Powers Gouraud and the Sioux Falls Divorce Colony

Photograph of Gladys Crocker Ashe, n.d. Crocker Art Museum, 1885.656

In December of 1901, months after marrying for the third time to British songwriter Jackson Gouraud, Aimée suffered the loss of her beloved mother Margaret, who died at her home at 41 East Forty-ninth Street. Gladys, Aimée’s daughter from her first marriage to Porter Ashe, was by her side. Margaret was 77 years old. Mother Margaret and daughter Aimée had adjoining seaside summer homes in the Sound in Larchmont, N.Y., Aimée occupying the old Flint House and Margaret living at the Woodruff estate. The obituary in the Sacramento Record-Union read in part, “We regard the character of Mrs. Crocker as signally lofty and distinguished by a nobility and sweetness rare in life. She was public spirited as are but few women; she was charitable without ostentatious manifestation of it; she was kind to a fault; forgiving and merciful; she was a loving mother; a model as a wife, the object of emulation and inspiration as a citizen.” After her mother’s passing, Aimée began to spend more time with Gladys, who was also legally her sister, since Margaret had adopted her as an infant after a contentious battle in divorce court. Gladys met new step-father Jack and his younger brother, Powers, who she quickly took a shine to. Within months of Aimée tying the knot, gossip columnists predicted Gladys would also become Mrs. Gouraud.

Originally named Powers Parker-Menloe Gouraud in homage to Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park, and to his famous poet Uncle Horatio Nelson Powers, he later changed his name to Powers St. George Gouraud. Powers inherited his father the Colonel George Gouraud’s talents as a showman and crowd gatherer. He was a featured player in a music theatrical production called The New Yorkers at Herald Square on Broadway. The twenty-year-old boy and the nineteen-year-old girl were very much caught up in the glorious salad days of Aimée and Jack. Two years later they were married in the Church of St. Clement Danes in the Strand in London, making Powers Aimée’s son-in-law and brother-in-law. He loved to tell people that he was his own first cousin. Gouraud took his young wife to Brighton for the honeymoon. Powers and Gladys summered in Paris and then the teenaged bride returned alone to America. She took up her abode in handsome apartments in the Hotel Webster, but spent much of her time with her mother-sister (now also her sister-in-law) at her magnificent Madison Avenue greystone home. Jackson’s little brother, arriving later, took up his residence in the Holland House.

Powers St. George Gouraud from the private collection of Meg Gouraud

When the Powers Gourauds passed the winter in Territet, Switzerland, they gave weekly musicales to delighted crowds, which included cakewalks. The proceeds of these entertainments were given to the poor of the surrounding villages. It was in Switzerland that an idea was hatched for the double tandem Gouraud family (brothers, mother and daughter) to develop a comic opera. Bitten by the theatrical microbe, the Gourauds had always been burning to try their fortunes behind the footlights. The troupe worked like starving artists. Jackson wrote the music. His brother Powers worked the script and the lyrics, and Mrs. Powers Gouraud was to take the prima donna role, that of an Egyptian Princess. They kept the plot a deep secret, but it was believed to be based on the foolish effort of the young Frenchman, Jacques Lebaudy, to found an empire on the burning sands of the Sahara Desert, in the heart of Africa. The father of the Gouraud boys, Col. George, the Grand Vizier of this diabolically humorous real life plot, was named Governor General by Lebaudy. One leaked report had the title as The Rise and Fall of the Lebaudy Empire. The amiable Aimée held the moneybags of this quartet, and was to bankroll the costumes and costly scenery of the show. Mr. Walter Russell was engaged to coach and assist in the development. Russell, working under the stage name Lewis Hooper, produced, directed and starred in the smash Broadway hit Florodora in 1900 as Ernest Pym opposite Edna Wallace Hopper’s Lady Holyrood. This English musical was the first big Broadway hit of the 20th century.

Walter Russell aka Lewis Hooper as seen in Munsey’s Magazine, 1901

Everything went along nicely until Powers thought his wife was becoming too cozy with Mr. Russell/Hooper. There was a quarrel and the comic-opera fell to pieces. Early in January of 1907, it became known that Powers Gouraud, Aimée’s son/brother-in-law, had gone to the rollicking and extremely lenient Sioux Falls divorce colony. In order to encourage settlement, South Dakota had permitted citizenship to be acquired in six months, at the end of which time any newcomer could establish residence and bring a legal action, such as a suit for divorce. Gouraud was very popular in the colony in South Dakota, where he was called “Chappie.” While he was there, Powers edited a paper called Chappie’s Weekly. 

