Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Part Two

For part one, click here!

When we left Lizzie, she had just purchased her freedom for the second time. Since the money had been given to her by many of her clients in St. Louis, she considered it a loan and immediately got to work to pay it back. Of course, she quickly made the money to pay back the St. Louis ladies.

Something else was bothering her, though. Her husband, James. He was still not a companion or helpmate, but a burden. She later wrote, “He was rapidly debasing himself, and although I was willing to work for him, I was not willing to share his degradation.” She asked for a separation and was granted one. One more way in which she was free!

Ms. Keckley Goes to Washington

In 1860, she left St. Louis, headed for Baltimore where she attempted to teach other young black women how to cut and fit dresses. This was unsuccessful, though, and after six weeks, she was left with just enough money for fare to Washington DC. Once she arrived in DC, she began working for $2.50 a day.

In the winter of 1860, Senator Jefferson Davis, and his wife, Varina, arrived in DC. Varina was in need of a modiste, or dressmaker, and Lizzie, already working for one of Varina’s friends, came highly recommended and got the job.

I think that bears repeating: Lizzie Keckley, a former enslaved person, became dressmaker to the future First Lady of the Confederacy. If you think that’s a weird twist of fate, just hold on.

Elizabeth Keckley 1861

Lizzie, circa 1861. Photo via WUNC.

Varina kept her busy making clothing for herself and the Davis children. Then she decided that she wanted to give Jefferson a dressing gown for Christmas and who else would make it but Lizzie Keckley? Lizzie finished it on Christmas Eve and it was given to Jefferson on Christmas morning. She wrote, “As the clock struck twelve I finished the gown, little dreaming of the future that was before it. It was worn, I have not the shadow of a doubt, by Mr. Davis during the stormy years that he was the President of the Confederate States.”

As war approached, Varina put forth the idea that Lizzie should come south with them and continue to be her dressmaker. And Lizzie seriously considered it! She and Varina trusted each other and had built a relationship. When the Davises left DC, Lizzie “half promised” to join them in the South if she changed her mind. She didn’t. But she did come across a statue of Jefferson Davis in Chicago after the war’s end. He was wearing a dress that he was purported to have been captured in. Lizzie recognized the dress immediately as one she had made for Varina! He was wearing a coat when he was captured, not a dress, but Lizzie swore the statue was wearing one of her creations.

I just can’t get over all of that.

Lizzie K. Meets Mary T. (Lincoln)

Mary Todd Lincoln

Mary Lincon in on of her inauguration gowns, purportedly made by Lizzie. Photo via Library of Congress.

Since she had arrived in DC, Lizzie decided that she would do anything to work in the White House. Since she already made a name for herself in St. Louis and Washington, her name made it through the grapevine to Mary Lincoln, the new First Lady. Mary was in a bit of a bind. She spilled coffee on the gown she planned on wearing to the reception after Lincoln’s inauguration. Mrs. McClean, one of Lizzie’s clients, recommended her to Mary and after assuring Mary that her prices were reasonable, Lizzie had the job. She made it to the White House!

She made many dresses for Mary and the two became close friends. Their working relationship and friendship were not secret and on at least one occasion, Lizzie had to rebuff requests to use her influence with Mrs. Lincoln for someone else’s personal gain. Lizzie was extremely loyal and wouldn’t dream of betraying Mary’s trust.

In 1861, tragedy struck. Her son, George, was killed in the Battle of Lexington. Being biracial, he was able to pass as white and enlist in the Union Army. Lizzie does not write of this in her book.

Willie Lincoln Death

Photo via Library of Congress.

In early 1862, twelve-year-old Willie Lincoln, President and Mrs. Lincoln’s third son, contracted typhoid fever. He passed away in February of the same year. Lizzie watched President Lincoln’s grief consume him and make him a “weak, passive child.” Lizzie wrote that Mary’s grief was inconsolable. She sobbed, went into convulsions, and was so consumed by her grief that she was unable to attend Willie’s funeral. So close was Lizzie to the family that she prepared Willie’s body for burial, washing and dressing the little boy.

Later in 1862, freed slaves began pouring into Washington from Maryland and Virginia. Freedom was more difficult than many anticipated, though. They had nothing. Noticing this, Lizzie founded the Contraband Relief Association (freed slaves were called ‘contraband’ at the time) to raise funds and collect clothing for freedmen. That same year, Lizzie accompanied Mary on a trip to New York. Lizzie saw this as a wonderful opportunity to gain support for her relief association. She appealed to prominent black citizens to donate, garnering plenty of interest in her association. When Mary went to Boston to visit her son Robert at college, Lizzie came with her and Mary called on the city’s philanthropists to donate. President and Mrs. Lincoln were frequent donators themselves.

