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Going to Reno

What do you do when you and your spouse have gotten to where you just can’t reconcile your differences anymore?  Often this means lawyers and alimony, but if the two of you are looking to split amicably, a short trip to the county courthouse is probably enough.  Sign some papers, agree to split up the property, work out what to do with the children and the pets, and you’re done.  Divorces like this might or might not be the norm (I’m hardly an expert in that), but they are an option.  This wasn’t always the case, though.

Ending a marriage simply because the two partners fell out of love or tired of each other has only been recently considered legally acceptable.  Religious institutions have long forbidden divorce (though even clergy have always been known to make exceptions), which probably has something to do with secular law also making divorce difficult, if not impossible.  Secular law has always tended to be more lenient than religious law, but even so, to get a divorce, a plaintiff would have to prove that their partner was at fault.  This requires producing evidence of infidelity or abuse or neglect or some other issue, which in many cases can be hard to prove in a court of law—especially for a wife, who typically couldn’t afford the same access to legal resources that her husband could.  Insanity was also considered grounds for divorce, which also worked in men’s favor, since getting a doctor to testify that a woman is non compos mentis in court was often easier than proving a man had been abusive to his wife.  Even so, the legal proceedings were always long and usually expensive.

Attitudes were beginning to shift by the middle of the 19th century.  In 1864, upon its admission to the union as the 36th state, Nevada offered the unheard-of option of offering divorce to all residents.  This required that you’d have been a Nevada resident for at least six months, which was a lot quicker than many other places.  Before Nevada’s statehood, the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas had a reputation for quicker, easier divorces, but theirs carried an eighteen-month residency requirement.  This was still better than the typical three-year requirement in most states, and Arkansas’s generally liberal divorce laws were the easiest to deal with, until Nevada came along.  Arkansas led the nation in single-parent households, with 21% of all homes with children having only one parent present.  The state also saw a lower birthrate than any other, and trailed the nation in the number of pregnancies of unwed teenagers.

The Utah Territory, established in 1848, had liberal divorce laws, itself, but Nevada soon beat them for prestige, and it soon became a divorce destination.  Spouses, either alone or together, would head to Reno, which was the largest city in Nevada until the middle of the 1960s.  Residency established, they’d wait it out, and head to court after six months.  If you came alone to Nevada, you could establish residency and have a lawyer serve your spouse in your home state.  This was more common, since the spouse would be required to come to Reno to contest the divorce, if they wished to.  Often the cases would be settled with only one spouse present, even if both spouses wanted the divorce.  To get a Nevada divorce, you didn’t have to live in Nevada all this time, but you did have to show up to establish residency.  A divorce hearing required a witness to testify that the plaintiff had been seen in the state for at least one continuous 24-hour period before the trial.  More often than not, that witness was the plaintiff’s lawyer.

Nevada still had a requirement that a spouse prove their partner was at fault for some reason.  Aware of the widespread abuse of the insanity charge, Nevada courts actually made it much more difficult to use it, placing a heavy burden of proof on the plaintiff.  More often the charge was abuse, and very often the abuse was thoroughly detailed in court.  Roughly 90% of Nevada divorce cases were based on cruelty.  Cruelty covered a broad range of charges, from something as simple as refusing to let one’s spouse listen to the radio or complaining about their clothes to shouting at them or assaulting them mentally, physically, or both.

This was quite a boon to Nevada lawyers, and to the local economy in general.  Other places started to see the benefit and adopted similar laws.  In 1871, the Dakota Territory approved a law granting easy divorce to anyone who’d been a resident for just three months, which took a bite out of some of Nevada’s business.  Paris, France was another divorce destination that let you sail through the process as easily as Nevada did.  Paris divorces were favored by the rich, since getting to Europe was more expensive than getting to Nevada.  Mexico and Cuba also liberalized their divorce laws in the early 20th century.  Mexico, which had prohibited divorce until 1917, even granted mail-order divorces.  American courts eventually decided the mail-order divorces were invalid, but Mexican divorces were still easy to get.  This changed in the 1970s, when Mexico, tired of its reputation as a divorce mill, passed new laws with stricter residency requirements.

The stigma of being a divorce capital could bother Americans, too.  In 1908, the state legislature of South Dakota eliminated the three-month residency requirement for divorces that it had inherited from the days of the Dakota Territory.  Even Nevada’s state legislature trashed its own divorce industry when in 1913, under pressure from women’s groups and religious organizations, it lengthened its residency requirement to one year.  Lawyers were furious and pushed back hard.  In 1915, the residency requirement was reduced to six months again.

ny-herald-tribune-cartoon.jpg
Reno, Nevada: Your breakup is our markup.

In fact, Nevada kept on going down that path.  In 1931, Nevada reduced its residency requirement to six weeks, far less than anywhere else.  (Nevada also legalized gambling in 1931.  The Silver State was starting to become the Nevada we know today.)

Besides liberal divorce laws, Nevada’s marriage laws were also liberal.  Most states required that you have blood tests and that you secure a marriage license from a county clerk, but not Nevada.  Further, most states required a waiting period of at least one year after a divorce before you could remarry, but Nevada put up no such impediment.  Neighboring California did have the year-long requirement, making Nevada a destination for quick divorces and marriages.  California dropped this requirement in 1902, but still, marriage was never as easy there as it was in Nevada.  Marriage still is easy in Nevada, which is what spawned the famous novelty wedding chapels that Las Vegas is known for.  (If you know anyone who’s ever woken up in a Las Vegas hotel with a hangover and a new spouse who wondered why Nevada makes an impulsive marriage so easy, feel free to send them this story!)

Image result for Reno divorce cartoons

Nevada, the land of the quick and easy marriages and divorces, earned a place in America’s cultural firmament as a spot where these two major life decisions could be made and ratified in about five minutes.  While this is true of marriage, divorce has always carried the requirement of establishing residency.  The divorce hearings themselves were typically over in five minutes, but the legal wrangling and the waiting periods took longer.  It used to be that if you said, “I’m going to Reno,” that didn’t just mean you were getting in your Studebaker and tooling down the Lincoln highway; there was an understood subtext of divorce in that expression.  Divorces were available statewide, but Reno was the most accessible city and the largest, so it was the logical destination.  (Las Vegas, remember, was a small town in the middle of nowhere for most of Nevada’s history; its explosion as a major metropolitan area is a relatively recent development.)  Reno was the setting of the 1961 film The Misfits, where Marilyn Monroe stars as a woman who went there with her husband to get a quick divorce.  Once they split up, he heads back East and leaves her there to figure out what her next move is. 

The 1948 pop song “Rhode Island is Famous for You” gives a nod to Nevada’s infamy:

Grand Canyons come from Colorada,
Gold comes from Nevada,
Divorces also do...

It might not be evident to more modern listeners, but this was clearly understood at the time.  Since then, divorce laws across America have caught up with Nevada, so going to Reno no longer carries the same subtext.  However, if you want a quick marriage at the Elvis Presley Chapel, you can still do that in an afternoon, and there’s no need to establish a mailing address care of the Heartbreak Hotel.

Blossom Dearie sings "Rhode Island is Famous for You"


Marilyn Monroe chats with her new friend Clark Gable in The Misfits (1961)


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