The Sioux Falls Fun Page is dedicated to telling the whole world just how amazing the city of Sioux Falls is! There is fun to be had around every corner, nice people, awesome attractions, rich history, and so much more. Sioux Falls is the perfect place to raise a family and grow old… which is exactly my life plan! So imagine my surprise when I learned Sioux Falls has a not quite so “family-friendly” skeleton in its closet!
Sioux Falls Divorce Capital of America!
In the 1880’s, some pretty smart lawmakers, albeit lacking in morality especially for that time, concocted a plan to boost residency in the Dakota Territory. In a time when divorce was a very expensive and extensive process, the territorial government passed a law that made divorces in the Dakota’s quick and easy. In other parts of the country a divorce typically took a year and could usually only be granted on the grounds of adultery… In the Dakota’s, you simply had to be a “resident” of the territory for 90-days (eventually extended to 180-days) and your complaint against your spouse had to loosely fall into 1 of 6 different justifiable reasons. Reasons included extended imprisonment, adultery, extreme cruelty, habitual drunkenness, willful absence for more than five years, or impotency. Additional provisions included either husband or wife having a former spouse who was still living at the time of the second marriage or if the wife was pregnant by another man at the time of her marriage and her husband was not aware of the situation. Of course some reports say “extreme cruelty” was the claim of one man seeking to divorce his wife for continually placing her cold feet on him in the night, and another hoping to be separated from his wife because she refused to bathe. It is safe to say the interpretations of these “reasons” was not really scrutinized! In late 1889 when South Dakota was granted statehood, they kept the law on the books.
So how did the plan work… well… very well… perhaps, too well! Divorce became an entire industry (perhaps the first stable industry) in turn of the century Sioux Falls. Another part of the law promised divorcee’s “sealed” court papers, which lured in wealthy and influential couples from across the country and even a few from around the world to make the move out west to become residents. Although the law applied to the entire territory/state, Sioux Falls was a place with some modern amenities, especially when the number of “tourists” prompted the building of a couple high end hotels along Phillips Ave., the grandest of all the Cataract Hotel, believed by many to be the finest Midwest Hotel beyond Chicago. Couples simply had to rent a hotel room, maybe two depending on how hostile relations had become, and wait out the three months. Some of the more creative minds would even come to town rent the room leave a few bags, and then head back home until their time was up.
Some records indicate that over 6,000 divorces occurred in a twenty year span between 1889 and 1909 when the laws were tightened up. Of those 6,000 divorces at least 4,000 were from out of town guests! Although not the most savory of businesses there is no doubt that the divorce industry brought thousands of dollars into Sioux Falls hotels, restaurants, law offices, and public coffers every year, as our city was just beginning to find its footing in the world. Sioux Falls may not be the same city it is today had it not been for the misfortune those many couples had run upon… thank you, I guess!