Family

What It Took for One Gilded Age Socialite to Get a Divorce—and Keep Her Dignity

Money, discretion, and a chance blessing from a king.

A man's and woman's face in a broken heart.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Photos by Quarter-centenary Record of the Class of 1885, Yale University and Bigelow Society. 

Flora Bigelow Dodge had not traveled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in January 1903 for the same reason so many women of her acquaintance had. She did not do anything for the same reason other women did—at least not if you believed the newspapers. A fixture in the society pages, Flora was the “most daring, most original, cleverest woman in New York.” She was a wonderful musician, a graceful dancer, an expert horsewoman, and a captivating storyteller, an author of plays and short stories. She was “both courageous and imaginative.” She was witty, ambitious, generous, and beautiful, a woman of “unusual individuality” with a retinue of admirers.

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She was also unhappy.

After 16 years of marriage to Charlie Dodge, son of the Dodge family, well-known for its lumber and mining fortune, 34-year-old Flora wanted a divorce—one which would be denied to her in her home state of New York unless she could furnish proof of adultery. And so she traveled west to join the “divorce colony,” as newspapermen called the sorority of dissatisfied wives who moved to South Dakota at the turn of the twentieth century to take advantage of the laxest divorce laws in the country.

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By the time Flora settled into her four-room suite at the Cataract House Hotel in Sioux Falls, it was no longer original for a woman to make the long, expensive journey. For more than a decade before her arrival, the city had been at the center of a fiery national debate over who should be allowed to end a marriage. But it was still daring to imagine a life apart from one’s husband. And Flora had come in search of something entirely without precedent. Those before her had often been forced to sacrifice their reputations and their place in society in order to gain release from their husbands. Flora was seeking more than her freedom at any cost. She wanted a “dignified Dakota divorce.”

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Divorce was an anathema in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A 1889 Bureau of Labor Statistics report had found that the divorce rate had been on the rise through the mid-nineteenth century and that two out of every three divorce seekers were women—statistics that alarmed those who saw divorce as the breakdown of the American family, the very building block of the country itself. The subsequent effort to limit access to divorce had allied the country’s clergy, large swaths of its political and judicial classes, and many of its social leaders. They attacked this scourge with religious condemnation, legal obstacles and the imposition of expense, new legislative restrictions, and, perhaps most perniciously, the threat of ostracism.

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On the other side of this battle were those who did not want a fight. They wanted nothing more than release from their marriages. Some had tales of abuse, infidelity, and desertion. Others were like Flora: she simply wanted to live a different life than the one she had committed to when she married Charlie at age 17. She had dutifully played the role of society wife and mother, but she had not found in Charlie the true partner she sought. The vivacious Flora was often seen unaccompanied by her husband at balls and charity benefits. She took long trips through Europe without him; Charlie prefer to sit at home by the hearth with a cigar.

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Flora knew the risk she was undertaking when she traveled to Sioux Falls. She had planned for the cost—the socialite even raised chickens to help fund her stay—and she acquiesced to all her lawyer’s demands, including his insistence that she would never be able to move back to New York, for fear that the state would not recognize the legality of her divorce decree. But the idea that she would be forever shunned for seeking her own happiness was too much for Flora.

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“It seems as if I was doomed to being a tramp and an exile,” Flora wrote to her father from Sioux Falls, which did not embrace the divorce seekers who made the city their temporary home. She feared the world would never accept her decision to leave her husband.

Flora had not been invited to the card party that Mary Bailey organized at her home on Duluth Avenue in Sioux Falls one early spring day. She had stopped by the Baileys’ unannounced that afternoon to see her only friends in the city—her lawyer and his wife. (Though C.O. Bailey had represented countless divorce colonists, Mary confessed that Flora was the only the second her husband had allowed her to associate with.) Six-handed euchre was the game of choice for Sioux Falls matrons in the spring of 1903. The competition was friendly; the conversation was not quite as proper. Tittle-tattle—the more outrageous, the better—was traded over the trump. There must have been an empty seat at the card tables when Flora arrived to visit with Mary, because quite “by accident” she found herself in conversation with the very Sioux Falls women who were likely to snub any divorce colonist in the Cataract dining room. “‘Sioux Society’ turns up their nose at New York,” Flora complained to her father. “But they know everything that is going on there and everybody by name.” Of her time at the card tables, she wrote, “I never heard so many personal remarks and such gossip…They all attacked me on what they heard of me—it seems I am supposed to be engaged to Mr. Neily Vanderbilt!” It was a particularly shocking accusation, given that Neily—Cornelius Vanderbilt III—was already married.

