Nuptial Benedictions (The Divorce Industry in Oklahoma Territory)

Between the first “land run” opening up the “Unassigned Lands” of Indian Territory in 1889 and statehood in 1907, Oklahoma filled up rapidly. 

There were a variety of reasons, of course. The “frontier” was rapidly closing and Oklahoma Territory was the last hope of true homesteading on the continent. Early reports suggested fertile soil and cooperative climate – descriptions which would later be recalled in wry reflection by those who'd embraced them. Then there was the sheer newness and unpredictability of it all – in a nation built on restlessness and possibilities, that alone was sometimes enough.

Oh – and of course, it was a great place to get a divorce. 

The Nation 1893Oklahoma is trying hard to outbid all of its neighbors in the matter of granting easy and quick divorce. An attorney at Kingfisher, in that Territory, has issued a circular which points out that the statutes of Oklahoma specify no fewer than “ten separate and distinct causes, for any one or more of which a divorce may be obtained,” including that all-embracing term, “gross neglect of duty”…

{T}he statute required only three months’ residence in the Territory; and finally, that “persons coming to Oklahoma will find the city of Kingfisher, with its 4,000 inhabitants and all modern improvements, a very pleasant place to live in.” Apparently Indiana, Chicago, and South Dakota are all to be outdone in the divorce line by Oklahoma. 

--The Nation, July 13, 1893

Divorces weren’t easy to come by in much of the country – especially older states like New York, which were so conservative and obsessed with family values compared to renegades like Oklahoma. In some cases it literally took an act of the state congress; in most it required proving blatant infidelity or substantial abuse. You could move to a state with less-restrictive divorce laws, but establishing residency in the eyes of the law often took a year or more, and the variety of local obstacles could prove dizzying. 

Even then, the spouse from whom one sought separation was often required to be physically present in order to secure legal disentanglement – something they might not be willing to do if they were for some reason unhappy with you… say, for instance, if you were in the middle of a divorce. 

But not in Oklahoma Territory. They wanted fresh blood and they weren’t overly particular how they secured it. Besides, Oklahoma was all about new beginnings during this period – fresh starts, and unlimited optimism. Ironic, right?

We weren’t alone in promoting the divorce business. South Dakota for a time set the standard for shameless pandering to the corrupted and unfaithful. We taught them a thing or two, however about breaking up not being at all hard to do. 

Outlook 1894

{O}ur divorce laws are both lax and conflicting. A man may be divorced in one State, yet still be married in another; hence in one State he may marry again, while in another he becomes a bigamist if he does. The unsavory reputation which South Dakota has lately enjoyed is but another reminder of the necessity for uniform divorce legislation throughout the country. 

In the inducements, however, by which it seeks to obtain its share of this infamous divorce trade the Territory of Oklahoma goes beyond South Dakota…

Our priorities have changed, but our compulsive, legislative need to be the worst in every preventable category has remained remarkably consistent over a century later. 

The statutes of Oklahoma Territory require ninety days’ previous residence before commencement of action, as in South Dakota before the change of law.

OK, we didn’t so much beat them on the residency thing so much as they retreated slightly. Wimps.  

But we completely tromped the Dakotas when it came to notifying your soon-to-be-ex of your intended proceedings:

Service upon a non-resident defendant may be made personally or by publication. There is no statute requiring corroborative proof as in South Dakota.

—The Outlook, February 17, 1894 

In other words, for an Oklahoma divorce you didn’t have to prove you’d informed your partner of your efforts to quit them, or go far in giving them a chance to respond or to appear. All you had to do was place notice in a paper they might theoretically read. If they don’t respond, the courts would assume they were fine with it. 

Periodicals of the 1880s and 1890s are full of editorials and investigations into the increasing popularity of divorce across the country. The North American Review, one of the longest-running and most literary periodicals in all of American publishing, asked five well-respected authors – all of them female – the rather loaded question, “Is the woman more to blame for unhappiness in marriage?”

Spoiler Alert: Yeah, pretty much. 

