce laws has up to this time escaped the attention of all but a few wandering actors and actresses.”

By the time of Maggie’s trial eight months later, the Cataract House ledger read like the courthouse docket. Maggie, along with her maid and her dog, Tweedle, had a suite of four rooms on the top floor of the four-story building, remodeled to Maggie’s taste with new furniture, a large bathtub, and a piano. Her parlors filled a prime corner of the hotel. At the other end of the hallway, the curious William Elliott, whom Maggie introduced as her second cousin, occupied two rooms. Among the other divorce colonists in residence were 25-year-old Boston Herald scion Charles Andrews, who was seeking a divorce from his wife, Kate; Edward Pollock, sent from New York by his well-to-do family to end his marriage to the household maid; Alice Crane, in Sioux Falls for a divorce from her English cousin, who tricked her into marrying him in hopes of stealing away her fortune (which was not quite as large as he had thought); and Ida Tyson, in exile at the Cataract House with her seven-year-old son, awaiting freedom from a husband who had committed adultery. Rumor had it that her husband was elsewhere in South Dakota, accompanying his married mistress in her own quest for a divorce.

Rivaling Maggie for the title of most notorious divorce colonist was 25-year-old Mary Nevins Blaine, the young wife of Jamie Blaine, the wayward son of secretary of state James G. Blaine. Mary came to Sioux Falls in late April 1891, and her efforts to secure a divorce were daily newspaper fodder, printed alongside hopeful speculation that her father-in-law, who narrowly lost the 1884 presidential election, would again seek the Republican nomination. Many feared that the secretary of state’s failing health would prevent him from running; others wondered if his youngest son’s very public divorce would end his presidential ambitions.

To read the front pages of the country’s newspapers or sit in its church pews in 1892 was to know that the United States was facing a divorce epidemic. By one estimate, more divorces were granted in the United States than in all the rest of the Christian world combined. Even more concerning to many was the rapidly rising divorce rate—an increase of some 157 percent between 1867 and 1886—and the brazen attitudes of the divorce seekers. For as long as there had been marriage, there had been a debate over its dissolution: Who had the right to end the relationship? When? Why? How? And, often, for how much money? The answers varied from country to country and decade to decade, but one overarching theme emerged: Marriage was too integral to society to leave the decision up to the spouses alone. Through laws, religious dictates, and social pressure, society would govern divorce.

But in the late 19th century, the United States was undergoing rapid societal and economic transformation: industrialization, urbanization, growing middle and working classes, increasing class consciousness, and evolving roles for women. Among progressives and liberals the changes were celebrated. Among conservatives they were feared. Divorce and the Divorce Colony became a scapegoat for those fears: “Utah, Connecticut and Illinois have in the past shared the distinction of being the banner divorce communities, but South Dakota bids fair to outrival them all,” The Salt Lake Herald observed with some alarm in August 1891. “In other states and territories where the divorce industry has been worked so industriously, those interested have thought proper to preserve some degree of secrecy. Here it is altogether different.”

The women and men of the Divorce Colony were unwitting participants in a now forgotten chapter of American social history. The South Dakota town was a “grand phantasmagoria,” the New York World reported. “No one can begin to appreciate the situation unless he is here on the spot. December wed to May, old men’s disappointed darlings and young men’s slaves, young men with elderly affinities, yet unrequited love and budding hope and dead passions, all figuring in one fantastic show.”

 

Only a generation after married women had gained the right to own property, and still a generation before women gained the vote, the actions of these Sioux Falls colonists had forced the issue of divorce into the nation’s churches, courthouses, and legislatures. The battle was not a quiet one. The colonists were challenged not just by contrary spouses but by a growing anti-divorce movement of clergymen, conservative politicians and judges, and others who saw divorce as an attack on the family and proposed stricter laws across the country. The nearly daily news of arrivals, filings, depositions, and decrees in the Divorce Colony—a “Mecca for the mismated,” according to the Pittsburgh Daily Post—spurred their efforts. Each of the colonists was there for his or her own reasons, but their collective presence would make Sioux Falls the crucible of the country’s growing divorce crisis and, ultimately, change marriage and divorce in American society.

ggie had waited in Sioux Falls for 252 days: first the three months required to establish residency, then another five months for her lawyers to prepare depositions and legal filings. Now, for her long-anticipated day in court, Maggie was dressed elegantly in a dark brown, three-quarter-length Persian lamb cloak. A brown soft felt hat with a broad feather hid much of her dark golden hair. Her fair skin was paler than usual, but she spoke in a clear and musical voice as she answered her lawyer’s questions.

