Henry Flagler reinvented Florida long before Walt Disney reinvented Florida.
Flagler came south in the waning years of the 19th century and began building railroads and fancy hotels all up and down our long, skinny peninsula.
And the politicians loved his generosity of … er … spirit.
Let’s just say Flagler collected pols like a mail-order Sears Roebuck suit collected lint.
Florida and Flagler were born for each other.
A state on the make, and a tycoon here for the take
One thing, though.
Flagler left behind him in New York a wife who was, not to put too fine a point on it, emotionally fragile.
He wanted a divorce so he could marry a younger woman, and he expected his newly reinvented state to give it to him.
Alas, Florida law didn’t deem insanity grounds for divorce.
On April 9, 1901, a bill was quietly introduced in the Legislature declaring that “incurable insanity in either husband or wife shall be a ground for dissolution” of marriage.
On April 25, Gov. William Sherman Jennings signed it into law without fuss or fanfare.
Sixteen days. Had to be a record.
“Nobody is sure how many legislators Flagler purchased wholesale, but the vote on what everybody except those in state government called ‘the Flagler Divorce Bill’ wasn’t even close,” Diane Roberts wrote in her marvelous book about Florida, “Dream State.”
One lawmaker who voted for it was Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, a sometime gun runner turned populist.
Flagler got his divorce. And Broward got himself elected governor.
Whereupon, Roberts writes, Broward had the Flagler divorce bill repealed “with a maximum of righteous table-whacking and rococo speeches from legislators about the sanctity of marriage.”
Welcome to Florida, the Sometime Sanctity of Marriage State.
Part of Florida’s charm is that it was built by rascals. An unending succession of con men and land speculators, rum runners and gamblers, scallywags and politicians of easy virtue.
Politicians who would serve up quickie divorces to billionaires with one hand while pounding the bully pulpit about the sacred status of marriage with the other.
Is this a great state or what?