Scandalous Book Review: Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly

"I was born a slave - - was a child of slave parents - - therefore I came upon the earth free in God-like thought, but fettered in action."

Elizabeth Keckly

While looking through my huge pile of research books while preparing this month's series on Presidential scandals, I discovered that I had an advance reader's coppy of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly that had been given to me by an old friend who has since passed away. Curiously I picked it up and began reading. While Lincoln has long been one of my favorite presidents, I didn't know a great deal about Mary Lincoln apart from the fact that like Lincoln, she was born in Kentucky, and her son had her committed to an asylum several years after Lincoln's death (dramatized in the play, The Last of Mrs. Lincoln).

What intrigued me about the book was that it was a dual biography of Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, the freed slave who became Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker and her closest friend. I had never heard of Elizabeth Keckly before reading this book, but her story now has been intrigued. Elizabeth Keckly was born in 1818, the same year as Mary Todd Lincoln, but the circumstances of her birth were far different from that of the future Mrs. President. Elizabeth's mother Aggy was owned by the Burwell family of Virginia. Her father was not George Hobbs, but Armistead Burwell, Aggy's owner. Elizabeth was aware of who her real father was, but like most slave owning families, her parentage was never spoken of. However, she learned to read and write, and was allowed to read books in the house, despite the fact that it was illegal for slaves to learn to read and write.

At the age of 14, Elizabeth was given 'on loan' to Armistead's son Robert Burwell and his wife Anna, to work as a house slave in Petersburg, VA (she had actually been promised to the youngest Burwell daughter Elizabeth). Elizabeth and Anna didn't exactly get along, leading Anna to ask for the assistance of a neighbor, William Bingham to subdue her, by beating her severely. Elizabeth's life became even worse, while the Burwell family ran a boarding school in Hillsborough, North Carolina. She was raped repeatedly by Alexander Kirkland, a neighbor of the Burwells, leaving her pregnant with her son George. Kirkland died at the age of 36. Elizabeth and her son George by this time had moved back to Virginia. Eventually Elizabeth ended up living with another Burwell daughter, Anna Garland in St. Louis.

It was in St. Louis that Elizabeth first began working as a seamstress, virtually supporting the entire Garland family solely by her wages. Living in St. Louis gave Elizabeth the opportunity to move freely among St. Louis's free black population. Determined to gain her freedom, Elizabeth repeatedly pestered Hugh Garland for the right to work for her freedom. Finally after two years, he told her that she could gain her freedom and her son's for the cost of $1,200. Elizabeth had now made connections as well among the well-to-do white population of St. Louis, while working as a dressmaker. It was also in St. Louis, that Elizabeth married James Keckly. However, she soon found out that Keckly had lied to her about being free. With the help of their patronage, Elizabeth was able to buy her freedom and that of her son's. She sent him to Wilberforce University in Ohio (named after William Wilberforce, the great English abolitionist), while she settled in Washington, DC.

It was in Washington, DC that Elizabeth Keckly and Mary Todd Lincoln were destined to meet. Through her St. Louis connections, Elizabeth was soon making dresses for some of the most influential women in Washington, including Mrs. Varina Davis, wife of Senator Jefferson Davis. Varina Davis was so taken with her, that when war was declared, she tried to convince Elizabeth to join her down South. However it was another woman, Mrs. Margaret McLean who made the introductions between Elizabeth and Mary Todd Lincoln on the day of the inauguration. Mary invited Elizabeth back the next day to interview for the position of her dressmaker. The last to be interviewed, Elizabeth impressed Mary and soon she was making dresses for Mrs. President.

Elizabeth Keckly was soon not just Mary's dressmaker but her confidante. Mary hadn't made many friends in Washington among the wives of the cabinet members or Congress. For the first time in her life she didn't have a ready made support system of friends and family. She didn't help matters by going on a major spending spree during Lincoln's first year in office which coincided with the first year of the Civil War. She was also suspected of being a secret Southern spy. Like many families in the border states, half of Mary's family fought for the Union, the other half for the Confederacy.

