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Elizabeth Hobbs was born a slave in Virginia in 1818. She was the property of Colonel Burwell and she was put to work at the age of four: "Mrs. Burwell gave birth to a daughter, a sweet, black-eyed baby, my earliest and fondest pet. To take care of this baby was my first duty. True, I was but a child myself - only four years old - but I had been taught to rely upon myself, and to prepare myself to render assistance to others."
In 1825 she witnessed a slave being sold for the first time in Prince Edward County: "We were living at Prince Edward, in Virginia, and master had just purchased his hogs for the winter, for which he was unable to pay in full. To escape from his embarrassment it was necessary to sell one of the slaves. Little Joe, the son of the cook, was selected as the victim. His mother was ordered to dress him up in his Sunday clothes, and send him to the house. He came in with a bright face, was placed in the scales, and was sold, like the hogs, at so much per pound. His mother was kept in ignorance of the transaction, but her suspicions were aroused. When her son started for Petersburgh in the wagon, the truth began to dawn upon her mind, and she pleaded piteously that her boy should not be taken from her; but master quieted her by telling her that he was simply going to town with the wagon, and would be back in the morning."
When she was fourteen she was sent to work for his son, who was a Presbyterian minister in Virginia. In 1836 he moved to a church in North Carolina: "The salary was small, and we still had to practise the closest economy. Mr. Bingham, a hard, cruel man, the village schoolmaster, was a member of my young master's church, and he was a frequent visitor to the parsonage." When she refused to have sex with Bingham she suffered a terrible beating. "He seized a rope, caught me roughly, and tried to tie me. I resisted with all my strength, but he was the stronger of the two, and after a hard struggle succeeded in binding my hands and tearing my dress from my back. Then he picked up a rawhide, and began to ply it freely over my shoulders. With steady hand and practised eye he would raise the instrument of torture, nerve himself for a blow, and with fearful force the rawhide descended upon the quivering flesh. It cut the skin, raised great welts, and the warm blood trickled down my back."
Elizabeth was later sold to another man who lived in St. Louis, Missouri. When she was twenty-one she was raped by a white man and gave birth to a son. "I was regarded as fair-looking for one of my race, and for four years a white man - I spare the world his name - had base designs upon me. I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain. Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I became a mother. The child of which he was the father was the only child that I ever brought into the world. If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position."
In 1855 Elizabeth had saved enough money to buy her freedom. She married James Keckley but as a result of his alcoholism and laziness she moved to Washington where she worked as a dressmaker for the wife of Abraham Lincoln. In 1868 she published her autobiography, Thirty Years a Slave.
Elizabeth Keckley, who served as president of the Contraband Relief Association, died in 1907.
I was born a slave - was the child of slave parents - therefore I came upon the earth free in God-like thought, but fettered in action. My birthplace was Dinwiddie Court-House, in Virginia. My master, Col. A. Burwell, was somewhat unsettled in his business affairs, and while I was yet an infant he made several removals. Mrs. Burwell gave birth to a daughter, a sweet, black-eyed baby, my earliest and fondest pet.
To take care of this baby was my first duty. True, I was but a child myself - only four years old - but I had been taught to rely upon myself, and to prepare myself to render assistance to others. The lesson was not a bitter one, for I was too young to indulge in philosophy, and the precepts that I then treasured and practised I believe developed those principles of character which have enabled me to triumph over so many difficulties. Notwithstanding all the wrongs that slavery heaped upon me, I can bless it for one thing - youth's important lesson of self-reliance.
When I was eight, Mr. Burwell's family consisted of six sons and four daughters, with a large family of servants. My mother was kind and forbearing; Mrs. Burwell a hard task-master; and as mother had so much work to do in making clothes, etc., for the family, besides the slaves, I determined to render her all the assistance in my power, and in rendering her such assistance my young energies were taxed to the utmost. I was my mother's only child, which made her love for me all the stronger. I did not know much of my father, for he was the slave of another man, and when Mr. Burwell moved from Dinwiddie he was separated from us, and only allowed to visit my mother twice a year - during the Easter holidays and Christmas.
When I was about seven years old I witnessed, for the first time, the sale of a human being. We were living at Prince Edward, in Virginia, and master had just purchased his hogs for the winter, for which he was unable to pay in full. When her son started for Petersburgh in the wagon, the truth began to dawn upon her mind, and she pleaded piteously that her boy should not be taken from her; but master quieted her by telling her that he was simply going to town with the wagon, and would be back in the morning.
Morning came, but little Joe did not return to his mother. Morning after morning passed, and the mother went down to the grave without ever seeing her child again. One day she was whipped for grieving for her lost boy. Colonel Burwell never liked to see one of his slaves wear a sorrowful face, and those who offended in this particular way were always punished. Alas! the sunny face of the slave is not always an indication of sunshine in the heart. Colonel Burwell at one time owned about seventy slaves, all of which were sold, and in a majority of instances wives were separated from husbands and children from their parents.
