“A perfect ‘Sallie Ward’”

Sallie Ward Lawrence Hunt Armstrong Downs (1827-1896) by George Peter Alexander Healy. Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

She was once a by-word for her beauty, with “a curious kind of popularity, more like that of a French princess in her hereditary province, in whom her people claimed a sort of ownership, than the simple admiration of republicans for a fair being highly favored of fortune. If a child had a pet kitten or a bird of remarkable beauty, it was fondly named ‘Sallie Ward.’ If a farmer rejoiced in the possession of a young lamb or heifer which he wanted to praise to the utmost degree of comparison, he would recommend it as ‘a perfect “Sallie Ward.”’ She was the ideal of all that was pure, and sacred to young people who saw her only at a distance in her father’s carriage, or walking, attended, or at church.”[1]

Sallie Ward Lawrence Hunt Armstrong Downs,[2] to give her her full array of names, was one of the most famous of the antebellum belles, the prototype of a beauty that, a generation later, would be captured by the still and then the moving picture camera. Her portrait, by George Peter Alexander Healy, shows a queenly sort of beauty, a matron, the mother of children. Pausing to note the attributes Mrs. Ellet bestows on Mrs. Downs – “a pet kitten,” “a farmer … in possession of a young lamb or heifer” – the features of her biography as an adult suggest a different model, one in the mold of the headstrong Katie Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler.

For her first appearance on the national stage, in 1848, Sallie Ward spurned the beaux of Louisville, Kentucky, to marry the eligible young Timothy Bigelow Lawrence of Boston. (He was not, as an early biographer suggested, “many years her senior”; nor was Mrs. Bigelow Lawrence eighteen years old.[3] The pair were 22 and 21, respectively.) Sallie Lawrence found Boston stifling; the prosperous Lawrence family – her father-in-law would become the U.S. Minister to Great Britain in 1849 – found her somewhat uncanny.

“Her entrance was all that she had hoped for it to be – and more. There was one vast gasp, and the ‘in-laws’ stood frigid.”

Her most famous prank, shades of Mrs. Charles Hamilton in Gone with the Wind, was to appear at a ball in white satin bloomers. She looked “wondrously bewitching, with her soft hair piled into a crown of glory upon her well poised little head, and upon her feet a bejeweled pair of Persian slippers. Her entrance was all that she had hoped for it to be – and more. There was one vast gasp, and the ‘in-laws’ stood frigid. Sallie Ward Lawrence stood, looking eagerly for one pair of friendly eyes to understand – but there were none. Her dignified mother-in-law asked her to retire and return in a dress. She did not return. She tore off the white satin bloomers, and her next change was a travelling dress, in which she returned to the open and sympathetic arms of her parents in old Kentucky. They – they always understood. But not one of these New England people did.”[4]

Her second marriage, to Dr. Robert Pearson Hunt, produced three children, only one of whom survived. It ended more bitterly than her parting from Bigelow Lawrence, as her estranged husband died following a drunken fall from a second floor window:

“At Chicago, on Wednesday evening last, a policeman proceeding along Clark street, saw the figure of a man lying in the basement of No. 136, near the corner of Madison. An investigation showed that the deceased of late had been very intemperate, drinking to excess, and came to his death by concussion of the brain, caused by accidentally falling from a second floor window in his apartment, while in a state of intoxication. The deceased was Dr. Robert P. Hunt, who once stood at the head of the medical profession at Louisville, Kentucky. A few years ago he became the husband of the ‘Belle of Louisville,’ Miss Sallie Ward, after she had obtained a divorce from her first husband, Mr. Lawrence, of Boston, to whom she was married while his father was United States Minister to the Court of St. James. Both marriages were fashionable and sensational affairs. From some cause or other, Dr. Hunt recently became addicted to strong drink, and fell from his high position in the profession and in society. In January last he left his wife and child at Louisville and proceeded to Chicago, where he has since run a reckless course, until arrested by death.”[5]

Her third marriage, to “Vennie” Armstrong, was brief; her fourth, to Major George F. Downs, lasted until her death. Her will left nothing to Major Downs, with the bulk of her estate going to her only surviving son – perhaps a verdict on her last husband, who appeared in court to attest his wife’s probate.[6]

On her death, so the story goes, the humorist Irvin Cobb observed of this much-married belle that “At last she sleeps alone.”[7]

Notes

[1] Elizabeth Fries Ellet, The Queens of American Society (New York: Charles Scribner & Company, 1867), 229–30.

[2] She married Timothy Bigelow Lawrence in 1848, Dr. Robert Pearson Hunt in 1851, Venerando Politza Armstrong in 1876, and George F. Downs in 1885.

[3] Ella Hutchison Ellwanger, “Mrs. Sallie Ward Downs,” Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society 16 [1918]: 11.

[4] Ibid., 11–12.

[5] The New York Times, 20 July 1867.

[6] Kentucky, Wills and Probate Records, 1774–1989 [database on-line].

[7] Thomas D. Clark, “Sallie Ward,” in John E. Kleber, The Encyclopedia of Louisville (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 921.

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About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

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