In the early 1860s in the Dakota Territory, only an act of the legislature could grant a divorce, and it was not legal without the governor’s signature. But by 1892, the young state of South Dakota became a refuge for divorce seekers. According to Harvard historian and Sioux Falls scholar April White, the burgeoning state, unlike others, offered numerous grounds to dissolve a marriage:

New York had some of the strictest laws, granting absolute divorce only for adultery; some would resort to hiring actresses to play the part of the mistress. In other states, one could sue for a divorce of room and board, which allowed for physical and economic, not marital, separation. South Carolina was stricter still, forbidding it entirely. This hodgepodge of laws created the legally debatable phenomenon of the “foreign divorce,” in which one spouse traveled to a jurisdiction with more favorable laws.

Historically, the decision to end a marriage was most often the domain of the wealthy man, who had the money and influence to shape, circumvent, or simply ignore the law. Many men could walk away from their wives, secure in their fortunes, their place in society, and the legitimacy of their children. Women, who for centuries lacked economic independence and social standing outside marriage, were often hesitant to divorce. In 1887 Aimée Crocker went through her first of four divorces. At that time three states, Delaware, South Carolina and Virginia gave women no legal status. Some states would allow married women to own but not control property, others didn’t allow women to control their earnings. The personal property the wife brought into the marriage was then owned by the husband. The tendency of courts to award infants, young children, and girls to their mothers, known as the “tender years” doctrine, was just starting to become a trend. The custody of children was usually, automatically given to the father. The husband was often able to refuse any contact between the mother and her children.

The city of Sioux Falls developed around this newly formed colony of mostly wealthy divorce seekers. Even though it was a prohibition town, liquor was available, and the wealth of many of the divorce colonists was sufficient to buy it illegally. Drugstores, which were allowed to prescribe whiskey and brandy as remedies and tonics, had a booming business, and there were numerous holes-in-the-wall where alcoholic beverages could be purchased. Gambling houses were also common.

The Cataract House Hotel. Photo courtesy of the Argus Leader

Powers stayed at the lavish five story “absolutely fireproof” Cataract House Hotel, which boasted 175 bedrooms (including 50 en-suites) and a high-class restaurant, bar, and grill room. To keep their guests entertained, every four months the Cataract House threw a ball “given with all the eclat of Fifth Avenue in New York,” according to the hotel manager.

The law of the colony was that following the granting of the divorce decree the one so favored would give a divorce dinner. One notable dinner was one given by Manhattan playboy Freddie Gebhardt in October of 1901, which cost around $50 a head, or approximately $1,470 per person in today’s money. He treated guests to a four-course wine supper (each course paired with a complementing wine), and his menu included “delicate viands from the Atlantic Coast,” French wines, oysters, and a large array of imported coffee and fruit, all served by waiters in black tie. Gebhardt was Aimée Crocker’s first husband Porter’s nemesis after their divorce in 1887. The two bachelors fought for the love of famous actress Lillie Langtry. (Gebhardt won).

Aimée and daughter Gladys married nine times between them. Photo from the private collection of Daniel and Lionel Milano.

Powers spent money very freely in Sioux Falls and became the lion of the colony there. He was giving testimony of desertion by day and doing social vaudeville acts by night. In September of 1907 Powers performed an original sketch “By the Side of the Sioux” at the Majestic Family Theater. He performed again at a variety show celebrating a new trolley line in town singing “On the Car,” a ditty about San Francisco trolleys with a lilting melody and English flavor.

The actions of these flamboyant colonists helped put the spot light on Sioux Falls and had forced the issue of divorce into the nation’s churches, courthouses, and legislatures. The battle was not a quiet one. The colonists were challenged not just by contrary spouses but by a growing anti-divorce movement led by clergymen, conservative politicians and judges who saw divorce as an attack on the family and proposed stricter laws across the country.

In 1905, at a meeting of the Interfaith Committee on Marriage and Divorce, President Teddy Roosevelt had placed the issue of divorce at the top of the country’s priorities. “If we have solved every other problem in the wisest possible way, it shall profit us nothing if we have lost our own national soul,” he said. Roosevelt used his Sixth Annual Message to Congress to call for a constitutional amendment on the topic.