When I was about fourteen years old I went to live with my master's eldest son, a Presbyterian minister. His salary was small, and he was burdened with a helpless wife, a girl that he had married in the humble walks of life. She was morbidly sensitive, and imagined that I regarded her with contemptuous feelings because she was of poor parentage. I was their only servant, and a gracious loan at that. They were not able to buy me, so my old master sought render them assistance by allowing them the benefit of my services. From the very first I did the work of three servants, and yet I was scolded and regarded with distrust.
The years passed slowly, and I continued to serve them, and at the same time grew into strong, healthy womanhood. I was nearly eighteen when we removed from Virginia to Hillsboro, North Carolina, where young Mr. Burwell took charge of a church. The salary was small, and we still had to practise the closest economy. Bingham, a hard, cruel man, the village schoolmaster, was a member of my young master's church, and he was a frequent visitor to the parsonage. She whom I called mistress seemed to be desirous to wreak vengeance on me for something, and Bingham became her ready tool.
During this time my master was unusually kind to me; he was naturally a good-hearted man, but was influenced by his wife. It was Saturday evening, and while I was bending over the bed, watching the baby that I had just hushed into slumber, Mr. Bingham came to the door and asked me to go with him to his study. Wondering what he meant by his strange request, I followed him, and when we had entered the study he closed the door, and in his blunt way remarked: "Lizzie, I am going to flog you." I was thunderstruck, and tried to think if I had been remiss in anything. I could not recollect of doing anything to deserve punishment, and with surprise exclaimed: "Whip me, Mr. Bingham! what for?"
"No matter," he replied, "I am going to whip you, so take down your dress this instant."
Recollect, I was eighteen years of age, was a woman fully developed, and yet this man coolly bade me take down my dress. I drew myself up proudly, firmly, and said: "No, Mr. Bingham, I shall not take down my dress before you. Moreover, you shall not whip me unless you prove the stronger. Nobody has a right to whip me but my own master, and nobody shall do so if I can prevent it."
My words seemed to exasperate him. He seized a rope, caught me roughly, and tried to tie me. It cut the skin, raised great welts, and the warm blood trickled down my back. Oh God! I can feel the torture now - the terrible, excruciating agony of those moments. I did not scream; I was too proud to let my tormentor know what I was suffering. I closed my lips firmly, that not even a groan might escape from them, and I stood like a statue while the keen lash cut deep into my flesh.
As soon as I was released, stunned with pain, bruised and bleeding, I went home and rushed into the presence of the pastor and his wife, wildly exclaiming: "Master Robert, why did you let Mr. Bingham flog me? What have I done that I should be so punished?"
"Go away," he gruffly answered, "do not bother me."
I would not be put off thus. "What have I done? I will know why I have been flogged."
I saw his cheeks flush with anger, but I did not move. He rose to his feet, and on my refusing to go without an explanation, seized a chair, struck me, and felled me to the floor. I rose, bewildered, almost dead with pain, crept to my room, dressed my bruised arms and back as best I could, and then lay down, but not to sleep. No, I could not sleep, for I was suffering mental as well as bodily torture. My spirit rebelled against the unjustness that had been inflicted upon me, and though I tried to smother my anger and to forgive those who had been so cruel to me, it was impossible. It seems that Mr. Bingham had pledged himself to Mrs. Burwell to subdue what he called my "stubborn pride."
Know all men that I, Anne P. Garland, of the County and City of St. Louis, State of Missouri, for and in consideration of the sum of $1200, to me in band paid this day in cash, hereby emancipate my negro woman Lizzie, and her son George; the said Lizzie is known in St. Louis as the wife of James, who is called James Keckley; is of light complexion, about 37 years of age, by trade a dress-maker, and called by those who know her Garland's Lizzie. The said boy, George, is the only child of Lizzie, is about 16 years of age, and is almost white, and called by those who know him Garland's George.
I was regarded as fair-looking for one of my race, and for four years a white man - I spare the world his name - had base designs upon me. If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did not wish to give him life; he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position.
In the summer of 1862, freedmen began to flock into Washington from Maryland and Virginia. They came with a great hope in their hearts, and with all their worldly goods on their backs. Fresh from the bonds of slavery, fresh from the benighted regions of the plantation, they came to the Capital looking for liberty, and many of them not knowing it when they found it. Many good friends reached forth kind hands, but the North is not warm and impulsive. For one kind word spoken, two harsh ones were uttered.
Frequent letters were received warning Mr. Lincoln of assassination, but he never gave a second thought to the mysterious warnings. The letters, however, sorely troubled his wife. She seemed to read impending danger in every rustling leaf, in every whisper of the wind.
"Where are you going now, father?" she would say to him, as she observed him putting on his overshoes and shawl.
"I am going over to the War Department, mother, to try and learn some news."
"But, father, you should not go out alone. You know you are surrounded with danger."
"All imagination. What does any one want to harm me for? Don't worry about me, mother, as if I were a little child, for no one is going to molest me;" and with a confident, unsuspecting air he would close the door behind him, descend the stairs, and pass out to his lonely walk.
