I wrote THE DIVORCE COLONY, the crazy true story of Gilded Age socialites who went to South Dakota for divorces—and changed how we think about marriage. AMA
I’m April White, a historian and author who dives into the archives to find stories from our past that help us better understand our present. My new book, THE DIVORCE COLONY, is about women who, often at great expense and hardship, traveled long distances across state lines to gain autonomy over their lives—a Gilded Age tale that probably sounds frighteningly modern, too.
I love writing about people, like the women of the divorce colony, who have shaped our world in unexpected ways. For instance: the 19th-century quack who tried to cure alcoholism with gold, but also developed a proto-AA, and the woman who taught people how to fly—as one of the first commercial airline passengers.
I can’t shut up about marriage and divorce, the nerdy joys of research, and why honest curiosity about our history is vital to our future. So—ask me anything!
EDITED: Thanks everyone for an awesome publication day AMA party for THE DIVORCE COLONY.
You can learn more about the divorce colony at https://thedivorcecolony.com/ or thedivorcecolony on IG where I'm telling a lot of the stories that didn't make the book. You can get a copy of THE DIVORCE COLONY from your favorite bookseller or library (and if they don't have it on the shelves you can ask them, pretty please, to stock it).
I think we forget just how recently it was that we started to think of marriage as being primarily about love and happiness, as opposed to economic and social stability. And I think that we forget that for many women in many places, it still is about economic and social stability. That realization helped me understand the women in my story and the history of divorce better.
I've heard about the "myth of progress" which essentially rejects the commonly held belief that human living standards improve steadily over time. In your research, have you come across any historical "golden ages" of women's rights that you can point toward that would surprise the uninformed?
I'm not sure that my research uncovered any particular golden age, but I'm going to point you to the work of one of my Atlas Obscura colleagues, Sarah Durn, who has talked to many women scholars who are studying exactly that. Sarah has a Q&A column called "She Was There" and it takes you all through history to moments shaped by powerful women: https://www.atlasobscura.com/categories/she-was-there
What aspect of your research is still bugging you to pursue it further?
This isn't the most pressing historical questions, but there's a woman in the book named Ellen Pollock, who figures into the first sensational public divorce trial -- but it is her husband, Edward, who went to Sioux Falls to seek a divorce. Ellen--who had been the family maid before the couple secretly web--goes to Sioux Falls to fight for the marriage. That happened almost never. (She lost.)
Anyway -- it's always really challenging to follow a woman through the historical record (don't change your name!) but it is particularly challenging if she isn't from a wealthy or prominent family. At some point after her divorce and years of additional legal wrangling, I lost track of Ellen. I'd like to know what happened to her.
I grew up 1.5 hours from Sioux Falls, and thus spent a lot of time in Sioux Falls as there wasn't much else out there in that spec of nothingness. Did you visit Sioux Falls in writing this book? What places mentioned in the book still exist?
Book has been requested from library, but 3 people in front of me. So, I guess that's good for you!
There are two key one: the original courtroom of the Minnehaha County Courthouse (now the Old Courthouse Museum). It was amazing to stand in the same room that some of these women did during their *public* divorce trials. And it looks pretty much the same, too!
And Calvary Cathedral (which was known as St. Augusta Cathedral in the 1890s), which was home to the leading opponent of divorce in South Dakota.
And I just wrote about my visits to Sioux Falls for Atlas Obscura: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/sioux-falls-divorce-colony
Have you listened to "the dollop" podcast ep 332, that used your book as one of its sources of research? If so, how do you feel they did with the material?
Thanks for mentioning this. I've never heard it. I'll have to check it out.
I was aware of this practice in Fargo historically but not Sioux Falls. Thank you for this. Is there anything that incentivised one place over the other?
Residency requirements were the biggest thing, followed by accessibility by train and the comfort of the accommodations. In the early 1890s, both North and South Dakota had the same residency requirement -- 90 days -- but Sioux Falls was more accessible and it had the best hotel for hundreds of miles. When South Dakota extended its requirement to six months, some people chose to travel further to Fargo for the shorter wait (some still stayed in Sioux Falls). But as soon as North Dakota extended its residency to one year in 1899, divorce seekers all headed to Sioux Falls again.
Did they change the residency requirements because of the whole 'divorce colony' thing or was that just a side effect of some other reason?
Yes, the change in residency requirement was absolutely and explicitly an attempt to get rid of the divorce colony.
That’s a wonderful niche. Unique womens stories that history overlooks. What women from history or modern day inspire you?