“I was married in New York City, April 20, 1875,” she explained, showing little emotion in the retelling. “My husband was the chargé d’affaires for his country at Washington. Soon after, we went to Europe traveling.“

The wedding had been the social event of the 1875 season. It had also been something of a shock. No one had expected the impetuous young Miss Carey—daughter of John Carey and Mary Alida Astor—to be swept off her feet by the Dutch diplomat, a formal and polished man 12 years her senior, and the promise of a fashionable European title. They had expected her instead to marry the handsome Elliott Zborowski, a tall and charming millionaire about Maggie’s age and one of the most daring horsemen in New York. She had met him during a Newport summer.

Maggie and the baron were married at Maggie’s family home, an imposing New York brownstone at 34th and Madison. In a drawing room overflowing with flowers, an Episcopal minister, representing Maggie’s faith, and a Catholic priest, representing her betrothed’s, had presided over the union. The wealthy Astor family, among New York’s most important, was well represented; Maggie’s uncles John Jacob Astor III and William Astor, along with his wife, were both in attendance. The bridesmaids were a who’s who of the country’s most influential clans: Maggie’s cousin, Emily Astor; Daisy Rutherford; Minnie Rhinelander; and Sallie Delano. Sallie, in a gauzy frock of bright red tulle, had declared Maggie’s handsome new husband to be “the nicest foreigner I have ever met.” The couple departed New York for Europe and a life of beautiful homes and beautiful dresses on Maggie’s annual $80,000 income from her family. Maggie bore the baron four children—twins Mary Alida and John, Bertie, and Margaret—as the couple moved from London to Paris to Madrid and back to Paris. There the baron served in the prestigious role of minister plenipotentiary for the Netherlands, and Maggie had been spotted waltzing to Strauss on the banks of the Seine.

But in court, Maggie told a different story.

“What was your husband’s treatment of you in London?” Captain Stoddard asked her.

“He was very unkind to me,” Maggie said simply. “He would scold me before people. He said I was ‘a savage American’ and a ‘baby,’ and that I didn’t know how to behave myself.”

“What was his conduct in Paris?”

“It was about the same. He was rude to my friends, especially my American friends, and humiliated me in their presence,” Maggie told the court.

“Was he cruel to you at Madrid?”

Maggie recounted an episode from March 13, 1881, the day that Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The baron had demanded that Maggie cancel a small party she had planned in their Madrid home. Such a festive gathering was inappropriate on a day of mourning. Maggie refused, and when her guests arrived the baron accused her of behaving indecently and ignoring her duties as a diplomat’s wife. What did those duties include? Maggie regaled the courtroom with another scandalous tale. The baron had been negotiating a commercial treaty in Madrid and needed the cooperation of the minister of commerce. He tried to enlist her help. “Make him fall in love with you,” the baron demanded. “You know how.” “I told him I was not doing such work,” Maggie recalled. “I refused flatly to thus place my womanhood at the services of the state.”

Maggie continued her stories, the gallery of the courtroom slowly filling as word spread of the drama unfolding in the courthouse. She needed little prompting from her attorney. She recalled how her husband had accused her of adultery. When she denied the charge, he demanded she go to a church and swear to her faithfulness. She did, but he still refused to believe her. She told of his controlling nature: “My husband objected to my reading anything but history. One day I was reading a harmless English novel when he entered the room, snatched the book from me, and went out, slamming the door.” And she told of threats of physical violence. One morning, as Maggie prepared to venture out from their Paris home, her husband demanded to know why she was taking a cab instead of their carriage. “He came up close to me, screamed in my face, grabbed my parasol from me, and swung it ten or twelve times over my head,” Maggie said. Her husband had later explained to her that he did it to frighten her. “I told him, ‘You might frighten your Dutch women that way, but you can’t thus scare an American.’”

Those in the growing audience may have been surprised by Maggie’s defiance in the face of the cruelty she detailed. But among the most exclusive of New York society, Maggie had a reputation for her “exceedingly eccentric and interesting” personality. She never cared for what others—her family included—thought of her. Her learned disregard for their judgment served her well now as she revealed the most humiliating moments of her marriage for the court and the press: “One day at dinner we had present some eight or ten guests. I made some remark which he didn’t like. He jumped right up from the table, screamed at me, spit in my face, and said, ‘I wish to God I had not married you.’”