Often Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln discussed the relations of Cabinet officers, and gentlemen prominent in politics, in my presence. I soon learned that the wife of the President had no love for Mr. Salmon P. Chase, at that time Secretary of the Treasury. She was well versed in human character, was somewhat suspicious of those by whom she was surrounded, and often her judgment was correct. Her intuition about the sincerity of individuals was more accurate than that of her husband. Her hostility to Mr. Chase was very bitter. She claimed that he was a selfish politician instead of a true patriot, and warned Mr. Lincoln not to trust him too far.
Mrs. Lincoln was especially severe on Mr. William H. Seward, Secretary of State. She but rarely lost an opportunity to say an unkind word of him.
General McClellan, when made Commander-in-Chief, was the idol of the soldiers, and never was a general more universally popular: "He is a humbug," remarked Mrs. Lincoln one day in my presence.
"What makes you think so, mother?" good-naturedly inquired the President.
"Because he talks so much and does so little. If I had the power I would very soon take off his head, and put some energetic man in his place."
Mrs. Lincoln could not tolerate General Grant. "He is a butcher," she would often say, "and is not fit to be at the head of an army."
"But he has been very successful in the field," argued the President.
"Yes, he generally manages to claim a victory, but such a victory! He loses two men to the enemy's one. He has no management, no regard for life. If the war should continue four years longer, and he should remain in power, he would depopulate the North. I could fight an army as well myself. According to his tactics, there is nothing under the heavens to do but to march a new line of men up in front of the rebel breastworks to be shot down as fast as they take their position, and keep marching until the enemy grows tired of the slaughter. Grant, I repeat, is an obstinate fool and a butcher."
At 11 o'clock at night I was awakened by an old friend and neighbor, Miss M. Brown, with the startling intelligence that the entire Cabinet had been assassinated, and Mr. Lincoln shot, but not mortally wounded. When I heard the words I felt as if the blood had been frozen in my veins, and that my lungs must collapse for the want of air. Lincoln shot! the Cabinet assassinated!
I waked Mr. Lewis, and told them that the President was shot, and that I must go to the White House. We walked rapidly towards the White House, and on our way passed the residence of Secretary Seward, which was surrounded by armed soldiers, keeping back all intruders with the point of the bayonet.
We learned that the President was mortally wounded--that he had been shot down in his box at the theatre, and that he was not expected to live till morning; when we returned home with heavy hearts. I could not sleep. I wanted to go to Mrs. Lincoln, as I pictured her wild with grief; but then I did not know where to find her, and I must wait till morning. Never did the hours drag so slowly. Every moment seemed an age, and I could do nothing but walk about and hold my arms in mental agony.
Morning came at last, and a sad morning was it. The flags that floated so gaily yesterday now were draped in black, and hung in silent folds at half-mast. The President was dead, and a nation was mourning for him. Every house was draped in black, and every face wore a solemn look. People spoke in subdued tones, and glided whisperingly, wonderingly, silently about the streets.
The last time I saw him he spoke kindly to me, but alas! the lips would never move again. The light had faded from his eyes, and when the light went out the soul went with it. What a noble soul was his--noble in all the noble attributes of God! Never did I enter the solemn chamber of death with such palpitating heart and trembling footsteps as I entered it that day. No common mortal had died. The Moses of my people had fallen in the hour of his triumph. Fame had woven her choicest chaplet for his brow. Though the brow was cold and pale in death, the chaplet should not fade, for God had studded it with the glory of the eternal stars.
When I entered the room, the members of the Cabinet and many distinguished officers of the army were grouped around the body of their fallen chief. They made room for me, and, approaching the body, I lifted the white cloth from the white face of the man that I had worshipped as an idol--looked upon as a demi-god. Not-withstanding the violence of the death of the President, there was something beautiful as well as grandly solemn in the expression of the placid face. There lurked the sweetness and gentleness of childhood, and the stately grandeur of godlike intellect. I gazed long at the face, and turned away with tears in my eyes and a choking sensation in my throat. Ah! never was man so widely mourned before. The whole world bowed their heads in grief when Abraham Lincoln died.
There were many surmises as to who was implicated with J. Wilkes Booth in the assassination of the President. A new messenger had accompanied Mr. Lincoln to the theatre on that terrible Friday night. It was the duty of this messenger to stand at the door of the box during the performance, and thus guard the inmates from all intrusion. It appears that the messenger was carried away by the play, and so neglected his duty that Booth gained easy admission to the box. Lincoln firmly believed that this messenger was implicated in the assassination plot.
Soon after the assassination Mrs. Lincoln said to him fiercely: "So you are on guard tonight - on guard in the White House after helping to murder the President!"
"Pardon me, but I did not help to murder the President. I could never stoop to murder--much less to the murder of so good and great a man as the President."
"But it appears that you did stoop to murder."
"No, no! don't say that," he broke in. "God knows that I am innocent."
"I don't believe you. Why were you not at the door to keep the assassin out when be rushed into the box?"
"I did wrong, I admit, and I have bitterly repented it, but I did not help to kill the President. I did not believe that any one would try to kill so good a man in such a public place, and the belief made me careless. I was attracted by the play, and did not see the assassin enter the box."
