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Fargo, Divorce Mill


Yesterday was the anniversary of a day when North Dakota closed one of the more scandalous chapters in its history.

It started in 1866, when Dakota Territory legislators allowed people to start divorce proceedings as soon as they arrived in the territory. Eleven years later, the law was amended, and a three-month residency was required before divorce could take place.

When the Dakotas became states, the law was still in place and remained so. While the three-month residency was still required, U.S. citizenship was not, and Fargo and Sioux Falls soon found themselves overrun by divorce seekers from all over the world. In 1893, South Dakota changed their laws, and Fargo became the divorce capitol of the country, if not the world.

It wasn’t cheap to move to North Dakota for three months, so most divorce seekers were wealthy – some elegant, some not so elegant. It was possible to get a quick divorce anywhere in the state, of course, but Fargo was the largest city, and it offered palatial hotels, fine dining, opera, symphony and – of course – about 40 saloons across the river in Moorhead.

Not everybody actually stayed in town for the three months – at that time, the Northern Pacific had a short lunch stop in Fargo, and many people used the time to check into a hotel and leave a bag. They’d take the next train home and return three months later to pay the bill and collect their divorce. This particular method became known as the “Ten Minute Divorce.”

Fargo’s reputation became so widespread that hotels and boarding houses were hosting men and women from Europe, Australia and Africa – in addition to the Eastern gentry. Plank-boarded sidewalks were filled with men in silk top hats and frock coats, and women wore the latest fashions from New York and Paris. Their behavior? Mixed.

There was a depression going on in North Dakota during the 1890s, but in Fargo, businesses catering to divorce seekers were flourishing... especially attorneys. In Erling Rolfrud’s book, The Story of North Dakota, he writes, “Divorce lawyers earned astonishing incomes, sometimes were presented fantastic bonuses... Gossip from divorce court sessions and scandalous happenings in the town became table talk. Children began to play divorce court.”

Tom Isern, NDSU history professor, also points out that “newspapers prospered by publishing notices.” No doubt, gossip columnists had a field day, as well.

There’s no accurate account of how many of divorces were actually granted during those years, but the numbers run into the thousands. It’s reported that one Fargo judge granted 350 divorces in one year.

Meanwhile, many of the good people of North Dakota became quite indignant about how the world perceived Fargo – as a town that attracted and perpetuated immorality.

Around the state, people lobbied to bring a close to the “divorce mill.” Bishop John Shanley galvanized the reformers, and they got their wish. The legislature changed the residency requirement to one year, and divorce seekers also had to be U.S. citizens. Governor Fred Fancher signed it into law on April 1st, 1899.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm