The 19th century divorce that gripped the nation and sank a presidential candidate
In 1891, South Dakota had some of the most lax divorce laws in the country, and Sioux Falls had the finest hotel for hundreds of miles. And so that spring, Mary made the four-day trip from New York for a divorce that law and society would deny her at home. She would become known as one of the first of the “divorce colony”, a coterie of unhappy wives – for it was the women among the divorce seekers who caused the most consternation – whose personal decisions to leave their husbands. forced the issue at the national level. conversation.
Mary lived in Sioux Falls with her three-year-old son for nearly a year — state law required 90 days to obtain residency, and then the months it took for her case to work its way through the courts. courts. All the while, the intimate details of the Blaine family’s lives have been playing out in the newspapers. In court filings, Mary accused Jamie of abandonment and neglect, but headlines painted a portrait of a wayward boy spoiled by his family and forgiven for every mistake.
Jamie had been widely known as the black sheep of the Blaine family since he had been expelled from at least three prep schools for, the newspapers gleefully reported, drunkenness, petty theft and banter with chorus girls. At 23, his continued bad behavior ensured that Jamie was not welcome in DC’s good society, but his father still seemed determined to ignore the drinking, flirting, fistfights, inability to hold down a job and her son’s crippling debt.
James had begun preparing for a fight, sending a private detective to dig into Mary’s life. When Mary appeared in a South Dakota courtroom in February 1892, some 250 people showed up to witness what was to be heated divorce proceedings – but the Blaines failed to show up for court. The family agreed to the divorce in hopes of preventing further gossip.
The approach did not work. When the judge granted Mary her divorce decree, custody of her son and alimony, he also issued an astonishing rebuke not only to Jamie – “reprehensible”, with “hardness of heart” and “reprobation of ‘mind’ – but of the whole Blaine family for his role in increasing the divorce rate. From the bench, in front of eager reporters, the judge said: “The cause of the estrangement and separation, as far as the court can judge from the evidence, was unkindness on the part of the family of the accused”.
James G. Blaine Sr. was a master speaker. On the stump, he grabbed attention as a leading man standing in the spotlight. But before he was a politician with a national platform and the ability to draw thousands to a rally, James had been a journalist, and he still often turned to the pen to make his point. During his time in the Senate, James had pioneered the art of the Sunday night press release. Knowing from personal experience the difficulty of filling the Monday morning edition after a quiet weekend, James chose that time to send statements or share his correspondence with friendly newspapers sure to print them as news. In this way, his voice did not reach thousands but millions. Over the years, he has used this platform to inform the public about his travel plans, his health status and his candidacy for high office.
A few days after Mary received her decree, Jacques sat down to write. James had remained silent as his family’s private affairs played out in the newspapers, but silence had not proven to be a winning strategy for the man known for his talkative excesses. The court statement made him realize that he had underestimated Mary and the effectiveness of her story. So, on Sunday, February 28, 1892, James released “a personal statement” to the press. The next morning he filled two full columns on the front pages of newspapers nationwide.
The Blaine family had been slandered in a South Dakota court, but James would appeal the decision in the court of public opinion. With the love letters Mary wrote to her son when they first dated as evidence, James drew up an indictment against the young woman – and any woman who would take the courts to free herself from her husband.
The behavior of James’s youngest son – enough to “transform the feelings of every moral man in the country”, Mary’s lawyer had warned – had given the Democrats plenty of ammunition against candidate Blaine, and now James was seeking to change the narrative.