"But you should have seen him. You had no business to be careless. I shall always believe that you are guilty. Hush! I shan't hear another word," she exclaimed, as the messenger essayed to reply. "Go now and keep your watch," she added, with an imperious wave of her hand. With mechanical step and white face the messenger left the room, and Mrs. Lincoln fell back on her pillow, covered her face with her hands, and commenced sobbing.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818-1907)
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley is best known as Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidant and as the author of Behind the Scenes By Elizabeth Keckley, Formerly a Slave, But More Recently Modiste, and Friend to Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868).
Elizabeth Hobbs was born into slavery on the Col. Armistead Burwell farm in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, in 1818 to Agnes and George Pleasant Hobbs (although her biographer Jennifer Fleischner asserts that Col. Burwell was in fact Hobbs’s father). Agnes and George had an “abroad” marriage meaning that except for one brief period of time when George resided on the Burwell property, the family lived apart. George Hobbs was parted from his family permanently when his master relocated west.
When Elizabeth was fourteen, she was sent to live with her master’s eldest son, the Reverend Robert Burwell, and his wife in North Carolina. During this time she endured whippings and beatings from the village schoolmaster, a Mr. Bingham, ostensibly to subdue her “stubborn pride,” as she later wrote. At age twenty, Elizabeth became pregnant as the result of a rape, and her only child, George, was born in 1839. After the birth of her son, 21-year-old Elizabeth was sent back to Virginia to live with her master’s daughter, Ann Burwell Garland, and Ann’s husband, Hugh. From Virginia, she accompanied the Garland family when it moved west to St. Louis in 1847. There she began work as a seamstress and dressmaker, skills she had learned from her mother. Her work helped support the entire Garland family.
Hobbs’s reputation as a skilled dressmaker grew quickly and her patrons soon included some of St. Louis’s most elite citizens. While in St. Louis, Elizabeth became reacquainted with James Keckley, whom she had known in Virginia, and consented to marry him on the condition that Hugh Garland allowed her to purchase her freedom. Although not yet free, Elizabeth Hobbs married James Keckley in 1852 but only after Garland agreed to a purchase price of $1200.
Elizabeth Keckly: The Black Woman Who Became a Part of the Lincoln Family
A 1867 Harper's Weekly illustration depicts the chaotic scene In New York City as curiosity seekers and bargain hunters rummage through Mary Todd Lincoln’s wardrobe. Elizabeth Keckly helped arrange the sale. (The Reading Room/Alamy Stock Photo)
By Sarah Richardson
Mary Todd Lincoln’s closest confidante was a seamstress born in slavery
“A smile half-sorrowful and wholly sweet makes you love her face as soon as you look on it,” Mary Clemmer Ames wrote from Washington, DC, in the New York Evening Post in 1862. “It is a face strong with intellect, and heart, with enough of beauty left to tell you that it was more beautiful still before wrong and grief shadowed it.” The journalist was describing seamstress Elizabeth Keckly years before Keckly endured her life’s most historic and shattering event.
Keckly’s painful early times were all too common in the antebellum South. She was born enslaved to Aggy Hobbs, a mixed-race Black, and Hobbs’s White owner, Armistead Burwell, in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. When the girl was 18, Alexander Kirkland, a White neighbor, repeatedly raped her, leading to a pregnancy. That son, passing as Caucasian, served—and died—in the Union Army. Keckly spent the years 1842 to 1855 in Petersburg, Virginia, and St. Louis, Missouri, both home to thriving free black communities. In 1855, Keckly, 37, purchased her freedom. She went on to be a successful dressmaker, at the apex of her career becoming modiste and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln. The quietly determined Keckly’s life moved from extraordinary to unique thanks to her groundbreaking 1868 memoir. Behind the Scenes, Or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, circulated first as a White House tell-all, hugely embarrassing to the widow Lincoln and surviving son Robert—and unnerving to White elites, costing Keckly her social standing and financial security. The dressmaker’s remarkable life story remained unexplored until 2003, with publication of Jennifer Fleischner’s book Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, correcting historians who had long been misspelling her name as “Keckley.”
By the time Keckly brought out Behind the Scenes in 1868, publishers had been acquainting readers with life in bondage and freedom via accounts by figures such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Memoirs about Abraham Lincoln were popping up. But the only other story of life inside the White House published prior to Keckly’s had been a brief recollection by Paul Jennings, who, enslaved by the Madison family, worked in the presidential mansion at age 10. In her book Keckly, writing at age 50, chronicles not only her life but four years in close companionship with the Lincolns, including frequent interactions with the president. In recounting her youth Keckly depicts a girl and young woman of disciplined defiance and resolve. Born into a prominent slaveholding family, she learned to read and write. She had to leave her extended family in Dinwiddie and move with her owner’s son, Robert, to Hillsboro, North Carolina, scene of a bitter ordeal for her. She fought back during a schoolmaster’s beatings, demanded by her mistress to “subdue her stubborn pride,” and endured Kirkland’s repeated rapes, the genesis of son George. Keckly portrays the abuse with little detail or sentiment. She then was taken by Armistead Burwell’s daughter, Ann, to Petersburg, then St. Louis, where she briefly wed fellow slave James Keckly, an alcoholic who had lied that he was free. She gives her proud exit from bondage more coverage: rather than flee North, she insisted on buying her freedom. White friends and dressmaking clients lent her the $1,200 (well over $30,000 today), which she repaid in full.
