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Susan Green

Real Criminals Are the Lawmakers

New York’s “Divorce Mill” Scandal

(3 January 1949)

From Labor Action, Vol. 13 No. 1, 3 January 1949, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Mrs. Sara B. Ellis, twenty years old, mother of three tots of two, three and four, wife of the superintendent of 1469 St. Nicholas Avenue where the family lives, has had a unique profession for a year and a half. It was cut short by District Attorney Frank S. Hogan a couple of weeks ago.

Mrs. Ellis worked with a divorce ring consisting of lawyers, law clerks and detectives, specializing in trumped-up adultery evidence to comply with the barbaric divorce law of the State of New York. Twenty times during the eighteen months she hired herself out as the “unknown woman” to do what is called a “set-up job” with a husband “cooperating” with a wife seeking a divorce. Fifteen times during that period Mrs. Ellis also did what is known as a “testimony job,” meaning that she acted as a phony witness to give manufactured evidence against a husband.

For these jobs Mrs. Ellis got $8 or $10 per case. Thus she pieced out the income of an apartment house superintendent with a family of three children. Often Mr. Ellis accompanied his wife and waited downstairs while she and the “client” went together into a hotel, room, awaiting the arrival of the “raiding party” who was to give evidence of seeing a disrobed woman with the “cooperating” husband. Mrs. Ellis, however, swore that she only took off her coat and shoes, climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to her chin. She also swore that she instructed the client husband to take off only his jacket, tie and shirt. She stated that husbands never molested her and seemed only too eager to get the whole thing over with. She also revealed that at times the “raiding” wife and the “cooperating” husband would celebrate the completion of the trumped-up evidence by meeting afterward to have a drink together.

All this was not thought up by the nimble brain of a Hollywood writer specializing in the horrible and the nightmarish. It is the real McCoy. What need will drive people to do to get that coveted dollar! What a barbaric law will drive unhappy married people to do to get that coveted divorce!

Society at Fault

Benjamin Schmier, a lawyer of the Legal Aid Society to whom Mrs. Ellis turned for legal help, said that, aside from the money Mrs. Ellis earned, “She may have been a public benefactor. Society is at fault for the stringent divorce law in this state. It should be modified. Of course I cannot condone what allegedly went on here.” Mrs. Ellis herself said she felt she was performing in each case an act of mercy on behalf of a woman who found it difficult to get a divorce in this state where there is only one lawful ground. Be that as it may.

About this law out of the middle ages, it is often said: “The rich go to Reno; the poor are forced to commit perjury.” However, that is not exactly true. The very poor cannot even commit perjury – that too costs money. Lawyers’ fees for trumped-up adultery evidence run from $250 up. Those unhappy married people who can’t cough up $250 and more must somehow do without legal divorce. Either they separate while still legally married, or live together in mutual hatred that poisons all family life and plays even more havoc with the normal development of the children than does divorce.

So now the District Attorney and his office have moved in to break up the divorce racket which is the natural result of the atrocious law. A number of lawyers and their associates in the “divorce mill racket” have been arrested. Sure-fire evidence was procured by wiretapping. One of the key men in the ring was broken down by letting him hear his own voice, recorded, giving instructions to the principals in one of the trumped-up cases. The Grand Jury will be sitting on the case through February. In the meantime the District Attorney’s office has, by judicial order, access to matrimonial records in New York County for the past five years. During that time there were in Manhattan alone 22,000 cases of divorce with decrees granted by the court; most of the cases were uncontested and the implication is many if not most of these were of the trumped-up variety. In the meantime action has been stopped on 77 cases of uncontested divorce now pending in Manhattan.

Backward Laws

So what? The law remains on the books. It will continue to be circumvented in the indecent way described above, probably with improvements, even after the District Attorney has “cleaned up” the racket. Of course, it will be more difficult for the lawyers, who will therefore charge higher fees, which in turn will make legal divorce available to still fewer couples seeking it.

Few New York residents realize that New York State is the most backward – all but one – of all the states in its divorce law. Throughout the nation divorces may be had for the following reasons: adultery, cruelty, desertion, alcoholism, impotence, felony conviction, neglect to provide, insanity, pregnancy at marriage, bigamy, imprisonment, fraudulent contract, felony before marriage, violence, venereal disease. The divorce laws throughout the nation are not, to be sure, the most enlightened legislation; however, all the states, except New York and South Carolina, grant divorces on several of the grounds listed above. Seemingly South Carolina grants divorces on no grounds at all, and the great State of New York recognizes only adultery as reason for divorce.

The Bar Association of the City of New York has attempted to have legislation passed to add as grounds for divorce: extreme cruelty, willful conduct rendering it unsafe and improper for defendant to cohabit with the plaintiff, abandonment, neglect or refusal to provide where the plaintiff is the wife, conviction of a felony and actual imprisonment for two years, habitual drunkenness. But nothing has come of the effort.

Who Opposes Change

The strongest opponents of changing the New York divorce law are found in the various churches. Officially, they state as the reason that marriages are made by God and should not be unmade by man. But since these godly ones do not ask for repeal of the present law which recognizes adultery as the unmaker of marriages, do they believe then that adultery is made by God? However, this talk about God is a cover for that traditional ultra-conservatism of the church based on lack of confidence in people – fearful that a little freedom must mean licentiousness.

On a national scale Bar Associations are also making an effort to stem the tide of divorce by imposing a period of compulsory “thinking it over” on couples seeking divorce. The method must be something as follows: It would be up to special judges to decide whether or not there were enough healthy elements and reasonable possibilities in a marriage to warrant its continuance. Such judges would work with staffs of social workers, psychiatrists and doctors, who would study each application for divorce. Their findings would be given to the judge within three to six months, and the judge would then take up and decide the case. In the meantime, the couple would have time “to think it over.” The sponsors of such an arrangement are deeply concerned about the children of divorced parents and their purpose is to save as many marriages as have real elements of healthy recovery in them.

Certainly progressive measures to bring more happiness into the marital relationship and to the children, are worthy of support. Also, without delay, the medieval divorce law of New York State should be wiped from the books. However, the family is so deeply rooted in the social milieu that the lifting of family life to a higher level depends on lifting society itself to a higher level.

One look at the above listing of the grounds allowed throughout the nation for divorce, concretizes this point. Nearly all these grounds stem from a low level of economic, educational and cultural existence. This level must be raised and the new high level must embrace everyone – an objective attainable only when the good things for the body and for the mind and spirit can flow freely to all. Neither medieval divorce laws, nor disgusting “divorce mill rackets,” nor pathetic people like Mr. and Mrs. Ellis, could possibly be produced by a socialist society.

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