The exploits of the Divorce Colony did not escape the notice of South Dakota Senator James Kyle, a Congregational minister who had been elected in March 1891, shortly before Maggie came to South Dakota. In the middle of a rainy spring, the young Populist had arrived in Sioux Falls to visit his sister. He planned to spend the summer touring the state to discover what legislation would best serve his constituents. Though he hadn’t stayed long in Sioux Falls, he found his answer there: What South Dakota needed was national divorce reform.

In January 1892, a month before Maggie’s trial, Senator Kyle boarded a train in Sioux Falls bound for Washington, D.C. In his pocket he carried a piece of paper designed to end the Divorce Colony: a proposed 16th amendment to the United States Constitution. If adopted, it would be the first change to the Constitution in two decades.

Article XVI.

The Congress shall have exclusive power to regulate marriage and divorce in the several States, Territories and the District of Columbia.

In the House, a Republican from New York and a Democrat from Pennsylvania both filed similar resolutions the same month. “The necessity for some such enactment is too apparent to be questioned,” wrote the Chicago Mail.

Kyle waited three and a half weeks for his amendment to come to the floor of the U.S. Senate. In that time, Elizabeth DeBaum was awarded a divorce in Sioux Falls on grounds of imprisonment. Her husband had gone to jail as part of a bank forgery scheme. Caroline Buell, on grounds of desertion, though in truth it was Caroline who deserted her husband when he tried to gain control of her family inheritance. William Thomas, on grounds of his wife’s cruelty. According to the Argus Leader, he pleaded “too much mother-in-law.” Joseph Hunt, on grounds of desertion and cruelty. Hunt’s wife, the “belle of the village,” the newspapers explained, had become “too much enamored of … Hunt’s hired man.” Judge Aikens also heard testimony in Pierce v. Pierce, filed by Reverend George Pierce of Massachusetts.

On February 3, 1892, Kyle warned the Senate chamber that the nation’s disparate divorce laws placed “in jeopardy our whole social fabric.… A national law would secure to us the stability of the marriage relation, preserve the family and the home, and thus lay a broad foundation for the perpetuity of the nation.” Kyle, square shouldered with a prominent mustache, was a noted speaker, known in South Dakota for his candor and plain talk. In the Senate chamber he made a legal argument for federal powers, but the minister’s intention was clear: The divorce law must be both uniform and strict. Such a law would end the phenomena of the foreign divorce and the Sioux Falls Divorce Colony.

If Kyle succeeded in his efforts, there would be no loophole left for divorce seekers like Maggie. She had contemplated ending her marriage many times before, but her legal options had always been few. In England, a wife could seek a costly divorce from the civil courts, but only with clear evidence of her husband’s “aggravated adultery”—infidelity with an additional charge of cruelty, rape, or incest. Adultery was one of the few accusations Maggie did not level against the baron. In Madrid, she had no recourse at all; Spain did not allow divorce. Maggie’s choices were further complicated by the baron’s diplomatic status. In the eyes of the Dutch government, the laws of his homeland might have superseded those of his posting. The Netherlands provided four grounds for divorce—adultery, desertion, imprisonment, and serious physical cruelty. These laws were strictly applied and permitted few divorces. Dutch couples had another option, extremely progressive by United States standards: divorce by mutual consent. But Maggie knew the baron would not consent.

Only during Maggie’s time in France had she seen wives with a true right to divorce. A new law had cleared a legal path for a woman claiming cruelty, and in Paris there was an air of permissiveness and even sophistication around the idea of divorce. In the French capital, Maggie began to research the widely varied divorce statutes of the United States, obtaining a book on divorce law. In its pages she learned of the 90-day residency rules of the Dakota Territory. Her uncle John Jacob Astor, who passed away in 1890, had also told her of Sioux Falls. “He said it was a thriving and interesting place, and showed me photographs,” Maggie recalled in court. “This gave me the first idea of coming here.”

ggie was often plagued by what her doctors called a nervous condition, but throughout the morning on the witness stand her composure prevailed. After all, this was not the first time the details of her marriage had been laid bare before the public. In December 1889, the New York World reported the scandalous news: Maggie, who had come to Newport for the summer season, would remain and seek a divorce in Rhode Island. The newspaper was optimistic about her chances—money, of which Maggie had plenty, would settle it—but unable to shed any light on the cause. “In the absence of other reasons,” the newspaper concluded, “Mme. De Stuers’ present action is attributed to the eccentricity always characteristic of some members of the Astor family, the development of which in various ways and in various individuals has furnished endless scope for comment among society people.”