Elizabeth Keckly in 1861, the year she met the Lincolns thanks to her reputation as a dressmaker in the nation’s capital. (The White House Historical Association)
Keckly then brought her enterprise to Baltimore. When business slowed, she moved to DC, where she met prominent customers like Mary Custis Lee, wife of Colonel Robert E. Lee, and Varina Davis, wed to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. In 1861 Mary Lincoln, new to the capital and White House life, became a client, making Keckly her confidante. Keckly saw Lincoln’s wife through the deaths of son Willie and husband Abraham, personally preparing Willie Lincoln’s body for burial. Keckly recalls moments ranging from standing with the president watching the family goats frolic in the White House yard to traveling with the family into Richmond after the rebel capital fell, where, for a moment, the former slave seated herself where Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens had sat to lead the Confederacy. She describes Mrs. Lincoln summoning her the night her husband was shot and how she “soothed the terrible tornado as best I could.” Keckly paints Abraham Lincoln as a gentle savior, and his wife as a politically astute but volatile woman prone to excesses of everything from grief, jealousy, and other emotions to outlays on clothing and White House furnishings. Mary Todd Lincoln appears to be everything Keckly is not—yet the two enjoyed a mutual ease likely born of familiarity with plantation life and the shared travails of their sons’ deaths.
After Lincoln’s murder, the women shared a problem: lack of money. When Mary Todd Lincoln sought Keckly’s help managing the sale of gowns from her days as a First Lady, people gawked but no one bought. What the widow had intended as a private event proved to be a humiliating public spectacle.
According to Keckly, she wrote and published her memoir to generate sympathy for Mary Todd Lincoln—and to make money. Exactly the opposite occurred. Mrs. Lincoln’s instability and indulgence were well known. Keckly’s intimate portrait enraged her former client, shattering their relationship. Robert Todd Lincoln throttled distribution of the memoir, which not only quoted from but reproduced nearly two dozen letters to Keckly from Mrs. Lincoln, as well as a letter to the widow from Frederick Douglass offering the Black community’s aid. Keckly maintained she never meant to publish the letters but had provided them to the publisher only as substantiation. There is no record of the manuscript’s preparation except for a neighbor’s recollection of well-known abolitionist journalist and publisher James Redpath visiting Keckly. The ruckus, including a racist parody titled “Behind the Seams,” quashed any hope Keckly had of setting the record straight and benefiting from her experience. Even so, the letters’ contents do document Keckly’s value to the otherwise friendless and oft-distraught Mary, who in the midst of the clothing sale scandal beseeched her to “write me every day.”
Keckly struggled the rest of her life. Son George’s Civil War service provided a small pension, but to obtain it she had to lie that she had married his father, the rapist Kirkland. For a time, she taught sewing in Xenia, Ohio, at the college George had attended: Wilberforce University, founded in 1856 for Blacks—often the mixed-race children of White slaveholders. By 1895, she was back in DC, where she had helped establish the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, where she died in 1907. Her pastor, the Reverend Francis Grimké, who had his own complex ancestry as a mixed-race nephew of the activist Grimké sisters through their brother Henry, eulogized her. He recalled Keckly as the “personification of grace and dignity…She was not an educated woman, in the sense that she had passed through any educational institution, but she was a woman of marked intelligence and had made good use of the opportunities that she had of improving her mind. No one who ever saw her, or had any contact with her, even casually, would ever be likely to forget her.”
This Cameo column appeared in the April 2021 issue of American History.
When we were researching Mary Lincoln we both admired her friend, Elizabeth Keckly, so much that we knew that had to talk about her. She was born a slave, eventually bought her freedom and built a very successful business (twice) all before she, too, realized her own White House dream. Yes indeed- Lizzie needs her time in the spotlight.
Elizabeth was born the same year as her friend Mary Lincoln, although unlike Mary the exact date is unknown. Sometime in February of 1818 Agnes (Aggie) Hobbs gave birth to Elizabeth in the town of Dinwiddie Courthouse, Virginia. Aggie and Lizzie were slaves owned by Colonel Armistead Burwell. Her father of record, and in her heart, was George Pleasant Hobbs who was also a slave but owned by a different master. Later in life what Lizzie probably always knew was confirmed by her mother- her father of biology was none other than the Colonel.
Lizzie’s early life was sadly common for the times but being commonplace doesn’t take away the horrors of it, (and we do go into a lot more detail in the podcast.) She was whipped on her very first day of service at age four, moved with the family when the Colonel had a downturn of fortune to Hampden Sydney College and while Lizzie was still a child she saw her loving father for the last time when he was forced to move away. By the time she was a young teen she was separated from her mother and sent to live with the Colonel’s son Robert and his new wife, Anna.
