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Time & Place: Covering Reno's Divorce Beat In The '50's

Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

When Reno was known as the Divorce Capital of the World, some local stringers made extra cash by reporting on who was getting those quickie divorces. 

To learn more, we turn to professional historian Alicia Barber. She's the host of KUNR's new program Time & Place.

For nearly sixty years, Reno, Nevada was known as the Divorce Capital of the World—but not because its residents couldn’t hold on to their spouses.  The “migratory divorce trade,” as it was called, was supported by non-residents who traveled to Nevada where the divorce laws were especially lenient. 

All that an aggrieved spouse had to do was live in the state long enough to become an official resident, which by 1931 only took six weeks, and then file for divorce based on one of Nevada’s many accepted grounds.

Credit University Archives, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries
Young Dr. James Hulse in the History Department at the University of Nevada shortly after receiving his PhD at Stanford. Prior to graduate school, he was a reporter at the Nevada State Journal, one of the local Reno papers, and freelanced on the divorce beat.

At the time, many out-of-state newspapers hired Reno correspondents, including a young reporter named Jim Hulse, to get the scoop on the divorces of local residents.

Hulse, now a professor emeritus of history at the University of Nevada, worked as a reporter for the Nevada State Journal in the ‘50’s, and found time on the side for these special assignments. He explains how the system worked back then.

“The New York Times said, ‘If there’s a New York City divorce, send us a night telegram,’” Hulse explains. “So, every so often while I was watching, I would pick up the name of a New York celebrity, and send them a night telegram saying, ‘Mrs. Ann Doe of Reno divorced John Doe of New York City. The divorce was uncontested. Grounds for the divorce were mental cruelty.’ Whatever—something like that. And if I sent it the New York Times and they printed it, they’d send me a check for $10.”

Reno was such a popular place to get divorced that even newspapers from smaller cities hired stringers like Hulse to keep an eye out for residents from their communities, even if they couldn’t pay them quite as much.

“The Buffalo Evening News wanted everybody from Buffalo, and maybe, more often than you would expect, you would send a night telegram and they would send you $2, so it was beer money,” Hulse recalls.

After about four years at the Nevada State Journal, Hulse went off to Stanford University for graduate school. But he has fond memories of his brief foray into one of journalism’s more unusual areas of expertise.

Oral history audio for that segment was provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries. You can learn more here.

Credit Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno Libraries

Alicia Barber, PhD, is a professional historian and award-winning writer whose work focuses on the built environment and cultural history of Nevada and the American West. After earning a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2003, she moved to Reno, where she taught at the University of Nevada, Reno for the next ten years, and directed the University of Nevada Oral History Program from 2009-2013.
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