Elizabeth Keckley was a former slave who became the dressmaker and friend of Mary Todd Lincoln and a frequent visitor to the White House during the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.
Her memoir, which was ghost-written (and spelled her surname as "Keckley" though she seemed to have written it as "Keckly") and published in 1868, provided an eyewitness account to life with the Lincolns.
The book appeared under controversial circumstances, and was apparently suppressed at the direction of Lincoln's son, Robert Todd Lincoln. But despite the controversy surrounding the book, Keckley's accounts of Abraham Lincoln's personal work habits, observations on the everyday circumstances of the Lincoln family, and a moving account of the death of young Willie Lincoln, have been considered reliable.
Fast Facts: Elizabeth Keckley
- Born: About 1818, Virginia.
- Died: May 1907, Washington, D.C.
- Known for: Former slave who opened a dressmaking business in Washington, D.C., before the Civil War and became a trusted friend of Mary Todd Lincoln.
- Publication: Wrote a memoir of life in the White House during the Lincoln administration which provided unique insight into the Lincoln family.
Her friendship with Mary Todd Lincoln, though unlikely, was genuine. Keckley's role as a frequent companion of the first lady was depicted in the Steven Spielberg film "Lincoln," in which Keckley was portrayed by actress Gloria Rueben.
Early Life of Elizabeth Keckley
Elizabeth Keckley was born in Virginia in 1818 and spent the first years of her life living on the grounds of Hampden-Sydney College. Her owner, Col. Armistead Burwell, worked for the college.
"Lizzie" was assigned work, which would have been typical for slave children. According to her memoir, she was beaten and whipped when she failed at tasks.
She learned to sew growing up, as her mother, also a slave, was a seamstress. But young Lizzie resented not being able to receive an education.
When Lizzie was a child, she believed a slave named George Hobbs, who belonged to the owner of a another Virginia farm, was her father. Hobbs was allowed to visit Lizzie and her mother on holidays, but during Lizzie's childhood the owner of Hobbs moved to Tennessee, taking his slaves with him. Lizzie had memories of saying goodbye to her father. She never saw George Hobbs again.
Lizzie later learned that her father was actually Col. Burwell, the man who had owned her mother. Slave owners fathering children with female slaves was not uncommon in the South, and at the age of 20 Lizzie herself had a child with a plantation owner who lived nearby. She raised the child, whom she named George.
When she was in her mid-twenties, a member of the family who owned her moved to St. Louis to begin a law practice, taking Lizzie and her son along. In St. Louis she resolved to eventually buy her freedom, and with the help of white sponsors, she was eventually able to obtain legal papers declaring herself and her son free. She had been married to another slave, and thus acquired the last name Keckley, but the marriage did not last.
With some letters of introduction, she traveled to Baltimore, seeking to start a business making dresses. She found little opportunity in Baltimore, and moved to Washington, D.C., where she was able to set herself up in business.
Keckley's dressmaking business began to flourish in Washington. The wives of politicians and military officers often needed fancy gowns to attend events, and a talented seamstress, as Keckley was, could obtain a number of clients.
According to Keckley's memoir, she was contracted by the wife of Senator Jefferson Davis to sew dresses and work in the Davis household in Washington. She thus met Davis a year before he would become president of the Confederate States of America.
Keckley also recalled sewing a dress for the wife of Robert E. Lee at the time when he was still an officer in the U.S. Army.
Following the election of 1860, which brought Abraham Lincoln to the White House, the slave states began to secede and Washington society changed. Some of Keckley's customers traveled southward, but new clients arrived in town.
Keckley's Role In the Lincoln White House
In the spring of 1860 Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their sons moved to Washington to take up residence in the White House. Mary Lincoln, who was already gaining a reputation for acquiring fine dresses, was looking for a new dressmaker in Washington.
The wife of an Army officer recommended Keckley to Mary Lincoln. And after a meeting at the White House on the morning after Lincoln's inauguration in 1861, Keckley was hired by Mary Lincoln to create dresses and dress the first lady for important functions.
There is no question that Keckley's placement in the Lincoln White House made her a witness to how the Lincoln family lived. And while Keckley's memoir was obviously ghost-written, and is no doubt embellished, her observations have been considered credible.
One of the most moving passages in Keckley's memoir is the account of the illness of young Willie Lincoln in early 1862. The boy, who was 11, became sick, perhaps from polluted water in the White House. He died in the executive mansion on February 20, 1862.
Keckley recounted the sorrowful state of the Lincolns when Willie died and described how she helped prepare his body for the funeral. She vividly described how Mary Lincoln had descended into a period of deep mourning.
It was Keckley who told the story of how Abraham Lincoln had pointed out the window to an insane asylum, and said to his wife, "Try to control your grief or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there."
Historians have noted that the incident could not have happened as described, as there was no asylum within view of the White House. But her account of Mary Lincoln's emotional problems still seem generally credible.
Keckley's Memoir Caused Controversy
Elizabeth Keckley became more than an employee of Mary Lincoln, and the women seemed to develop a close friendship which spanned the entire time the Lincoln family lived in the White House. On the night Lincoln was assassinated, Mary Lincoln sent for Keckley, though she did not receive the message until the following morning.
Arriving at the White House on the day of Lincoln's death, Keckley found Mary Lincoln nearly irrational with grief. According to Keckley's memoir, she remained with Mary Lincoln during the weeks when Mary Lincoln would not leave the White House as Abraham Lincoln's body was returned to Illinois during a two-week funeral which traveled by train.
The women stayed in touch after Mary Lincoln moved to Illinois, and in 1867 Keckley became involved in a scheme in which Mary Lincoln tried to sell some valuable dresses and furs in New York City. The plan was to have Keckley act as an intermediary so buyers would not know the items belonged to Mary Lincoln, but the plan fell through.
Mary Lincoln returned to Illinois, and Keckley, left in New York City, found work which coincidentally put her in touch with a family connected to a publishing business. According to a newspaper interview she gave when she was nearly 90 years old, Keckley was essentially duped into writing her memoir with the help of a ghost writer.
When her book was published in 1868, it attracted attention as it presented facts about the Lincoln family which no one could have known. At the time it was considered very scandalous, and Mary Lincoln resolved to have nothing more to do with Elizabeth Keckley.
The book became hard to obtain, and it was widely rumored that Lincoln's oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, had been buying up all available copies to prevent it from achieving wide circulation.
Despite the peculiar circumstances behind the book, it has survived as a fascinating document of life in the Lincoln White House. And it established that one of the closest confidantes of Mary Lincoln was indeed a dressmaker who had once been a slave.
Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years In the White House. New York City, G.W. Carleton & Company, 1868.
Russell, Thaddeus. "Keckley, Elizabeth." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, edited by Colin A. Palmer, 2nd ed., vol. 3, Macmillan Reference USA, 2006, pp. 1229-1230. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
"Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 28, Gale, 2008, pp. 196-199. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Brennan, Carol. "Keckley, Elizabeth 1818-1907." Contemporary Black Biography, edited by Margaret Mazurkiewicz, vol. 90, Gale, 2011, pp. 101-104. Gale Virtual Reference Library.