Maggie’s Rhode Island divorce suit might have succeeded, but her aunt, Mrs. William Astor—the Mrs. Astor, self-appointed matriarch of the family—would have none of it. Divorce was social suicide, and Mrs. Astor, a fierce defender of marriage even in the face of her husband’s infidelities, certainly could not have accepted a divorced woman into her parlors. In March 1890, Mrs. William Astor traveled to Paris with a single mission: to reconcile her niece with the baron, sparing New York’s leading family the embarrassment of its first divorce. Her trip was a successful one. Shortly thereafter, Maggie sailed for France to reunite with her husband. The reunion lasted less than a month.

Now Captain Stoddard asked Maggie to recount the events of June 13, 1890, in Paris, the last time she saw her husband. Maggie had told this story before, but rarely in such detail. She hesitated and dropped her voice to a whisper as tears filled her brown eyes.

“That day was a beautiful spring one,” Maggie began. “I was just getting ready for my walk when the baron came to my room in a more than usually amiable frame of mind and remarked, ‘It would be a favor if you would put the walk aside for this morning, as the sculptor is coming.’”

Maggie had obliged, remaining in her room as she awaited the artist commissioned to create a bust of her. That was when Maria, who sat in the courtroom as Maggie relived the day, came rushing to her room: “The house is locked, the windows barred, your room guarded, and the doctors are coming up the stairs!”

The baron’s pleasant demeanor had been a ruse to detain Maggie for the arrival of two doctors from Hospice de la Salpêtrière, the infamous female insane asylum. Maggie knew the doctors who entered her boudoir. The baron had called on Dr. Eugene Cheurlot previously to treat her fainting spells and her nervous and irritable tempers. Maggie had been especially troubled with this condition since the death of her eldest daughter, Mary Alida, in 1884 at the age of nine; she still mourned the loss. The first time, Maggie had promptly dismissed Cheurlot, accusing him of gross ignorance and incompetence. Now he was accompanied by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, who was not dispatched so easily. Charcot was the chief physician of Salpêtrière and the world’s foremost expert on hysteria. If he diagnosed Maggie with hysteria, she would undergo the treatment he had developed for the disease: institutionalization and hypnosis.

Charcot had pronounced Maggie mentally deranged but not hysterical. Maggie explained the grounds for the diagnosis to the courtroom: “He said any woman who treated so kind a husband, one so indulgent and considerate, who never harmed anything, in the manner I did must be insane.” The doctors had produced a certificate declaring that Maggie was suffering from neurosis. Charcot did not find it necessary to commit Maggie to Salpêtrière, but he declared her unfit to care for her children.

“Suddenly, my husband came into the room,” Maggie said. “I asked him to explain. He said he would eat his lunch and then tell me. I waited. Three hours of agony, of torture, passed—” Maggie burst into tears on the witness stand, and the court waited until she haltingly continued the story. She rose from her bed in search of her husband, only to see from her window that he was in a carriage with their children, driving away from the house. Maggie threw open the window and shouted for the coachman to stop. He did, but the baron, in his deep voice, instructed the coachman, “Drive on.”

That night at midnight, Maggie, accompanied by Maria, fled from Paris. She took with her only her jewels, leaving behind a closet of some 200 dresses and tens of thousands of dollars in other possessions. She traveled to the German spa town of Wiesbaden, under the ruse of a troublesome shoulder, and then Hamburg, a favorite summer destination of New York socialites on the Continent. Then she disappeared. Maggie’s whereabouts were unknown until she arrived in Sioux Falls almost a year later.

The memory of the final day of her marriage was still a painful one for Maggie.“That was the last glimpse I had of my children,” she told the court in a tremulous voice. “I have not seen them since. ”

The courtroom was now crowded, but Maggie told her story for one man: Judge Frank Aikens, the final arbiter of every divorce suit filed in Sioux Falls. The 36-year-old lawyer and politician was once a darling of those who opposed divorce. He had signed some 200 decrees in 1890, but he was rumored to harbor a discomfort with the growing Divorce Colony and the abuse of South Dakota laws by mere visitors to the state. In late July 1891, as Maggie waited out her 90 days, the curly-haired judge had put the Sioux Falls bar on notice: Divorce seekers would need to abide by both the letter and the spirit of the state’s law. The court would require affidavits from divorce applicants declaring that they had not come to the state with the intention of seeking a divorce and that they planned to remain in the state after the divorce proceedings concluded. Shortly thereafter, Judge Aikens refused a divorce to Benjamin Mann of Philadelphia, who had arrived in Sioux Falls more than 150 days earlier.