Still a private, men’s liberal arts college in Virginia: motto (translated from Latin):Come here as boys so you may leave as men
While Lizzie had very few choices in her life, she did have some things that could not be taken away from her: her mother and father could both read and write (an illegal rarity among slaves) and had taught her. Almost as importantly, Lizzie had an inner strength and natural grace that she held to tightly despite years of being told she was worthless, the many whippings she endured in an attempt to “put her in her place” and years of allowed (or encouraged) sexual abuse by a nearby plantation owner that did leave her with one bright spot in her life: her son, George.
When Lizzie and her mother were and sent to live with another Burwell- a daughter and her lawyer husband first in Virginia and then St. Louis, Missouri, Mr. Garland wanted to lend Aggie out as a dressmaker. Lizzie was appalled at the thought of her aging mother working for strangers, so she volunteered instead.
St. Louis, Missouri 1850s (Courtesy Library of Congress)
Lizzie was not only skilled with a needle and thread, but she had a gift for draping fabric and an a strong business mind. She soon built up a very prestigious list of customers…and kept handing the money over to the Garlands. But Lizzie wanted something else for her life: Freedom. She asked Mr. Garland how much she would need to buy her and her son’s freedom. Long story short (long version of this story and a lot more details are on podcast), after asking maaaaany times he gave her a figure of $1200 which gave Lizzie hope for her future, so much so that she married James Keckly…
…a lying, drinking, not-so-great husband. James was NOT free like he had told her and to make her situation worse (yeah, worse) saving any money was nearly impossible– the Garlands took everything. For eight years she tried to save, tried to make her marriage work…but really? The only thing she succeeded in doing was building her reputation as an extraordinary dressmaker. We go into detail in the podcast of the plans she tried to make the money but in the end it was her reputation among her clients that got her the funds to buy her freedom.
Newly free George went off to college and Lizzie headed to Baltimore to work as a dressmaker. But do things ever work out like she plans? They do not. Baltimore wasn’t the place for her so she moved a little south to Washington with her new dream: to work in the White House.
This is where Lizzie’s story meets up with Mary Lincoln’s. Through a series of wise business and networking steps (take note entrepreneurs) Lizzie became a sought after dressmaker and added Mary to her list of clients. Goal? Check!
Thrive on, Lizzie, thrive on!
But what happens when Lizzie’s life starts to go well? Yeah, bad stuff. As soon as the War Between the States broke George join the fight (as a white man, as a black it would have been illegal) in the Union army. 18 year-old George didn’t make it long and was killed in battle only a short time later.
Lizzie distracted herself from her grief with dressmaking work and the Lincoln’s. She was there when Abe needed his hair combed or help with one of Mary’s temper tantrums. She was there when the young Lincoln’s, Willie and Tad, were sick and she was there when little Willie didn’t survive. She was there when Mary had her get-out-of debt schemes and she was there when Mary needed to vent.
Mary Lincoln in a Lizzy Keckly dress, 1861 (Courtesy National Archives)
Mary was there for Lizzie, too,. When Lizzie formed the first Black Contraband Organization to help the newly freed people streaming in from the south become established in their new lives, Mary contributed money, goods and a great deal of time.
But when Abe Lincoln was assassinated their friendship was put to the test. Well, Lizzie’s was, anyway. She closed her business down to help Mary move and get settled in Chicago. Time and again Mary told Lizzie that she would compensate her. Mary was eventually given her portion of the Lincoln estate (Ol’ Abe, the lawyer? He died without a will), but did she take care of Lizzie like she had promised? Nope.
For a variety of well-intentionrf reasons Lizzie decided to write a memoir. But, we know now, things don’t always work out for Lizzie. Either by accident or design on the part of Lizzie’s editor, many personal letters from Mary were published in Lizzie’s book, Behind the Scenes or 30 Years a Slave and Four in the White House.
It wasn’t 3o it was 38! Lizzie’s book, still in print (image:Barnes and Nobel)
The fallout was life ruining. Feeling betrayed, Mary ended their relationship and Lizzie’s reputation as a confidant was ruined. No one wanted her near their private lives anymore and her business tanked. AND…ouch…the book never made her any money.
For many years afterward she did what she could including teaching at the college George had attended, Wilberforce University in Ohio ( there is a cameo by our favorite world’s fair, the 1893 Columbia Exposition.) When her health declined she moved into The Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, DC, a place she had helped establish back in her Contraband Organization days.
When she died in her sleep at the age of 88 on May 26th, 1907, Lizzie still had a picture of Mary over her dresser.
TIME TRAVEL WITH THE HISTORY CHICKS
Let’s get the burning questions out of the way first:
What’s the deal with the two spellings of Lizzie’s last name? Documents signed by Lizzie use Keckly, while other documents (including her book) use Keckley. We thought we would listen to her.
Was Jefferson Davis REALLY captured in a dress? Read all about it here at the American Heritage Society!
OR listen to it for the same .00 on LibriVox!
