Out of the Public Eye

Despite the widespread publicity accompanying Reno’s divorce colony, some of its participants led lives largely hidden from view.

Audio Tour
Project curator Mella Harmon identifies some of the divorce cases and populations not widely covered by the popular media.

Over the course of its 70-year run as the divorce capital of the world, Reno was featured in the press, in film, on stage, in novels, and otherwise entrenched in American mass culture. Despite this notoriety, there were people participating in the trade who were largely invisible in the legal records and other public accounts.   Among them were members of certain ethnic minorities, children who accompanied their parents to Reno, and some of the more troubling types of divorce cases.

An article in the August 1950 issue of Ebony Magazine, entitled “Nuptial Knot Cut by 500 Negro Wives annually in Divorce City” shed light on a striking example. The participation of blacks in Reno’s divorce trade was indistinguishable in the legal records and unmentioned in most newspapers and books. Here was an entire industry functioning side-by-side with the mainstream but within the confines of Reno’s Jim Crow-like attitudes toward race.

Children, too, have stories to tell about “doing time” with a parent who came to Reno for a divorce. What was it like for a child from the East coast to be uprooted and hauled off to the Wild West to attend a strange school for a short period of time, or for a young city-dweller to spend idyllic days among horses, cows, and chickens? For some Reno children, the presence of the divorce colony produced a revolving door of short-term classmates. For others, it meant bunking from time to time with a sibling to make room for a short-term tenant to augment the family income.

Divorce suits that rarely made the news included cases involving the grounds of insanity and other human rights issues, as well as cases that were officially sealed by a judge, preventing the public from learning details of the proceedings.

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