The newspapers reported that the judge had taken a stand against foreign divorces. By strictly construing the law, he could single-handedly shutter the Divorce Colony. The anti-divorce movement was gleeful. Judge Aikens was hailed as a “righteous” judge, and he was mentioned as a worthy congressional candidate. Newspaper columnists advised the unhappily married to give up on the idea of a Dakota divorce and speculated that Maggie and the other divorce colonists would be unsuccessful in their efforts. One Sioux Falls lawyer claimed to be dropping out of the divorce mill. “Most of the trouble at present arising out of the divorce law is not due to the law itself,” he said, “but to the bad intent of the people who come out here to make use of it.”

Two days later, the Argus-Leader set the record straight: Residency was not at issue in the Mann case. Judge Aikens had instead found that the depositions in the case were incomplete and that proper efforts had not been made to locate the absent defendant. Divorce seekers would need only to swear to their South Dakota residency; the judge would not ask for more evidence. “This will protect the spirit as well as the letter of the law,” he explained. Those who opposed “easy” divorce would have to find another way to banish it. Soon the ministers and others who cheered the righteous judge turned against him, accusing him of drunkenness in the face of the state’s temperance laws and licentious behavior with the divorce colonists at the Cataract House.

The elegant Cataract House dining room, with its lushly patterned wallpapers and white tablecloths, had become the central gathering spot of the Divorce Colony—and those who would gossip about its colonists. The townspeople dined alongside the divorce colonists, but most were unwilling to associate with the visitors. “There does not seem to be an affinity between those who have happy homes and those who are getting rid of unhappy ones,” a newspaperman observed.

Excluded from good Sioux Falls society, the divorce colonists formed their own. They strolled along Phillips Avenue—the most fashionable of the women dressed in long Louis coats with high-puffed sleeves, standing collars, and cinched waists—and traveled to Milwaukee, Chicago, and San Francisco, where they were less known, if not more accepted.

Maggie, a decade older than many of the women in the Divorce Colony, mostly kept to herself, with William at her side. But who exactly was this man who was so attentive to Maggie? “I haven’t any connection with this divorce case. I don’t want to mix up in it, either,” the six-foot, well-tailored William told a Chicago Daily Tribune reporter. “No, my dear fellow, I won’t say whether I am a relative of the madam or not,” William said when questioned further. “But I can say this: If I ever mix up in the case it will be with a revolver.”

Unconcerned with the rumor mill, William, on his new horse, a white umbrella attached to the saddle, often led the divorce colonists on excursions into the countryside. In the summer, he and the other sporting men among them hunted; in the winter, when they weren’t in the billiards parlor below the Cataract House, they raced sleds down 6th Street. Mary Nevins Blaine entertained the women with her beautiful singing voice.


Such frivolity appalled many of the town’s residents, especially Bishop William Hobart Hare. When Judge Aikens refused to shut down the Divorce Colony, the townspeople looked to Hare for guidance. The 53-year-old bishop, the son of an East Coast clergyman, had been a respected pillar of the region since the 1870s. He had originally come to the area for the air, searching for a better climate for his young wife, whose health was rapidly failing. After her early death, he had returned to minister to the Sioux Indians and built a small but prominent parish.

The bishop had long been outspoken on the subject of divorce. As early as 1885, he had warned against its scourge: “It is by no means safe therefore to say, ‘What the law allows must be right.’ In the matter of marriage and divorce the law allows much that is not right.” Throughout the summer of 1891, the bishop had been on a mission trip in Japan. He returned to find the Divorce Colony. He later wrote to his daughter-in-law of his dismay: “The scandalous divorce mill which is running at Sioux Falls, with revelations of the silliness and wickedness of men and women … made my return home a very gloomy one. I despise people who trifle with marriage relations so intensely that themoral nausea produces nausea of the stomach. I have a continual bad taste in my mouth.”

The bishop’s disdain reflected the strict doctrine of the Episcopal Church, which allowed divorce only for adultery and restricted remarriage, and his belief that divorce was an evil toward women, whom divorce cast into society without a husband to provide for them. But he also took the Divorce Colony as a personal affront. The bishop had a long and close relationship with the Astor family. Maggie’s uncle, the late John Jacob Astor, had donated more than $25,000 to the bishop to build a cathedral in Sioux Falls in honor of his late wife, Charlotte Augusta.