Roadside plaque location for Lizzie is in Hillsborough North Carolina:
Location of street plaque
Surratt House Museum— now a Civil War museum with focus on Lincoln Assassination AND with directions to Lizzie’s grave.
Author: Prof Prince
Professor Samantha Prince is an Associate Professor of Lawyering Skills and Entrepreneurship at Penn State Dickinson Law. She has a Master of Laws in Taxation from Georgetown University Law Center, and was a partner in a regional law firm where she handled transactional matters that ranged from an initial public offering to regular representation of a publicly-traded company. Most of her clients were small to medium sized businesses and entrepreneurs, including start-ups. An expert in entrepreneurship law, she established the Penn State Dickinson Law entrepreneurship program, is an advisor for the Entrepreneurship Law Certificate that is available to students, and is the founder and moderator of the Inside Entrepreneurship Law blog. View all posts by Prof Prince
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (1818-1907)
"We, the Historic Hillsborough Commission, are marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly in 1818 with a year-long series of programs. Elizabeth Hobbs was an enslaved member of the Burwell household who lived and worked here from 1835 to 1842 during the early years of the Burwells&rsquo residence in Hillsborough, when they were opening their school for white girls. Her story is of great historical importance, locally and nationally.
By her own account, the treatment Elizabeth Hobbs received here in Hillsborough included several very harsh and painful beatings and humiliation at the hands of the Rev. Mr. Burwell and another local schoolmaster, William Bingham. These were inflicted in an effort to break her spirit and done at the insistence of Anna Burwell. Moreover, Elizabeth Hobbs was persistently subjected to the very painful and unwanted attentions of white merchant Alexander Kirkland, and as a result bore a son she would name George Kirkland. She endured this mistreatment and abuse without any evident support, save for her own spirit of resistance and resilience. These events continue to cast a long and sad shadow over the story of the Burwell School almost 180 years later.
We acknowledge with great sorrow the horrific wrongs of enslavement experienced by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly. As stewards of this site and its legacy, wefurther acknowledge with admiration that Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly triumphed despite the brutality of slavery, becoming an accomplished dressmaker, a confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, and the author of a published memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868). The Historic Hillsborough Commission therefore celebrates the person she became in spite of the harrowing hardships of her years in the Burwell household. We believe her story is crucial to the interpretation of the Burwell School Historic Site and serves as a lasting source of reflection and inspiration. We dedicate this year in honor of her life of resilience and accomplishment."
In 1818, Elizabeth Hobbes (or Hobbs), known as &ldquoLizzie," was born into slavery in the household of Col. Armistead Burwell in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. In 1831, Col. Burwell "lent" Lizzie to his eldest son, Robert Burwell, upon his marriage to Margaret Anna Robertson. In 1835, the seventeen-year-old arrived in Hillsborough with the Burwell family as their only enslaved servant.
Slavery in Hillsborough
Elizabeth spent six years in the Burwell household. Elizabeth wrote the family &ldquopracticed the closest economy&rdquo and she &ldquodid the work of three servants, and yet I was scolded and regarded with distrust.&rdquo She described Rev. Burwell as &ldquounusually kind&rdquo and &ldquonaturally good natured,&rdquo but described Mrs. Burwell as &ldquomorbidly sensitive&rdquo with a &ldquocold, jealous heart.&rdquo
Elizabeth suffered beatings delivered by the Rev. Burwell and a neighbor named William Bingham. After several beatings by Mr. Bingham, Elizabeth wrote in her memoir that Mr. Bingham, &ldquoburst into tears and declared that it would be a sin to beat me anymore. My suffering had at last subdued his hard heart he asked my forgiveness and afterwards was an altered man.&rdquo
According to Elizabeth, the Rev. Burwell also administered two severe beatings with encouragement from Mrs. Burwell, after one of which she was unable to get out of bed for five days. She wrote &ldquoOne morning he went to the wood-pile, took an oak broom, cut the handle off, and with this heavy handle attempted to conquer me. I fought him, but he proved the strongest. At the sight of my bleeding form, Ms. Anna fell on her knees and begged the Rev. to desist.&rdquo According to Keckly, the beatings stopped when the Rev. Burwell, &ldquotold me with an air of penitence, that he should never strike me another blow and faithfully he kept his word.&rdquo
Elizabeth wrote how the town of Hillsborough reacted to these beatings and brutality. &ldquoThese revolting scenes created a great sensation at the time, were the talk of the town and the neighborhood, and I flatter myself that the actions of those who had conspired against me were not viewed in a light to reflect much credit upon them.&rdquo
In Hillsborough, Elizabeth was forced into a relationship with a local white man, Alexander Kirkland that produced a son, named George Kirkland. Of this relationship, Mrs. Keckly wrote:
The savage efforts to subdue my pride were not the only things that brought me suffering and deep mortification during my residence at Hillsboro. I was regarded as fair-looking for one of my race, and for four years a white man&mdashI spare the world his name&mdashhad base designs on me. I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain. Suffice it to say, that he persecuted me for four years, and I&mdashI&mdashbecame a mother. The child of whom he was the father was the only child that I ever brought into the world. If my poor boy ever suffered any humiliating pangs on account of birth, he could not blame his mother, for God knows that she did wish to give him life he must blame the edicts of that society which deemed it no crime to undermine the virtue of girls in my then position.
