Nevada married to divorce in 1930s

September 27, 2018

LAUGHLIN — Many jokes exist about Las Vegas being the divorce capital of the world and the origin story is fascinating.

Divorce ranches, which began in Reno and moved to Las Vegas, were a way for ranchers to make ends meet during The Great Depression. They served to empower women and make money for many types of businesses.

Courtney Mooney, senior historic preservation planner and architectural historian for North Wind Resource Consulting, gave a special presentation Sept. 21 at the Laughlin Library about divorce ranches and how they came into existence.

Mooney began working on the project a few years ago because she was doing some research at Floyd Lamb Park at Tule Springs, she said.

“It turns out that was a divorce ranch and I didn’t know what that was,” said Mooney.

Mooney started out by defining terms like “going Reno” or a “spare.” Going Reno described the behavior of someone who’s gone to Reno to get divorced and was cutting loose and a spare was an individual’s new partner.

In the 1800s divorce law was random, she said, some states didn’t even allow divorce, so people travelled to secure divorces.

“So sometimes you were married to more than one person because states didn’t really communicate what was going on,” Mooney said.

The typical reasons for divorce in those days were adultery and physical abuse, and the misconduct had to be proven, she said.

Sometimes a person couldn’t get remarried until the “innocent” person passed away, she continued.

“They were prohibiting this idea of divorce,” said Mooney.

Sometimes photos were staged, such as a husband photographed with a prostitute, in order to get a divorce, she said.

“Everyone was complicit in this,” Mooney said.

After Nevada became a state in 1864, the law required parties to reside in the state for only six months to to be eligible for divorce and Nevada didn’t require proof of adultery or abuse, she added.

In the early 1900s there were a lot of lenient Nevada judges that supported amicable divorce and may have realized there was a cottage industry growing that was good for the state, said Mooney.

The judges also began accepting a broader variety of reasons for divorce and waived legal separation periods.

“Once you got a divorce you literally could walk out and get married to somebody else,” said Mooney. “And a lot of this is because many of the western states were competing for residents and it was really difficult to live off the land in Nevada and that is still kind of the case now.”

They also thought, if a woman came to Nevada and got divorced, that woman might stay, said Mooney.

There were high profile, well publicized divorces in the early 1900s, she said, and in 1913 the temperance movement and the moral reformers associated with that movement convinced the legislature to increase the residency back to one year.

Almost immediately “all hell broke loose,” Mooney continued.

“Reno lawyers estimated the loss to the city at $1 million a year,” said Mooney. “But take that with a grain of salt because these are lawyers.”

The movement eventually influenced other states to crack down on divorce but in Nevada they reduced the residency back to six months by 1915.

Then in 1927 legislators reduced it again to three months, said Mooney. And the requirement was reduced again in 1931 to six weeks, which was unheard of in the U.S., she added.

By then, The Great Depression had hit and the price of beef had collapsed. A lot of ranchers were trying to supplement their income and at the same time Nevada re-legalized gambling, said Mooney.

“So we were always setting ourselves up to be the sin state,” laughed Mooney.

Legislators expanded the criteria for divorce to include impotency, adultery, willful desertion, felony conviction, habitual gross drunkenness, neglect of the husband to provide the common necessities of life, insanity, living apart for three years and extreme mental cruelty.

Mooney gave one example of extreme mental cruelty that came straight from a complaint filed — “she talks to me when I’m trying to read.”

A key element was while you had to reside in Nevada for six weeks, you didn’t have to remain in the same location, said Mooney.

“This is a dream for Nevada because now you have tourism,” she said.

Reno, at the time, had a larger population than Las Vegas and Northern Nevada was the government seat so it was much more accessible, had more infrastructure, hotels, and restaurants, Mooney said.

The feminist aspect to divorce in Nevada is also fascinating, Mooney said.

In the 1930s divorce was much easier for a man than for a woman and they were almost always awarded custody of the couple’s children.

“He could claim she was insane and have her institutionalized for depression, use of language and epilepsy even,” Mooney said.

Nevada’s relaxed divorce laws allowed women some additional freedoms, said Mooney.

Typically it was the woman who came to Nevada, even with amicable divorces, because the husband worked so he’d send her.

“She’d probably never been away from her husband and children for any period of time, she’d probably never worked, never been in a bar, she’d never had a relationship other than her husband,” said Mooney.

She’s now working, enjoying a social life, getting career training even, she said.

There were special intense six-week trainings, coincidentally, where she could learn to be a secretary or some other job, Mooney continued, opening doors for women.

The 1930s alone brought in more than $3 million per year to Reno, Mooney said.

She provided marketing examples, clearly showing the idea of attracting women to the ranches.

The trend continued through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s and ranches became ritzier through the decades.

Eventually Las Vegas became the hot spot and changes in the political environment, such as segregation, influenced how the ranches worked, Mooney said.

She provided examples of homes converted into guest homes that housed African Americans during the segregation era because they couldn’t be on The Strip.

Mooney said while she doesn’t have the research to prove anything, she feels fairly certain the ranches also accommodated homosexuals who needed or wanted to get divorced and there are oral histories about that topic.

Eventually divorce laws loosened up in other states and it wasn’t as necessary to go somewhere to get a divorce, altering Nevada’s booming divorce business.

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