Now, as the bishop again preached from the altar of St. Augusta Cathedral, he saw Maggie and other divorce seekers filling the pews. The church had been a safe haven for Maggie throughout her stay in Sioux Falls. In gratitude she donated three elaborate stained-glass windows to replace the simple ones that illuminated the altar. Her generosity only enraged Bishop Hare. “I won’t have them,” the bishop declared when the windows arrived. “I’d as lief paste up the flaming placards of a low circus.” The windows were hidden away in the basement.

ggie had been on the stand almost four hours when the baron’s attorneys began the cross-examination.

Her husband was represented by Alpha Fremont Orr and his partner, Joseph Lawrence Glover. The two men were hoping the case would propel their fledgling careers in the lucrative divorce business. Orr began with deceptively simple questions: “When did you come to Sioux Falls? Who came with you? For what purpose?”

“To establish myself and to get as far away from my husband as possible,” Maggie said in answer to this last question.

“Did you come here to get a divorce?”

“I did not. I came here to think the matter over.”

The court adjourned just 20 minutes into Maggie’s cross-examination, to reconvene at two o’clock. When Judge Aikens gaveled the court to order in the afternoon, the gallery was standing room only.

The baron was not in attendance, nor were any of the witnesses on his behalf. Instead the defense attorneys had numerous depositions on hand. The baron’s own testimony ran to 75 pages. It painted a very different picture of the woman before the court, describing a depressive and abusive wife and neglectful mother. His wife did not even want children, the baron claimed, and she did not take proper care of the household or support him in his career. She drank and smoked and behaved erratically. In his deposition, the baron told of a marriage as difficult as the one Maggie detailed, but in his telling, Maggie was the one with a temper, and she was said to suffer from a disease that made her “complain of everything and nothing.” He did not want a divorce.

The baron’s deposition had arrived from Paris two weeks before the start of the trial, along with a new response to Maggie’s suit. Initially, the baron had denied Maggie’s claims of cruelty and maintained that the suit was legally suspect because Maggie was not a bona fide resident of Sioux Falls, having traveled to the city for the sole purpose of getting a divorce. She had offered him money for a divorce, the baron charged, which was against the law. He had “absolutely and peremptorily refused to listen.” In the latest filing, he charged his wife with adultery—with one Elliott Zborowski, alias William Elliott, the very same man who had wooed Maggie before her marriage and who sat in the front row of the courtroom.

The accusations were “something like a thunderbolt dropped from a clear sky,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. The baron’s amended complaint told the court a story of an illicit romance that started in the fall of 1888. He filled in the missing year of Maggie’s life, claiming that his wife had left their home in Paris in 1890 to join William in London, where they lived on the same street before departing together on a steamer bound for the Indian Ocean. The New York Sun spun tales from an anonymous traveler on a steamer from India to Italy. He told of a couple who claimed to be a duke and duchess, registered as Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, and purchased piles of silver and many horses in Bombay. The man, the anonymous traveler later discovered, was the very same man Sioux Falls knew as William Elliott. The woman was a tall, handsome blonde who “had the air of a woman accustomed to continental life. She smoked cigarettes on deck.”

In a hearing a week before the trial began, Maggie’s lawyer had argued forcefully that the new charges were nothing more than a stalling tactic in a case that had already been delayed for months. Judge Aikens had agreed, ruling that the baron’s charges of adultery would not be considered by the court. But when Glover rose to continue the cross-examination his partner had begun before the court recessed, he tried again. He asked Maggie to testify to her whereabouts between her June 1890 trip to Germany and her July 1891 arrival in Sioux Falls, when, the baron had charged in his failed motion, she had been living and traveling with William.

Maggie’s attorneys objected. Judge Aikens agreed, rebuking the baron’s attorneys: “This case closes on June 13, 1890.” But Glover decided to raise the charge of adultery a final time: “Isn’t it true that in case you get a divorce, you intend to marry Mr. Elliott?”

An unexpected sound echoed through the courtroom: Maggie, on the witness stand, and William, in the audience, laughed. Captain Stoddard objected to the question, and Judge Aikens again ruled in Maggie’s favor. The baron’s lawyer’s efforts to embarrass and ensnare Maggie had failed.

The plaintiff’s only other witness was Maggie’s maid, Maria. On the witness stand, the French woman was nervous and her English hard to understand. The newspaper reporters translated her allegiance quite clearly for their readers: “I have known Mrs. De Stuers for the past fourteen years. I have known the defendant for the same length of time. The baron’s conduct was often wild and foolish—screaming loud.”

