Plains Folk

Divorce Court, 1885


Like many of his fellow New Yorkers, whose home state had strict laws governing divorce, Henry J. Losee came to Fargo, Dakota Territory, in 1885 to get a divorce. His wife, he contended, had deserted him. Taking the stand, he was asked by his attorney, “When did you first know that she intended to live separate and apart from you?”

“The first I knew anything about it,” Losee declared, “was when I saw my goods on the dray going down the street.”

The episode is no laughing matter, I suppose, but I can’t help myself, that’s funny. This guy was down working at the shoe store near his home in Utica, and as he walks up the street, here comes his stuff piled in a wagon.

Not only that, he gets to his house to confront his wife, who he says has been content up to this point, and she won’t speak to him. Seems his mother-in-law arrived earlier in the day, and she informs him he has been treating his wife shabbily and she is coming home with her mother. Losee gets down on his knees and begs her to stay, the landlady his witness, but to no avail. So away to Fargo. Ninety days residence, a few more weeks for publication, and he’s single again.

In the late 19th century the Dakota Territory, and after that the states of North Dakota and South Dakota, had liberal laws as to residence requirements to obtain a divorce. Some say this was because of the spirit of individual liberty that characterized the frontier; others say there was profit in it, money to be made off unhappy easterners come west to sever the ties that bind. Whatever the reason, Fargo and Sioux Falls became the divorce mills of the United States. They were to the 19th century what Reno was to the 20th.

The records of all this activity in Fargo went into the files of the Cass County District Court, and thence, by accession, into the collections of the Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State University. What a catalog of human misery! And occasionally, these being documents of humanity, humor also.

I’m thinking of the case of Charles H. Potter, of Cleveland, Ohio, filed 9 August 1895 in Fargo. He claimed his wife of twelve years had deserted him and, moreover, had treated him with “extreme cruelty,” “caused him grievous mental suffering,” and made “life in his chosen calling as an Evangelist subject to the sharpest criticism and disrespect, thus materially affecting his health.”

Evidently he and his wife had an arrangement whereby he gave her $12 a week, a business associate said, “for her personal expenses and pin money.” Unfortunately, she was spending about $1000 a year, running up debts all over town.

For the past five years Potter had been pursuing ardently his calling as a preacher, but his wife’s desires were “contradictory and antagonistic.” An acquaintance deposed, “She has been very fond of fashionable society and her associations and companionships have been all along that line with those who were inclined to dissipations and extremes.” Worse, he observed her “during the race week in Cleveland on the porches of the clubs and at private dinners” and even saw her “drinking wine and upon one occasion in a company where some of the women were intoxicated.”

The family nursemaid testified, “There was a coldness between them. . . . He was interested in Evangelical work, and very much devoted to it, while Mrs. Potter was fond of society.”

Enough, said Judge William McConnell. Divorce granted.

Reading these historic divorce files is about the snoopiest thing I have ever done as a scholar. I’m thinking maybe these should be required reading for my students. Not so much for historical insight as for life lessons. Dibs on TV rights.

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