Quickie divorces helped spur Nevada economy

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LAS VEGAS (AP) - Long before she became Nevada’s first woman in Congress, Barbara Vucanovich boarded a train in New York and headed west on a six-week journey to a fresh start.

There was already a nickname for such a trip. People called it “the Reno cure,” but Vucanovich’s daughter, Patty Cafferata, doesn’t remember her mom ever using that phrase.

“The only thing she ever mentioned was how isolated those who came for divorce were from those who lived here,” Cafferata said from her home in Reno.

Vucanovich, then Barbara Bugden, was one of the hundreds of thousands of people who traveled to Nevada from across the country to take advantage of the state’s liberal divorce laws. From 1931 to 1970, the height of the so-called “migratory divorce” trade, more than 325,000 marriages came to an end in the Silver State.

Mella Harmon is a researcher and historical consultant who has been studying divorce in Nevada for almost 20 years.

She said the practice was an economic boon to the state as far back as 1900, but it really took off between 1927 and 1931, when lawmakers lowered the residency requirement for dissolving a marriage from six months to six weeks, the shortest waiting period in the nation by far.

The reason for the change was simple: “It was the Great Depression. The Nevada Legislature was looking to do whatever it could to spur the economy,” Harmon said. “Divorce sort of carried Nevada through the Depression.”

By 1940, the Silver State accounted for less than one-tenth of a percent of the nation’s population but roughly 5 percent of its divorces.

In 1946, the peak year for migratory divorce in the state, almost 19,000 marriages were dissolved. That’s more than Nevada saw in 2010, despite a roughly 17-fold increase in the population.

The state’s marriage industry also began to boom during the Depression, as Nevada offered an easy alternative to other states, California among them, that required blood tests, physical examinations, counseling and a three-day waiting period.

Nevada had no such requirements, allowing for quickie marriages that gave rise to a Las Vegas institution: the wedding chapel.


Cafferata still remembers when her mother left on the train for Nevada in 1949. She was 8 or 9 years old at the time, and she stayed behind in New York with her grandparents during her mom’s six-week absence.

“She stayed in a guest house in Reno, close to downtown,” Cafferata said.

It was the sort of place that catered to divorcees, with room for 8 to 10 people who shared a bathroom and gathered together for meals.

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