At 4:30, the attorneys began to read the defense depositions into the court record; there were more than a dozen, from doctors, diplomats, and servants on two continents. Some were still en route from the East Coast. Among them was a deposition from Arthur Astor Carey, Maggie’s younger brother. In it he testified on behalf of the baron against his sister: “As to the baron’s treatment of my sister, I should say that he never treated his wife in a cruel or inhuman way. He was intentionally kind and considerate.” Judge Aikens agreed to enter the late testimony into the record but interrupted the lawyer’s monologue; the court would forgo further public reading of the documents.

The hearing had ended. Those in attendance believed that Maggie had acquitted herself well. “The Baroness De Stuers has won all the hearts here,” opined the New York Herald. The New York World imagined a vote of the audience: “Is Mme. De Stuers crazy? Spectators in the court-room attending the madame’s divorce trial would answer at once ‘no.’ Is she mentally unbalanced? Again ‘no.’ Is she erratic in her temperament? Decidedly ‘yes.’” But the case was in Judge Aiken’s hands alone. If he found that she had proven the baron’s cruelty, Maggie would be granted a divorce. If he found that she had not, the baron and the baroness would remain married.


Almost a month after the trial, late on a Saturday afternoon, Judge Aikens signed the final paperwork in the case of De Stuers v. De Stuers. After the courthouse closed for the day a clerk was sent for, and shortly before six o’clock, thwarting both the newspapermen who would report on the verdict and the lawyers who would appeal it, the clerk filed the judge’s decision: an absolute divorce. A few weeks shy of her 17th wedding anniversary, and nine months after her arrival in Sioux Falls, Maggie was free.

In the decree, the judge found the baron guilty of “acts of extreme cruelty” toward his wife, “which have inflicted grievous mental suffering upon her.” Judge Aikens concluded that the baron had schemed to institutionalize Maggie and abscond with her children. Doctor Charcot’s “pretend examination” of Maggie was dismissed as insufficient to form an opinion on her well-being. The judge awarded Maggie custody of her youngest daughter, believed to be hidden away in a French convent. She did not seek custody of her sons.

Maggie had been ill for weeks, in a nervous and weak condition that had confined her to her rooms at the Cataract. But on the following Monday morning, at 11 o’clock, Maggie, accompanied as always by William, returned to the Minnehaha County courthouse. She had one more piece of business here. In the presence of the clerk of courts, Maggie swore that she was, finally, “both single and unmarried,” that she was “of sound mind, not deprived of civil rights, and could lawfully contract and be joined in marriage.” Maggie signed the marriage certificate, using the name De Stuers one final time. And for the first time since they arrived in Sioux Falls, William signed his full name, with an exuberant Z: William Elliott Morris Zborowski, groom.

The wedding was performed quietly in Maggie’s parlor at the Cataract House a half-hour later, witnessed only by the couple’s New York attorney and another friend. A small private banquet marked the occasion. Maggie’s health prevented her from leaving Sioux Falls immediately after the wedding. She waited two weeks before departing for Chicago. William generously tipped the Cataract House staff, and the couple announced their plans to return in a month.

Maggie and William—again known as Elliott, the given name he had answered to for most of his life—stayed for a brief time in Chicago. Although no less an authority than Ward McAllister, gatekeeper to New York’s most exclusive circle, assured that Maggie and William would be welcomed in society, the Astors continued to shun them. Maggie’s dear childhood friend and bridesmaid Sallie Delano—now Roosevelt—visited Chicago, but Sallie’s husband asked his wife not to see her divorced friend. “It is not easy to make up my mind!” Sallie wrote in her diary, but she did not see Maggie.

At first the newly wedded Zborowoskis worried about going to Europe, where William had family and property. The baron still claimed Maggie as his wife. In the Minnehaha County courthouse, his lawyers had appealed Judge Aikens’s decree, and the Dutch courts did not recognize it. But finding themselves unwelcome among their American acquaintances, the couple sailed for Europe despite the risk. It was said that if William met the baron, there would be a duel. After their arrival on the Continent, the baron shifted tactics, seeking his own divorce decree in the Netherlands. He received it—and custody of Maggie’s daughter, whom he continued to keep from her. She was never reconciled with her children.