I'm inspired by the stories of the women who typically remain nameless. The ones who just did the things that needed to be done -- for instance, the first women students at each all-male college. Most of them didn't want to be ground-breaking. Most of them didn't even think of themselves that way. They just wanted an education equal to that which was available to their male peer. In pursuing that, they paved the way.
Are there any current divorce laws (including any unenforceable ones) that you think are pretty out there or bizarre?
Not a current law, but I've been watching a run-off in the Republican primary for a US House seat from Mississippi where the one of the candidates has proposed a "providing newlyweds with a $20,000 wedding gift, paid back if the couple divorces" -- wow, would that be a way to trap everyone but wealthy couples in marriage.
What are some present time incidents that a "future you" would consider interesting?
Oh, gosh, there's just too. much. news. But I think that 125 years from now, an author who shares my curiosities will write about the women forced to travel long distances, often at great hardship and expense, to gain autonomy over their own bodies.
Just ordered the audible version of your book! Super hyped to get started on it after work today.
During your research was there anything super interesting you came across that didn’t make it in to the book that you would like to share?
Thanks for ordering! There were so many great individual stories that got left on the cutting room floor. Some of them ended up in the end notes (sorry, those aren't in the audio version, because, well, no one wants to listen to citations read aloud) and I've been telling others over on Instagram: thedivorcecolony.
One that I'd like to write more about in the future is the story of Sara Ellis. In the late 1940s, Sara was basically employed as "the other woman." You could still only get a divorce in New York with proof of adultery, so couples would mutually wanted to end their marriage would hire Sara to falsely "admit" to the court that she was having an affair so that the couple could get the decree they wanted. She testified in about 35 cases.
THIS sounds like an entire book or more, or a podcast at least yoooooo
Calling all podcast producers!
What’s your next book about?
I don't know yet (my agent and editor would like to know, too!) but I can say that I'm going to keep writing stories about people like the divorce colonists -- people whose influence on our past and present has been overlooked. I'm interested in real, complicated people who didn't set out to change society but did, in ways big and small. People who were outside the traditional power structures who shook things up just by living their lives. Those stories are important for understanding our world. And they are also really fun to research and write.
Did this impact ,South Dakota, as a state going forward, in ways that we can still see today?
Did any, many, some of these women stay in South Dakota or was that just a place to divorce and move on?
Most divorce seekers left immediately. That's one of the things that Sioux Falls residents complained about -- that the divorce colonists were lying about their residency and abusing the system. But it became clear that wasn't their real problem when one divorcee who had scandalized the city married a local man and settled in Sioux Falls. She was not welcomed.
As for the lasting impact -- This is something I've talked about with people in Sioux Falls. The divorce colony definitely brought an influx of money into the brand new state at a time when it was eager for investment, and many of the businesses in downtown Sioux Falls catered to these wealthy visitors. There's an argument to be made that the divorce colony shaped the retails and entertainment scene in Sioux Falls for decades but it might be a stretch to say you can still see that impact.
- What is your relation status?
- How has your research impacted your view of relationships/marriage?
- How do you think marriage will change over the next 20 years?
I've never been married and this research has certainly made me reflect on that fact that if I had been born a century ago (or in a different place in the world today) I would not have had that option.
I think historical changes in marriage, at least in the United States, where my research has been focused, have been a barometer for women's equality in society. Recently, we've seen women's economic opportunities upended through the pandemic and their autonomy limited by recent government decisions -- we'll see that reflected in the state of marriage, too, I think.
I'm so happy you've written this! Will this be available in our local stores or shall I go with mail-order?
Also, I heard about this place in a comedy play a few years back, but I'm NOT coming up with the name of the play. Do you happen to have run across it?
Hmmm. I can't think of a recent comedy. The Reno divorce colony (which comes after Sioux Falls, and where divorce, with one exception, gets progressively easier) was the subject of the 1939 movie "The Women" -- definitely not recent, but the things most people think of first when I mention this topic.
In its day, the Sioux Falls divorce colony inspired many plays, poems and fictional accounts, including several written by divorce colonists themselves.
Oh, and thanks for asking! THE DIVORCE COLONY is available from your favorite booksellers. All kinds of options here: www.thedivorcecolony.com
Where did you get your shirt?
My very cool local library: https://mtpfriends.bigcartel.com/product/what-s-more-punk-adult-t-shirt
Support your local library if you can.
When will the book be available in the UK? I can't wait to read!
Thank you! Should be very soon.
What are some things we take for granted about marriage and divorce today, that were impacted by the kind of things you're writing about?
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