Millenium Countdown: 1931
68 days to the millennium
68 years ago
May 25, 1931
Paper: Carson City Daily Appeal
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Divorce, gambling ease Depression
By Kelli Du Fresne
Gambling and the ability to get a divorce in six weeks have been legal in Nevada for two months when the May 25, 1931, edition of the Appeal was printed. Gov. Fred B. Balzar signed both bills March 19, 1931, and state leaders were hoping the two measures would take up some of the slack caused by the Depression.
Eric Moody, curator of manuscripts at the Nevada Historical Society, has written on the early history of early gambling of the state and says the impetus of legalized gaming has its roots in business.
“The primary force was the business interests of the state,” Moody said. “Owners of restaurants, hotels believed legalization would help bring people in during the Depression and boost the economy.”
The six-week divorce bill was another choice leaders made to bring added revenue to the state.
“Throughout the 1931 Legislature the Depression was under way,” said Jim Hulse, professor emeritus from the University of Nevada, Reno’s History Department. “I think legislators were trying to find some sources of revenue to pump up the state economy. The market had crashed in ’29 and Nevada was in bad straits at the time.”
When Nevada became a state it carried over the six-month residency requirement for divorce, but until 1903 only Nevadan’s seemed to use the law to their benefit. However, in 1903, California required a one-year wait after a divorce before a final decree was issued and the right to remarry was granted.
In his book “Desert Challenge,” Richard Lillard in 1942 said that by 1910 there were 300 divorces a year in Reno and those seeking divorce, “Definitely colored the life of Reno with their fashionable gowns and the gossip of New York, London and Melbourne.”
No one seems to have stepped forward to champion the divorce cause, but two prominent businessmen dominated the battle for legalizing gambling.
In Reno, George Wingfield worked behind the scenes because he believed legalization of gaming would augment his banking, ranching and Riverside Hotel business, Moody said.
In Las Vegas by 1933, Thomas Carrol, a Las Vegas real estate salesman and developer was openly campaigning for legalized “wide open gaming,” Moody said.
Between 1909 and 1915 various laws were passed allowing certain games. In 1919, the attorney general’s office issued an opinion that said cities and counties could license certain games in which the house took no cut and the deal rotated. Games like Poker, 500, Whist and Solo were allowed, though they weren’t very popular.
The lack of popularity meant more popular games were still conducted in back rooms.
“Some felt the illegalization was fostering crime and government corruption because local officials looked the other way or took bribes to allow gambling,” Moody said.
“What they legalized in 1931 was wide open casino gambling with the full array of games – roulette, craps and 21 – that we have today.”
Moody said he believes the Depression tipped the scales in favor of legalized gaming. A move to make the games legal in 1927 was defeated by one vote, but after the stock market crash in 1929, “a lot of those sitting on fence decided to support it.”
Though Carrol was not a member of the legislature that passed the bill in March 1931, he took out newspaper advertisements in 1933 in support of the move.
“He kept emphasizing that he wanted to make Las Vegas the Monte Carlo of the west,” Moody said. “He could see people coming from all over to come to Nevada casinos.”
A freshman Republican Assemblyman from Humboldt County, Phil M. Tobin is often credited with bringing the bill forward, but others had seen the bill before him, and wouldn’t sponsor it.
“He was a freshman assemblyman,” Moody said. “He was probably flattered to be asked or somebody promised him something in return.”
In a 1964 interview with Frank Johnson for Nevada Centennial Magazine, Tobin said the gambling law “was strictly my idea.”
Johnson wrote: “Tobin was aware of two things: there was gambling going on in the state, even though, it was illegal, and some authorities, at least, were being paid off to look the other way.
“‘The gambling bill was strictly my idea,’ he says now. ‘I felt the revenue should go to the state.'”
Divorce in Nevada
Local women’s clubs successfully lobbied the 1913 Legislature to extend the residency requirement to a year, but business dropped and legislators in 1915 restored the six-month requirement.
“The legislature had been looking at the divorce law anyway,” Hulse said. “They had shortened it to six months in 1915 and reduced it again to three months in 1927.”
Lillard wrote that the divorce bill passed after the legislature should have adjourned:
“After midnight on March 18 the Senate adopted the amendment. The Assembly would not concur. A conference committee was appointed but was unable to agree. A ‘free’ conference committee was named. It changed six months to three months in two places, and returned the amendment to the two houses, which passed the bill within ten minutes. This all happened well toward morning, and many legislators were sleepy. Some of them later expressed amazement when told what they had voted for. The free committee, of course, had not been authorized to make such a change, and even if so authorized should have reported it unmistakable to the houses. Governor Balzar signed the bill before breakfast.”
In the first 48 hours after the new law passed, 48 divorce suits were brought by those who had already waited more than three months, Lillard said.
The requirement was lowered again May 1, 1931 to six weeks to preserve the state’s monopoly on short-term divorces.
Divorce rates in Reno peaked at 4,745 a year in 1931, but dropped in 1932 to 3,082 after Georgian Florida, Washington D.C., Idaho and Texas among others reduced their requirements.
By 1940 only 2,000 divorces were being granted in Reno.
During his time on the bench (1911-1940) Judge Thomas Moran granted 27,150 divorces.