New Year’s Day 1893, Bishop Hare took to the pulpit at St. Augusta Cathedral with a mission. Maggie and William had not returned to Sioux Falls, but as he faced his congregation their offense was still on Hare’s mind. Though he had already made it clear to members of the Divorce Colony that they were not welcome in his church, at least 14 of them sat in the pews as the bishop began his sermon. “Some say that it is a good thing for South Dakota to have divorces and divorce suits,” he said, nodding to the city’s lawyers. “I say that it is alarming, and our lax divorce laws have become a national scandal.” He continued in his clear, ringing voice, “It is not so much the securing of a divorce which is so shocking, it is the consecutive polygamy which is practiced in marrying again so soon to a man or woman who has been courted while the suit for divorce to the former husband or wife was pending.”

Hare’s sermon echoed through the cathedral: “Do we wish to be famous? This makes us infamous. Do we want credit? This is discredit.… A shadow is being cast on the city’s prosperity!” Hare was reaching the end of his sermon, but his intensity continued to increase: “What then are we to do with the divorce industry? Dread it! Dread it! It is the disruption and destruction of the family.” The bishop pledged to protect the family. He went to Pierre to lobby the South Dakota legislature to end the Divorce Colony.

At the bishop’s urging, South Dakota strengthened its divorce laws, like each frontier state before it. On March 1, 1893, the legislature lengthened the state’s residency requirement from 90 days to six months. But the stricter laws did little to reduce the number of divorces in the country. The desire for freedom that led Maggie and the other colonists to South Dakota overwhelmed legislative correction. The divorce rate continued to rise, evidence not of an increase in bad marriages but of the increasing determination and ingenuity that unhappy wives and husbands applied to finding a legal escape from them.

For a brief period, divorce seekers traveled instead to Fargo, North Dakota, where the 90-day residency rule of the Dakota Territory was still on the books. But when North Dakota extended its residency requirement to one year in 1899, South Dakota’s six-month requirement was again among the most welcoming, and the Sioux Falls Divorce Colony was reborn. It took Bishop Hare eight years to rally the anti-divorce movement in the state to lengthen the residency requirement to one year, effectively closing the Divorce Colonya second time.

By the time Hare succeeded in 1908, national divorce-reform efforts such as Senator Kyle’s Constitutional amendment had faded away. Even at the height of the debate, those who opposed divorce were loathe to give the federal government control over an institution governed by the states, and the political will to challenge the increasing numbers of divorce seekers was fading. When the anti-divorce senator died in 1901, South Dakota elected Alfred B. Kittredge, one of Sioux Falls’ most prominent divorce attorneys. Within another five years, the anti-divorce movement admitted defeat, and Nevada—home to Reno, the country’s next fashionable divorce destination—continued to reduce its residency requirement from six months to three months to just six weeks by 1931.

The divorced, once pariahs, were no longer ostracized in polite society. To much surprise, Maggie’s aunt, the famously scandal-averse Mrs. William Astor, who had convinced Maggie to return to her husband in 1890, was one of the first to welcome divorced women—though not her disgraced niece—into New York society. In 1896, Mrs. Astor’s own daughter Charlotte Drayton divorced her husband, who had charged her publicly with adultery. The following year, in Newport, Mrs. Astor threw a party in her daughter’s honor and welcomed guests alongside the divorced woman. Though Bishop Hare’s own position toward marriage never softened, today the windows Maggie donated in 1891 hang in St. Augusta’s Cathedral, now known as Calvary Cathedral. One, installed before the bishop’s death in 1909, has a new memorial pane affixed, erasing Maggie’s efforts to honor her parents. The memorial panes on the other two, installed after his death, were laboriously scratched out, but a name remains faintly visible: Mary Alida, the daughter Maggie mourned.

The laws and attitudes that governed marriage and divorce changed incrementally and inconsistently in the years since the Divorce Colony—no-fault divorce, first introduced in 1970, would not be adopted in all 50 states until 2010—but a course had been set in Sioux Falls. It would be the people, not the church, the courts, or state or federal governments, who defined their most intimate relationships. The divorce colonists, through their individual actions, had forced the nation and its institutions to grapple with the need for accessible divorce and the shifting power dynamics of marriage. And despite all the warnings, these changes did not lead inexorably to the destruction of the family or the country.

The evolution of the nation’s marriage laws in the past century—changes that have extended the institution to ever greater numbers, including interracial and same-sex couples—are widely heralded as civil rights victories. The right to divorce that emerged from the Divorce Colony is rarely celebrated in the same way, but the two are inextricable. To be free to choose who to love is to be free both to marry and to divorce.

But none of these changes were Maggie’s intention when she came to Sioux Falls. Her divorce was not a test case but a personal triumph. As she told a Chicago newspaper in a rare interview: “I made up my mind to leave my husband to save myself.”

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