For a woman traveling without her husband in the late nineteenth century, there was only one reason to take the train all the way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, one sure to garner disapproval from fellow passengers. On the American frontier, the new state offered a tempting freedom often difficult to obtain elsewhere: divorce.
With the laxest divorce laws in the country, five railroad lines, and the finest hotel for hundreds of miles, the small city became the unexpected headquarters for unhappy spouses—infamous around the world as The Divorce Colony. These society divorcees put Sioux Falls at the center of a heated national debate over the future of American marriage. As clashes mounted in the country's gossip columns, church halls, courtrooms and even the White House, the women caught in the crosshairs in Sioux Falls geared up for a fight they didn't go looking for, a fight that was the only path to their freedom.
In The Divorce Colony, writer and historian April White unveils the incredible social, political, and personal dramas that unfolded in Sioux Falls and reverberated around the country through the stories of four very different women: Maggie De Stuers, a descendent of the influential New York Astors whose divorce captivated the world; Mary Nevins Blaine, a daughter-in-law to a presidential hopeful with a vendetta against her meddling mother-in-law; Blanche Molineux, an aspiring actress escaping a husband she believed to be a murderer; and Flora Bigelow Dodge, a vivacious woman determined, against all odds, to obtain a "dignified" divorce.
Entertaining, enlightening, and utterly feminist, The Divorce Colony is a rich, deeply researched tapestry of social history and human drama that reads like a novel. Amidst salacious newspaper headlines, juicy court documents, and high-profile cameos from the era's most well-known players, this story lays bare the journey of the turn-of-the-century socialites who took their lives into their own hands and reshaped the country's attitudes about marriage and divorce.
April White is a senior writer and editor at Atlas Obscura. She previously worked as an editor at Smithsonian Magazine. She holds a master’s degree in history and her work has appeared in publications including the Washington Post, The Atavist Magazine, and JSTOR Daily, where she wrote a regular column on the history of food,. She lives in Washington, DC.
"The Divorce Colony delivers a delicious, cinematic tale of real-life scandal, suspense, and above all else, survival. It’s beautifully written, fiercely feminist, and best of all, a true page-turner from start to finish. It's a story I wish I had written."—Abbott Kahler, New York Times bestselling author (as Karen Abbott) of The Ghosts of Eden Park
"For those out there who have an abiding fascination with nineteenth-century railways, with matters concerning sex, scandal, divorce, exile, and refuge, with the Frontier and the prairies—for anyone who would fain meld Peyton Place with West by Northwest and The Shining, April White has done us all a great favor. I loved every word of this most surprising book."—Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman and The Men Who United the States
"Until I read April White's remarkable book, The Divorce Colony, I had not thought of women seeking to leave marriages in the 19th century as human rights pioneers. But this story—vivid, compelling, infuriating, inspiring—changed my mind. And I have no doubt, it will change yours, too."—Deborah Blum, New York Times bestselling author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz-Age New York
“The Divorce Colony paints a carefully-researched portrait of four women at the turn of the 20th century who had had enough. White’s colorful portrayal of these brave divorcees—conjured before our eyes through an impressive deep dive into the archives—reminds us of the distance, both literal and figurative, that women have travelled to uncouple and regain their freedom. A fascinating read!"—Paulina Bren, Ph.D., award-winning author of The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free
“Unearthing a hidden gem previously lost to history, April White weaves impeccable research and elegant prose into a thought-provoking page turner. The Divorce Colony is an irresistible work of narrative nonfiction.”—Matthew Pearl, New York Times bestselling author of The Dante Club and The Taking of Jemima Boone