In the late 1800s and early 1900s, if your wife or husband told you they wanted to spend a few winter months in Newport, you should probably call your lawyer. Back in those days, the small Rhode Island city was America’s divorce capital.
In 1883, Grace Turnbull wanted to be shed of her loutish husband Henry, who had caused a stir at New York’s Union Club. In 1920, Julia French Garaghty, wife of “Handsome Jack” – her father’s one-time chauffeur – was rethinking her decision to elope years earlier. J.B. Potter was fed up with the antics of his actress wife Cora Urquhart Potter in 1900. And in 1894, Alva Vanderbilt sought to bring her 20-year marriage to a philandering husband to a close.
All went to Rhode Island, but they are just a smattering of the people who ended their marriages in the Ocean State.
R.I. Divorce Capital
Grace Turnbull charged that Henry didn't provide her adequate support. The press, though, suspected no one thought Trumbull capable of supporting Grace’s appetites from the start. Grace had landed Henry, of Baltimore, as a second husband, her first having left her a fortune.
Henry made a name for himself in 1882 for challenging yachtsman J.F. Loubat to a duel. He wanted to settle the question of whether Loubat exhibited bad manners at the Union Club. The club expelled Loubat, a decision he failed to reverse in court. The press hinted that the dispute actually stemmed from Grace’s friendship with Loubat.
Regardless of the outcome, Turnbull had lost his wife’s confidence. So she decamped for Newport in 1883.
Julia Garaghty’s divorce case created far less of a sensation than her elopement in 1911 with “Handsome Jack.” Julia, the daughter of one of America’s richest bankers, Amos Tuck French, ran off with a lowly chauffeur. Critics said the marriage wouldn't last. And despite a 10-year run, the critics were right. Julia returned to Newport to put an end to the marriage.
“Handsome Jack,” meanwhile, offered a cautionary tale to newspaper reporters about the perils of marrying into wealth: “Here in America we are supposed to be democratic and with no social distinctions. It is supposed to be a free country, with the laborer having as much authority and right as the employer.
"But when it comes to marriage there is no better way to describe the reasons for my domestic difficulty (my first marriage) than to say that my wife and I were of different castes.”
Art More Than Life
When financier James Brown Potter, of Brown Bros., married Louisiana belle Mary Cora Urquhart he assumed he got the perfect society wife. He didn’t count on her love of the stage, where she began performing as Cora Urquhart Brown-Potter.
Upon learning that Cora planned an extended theatrical run in England, he wrote his wife: “I demand it be cancelled.”
That didn’t go so well, as her letters made plain: “Dear Jim: You know I am going to do as I want. Your family has never treated me right. Your father told me I was an obstacle to your advancement."
Further, she wrote, "Your mother insulted me before I was married. Brown Brothers are nothing to me. Their name I do not care for. Henry, your uncle, is all fuss and feathers. My art I love better than life. I cannot settle down to a narrow life like your family…We are not now living in Dark Ages when wives were slaves.”
The marriage had effectively ended, with Cora continuing on the stage and J.P. taking up temporary residence in Rhode Island to rid himself of her.
As for William K. and Alva Vanderbilt, the granddaddy of all society divorces, they chose Rhode Island to put in place an arduously negotiated separation. Alva convinced a judge of William K.'s infidelity. Alva got millions and William K. got his freedom.
Why the Divorce Capital?
These couples and countless others didn’t choose Rhode Island to get a divorce because of the scenery. Rhode Island had a reputation for having some of the laxest attitudes toward divorce in America.
South Dakota, Illinois and Rhode Island all had minimal residency requirements. And Rhode Island would allow divorce for a variety of reasons, including simple abandonment.
Other states such as New York required infidelity or cruelty as the cause. They also required charges to be proven in open court. Further, some states barred divorcees deemed at fault from remarrying.
In addition, New Yorkers could hope to face much less publicity by divorcing in the small state of Rhode Island.
The divorce capital of Rhode Island did not go unnoticed. The Saint Paul Daily Globe in 1887 ran a newspaper editorial reflecting the views of many:
“Newport, the famous watering place, has a new mission beside entertaining wealthy summer idlers. It seems that the laws of Rhode Island are particularly lax with reference to the granting of divorces, and in this fact mismatched couples find their opportunity. It is only necessary for either party to go to Newport for a short length of time, bring suit, and the divorce is granted on the most trivial grounds.
“Thus far the members of New York swelldom, who have found their matrimonial chains galling, have chiefly taken advantage of the ease with which divorces can be obtained in Newport…Matrimony should not be regarded as a thing to be put on and off like an old glove, and the laws of the country should make it impossible to consider it in that light. Newport's new mission is one that does her no credit.”
Battles played out in the Rhode Island Legislature to toughen the requirements for divorce, but the divorce industry found a way to still thrive. Humorists enjoyed the scenarios that cropped up, noting that society hostesses faced complicated seating arrangements since they needed to separate ex-spouses. And one writer gleefully told of attending a tennis match at the Newport Casino that ended in great embarrassment: A former married couple, both now with new spouses, found they were seated next to each other.
But it wasn't just the wealthy who headed to the Rhode Island divorce capital. In New York, law firms sprouted that specialized in the Rhode Island divorce. One spouse would hire a firm and sign an attestation that he or she had established residency in Rhode Island. New York would forward the matter to Rhode Island for processing.
These “divorce mills” occasionally grew controversial. In 1925, police arrested 25 people for fraudulently processing out-of-state divorces, with the aid of a magistrate.
Haddock v. Haddock
Meanwhile, the critics had persuaded the Supreme Court to further muddy the waters because they couldn't reform the divorce laws state-by-state. In the 1906 case of Haddock v. Haddock, the court declared that simply because one state declared a couple divorced did not mean they had actually divorced. The state where they married had to agree to the divorce, as well.
The ruling was a lawyer’s dream. It opened endless possibilities to complicate the issue, creating the real possibility for a person to be married in one state, divorced in another and guilty of bigamy in another, if remarried.
This state of confusion would exist until the court again addressed the question in 1942. By then, however, Rhode Island was losing its status as the divorce capital.
In 1927, Nevada finally got into the game, dropping residency requirements to six months for divorcees. Nevada again in 1930 dropped the requirement to three weeks.
This story about New England's divorce capital was updated in 2019.