Wednesday, December 1, 2021

52 Ancestors - STRENGTH: Sallie vs George

Probably the strongest woman in my family tree is my great-grandaunt Sallie Catherine Jollett. She married, divorced, and raised three children alone in a time when divorce was a badge of shame. The story of what she endured is the stuff of Hollywood.

Sallie's wedding photo

At age 19, she married George Thomas Clift of Page County and moved to Shenandoah where George worked for the Norfolk & Western Railroad. They started a family right away. Within two years, they were the perfect American family with a little boy and a little girl. In five years, though, their perfect life was no more. Their two precious children died due to injuries from a house fire. Little Vernon died just 2 weeks after his 5th birthday, and Daisey followed a week later.

George and Sallie
with Vernon and Daisy

Although Sallie and George had 3 more children, their marriage was never the same. George’s work with the railroad required quite a bit of travel allowing him to explore a number of relationships with other women. For over fourteen years he kept many women on the side. The whole sordid story of numerous affairs is part of public record in the divorce case known as Chancery Cause 1913-07, Sallie C. Clift vs George T. Clift.

In 1913, Sallie discovered love letters hidden in various places around their house and property. There was no reason for Sallie to whimper and beg George to remain faithful. There was no reason to profess her love anymore. His treatment of her had become abusive over time, both verbally and physically. When Sallie found the letters, she also found some inner strength to take action.

Sallie tracked down the latest girlfriend and knocked on her door. Sallie demanded she hand over George’s love letters or she would tell the girl’s parents.

George and
a mistress

With over 160 pages of love letters, photos, and postcards, the evidence against George is overwhelming. One postcard came from a long-time girlfriend who always signed off with words like “Your true girl” or “Your little girl.”


From your true little girl. You can’t guess who

Mr. Cliff


112 [possibly Carlisle Ave]

Their affair lasted for around seven years, and in all that time, she apparently never learned to spell George’s last name.

The other postcards were sent to Sallie from George. To make ends meet, Sallie rented out some rooms, mostly to men who worked for the railroad there in Shenandoah. A cloud of suspicion arose about poor Sallie with neighbors whispering that she was running a bawdy house. Not so, but there it is. George even helped fuel the rumor. Letters from his girlfriend at the time show that he referred to Sallie as “the madam.”

The cruel streak that became George’s trademark is evident in each postcard. Here is a card in which he made light of Sallie’s economic woes.

On the front of an otherwise innocuous postcard that anyone might send apologizing for not visiting, he scribbled “Roomers Wanted.” The back is even more hurtful though. If Sallie wanted to know why George stayed away, it would cost her 50¢, the same amount boarders paid for a room in Sallie’s house. As if to rub it in, he claimed he was “living fine,” signing off with a silly “ta ta.”

If George had not proved himself one sadistic son-of-a-gun already, there is this postcard to bear witness:

Everything is fine [?] till you look on the other Side you___


“Release your clutch and retard your spark” -- These expressions when applied to starting an automobile mean one thing, but surely Sallie saw no humor in the mean-spirited commentary on their marriage masquerading as a playful double-entendre. Was it intentional that he addressed the card to “MISS” Sallie Clift?

Leonard and Raymond

The three Leonard children – Leonard, Raymond, and Alda - deserved a better childhood than the one they experienced. At the ages of 14, 13, and 8, respectively, the Clift children testified against their father in their parents’ divorce case.

Alda Clift

The testimony of 8-year old Alda is heart-wrenching.

Lawyer: Just tell me what happened when your father came to the house.

Alda:  When he come in, Mama said she was not expecting him home, and he said I come home when you are not expecting me.  Mama asked him if he wanted his supper and he said yesem, and he said what do you have for meals, and Mama said 25 cents, and he gave her 25 cents and she laid it up on the shelf.  Mama cooked his supper and he set down and he eat and he pulled out a pass out of his pocket and said Sallie I got a pass for Luray.  I am going to Luray and get me a divorce, and Mama went into the kitchen to wash the dishes and he got up and came out there, and Mama came back in the dining room and Papa pulled out his gun and held it up that away, and said I am going to kill you, and then me and Mama commenced to scream and I said Papa put your gun back in your pocket and then me and Mama went out doors, and he followed us out and when we got out to the gate he got his gun out again and then he said I dare you to come back in here, I will shoot your G__ D__ brains out; you or any other man.  Me and Mama went on down street and then we went hunting for Mr. Whiteside, and Eddie Bricker come to me and Mama first, and we found Mr. Whiteside and he went on up home.

Lawyer:  Where did you and your Mama stay that night?

Alda: Down to Aunt Vick’s (meaning Mrs. Decatur Breeden)

Lawyer:  Do you want to stay with your mother or would you rather go live with your father?

Alda:  I want to stay with my Mama.

Lawyer:  Why would you not want to live with your father?

Alda:  Because he is too mean to me.

All Sallie wanted was sole custody of their three children and money to help take care of them. Although George tried to blame Sallie, claiming SHE was the abusive one, SHE was the one who lost interest in their marriage, SHE was the one who abandoned him by refusing to cook his meals, the Court sided with her. On August 18, 1914, Sallie was granted a divorce a mensa et thoro along with sole custody of their three children. Plus she was awarded $7 a week in alimony. She had plenty of character witnesses who stood by her and attested to her noble efforts to care for her family on her own. She also had plenty of neighbors who witnessed George’s cruelty and violence toward her.

Even without 160 pages of love letters and postcards, Sallie probably would have won her case. But it didn’t hurt.

Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.


© 2021, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. Situations like this are so sad but good for Sallie to stand up for herself and her children. Definitely a strong lady!

  2. Wow, what a story! I'm so glad to hear that Sallie made it through - she definitely was one strong woman!

  3. Wow, she kept his letters. I suppose as a reminder of his cruelty, did he ever get his comeuppance? She was one tough lady.