The most progressive of the bunch, author and journalist Rebecca Harding Davis, was the least comfortable pinning every sin of Adam on Eve. She was also not convinced the root problem was a new one:

Are Women To Blame

I am not at all sure, either, that there are more unhappy marriages than there were fifty years ago. There are more divorces, and divorce-bills drag the secret unhappiness to light. I remember, in the Virginia town in which I passed my childhood, there was one divorcée, and so rare was the legal severance of marriage in those days, and so abhorrent to public feeling, that the poor young woman was regarded with horror as though she had been a leper. 

But were there no wretched marriages among the good people who held her at arm’s length? no drunken, brutal husbands? no selfish, nagging wives? Nowadays the lax divorce laws bring out all these secret skeletons to dance in the streets. 

But as to the lax divorce laws of some of the newer states (and territories)?

In our Western States, the consciousness that divorce is easily possible, no doubt, often makes wives restless and insurgent under petty annoyances. When that is the case, it is certainly the woman who is in fault.

“Restless and insurgent” actually rather nicely describes some of the most interesting and capable women in my world. “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” 

Booyah, baby. 

In the South, where divorce is still looked upon as a disgrace, and where religious feeling is more stringent than in any other part of the country, the old-fashioned Domestic woman is still to be found. She is gentle; she has infinite tact; she hates a fuss; she knows the art of managing men. I think that she is not often to blame if her home is unhappy.

In some of the New-England States, where the women outnumber the men six to one, it is the hard, lean-natured man who has the game in his own hands…

—“Are Women To Blame?”, North American Literary Review, May 1889. 

You get the idea. 

Disputes over marital termination, not surprisingly, often ended up in court. One case, involving Mr. & Mrs. Frank Magowan (spelled ‘MacGowan’ below) became rather well-known to those looking to the judicial branch for moral rebalancing: 

Validity of Divorces

We hope that the Supreme Court of the United States, when the question comes before it for decision, may hold that divorces obtained in ‘foreign’ States are not valid. The matter grows out of the New York decision that is known as the MacGowan case. In that case it was held that neither the wife nor the husband can acquire residence in another State for the purpose of obtaining a divorce. If that decision is sustained it will mean quite a revolution in divorce methods. We hope it is good law, for it is certainly good morals… 

It’s nice to know that not so very long ago, at least some states valued the sacredness of holding captive someone you used to love but who now despises you. On such foundations are strong societies built.

During the past few years the pilgrimages of those seeking divorces to the Dakotas, to Oklahoma, and other sparsely settled States and Territories where laws are lax and inducements are actually held out to those desiring legal separation, have amounted to a public scandal which has spread even beyond this country. 

It has seemed hopeless to appeal to the pride of people like those in Oklahoma. We hope that an appeal to the Supreme Court will end the matter…

“It has seemed hopeless to appeal to the pride of people like those in Oklahoma”? That’s rather insulting, don’t you think? Rude, even. Makes me wish I were married to the author just so I could move here and divorce their ugly behind. 

The husbands who have raised a fund to prosecute this matter may simply be acting from motives of revenge, but their contributions may result in great public good as well as in the discomfiture of wives who have journeyed to Dakota in order to contract another marriage…

—“Employment of Women,” The Literary Digest, February 27, 1897


Imagine a time and place in which men – purely out of hostility towards women they believe have overstepped their bounds, or forgotten their station – promote legislation cynically crafted to teach those wenches a lesson and keep them in their place. Now imagine that such legislation succeeds because even those without such blatantly ugly motives believe a little heel-to-neck is probably good for the unclean – that it keeps them in line. 

Oklahoma was for a brief, shining moment on the OTHER side of that dynamic. It was on the “everyone deserves an opportunity to rise above their past” side of things. 

I know, right?! History is crazy. 

Even the French were appalled – and you know how hard it is to offend the French. 

French View of Divorce

“This facility of varying the colors of the conjugal knots singularly increases the vogue of a holy state that may be embraced, quitted, and resumed so easily at the hands of the pastor; so it is not the coming nuptial benediction that disturbs those spouses that are desirous of separating; it is—will it be believed?—the rigor of the laws of some States. 

There’s such a fine line between colorful rhetoric and just being obnoxious about it. (And yes, I see the irony.)

There are States, like New York, where divorce is very hard to obtain, and whose residents are forced to resort to the judges of other States, where marriage is a plaything that is broken with more or less ease. 


