A chronology of significant events in the history of the Reno divorce industry.
Pilgrims bring divorce to the American colonies.
Connecticut becomes the first migratory divorce destination with the New Haven Colony Code of 1656, which established “That is any husband shall without consent, or just cause shewn, willfully desert his wife, or the wife her husband, actually and peremptorily refusing all Matrimoniall society, and shall obstinately persist, therein, after due means have been used to convince and reclaim, the husband or wife so deserted, may justly seek and expect help and relief, according to 1 Cor. 7.15.”
During the 1840s and 1850s, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois are the frontier divorce havens.
Nevada Territory is established. The territorial constitution sets the residency requirement to be a bona fide citizen at six months and adopts certain elements of Utah Territory’s divorce law.
Boom period for the Comstock Lode begins, lasting through the 1870s. Divorce is common. Virginia City is dubbed “the city of divorces.”
Nevada becomes a state. Citizenship and divorce laws are retained in the state constitution. Divorce law allows seven grounds for divorce.
The Territory of Dakota enacts an expansive divorce statute with a three-month residency requirement. Lawyers from Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York establish divorce mills in Utah Territory.
At the turn of the century, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Wyoming serve as migratory divorce havens.
The Second Earl Russell of England spends six months at Glenbrook in order to divorce his wife and marry Mollie Sommerfield. Lord Russell is later arrested for bigamy as he detrains in London after receiving his Nevada decree. The ensuing publicity brings Nevada divorce to the public’s attention, but does not boost Reno’s migratory divorce trade.
California institutes a one-year residency period for divorces.
Laura Corey, wife of the president of U. S. Steel Corporation and one of the world’s richest men, receives a divorce at the Washoe County Courthouse following a year-long stay. The Corey divorce is a turning point in Nevada’s divorce trade, for “after the Corey case burst upon the breakfast tables of America, rich and socially notable people started making the trek [to Reno].”
The National Congress on Uniform Divorce convenes in Washington, D.C. in February, with the underlying notion that it is the diversity of the states’ divorce laws that promotes the migratory divorce trade and drives the nation’s divorce rate higher. There is a push for a national divorce law, which ultimately fails to gain traction.
The New York divorce attorney William H. Schnitzer moves his practice to Reno and begins to advertise Nevada’s short residency requirement.
Munsey’s Magazine publishes an article by Allen D. Albert, Jr., entitled “Reno, the Refuge of Restless Hearts: The Picturesque Nevada City Which Has Become the New ‘Divorce Headquarters’ of the United States.”
During the Progressive era, under pressure from a group of Reno citizens, including politicians, women’s organizations, and churches the Nevada legislature passes a bill lengthening the divorce residency period to one year. The impact is immediately felt, and an economic slump ensues.
Business owners and lawyers prevail upon the state legislature to reverse the one-year residence period, restoring it to six months. The economy makes a miraculous recovery.
Broadway debut of the play Lightnin’ about a seedy hotel that straddles the California-Nevada state line, convenient for those looking for a quick Nevada divorce. Lightnin’ plays continuously over three seasons with a record breaking run of 1,291 performances.
“America’s Sweetheart,” silent-screen actress Mary Pickford engaged the dynamic young Reno lawyer, Patrick McCarran to handle her divorce from Owen Moore so she could marry the handsome and dashing actor Douglas Fairbanks Sr. McCarran had found a loophole in the law, allowing Pickford and Fairbanks to wed less than a month after Pickford received her final decree.
The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution (Prohibition) goes into effect at the first of the year. Illegal speakeasies fill the void for Reno’s thriving divorce colony.
Pickford’s divorce case is appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court because of a challenge over McCarran’s loophole. The Supreme Court upholds Pickford’s divorce decree.
Two propositions relating to the divorce law appear on Nevada’s November 1922 ballot. One would have raised the residency period again to one year and permitted interlocutory decrees. The other would leave the divorce law as it was. When push came to shove, voters choose the divorce trade over moral sensibilities. The one-year residency is rejected by a three-to-one margin.
Mary Pickford’s divorce was declared legal, but it stretched the intent and spirit of the law, and the loophole McCarran took advantage of is closed by the legislature.
The Nevada legislature votes to reduce the residency requirement to three months and adds two years of insanity as an additional ground for divorce. The Supreme Court upholds the law’s constitutionality in August.
The TH Ranch (formerly the Hardscrabble Ranch) at Pyramid Lake becomes the first dude ranch in Nevada. Nevada dudes were of a unique sort—mostly eastern women “doing time” for a Reno divorce.
The number of Nevada divorces increases to 1,953 the first year following the passage of the new law, almost doubling the number reported the previous year.
California passes a law requiring a three-day waiting period for marriage, opening the flood gates for quickie weddings in Nevada.
The American stock market crashes in October. The ensuing economic crisis comes to be known as the Great Depression.
Seeking to ameliorate the effects of the Great Depression, the Nevada legislature passes the Wide-open Gambling Act re-legalizing gambling, lowers the divorce residence period to six weeks, and broadens the grounds for divorce. More than 300 divorces petitions are filed the morning the new law goes into effect.
The 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealing Prohibition goes in effect on January. Building permits for bars, cocktail lounges, and liquor stores in Reno proliferate.
As America’s entry into World War II looms, the number of weddings performed in Reno hits a peak of 25,401 during the period July 1, 1941 and June 30, 1942.
Reno divorces reached a peak of 10,313 during the period July 1, 1945 to June 30, 1946, immediately following the end of World War II.
The California Legislature passes the Uniform Divorce Recognition Act (UDRA) that prohibits the recognition of divorce decrees where both parties were domiciled in the state at the time the divorce proceedings were instituted. This was intended to block quickie divorces. Ultimately, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Wisconsin also passed the UDRA.
The American Bar Association is working on American divorce law reform that would eliminate the fault and guilt principle: the no-fault divorce.
Las Vegas divorces outnumber Reno’s for the first time during the period July 1, 1962 to June 30, 1963. Las Vegas continues this trend for the next few years until the Nevada divorce trade comes to an end.
The New York Court of Appeals rules to accept Mexican divorces and the New York legislature votes to allow more grounds for divorce than adultery.
The 54th Nevada legislative session ended with the passage of a reform divorce law lowering the separation period from three years to one year and adding incompatibility to the allowable grounds for divorce. The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Howard F. McKissick of Reno explained, “Adding incompatibility as a grounds will make divorces more honest in nature and not make liars out of the parties involved.”
California passes a reform divorce law that eliminates grounds for divorce and replaces them with “irreconcilable differences.” The law goes into effect on January 1, 1970 and the modern no-fault divorce is born.
With the proliferation of divorce reform nationwide, Reno’s famous migratory divorce trade fades away.
The Nevada Assembly votes to reduce the divorce residency requirement to three weeks. The bill dies in the Senate, so we will never know if it would have extended Nevada’s divorce business.