Mary was also known for being difficult to get along with. After years of living in a slave society, she had found it difficult to deal with white servants while living in Springfield. She also may been suffering from bipolar disorder along with her frequent migraines. Rosetta Wells wrote Keckly was "the only person in Washington who could get along with Mrs. Lincoln, when she became mad with anybody for talking about her and criticizing her husband." She was incredibly lonely, she had thought that she would be more of a help-mate to Lincoln but found herself shut out of the 'boy's club,' in a way that she hadn't been in Springfield.

Soon Elizabeth was taking care of Mary's two sons Willie and Tad, as well as combing the President's hair. During this time, Elizabeth also enjoyed semi-celebrity status within the black community, as well as being accepted by the black servants in the White House who were notorious for snubbing darker skinned blacks. She used her various connections to establish the Contraband Relief Association; a group designed to help the suffering and disadvantaged black people. Keckly petitioned and solicited for donations, and received frequent contributions from both the President and the First Lady. When Willie Lincoln died, Mary began to rely on Elizabeth more and more. Elizabeth had her own cross to bear, her son George had died in one of the first battles of the Civil War. Light enough to pass for white, he joined the army as a white man.

After the assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln seemed alone and friendless. The one person she could talk to was Elizabeth Keckly. Keckly accompanied Mary to Chicago and stayed with her for several months. Later on, she went to New York with Mary to try and help her to sell her clothes and jewelry. She even tried to raise money among the black community for Mrs. Lincoln but her efforts came to naught. The rift between the two women began when Elizabeth donated items that Mrs. Lincoln had given her after the president's assassination to Wilberforce University to help them rebuild a building after a devastating fire. But the final blow came when Elizabeth decided to publish her memoirs.

Elizabeth came to this decision for two reasons: after spending a year in New York trying to help Mrs. Lincoln, her business in Washington had suffered irreperable damage. And two, in a way, Elizabeth thought that she could help restore Mrs. Lincoln's reputation that had been damaged when it came out that she was forced to sell her jewels and clothing to raise money. Elizabeth wasn't the first former slave to write her memoirs, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman among others had written theirs. But Elizabeth was the only to have had a bird's eye view into the Lincoln White House. Nowadays, the public is used to every Tom, Dick and Karl Rove writing of their time in the White House, but this was a relatively new thing in the 19th century, and the idea that a former slave would write about working for her former employees well that beyond the pale. Of course, the publisher sensationalized the book in such a way, that it made it look like Elizabeth was cashing in on Lincoln's name and reputation.

Mary Todd Lincoln felt betrayed. Not only had Elizabeth disclosed personal conversations, but the book also published her private letters to Elizabeth. Dr. Fleischner writes in her book that, "Lizzy's intentions, like the spelling of her name, would thereafter be lost in history. At the age of fifty, she had violated Victorian codes not only of friendship and privacy, but of race, gender, and class. Not surprisingly, the newspapers that attacked Mary Lincoln in the fall, in the spring now leapt to her defense... The social threat represented by this black woman's agency also provoked other readers, and someone produced an ugly and viciously racist parody called "Behind the Seams; by a Nigger Woman who took work in from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Davis and signed with an "X," the mark of "Betsey Kickley (nigger)," denoting its supposed author's illiteracy." Elizabeth always suspected that Robert Todd Lincoln helped to surpress the memoir.

The last years of Elizabeth's life were as hard as Mary Todd Lincoln's. She continued to sew and teach, but her white clientele stopped calling. Eventually she ended up having to sell her Lincoln memoribilia for the rock bottom price of $250. Eventually she obtained a faculty position at Wilberforce University as head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science. In her 80's, she was back in DC, living in a home for colored destitute women where she died in 1907.

Jennifer Fleischer writes in Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, "Perhaps the most poignant illustration of the different fates of these two women is found in their final resting places. While Mary Lincoln lies buried in Springfield in a vault with her husband and sons, Elizabeth Keckly's remains have disappeared. In the 1960s, a developer paved over the Harmony Cemetery in Washington where Lizzy was buried, and when the graves were moved to a new cemetery, her unclaimed remains were placed in an unmarked grave—like those of her mother, slave father, and son."