“I shall be very glad when Powers and I are separated by law forever,” Gladys Crocker Ashe Gouraud told the press. “The marriage was one of those moonstruck affairs, you know, that more often than not end in unhappiness. I believe that we both realized our mistake before long. At any rate, I know it would be impossible for us to find peace living together, so we have arranged very amicably to live apart.” It was also reported that Gladys had suffered a nervous breakdown over the early collapse of her marital venture and was in the sanatorium of Miss Clara J. Gordon at 117 West Sixty-Ninth Street.

They were granted a divorce in October of 1907. Gladys would marry Lewis Hooper the next month, wasting no time. Hooper was a hot commodity after his success in Floradora, which, adding a bit more tangle to this bizarre matrimonial web, featured actress Marie Wilson, who family nemesis Freddie Gebhardt would marry a few years after leaving Sioux Falls. The Hoopers would have a son, Gerald, who became a famous zoologist.

Powers and son Jackson from the private collection of Meg Gouraud

Powers would marry Irma Schlesinger and have a son named after his brother/brother-in-law Jackson. Following the example of grandfather George Gouraud (agent for Thomas Edison), and great grandfather François Fauvel Gouraud, (agent for the inventor of the camera Louis Daguerre), Jackson the younger became an investor, promoter and champion of a ground breaking, world changing invention. He became the world’s number one salesman and advocate of solar power.

After the divorce from Gladys, Powers demonstrated his talents as a dramatic critic, connoisseur on table delicacies, songwriter, night club emcee, newspaper columnist, traveler, after-dinner speaker and sports enthusiast. He joined Philadelphia’s WCAU radio station in 1926 as an announcer and served successively as director of public relations, news editor, assistant program director and finally commentator and critic. In 1927 Powers became a foreign correspondent for Philadelphia’s Public Ledger and wrote three columns a week. In 1922, he wrote a feature article about Aimée, “My Amazing Mother-in-Law, Aimée Gouraud.” A broadcast pioneer, Powers Gouraud was known for his sandpaper voice, his British accent and assorted gasps, grunts and chuckles. His air presence spanned three decades in Philadelphia broadcasting on WCAU radio. Powers was highly thought of and well respected as the City of Brotherly Love’s premiere radio raconteur for late evening broadcasts. Under the soubriquet of “The Old Night Owl” he reviewed motion picture and stage productions and discussed other happenings on the local scene, with emphasis on the after-dark. Among his more famous guests were Sophie Tucker, George M. Cohan, Milton Berle, Pearl Bailey, Ed Sullivan, Ed McMahon, Connie Mack and William Holden. While his puffs and patter were not newsy, his chummy delivery made it all lively and diverting.

In 1909, a law extending South Dakota’s residency requirement to one year took effect, spelling the end for the divorce colony that had been so widely publicized and profitable. When the Sioux Falls divorce colony ended in 1908, Reno, Nevada became the country’s next fashionable divorce destination after it reduced its residency requirement from six months to three months to just six weeks by 1931.

Aimée, Powers and Sioux Falls would become a part of a national debate about divorce laws. Aimée and Gladys would marry nine times and divorce six times between them—two were amicable, four were highly controversial national stories. Gladys would end her marriage to Lewis Hooper in 1913. Lewis would take the ever scandalous Aimée, his meddling mother-in-law to court for “alienation of affections” demanding $50,000 for breaking up his happy marriage. She would be sued again in 1921 for home wrecking by her masseur’s wife.

The divorce colonists, according to April White, through their individual actions had forced the nation and its institutions to grapple with the need for accessible divorce and the shifting power dynamics of marriage. In the years since the Divorce Colony no fault divorce, first introduced in 1970, would not be adopted in all 50 states until 2010. But, White concludes, “a course had been set in Sioux Falls. It would be the people, not the church, the courts, or state or federal governments, who defined their most intimate relationships.”

South Dakota currently has the second largest divorce rate in the country just under Arkansas.

Powers St. George Gouraud was a popular radio personality known as “The Old Night Owl” on WCAU in Philadelphia. He often interviewed celebrities including William Holden (right). Photos courtesy of Meg Gouraud.

Listen to Powers Gouraud interview Milton Berle

Further reading:

April White, “The Divorce Colony” The Atavist Magazine, no 55, December 2015.