The inhabitants of New York have only to cross the Hudson. The State of New Jersey, which borders the other side of the river, is empowered to untie knots, but only in certain cases; there are scruples; serious grounds are necessary. 

Yeah, New Jersey and their stern scruples. Some things never change. 

People who can not produce these must take the trouble to go a great deal farther, to North or South Dakota, or to the Territory of Oklahoma, where chains are broken as by enchantment!

That should go on our license plates: “Oklahoma – Where Chains Are Broken As By Enchantment!”

OK Plates

If they ask your reasons, they never commit the indiscretion of finding them insufficient. One sole condition is required—residence for six months in the two first-named States, and for three months in Oklahoma, but—you are not obliged to really live there. 

What? Another wrinkle!

Most honorable witnesses gain a livelihood in no other way than by affirming on oath that you have resided there from the day of the introduction of your application up to the day when you appear before the judge. There are even ways of avoiding this latter formality.” 

—“A French View of Marriage And Divorce In The United States,” The Literary Digest, August 7, 1897

We should never have bailed them out of every war for the entire 20th century. 

My absolute favorite commentary on Oklahoma as divorce factory comes in the form of a play. “While You Wait,” by Charles Newton Hood, was published in June of 1900 in a magazine called The Smart Set. The play, which is fairly brief and absolutely worth reading in full, consists entirely of dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Van Cleef – a well-to-do couple who’ve managed to live together quite civilly for several years despite realizing very shortly into their marriage that there’s no actual love between them. 

Mrs. Van Cleef, however, has a solution…

Mrs. Van Cleef—Well, I have been looking into the matter a little and I think that it could all be arranged very nicely and easily, and everything would be lovely. The circular says—

Mr. Van Cleef—The circular?

Mrs. Van Cleef—Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you. I wrote to some lawyers in Dakota and Oklahoma, who call themselves “Divorce Specialists,” and advertise “Divorces While You Wait;” and really, the way they put it, all you have to do to get a divorce is just to go out there and spend a few months enjoying the lovely climate and all that, and come back divorced…

Mr. Van Cleef interrupts to make sure she’s been discreet with these inquiries, then she continues:

Mrs. Van Cleef—Now, in this divorce business, there seems to be a great rivalry between South Dakota and Oklahoma, but the Oklahoma firm’s circular is a great deal the more enticing. Listen. It says (she reads from a circular which she takes from her pocket): “Our newer States, in compiling their laws, have seen fit to show more liberality in the matter of obtaining divorces than may be found among the older States, whose laws on this subject were enacted at a time when ideas were less in accord with the advanced liberal thought of the present.

”As the Mohammedan devotee confidingly turns his eyes toward the tomb of his beloved leader, so has Dakota been regarded as the Mecca of hope to weary companions in matrimony.”

Isn’t that nice? We’ll be the weary companions…

This amuses me on so many levels. 

Mrs. Van Cleef goes on to explain that Oklahoma has clearly been giving Dakota a run for its divorce earnings. 

It says we have to live there only ninety days before we can get a divorce and be as free as the glorious air of Oklahoma. All we have to swear to is that we are uncongenial and incompatible, and you swear that you are a poor, neglected husband, and I’ll swear that I am a poor, neglected wife, and we’ll go out there for a little vacation, and you can hunt and explore and neglect me and be uncongenial and incompatible, and I’ll climb mountains and fish and be incompatible and uncongenial and neglect you, and we’ll have just a lovely time, and there won’t be any scandal, and when we come back we’ll just be good friends…

They go on to ponder what a coup the railroads might manage if they were to arrange package deals for husbands and wives traveling together to Oklahoma, then returning separately—or with different companions.

While You Wait

Maybe it’s my love of dark humor, but I find the entire thing hilarious over a century later, despite the happy ending. 

As Oklahoma continues to seek new ways to make divorce more expensive, more embarrassing, or simply more difficult, it’s a shame we can’t look to our past – our roots – and remain a bit more faithful to the policies which got us where we are today. To dance with the one what brung us, as it were. 

Instead, we’re faithlessly abandoning them for new priorities, and ideologies. We’re cutting loose our old, somewhat embarrassing ways for a hotter, younger legislative philosophy. It’s like we’d rather not even talk about our collective past at all, if we can avoid it. 

Shame, shame, shame. Where’s the loyalty?

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