After her death, Elizabeth suffered the further indignity of having not only her memoirs questioned, but whether or not she existed at all. In 1935, a journalist named David Rankin Barbee, stated that not only had Elizabeth Keckly not written her autobiography, but that she never existed at all. Barbee claimed that the abolitionist writer Jane Swisshelm was the true author and had written it to advance her abolitionist cause. Many people who read the article challenged his claim, and came forward citing personal and/or secondary acquaintance. In an effort to 'clarify' his erroneous statements, Barbee backtracked and said that it "was not that no such person as Elizabeth Keckly existed, but that "no such person as Elizabeth Keckley wrote the celebrated Lincoln book." Good save!

Thank god for Jennifer Fleischer for writing this book and rescuing Elizabeth Keckly from obscurity. One of the most remarkable thing about this book is not only the sympathy that Fleischer shows for Mary Todd Lincoln but also the respect that she shows Elizabeth Keckly. The book is not only a dual biography but it is also a social history about the relationship between whites and their slaves, but also the minefield that Elizabeth Keckly had to constantly walk between the white and black worlds.

At times, I wished for a little less about Mary Todd Lincoln and more about Elizabeth Keckly. Probably because so much as been written, both sympathetic and non-sympathetic, about her. This book is a wonderful addition to any fan of Lincoln, or anyone who is interested in the history of women. I would love to see HBO do a film about Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, particularly since this year in Lincoln's 200th birthday.

Sources and other information:

Jennifer Fleischner (2003). Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between a First Lady and a Former Slave. Broadway Books
Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckly

An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, Ann Rinaldi


Laura Keyes: Laura performs a one-woman show about Mary Todd Lincoln


Lidian said…
Thank you for this excellent review - I can't wait to read the book, what a treat to look forward to (am off to order it from the library right now).
Lucy said…
Wonderful review, thanks!
It's a shame that Elizabeth Keckley has been somewhat lost to history. I read a portion of her memoirs in my AA Lit course last semester and it was an eye opener regarding the status of this black woman in the White House. To carry over what I began to discuss in the TJ/Sally Hemings post, there seems to be a need to sweep black domestic/slave life under the rug, as though to bring their stories to light will affirm fears that blacks were only slaves/servants throughout American history and that that social role defines black history. I choose to see it as people who witnessed history from a perspective most never think about--just like all the stories of chambermaids or lady's maids in the court of Versailles or the Tudor court, etc. It's a fresher, distant and more impartial viewpoint.
I also think her story should continue to be told because she came so far in her life. Elizabeth had a successful dressmaking business which shows not just students that not all African-Americans in the 19th century were just poor domestics but that there was a thriving middle class of which Elizabeth was part of. And yes, in her story, she was able to give a unique perspective on the Lincoln's that no one else could.
Mrs Sweetwater said…
Wowww.. She was really the backbone of the whitehouse, as many have said. I heard about her at a lecture a few years ago, but this is much more interesting. I think I may have to read this book.

Thanks so much for your wonderful contribution to the Black History Month Blog Carnival. please consider submitting another piece since we are running weekly through the whole month of Feb.

Thanks Again, I'll be back

~RE - / sponsors of the 09' Black History Month Blog Carnival
Thanks RE. I think Elizabeth Keckly is just as awesome in her way as Madame CJ Walker. She was privileged to have been a confidante of Mary Lincoln for those 4 years in the White House and beyond. I'm only sorry that they never were able to reconcile after Elizabeth's book was published. Elizabeth certainly never meant to hurt Mary. I can't wait to see what others come up with for Black History Month Carnival.
Anonymous said…
If I hadn't read this review, I would never have known about Elizabeth Keckley. I want to read book. I just discovered your nifty-looking blog and hope you'll introduce us to more non-fiction history and biographies! Thanks!

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