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Flora withstood the interrogation, and the unexpected introductions became her entree into social life in the city. She still thought Sioux Falls was “wild” and its people were “without any interests except money and gambling.” But if she was to continue to live in this city, as her lawyer had advised her, Flora knew their approval could give her something the courts could not: the respectability she wanted along with her divorce decree.

Flora set out to establish herself as a full-fledged resident of the city, an undertaking she took much more seriously than most eastern arrivals. Flora subscribed to the newspapers and to the church. She went door to door with Mary Bailey taking the city census and hosted a concert at the penitentiary. She became a fixture of the local society column, attending dancing parties and hosting guests.

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“I have heaps of callers + a ‘lady’ told me yesterday that I was the only divorcee who had ever been considered a resident here, or had any social position,” Flora reported in December 1903 as she waited, impatiently, for her divorce.

Finally, on April 11, 1904, Flora was awarded her decree. More than a year after her arrival in Sioux Falls, she was free.

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In the days after her divorce, something happened that Flora, despite her efforts to become a part of Sioux Falls life, had never expected. As she walked through the city on her daily errands, she was stopped, more than once, by acquaintances who had something to say about her divorce: “Congratulations!” Callers came by; the telephone rang; letters and cables arrived. All expressed the same joy Flora felt. She was “much touched by the real kindness people seem to feel or profess.” It all seemed too good to be true to Flora.

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But Flora remained uncertain about her social standing outside the city. She felt compelled to go to London, where she had felt at home during the unhappiest times in her marriage, just for a few weeks. I “want to hold my head up,” she said.

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Her trip to London in the summer of 1904—her “divorce debut,” as she called it—seemed to be a rousing success. Her rented rooms were filled with flowers from friends, and hardly a meal was unspoken for. But not everyone was ready to accept the divorced woman into their company.

Flora’s harshest critics would be her new in-laws. In the summer of 1905, Flora married Lionel Guest, the fourth son of Lord and Lady Wimborne and first cousin of Winston Churchill. Lionel had been a frequent companion of Flora’s for at least five years, and had been steadfast throughout the dissolution of her marriage. Would Sioux Falls—where he visited her, accompanied, as was proper, by his sister and brother—have embraced the couple if anyone had known how far back their association went? There is no recorded evidence of an affair taking place between them, but after meeting Lionel, Flora had quickly come to rely on him. He was a friendly face when she ventured alone into unfamiliar drawing rooms, her husband happier to remain at home. He was her confidant and her editor. She already thought of him as family, and she confessed that she slept better when he was visiting. His support had given her the strength to imagine life after her divorce. That intimacy would likely have drawn disapproval in South Dakota. But it was, for Flora, the very reason she was willing to marry again.

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But Lionel’s family did not accept this divorcee as a daughter-in-law. Lionel’s mother believed Flora was using her son. A divorced woman should not be able to hold her head up in English society without such distinguished support, Lady Wimborne declared. She shunned the couple on their 1906 visit to London, an act which could have excluded Flora from many guest lists, if not for the intervention of a higher power—the King.

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That winter, Flora and Lionel were invited to Buckingham Palace to witness King Edward VII’s procession from the ceremonial opening of Parliament, and, to Flora’s surprise, the King asked to meet her that day. She could think of only one reason: he was choosing sides in the family feud. “He has heard of the row Lionel has had with his family and feels the injustice done to me,” she thought.

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Flora and Lionel descended to the entrance hall where King Edward waited in his regalia. Flora made a deep curtsy. Lionel made a joke. “Have I not done well to bring you another American subject?” he asked the king. Edward laughed, and though he had been forced to lean heavily on his cane to move about that day, he stood chatting with the couple for several minutes.

The conversation was something of a wedding gift to the divorcee and her new husband—and to any woman in search of the elusive “dignified” divorce. “This is a hint which Lord and Lady Wimborne cannot fail to take,” wrote the Associated Press of the meeting. “It is certain that when Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Guest again visit England … they will be received in a very different manner.” And indeed, when Lionel went to England in the summer of 1907, he saw the family Bible, where his and Flora’s names, and the location of their Sioux Falls wedding, were now “engraved beautifully, like all the rest of the family’s names.”

Adapted from The Divorce Colony: How Women Revolutionized Marriage and Found Freedom on the American Frontier, by April White, published June 2022, Hachette Books. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Hachette Books.

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