Going to Reno

family law

It’s funny sometimes how you stumble across an idea for a blog post. The other day I watched a programme on TV about the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. How could this possibly lead me to something relevant to a family law blog?

Well, bear with me for a moment. The programme talked of the amount of energy that would be needed to send a message across the vast distances that might be required to transmit to another civilisation, and suggested this might be achieved by utilising the power of the Sun. To demonstrate, the programme went to one of the largest solar energy power stations in the world, in Nevada, half way between Las Vegas and Reno.

Which got me thinking about Reno, and the reputation it once had as the Divorce Capital of the World, an illustrious title that many nowadays give to London. I didn’t really know much about why Reno had that reputation, so I decided to do a little research. It’s an interesting, instructive, and sometimes amusing, story.

It all began even before Nevada became a state, in 1864. In order to attract people to the territory, Nevada had a much shorter residency requirement than elsewhere, six months rather than the usual one year. Residency granted certain rights, such as the right to vote and the right to file a lawsuit, including divorce.

This in itself attracted some people seeking a divorce, although it is surely a sign of how desperate they were that they were prepared to spend six months in what must then have been a pretty grim place to live, in order to achieve their aim. Nevada’s reputation was enhanced, however, by attracting some celebrities seeking a divorce, including Hollywood actress Mary Pickford.

And that burgeoning reputation was proving pretty lucrative (by the 1930s it is estimated that the divorce business was bringing in an estimated $5 million a year). Unsurprisingly, this did not go unnoticed elsewhere, and a sort of ‘arms race’ ensued between Nevada and other states (and even countries) looking for a similar windfall. In 1927 it was reported that France and Mexico were considering lowering their residency requirements for divorce. Not wanting to lose out, Nevada responded by lowering the residency requirement to three months. Then Idaho and Arkansas did the same, leading Nevada to respond again in 1931, by lowering its residency requirement to just six weeks.

But it wasn’t just a question of residency. Nevada offered a wider range of grounds for divorce than elsewhere. Plaintiffs had no fewer than nine options, ranging from adultery (provided that it was unforgiven), to the defendant’s habitual drunkenness, to neglect of the husband for a period of two years (reduced to one year in 1931).

So why Reno, not any other town or city in Nevada? I think it was simply that Reno was the largest of few cities in the state (Las Vegas, for example, was founded much later). It may also have been to do with the indefatigable efforts of its people to take advantage of their good fortune. For example, in 1927 Reno’s Riverside Hotel was built to accommodate divorce seekers. But the hotel was not just beside the Truckee River (more of which in a moment), it was also conveniently situated alongside the Washoe County Courthouse, where divorces were handed out. And if you wanted a divorce but not the hubbub of city life, ‘guest ranches’ sprang up around the city, where you could spend your six months/weeks.

And then there was the question of how you would pass that time. Reno had this covered as well, providing various entertainments such as casinos for gambling (legalised in 1931), and drinking establishments when Prohibition was repealed. And there was also a flourishing temporary jobs market, for those who had to work their way through the residency requirement.

As for the main event, the divorce itself could, it seems, be something of an anti-climax. Divorce hearings usually lasted no more than a few minutes, “briskly followed by the judge’s rubber-stamp divorce decree”.

Once the divorce had been obtained, tradition dictated that newly divorced women celebrated their freedom by exiting the courthouse and walking to the nearby Virginia Street Bridge, from where they would throw their wedding ring into the Truckee River below. This tradition was thought by some to be apocryphal, but in the 1970s hundreds of rings were dredged up from the river.

In the 1930s more than 30,000 people went to Reno to get a divorce. Such was the city’s reputation that the expression “going to Reno” became synonymous with “getting a divorce”. All good things must come to an end, however, and by the close of the 1930s Las Vegas had grown to threaten Reno’s status. Further, other states liberalised their divorce laws, doing away with the need for many to travel to Nevada.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all of this it is surely that if you give people what they want then they will take it. In other words, people want to be able to get a divorce when their marriage has broken down, and it is pointless preventing them, delaying them or making it harder for them.

Photo by Nick Ares via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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3 comments

Dr. Manhattan - May 22, 2017 at 6:42pm

“the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence”

Arguably the most important search in Human History.
Many believe they are already here watching us. who knows. Maybe they are.

Donnelyn Curtis - May 23, 2017 at 2:01am

Hi John,

Since you are interested in the history of Reno divorce, I wanted to make sure you have found an online exhibit created by Special Collections in the University of Nevada, Reno Library: renodivorcehistory.org. There are over 1,000 documents, photographs, articles, books, interviews, and other sources of information on the subject.

John Bolch - May 23, 2017 at 12:48pm

Thanks. That was one of the sites I looked at whilst researching for this post.

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