Primary Source: Divorcons (HCC - The Illustrated American - April 11, 1896)

“Divorcons” (Helen Churchill Candee) - The Illustrated American (April 11, 1896)  {Slightly Edited for Classroom Use}

“Live in the Territory?”

“Yes,” I answered, and thus I began my residence there with a fib, for the train was drawing me through its rolling prairies for the first time. Primarily, it was of importance that I should be regarded as a bona-fide resident of the place, and secondly, it was nothing to my fellow-traveller from whence I came or whither I was bound. 

“Going far?” was the next question, to which I answered “No,” and volunteered nothing more. To announce Oklahoma City seemed to me to pronounce with clarion clearness my errand there. That was all imagination, of course, for no one save myself knew my business. There had been so many unpunished frauds in the Indian and Pension Agencies in the Territory and among the “Five Civilized Nations,” that I had been sent as a srot of private detective to make myself ostensibly a resident and familiarize myself with the Government employés and their methods. I selected Oklahoma City as headquarters because of the magnitude of its population and its multiplicity of business interests, all of which were set forth in a railroad circular. 

In 1893, when the town was but four years old, the population was 10,000, said this Ananias of a circular, had two ice “plants” (I remember seeing them grown in pots—“they have thick, frosty leaves,” I mused idiotically), and there was place for a 100-room hotel and grain-elevators. Reckoning the town at 10,000 for four years’ growth, adding an increase at the same ratio for three years more and subtracting for exaggeration, should leave a population large enough for a man to slip into unobserved. Thus I mused when through the dark of the night there shone in the distance the electric lights like stars fallen from heaven to the prairie of Oklahoma. 

Around the station-platform were the ‘busses and hacks and a yelling mob of drivers soliciting patronage for their vehicles and hotels with the same supposition of deafness in the traveller that hackmen assume in the East. 

The Prairie Hotel ‘bus filled and started off up the street. There were two legitimate passengers; the rest were girls of easy assurance and ready tongue who bandied slang with two negroes standing on the back step, odiously familiar and smoking long cigars in the faces of those nearest the door. Chastine was the name of one of these creatures, who felt the town was created solely as a theatre wherein he might play his strutting part. 

The Prairie Hotel stands on one of the principal streets, a city-made building with proud front and mean side-walls, and huddled around it are innumerable one-room shanties with high, square foreheads. With the boundless prairies to spread upon, the hotel is built with the economy of the street-frontage of a Wall street edifice. 

The night-clerk looked with a comprehending smile at my two trunks and then included me in his knowing glance. I began to feel uncomfortable. What was it he knew so well? My business? Surely not. I was shown to my room, given some mahogany-red water by Chastine, who proved to be the porter, and then left to rest after the long journey. 

A bright electric light hung from the high ceiling like a luminous spider. By its light I saw a placard on the door and advanced to learn the hours for meals and price per day. The placard was of the usual size and appearance of hotel-billets, but the contents varied somewhat from the conventional. It read as follows:

OKLAHOMA INFORMATION BUREAU - Parties from out the Territory who intend to bring suit for a divorce in our District Courts, etc.

This, then, was the key to the curiosity of the man on the train and the knowing smile of the night-clerk. Making myself a resident was part of my plan of action, but under what strange suspicion had it led me! The next morning was well advanced before Chastine came in. He adjusted a shade, handled my toilet-articles without apology, and chatted lightly about things interesting to himself, meanwhile producing from his pocket a half-burned cigar, which he lighted and tipped jauntily upward from between his marvellous white teeth. 

“Here’s a letter fo’ you,” he said, casually producing a note from his coat-pocket. It was unstamped, so must have been from some one in the town. I knew no one there, so I was bewildered. Chastine grinned and left the room saying:

“Gemman down in de parlor to see yer.”

I hastily tore open the envelope and saw a printed sheet commencing: “Oklahoma Information Bureau. If you contemplate bringing a suit for divorce in our courts,” etc. 

At the bottom of the sheet was written in red ink: “If Mr. Bilton can be of any service, he will be very glad to meet Mr. Baintree in the hotel parlor at 11 o’clock.”

I called Chastine back hastily and said sharply, “Tell the gentleman I am too much engaged to see him,” and then wandered about my room, dazed at the audacity of the writer of the missive. What matter of place was this I had fallen into, where a man was accredited with but one motive in life—to sever the sacred relations of home? Every inducement was offered for cutting the marital knot, and one’s sole business was assumed to be divorce!

The landlord called on me, as did nearly all the servants, making slender pretexts for entering my room. Evidently I was an object of interest. The landlord was an easy-going, good-tempered man, wholly in sympathy with my assumed desire to shuffle off the coils of matrimony. When, later, I caught a glimpse of his wife, I wondered that he did not himself take advantage of the easy laws of the Territory. While I was shaving he seated himself on my trunks, as though to call attention to them, and said tentatively:

“I s’pose if you like this room mebbe you’ll want it for four months? I s’pose you come on business, didn’t you?” He looked at the ceiling to await my reply.

