Weather Window | Divorce, Nevada style
Special to the Sun
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series.
In October 2014 Nevada will celebrate 150 years of statehood.
The Silver State is famous for the glitter of Las Vegas casinos, the stunning scenery at Lake Tahoe, and for America’s largest counter-cultural event, the Burning Man Festival held in the Black Rock Desert. But for some people, the mention of Nevada still conjures up shady images of easy divorce, high stakes gaming, bloody prizefighting and legalized prostitution.
That’s not exactly a Disneyland experience for the average American family.
RAKING IT IN
These culturally suspect activities were legalized in Nevada because of their power to generate money for an economy historically under-populated and lacking a strong tax base. The future state of Nevada was part of Utah Territory in 1859 when a California-bound family had stopped to rest near the mining camps at Gold Canyon (present-day Virginia City).
Mr. Powell’s wife had died recently and left him with several children, among them a 14-year-old girl named Mary. Eligible females were diamonds to the young prospectors hunting gold, so a teenager from Missouri pursued young Mary for a wife.
While Mr. Powell was away, 18-year-old Benjamin Cole convinced both Mary and the Justice of the Peace that his intentions were honorable and the two were married. When Mr. Powell returned and heard the news, he grabbed his children, including Mary, and hurried on toward California.
Cole and some mining buddies chased after them intent on “rescuing” Cole’s new bride, but an armed posse of older men from Gold Canyon turned them back by force. Thus the region’s first marriage ceremony was followed by a swift and permanent separation just four hours later.
After the creation of Nevada Territory in 1861, the legislature passed Nevada’s first divorce law. The legislation approved a liberal policy granting divorce to any person residing in the territory for six months or more. Yet nearly 40 years passed before a Nevada divorce case made newspaper headlines.
In April 1900, a judge in Genoa, Nev., granted a divorce to Earl John Russell, a 35-year-old member of England’s House of Lords. His new lover, Irish commoner Mollie Cooke, described as “just over 18,” had accompanied the Earl. In fact, Mollie was actually 45 years old and had been divorced twice before. The two testified they had spent their statutory six months residence wintering together at Lake Tahoe at the Glenbrook House on the eastern shore.
Once their Nevada divorces were granted, the two lovebirds traveled to Reno, Nev. and were promptly married. Newspaper headlines blared: “Sensational Reno Marriage: A Real, Live, English Earl Weds an Irish Maid.” When Earl Russell and his new bride arrived in London two weeks later, however, the “original” Countess Russell was livid. The House of Lords had the Earl arrested for bigamy.
After studying the case, an English judge sentenced Earl Russell to three months in prison, where he was provided with a private apartment with good food and wine. The heralded case initiated Reno’s famed divorce industry and led to the term “getting renovated.”
SPEED AND EASE
Divorce became legal in nearly every state by the early 20th century, but it carried social stigma and was a slow, costly and embarrassing process.
In the Silver State, the speed and ease of breaking up made Nevada a destination for celebrity couples looking for a quick split. In 1905, Laura Corey arrived in Reno with her young son Allan. Four weeks earlier, her husband William Corey, the wealthy president of U.S. Steel, had sailed for Europe publicly sharing a stateroom with the actress Mabel Gilman. In testimony before a Reno judge, Mrs. Corey swore she intended to reside in Nevada permanently and he granted her divorce request in just four hours. Mrs. Corey also won a $3 million settlement and custody of Allan. Despite her oath in court, the ex-Mrs. Corey returned to Pittsburgh a few months later.
The media went crazy again in 1920 when America’s sweetheart movie star, Mary Pickford, arrived in Minden, Nev., to divorce her husband, actor Owen Moore, who was filming a movie in Virginia City. When their divorce was granted in a mere 16 days, five-and-a-half months before the six-month residency required by state law, people cried foul.
But Pickford got away with it because her lawyer, former Nevada Supreme Court Justice and future senator Pat McCarran, exploited a legal loophole in the law. The ambiguous language in the statute was later corrected, but not before Mary Pickford rushed back to California to marry the dashing screen star Douglas Fairbanks.
The popularity of Reno as a divorce destination kept lawyers, restaurants and hotels busy, but public pressure forced the state legislature to extend the six-month waiting period to one year in 1913.
Dripping with civic pride the Reno Gazette stated, “The State is too big, too prosperous, its future too golden for it to depend on the few dollars that are spent by gamblers and divorce seekers.” The decision, however, was ruinous for many Reno businesses, and in 1915 the legislature reinstated the six-month requirement.
Stay tuned for Part 2.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. Mark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Marks blog: http://www.tahoenuggets.com.