Paranoia Consumes Mary and Tragedy Strikes (Again)

Mary Lincoln dress

Another of Mary’s dresses thought to have been made by Lizzie. Photo via Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

By 1863, Mary was becoming increasingly paranoid about assassins. Mary Lincoln often, unfairly, I think, gets painted as mentally unwell so it would be easy to chalk those concerns up to that. But Lincoln regularly received letters threatening his life. He disregarded them but they fed Mary’s anxieties as well as the anxieties of Lincoln’s friends. Sometimes friends of the couple stayed at the White House if it was thought that the President was in real danger (this was pre-Secret Service protection.)

During the 1864 election, Mary often talked to Lizzie about her worries over whether or not her husband would be reelected. Mary was very afraid that he would not be. But once he was reelected, she seemed to wish he wouldn’t have been. She could see the toll the presidency was taking on him. Nevertheless, Lizzie dressed Mary for the inauguration and the following festivities and Washington celebrated four more years of President Lincoln.

Of course, Lincoln would not serve four more years.

On April 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot while watching the play “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theatre. Lizzie was asleep and recalled being woken up at around 11 PM by friend and neighbor, Miss Brown. Miss Brown told Lizzie that the Cabinet had been assassinated and Mr. Lincoln was shot, although not fatally. She quickly got dressed and went to the White House, where she was told that President Lincoln had not been brought there and that no one would be allowed in. She went back home but couldn’t sleep. She wanted to go to Mary but still didn’t know where the President had been taken. Around 11:00 the following morning, Mary sent a carriage for her. Upon arriving at the White House, Mary asked why she didn’t come to her the previous night. She specifically asked for Lizzie and three messengers were sent to find her. They all misremembered Lizzie’s address so Mary was without her best friend on what was perhaps the most horrific night of her life.

But they were together now and Lizzie, along with Robert and Tad Lincoln, tried to comfort Mary.

But sometimes comfort just won’t come.

Lizzie helped Mary pack up and prepare to leave the White House. Mary planned on moving to Chicago and was under the impression that Lizzie would move with her. Lizzie did go to Chicago for a short time but soon returned to Washington and her dressmaking business.

I wish Lizzie’s story ended here. But it doesn’t.

Even the Best Laid Plans of Mice & Men Often Go Awry

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Photo via UNC Libraries.

Mary Lincoln had a shopping habit. The kind of habit where she’d buy three hundred pairs of gloves at a time. Because she was the First Lady, shops gave her items on credit. As you can imagine, she racked up debt. A lot of it. When President Lincoln was assassinated and she was no longer First Lady, those shops came after the money she owed them. She didn’t have it, not even close. In 1867, it all came to a head and she wrote Lizzie telling her of her financial troubles. She hatched a plan to sell some of her wardrobe, much of which had never been worn, as a means of generating income. Lizzie agreed to help her and the two met in New York to begin selling Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe. Mary was very embarrassed about needing to do this and it was to be a secretive operation.

This plan was foiled when the dealer she partnered with recognized her immediately. She ended up holding a public auction and exhibition of her clothing, which was a total failure. Not only did she not make any money from it, but it became a PR disaster. The extent of her spending was exposed and she was accused of being a spendthrift and even of desecrating President Lincoln’s name. Her name was run through the mud and Lizzie’s was too, by proxy. This became known as the “Old Clothes Scandal.”

That’s when Lizzie decided to write her book, Behind the Scenes. She felt that her story of escaping slavery was similar to that of Frederick Douglass and wanted to share it. She also thought that by writing her life story, she could shed some light on Mary’s situation and clear the air (and their names).

Unfortunately, that is basically the opposite of what happened.

Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House

Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley

Photo via UNC Libraries.

Mary felt that Lizzie’s book only added to the gossip and felt betrayed that her best friend would put personal details out there. Lizzie was vilified by the press for exposing so much about the First Family. After the book’s publication, Mary cut all ties with Lizzie and the two never spoke again.

Lizzie’s business declined to the point of nonexistence and she never made a cent from her book. She supported herself by teaching young women to sew and eventually got a position teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio. When her health began to decline, she moved to The Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, which she helped establish during her years as president of the Contraband Relief Association. She died in 1907 at the age of 88.

She still had a picture of Mary Lincoln on her dresser.

Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley

Mary & Lizzie. Illustration by Jody Hewgill.


Sources (contains affiliate links)

Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (.99 Kindle version here!)
A Strong Thread in a Torn Union by John Williams
Disarming the Nation: Women’s Writing and the American Civil War by Elizabeth Young
The Story of Elizabeth Keckley, Former-Slave-Turned-Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker by Emily Spivack
30 Years a Slave, 4 Years in the White House, WUNC North Carolina Public Radio by Anita Rao and Frank Stasio
The History Chicks Episode 72, Elizabeth Keckley

One thought on “Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Part Two

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Part One | The Winston Hours

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