“Of course I came on business. Don’t know how long I shall stay,” I replied a little tartly. “It depends on a friend whom I am expecting. Have you a room joining this that I could engage?”

“Yes; she could have the room just west of this.”

“She? Do you think I mean a woman?” I exclaimed hotly.

“Didn’t know. It’s all the same,” he replied imperturbably. “Folks who come here on business sometimes bring company.”

Later I learned what he meant when I saw a certain couple in the dining-room and heard their circumstances. The man was an Englishman, a doctor, decidedly middle-class, but if one were not too critical about the terminal “ing” being pronounced “ink” and an escaping “h,” his speech had the musical swing common to the English. The girl with him was French—Parisienne—and showed it in her dress and in her delicious accent, which fell like music on the ear—the music of gayety, luxury and society. She was as appropriate to that dingy dining-room as a humming-bird would be to a funeral; but she worshipped her middle aged doctor, was as subdued as a little mouse and as trusting as a child. She had not even a speaking-acquaintance with our language—had seen no part of our country save this, so probably thought her extraordinary position a common one for girls in America. 

I smoked a cigar with the doctor in the hotel-office after the drummers had wondered out to smile upon the shopkeepers; he lost his reticence and rounded out his history for me. The landlord had told me he had a wife and children in England. 

“I have recently come from London,” said the doctor, “and I am here on business” (this with a meaning look), “which I expect to finish after an expiration of a three-months’ residence. Then mademoiselle and I are to be immediately married and go to Canada. She is living in a cottage near here until my release, but it is with the full consent of her guardians.”

This was a little franker than anything I had met—a publicly announced engagement to a young girl, while he was bound to his middle-aged English wife by every law, social or moral. It was horrible, yet contained situations for a writer of farces. 

My mulatto chambermaid wandered into my room desultorily one afternoon as I was looking over some Indian agency papers. She was tall, slight, and anxious to exchange confidences, although she came to sweep the ugly carpet (scarlet cabbages on a dun-colored ground), and she chewed gum languidly. “What is your name?” I asked by way of persiflage. 

“Sarah—S-a-r-a-h,” she replied, but whether she spelled it from insolence or a desire to cope with my mentality, I could not determine. “Ain’t you ‘fraid to eat dat watermelon?” she continued, seeing the fruit on my table. “My little girl eat some las’ night an’ she took a chill to-day. You’d like to see her if you’re f’om de East—she’s half Indian—no, not she, but her pa is; an’ she draws.”

“What is that?” I asked, as part of my game was to exhibit ignorance of Indian affairs. 

“Why, she draws money f’om the Government and has a head-right of a hundred and sixty acres in the Cherokee Nation. My husban’ has, too, an’ that’s why I married him. But I’m awful sorry I did,” rubbing her hand meditatively up and down the broom-handle while she looked far off out of the window. “A lawyer tole me las’ week he’d get a divo’ce for me for six dollars,” and her eyes brightened as though she were discussing a lottery-ticket with a prize attachment.

In making acquaintance with the town I stepped into several shops and tried to appear like the others I saw about me. It was of no use. I was a marked man. The town knew me for a stranger, and because I outstayed the length of a drummer’s visit and refused to tell my business all chose to assume that I came to procure an easy divorce. 

I came to dread contact with people, for whatever they talked about they invariably introduced the subject of my supposed three months’ residence. 

Local newspapers are always interesting, so I sauntered into a shop one day and bought one. The whole sheet was reeking with divorce. There were letters and cards from would-be or successful divorcees and a page of publication notices of the same in large type and at tremendous length, while lawyers’ advertisements signifying a desire for such cases and their success with them made lurid spots in the advertisement columns. 

Now, with this horrid and disturbing topic always before the public eye, what will be the effect on the stability of domestic affairs in this new country? We execrate Utah and the habits of its “saints,” yet is there scheme of family life worse than Oklahoma’s generous offer to break up homes? What think you of a town which has for its main business the dissolution of the marriage tie?

It would be unjust to give the impression that every town in the Territory is afflicted with deflection from conventional ethics. There are places which offer no inducement to an undesirable class of short-time residents and which are filled with hard-working, honest people who have come to this new country to advance its agricultural and commercial interests. There are judges here who make a divorce as difficult as the law allows, and such judges are avoided by lawyers who make a specialty of this disgraceful business and even have “runners” in New York to gather in clients. It is a matter of rejoicing to Oklahoma’s settlers that Mr. Gillet has just put a bill through the House of Representatives requiring one year’s residence in the Territories before suit for divorce can be brought.

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