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Sallie Ward, Belle of Kentucky

Updated on October 15, 2013

Sallie Ward


Headstrong Beauty

Most belles of the South followed a certain standard of propriety, instilled by their mothers. Inappropriate behavior was not allowed. Women of the time were encouraged to run a household smoothly, yet not make their menfolk feel inferior intellectually. One beauty of the mid-1800s would challenge that mindset and make her era fit her own agenda.

Sallie Ward was the cherished, spoiled daughter of Colonel Robert Ward; their wealth came from his plantations, and there was certainly a lot of it. She used this to her advantage, buying extravagant and sometimes ostentatious dresses. Many times, she changed dresses for a social event three times in one night. Born in Kentucky, soon after the family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where they were an important part of the high society there.

Galt House Hotel

Staircase of the hotel.
Staircase of the hotel. | Source

Wild Thing

As she grew up, she was always the object of interest of all of Louisville. They enjoyed telling about her exploits, never minding the damages incurred because her daddy would always make it right by them. Once, it is said that she and male friend rode their horses up the old Galt House hotel, (see picture of the staircase). Another time, she raced a beau through the Louisville market, overturning tables and other goods.

By her twenties, it is not surprising that her name would be given to race horses and a rose. Steamboats, a doll, a type of ladies' walk, even a waltz, were name after her. The portrait was painted by George Healy when she was 33 years old; he said that she was the most exquisite woman he had ever painted, out of his many society woman and even royalty. She had auburn hair and blue eyes, with small hands and feet. She married four times and one marriage ended in divorce. Unusually, she was not affected socially by the stigma of divorce, as usually one would be socially cut off.

Marriage Number One

Her first marriage was the most scandalous. In 1848, at age 21, she married Bigalow Lawrence, of the finest Boston family and wealth. Unfortunately, the young Sallie didn't realize to what extent she would clash with her austere, Puritanical mother in law. A large, lavish wedding was given at the Ward home in Louisville; the Lawrences were plainly dressed, it was noted. Sallie's wedding dress cost $5,000 ($145,000 in today's money). The young couple seemed blissful until the move and adjustment to life in Boston. Sallie didn't enjoy New England weather or culture, which to her lacked life and brilliancy. She would not compromise her former life to adapt to the different manners and social customs there; this caused clashes with her mother-in-law. She caused a stir with tales of her fifty dresses she brought to Boston; this was considered wasteful to the thrifty New Englanders. She wore makeup, and painted faces were the province of prostitutes in those days. She lazed around in bed and only got up to make social calls. The last straw was when Sallie wore bloomers to a reception for her, given by the mother in law. Sallie left for Kentucky, refusing to stay married. Bigalow wanted her to come back but she refused. They divorced and she dove right back into society in Louisville.

Marriage Number Two

Just three years later, in 1851, she married Dr. Robert Hunt of New Orleans. They lived happily for a time on Rampart Street, near the corner of Canal, actually adjoining Octavia Walton LeVert's place of residence for visits to the city. I find it interesting that they may have known each other; both were well-known. Octavia had been entertained by kings and queens of Europe. Perhaps she even facilitated the idea of Sallie's Grand Tour.

The Hunts had three children in the span of ten years, but marriage hit a wall when the Civil War started in 1861. Sallie was a Unionist and went back to Kentucky, while the doctor joined the Confederacy. He died in 1865, helping her avoid yet another divorce.

Unusual Camp Teaches Old South Social Skills

Marriages Number Three & Four

Undaunted about being unlucky in love, Sallie married Vene Armstrong in 1876, but he died in 1885 when she was 58. Soon after, she married George Downs of Louisville.

The famous quote has been attributed to Robert Benchley, Will Rogers, and Irvin Cobb.
The famous quote has been attributed to Robert Benchley, Will Rogers, and Irvin Cobb. | Source

Early Feminist

Sallie Ward may have been an early feminist. She lived life to the fullest in a time that was very constrictive in many ways to women. She didn't allow failed marriages to put out that light. It has been said that be a famous belle, one must be a genius. She died in 1896, Kentucky wit Irvin Cobb is sometimes attributed the quote, "At Last She Sleeps Alone", and so she does.


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    • TimArends profile image

      Timothy Arends 3 years ago from Chicago Region

      Wow, to be married four times and have only one of the marriages end in divorce is quite an accomplishment!

    • DemiMonde profile image

      Demi 5 years ago from Mobile, Alabama


      Thanks for stopping by and for the vote!

    • profile image

      Vanderleelie 5 years ago

      What a fascinating story of a real Southern belle! She must have been ahead of her time in her sense of self-esteem, and it seems she remained unconcerned about her reputation even in a very conservative social sphere. Voted up and interesting.