Freedom in St. Louis
In 1842, Elizabeth and her young son George returned to Virginia to the household of the Rev. Burwell&rsquos younger sister, Ann Burwell Garland and her husband Hugh A. Garland. In 1847, the Garland family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Elizabeth Hobbes married James Keckly, a man who represented himself as free, when in reality, he was a runaway. The Garland&rsquos hired Elizabeth out as a seamstress to provide income for the family. She gained the reputation as prompt, reliable, and skilled, and soon reached the level of modiste , a designer of the most intricate and well fit gowns. In 1855, Elizabeth&rsquos patrons loaned her $1,200 to purchase her freedom and that of her son George Kirkland from the Garland family.
On November 15, 1855 the deed of emancipation of Elizabeth Keckly and George Kirkland was signed by Ann Garland. In her memoir, Mrs. Keckly wrote of this event &ldquoFree! The earth wore a brighter look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy. Yes, free! Free by the laws of man and the smile of God&mdashand Heaven bless them who made me so.&rdquo Elizabeth remained in St. Louis until 1860 to repay this loan to her patrons.
From Slavery to the White House
In 1860, Elizabeth established her own dressmaking business, first in Baltimore and later in Washington, D.C. As a modiste she acquired a clientele of the wives of prominent politicians and businessmen, including Varina Howell Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Keckly&rsquos relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln evolved into more than that of a dressmaker and her client. She served as Mrs. Lincoln&rsquos confidante and in the First Lady&rsquos own words, her &ldquobest friend.&rdquo In this position, she interacted with the First Family on a personal basis, traveled with the First Lady, and was an intimate witness to many of the events of the Civil War and Lincoln Presidency.
During these years, Mrs. Keckly founded the First Black Contraband Relief Association to assist the formerly enslaved refugees streaming into the Nation's Capitol, and served as its president.
In 1861, her son George died fighting for the Union during the Civil War, having enlisted as a white man under the name George Kirkland, assuming the last name of his birth father, Alexander Kirkland.
Behind the Scenes
In 1868, in an attempt to tell her story and rehabilitate the declining reputation of Mrs. Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckly wrote a memoir entitled Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House . Despite Mrs. Keckly&rsquos best intentions, the publication of her memoir marked the end of her friendship with Mrs. Lincoln who felt her confidence had been betrayed.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly later taught in the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Willberforce University in Ohio. She died in Washington, D.C., in 1907, at the age of 88.
Today, Behind the Scenes is recognized as a rare and outstanding example of a slave memoir written by a woman. At the Burwell School Historic Site, the chapter in Behind the Scenes on Mrs. Keckly&rsquos time in Hillsborough provides an invaluable first-person perspective.
In 2013, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the Burwell School, the public television program "Our State," of WUNC-TV filmed a segment on the extraordinary story of Elizabeth Keckly. Much of the segment was actually filmed at the School, featuring local actors, and the Executive Director was one of those interviewed for the segment. The segment earned several regional Emmy's and can be viewed here.
Lit 2 Go
Keckley, E. (1868). Chapter 15: The Secret History of Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe in New York. Behind the Scenes (Lit2Go Edition). Retrieved June 30, 2021, from https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/87/behind-the-scenes/1477/chapter-15-the-secret-history-of-mrs-lincolns-wardrobe-in-new-york/
Keckley, Elizabeth. "Chapter 15: The Secret History of Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe in New York." Behind the Scenes. Lit2Go Edition. 1868. Web. https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/87/behind-the-scenes/1477/chapter-15-the-secret-history-of-mrs-lincolns-wardrobe-in-new-york/ >. June 30, 2021.
Elizabeth Keckley, "Chapter 15: The Secret History of Mrs. Lincoln's Wardrobe in New York," Behind the Scenes, Lit2Go Edition, (1868), accessed June 30, 2021, https://etc.usf.edu/lit2go/87/behind-the-scenes/1477/chapter-15-the-secret-history-of-mrs-lincolns-wardrobe-in-new-york/ .
In March, 1867, Mrs. Lincoln wrote to me from Chicago that, as her income was insufficient to meet her expenses, she would be obliged to give up her house in the city, and return to boarding. She said that she had struggled long enough to keep up appearances, and that the mask must be thrown aside. "I have not the means," she wrote, "to meet the expenses of even a first&ndashclass boarding&ndashhouse, and must sell out and secure cheap rooms at some place in the country. It will not be startling news to you, my dear Lizzie, to learn that I must sell a portion of my wardrobe to add to my resources, so as to enable me to live decently, for you remember what I told you in Washington, as well as what you understood before you left me here in Chicago. I cannot live on $1,700 a year, and as I have many costly things which I shall never wear, I might as well turn them into money, and thus add to my income, and make my circumstances easier. It is humiliating to be placed in such a position, but, as I am in the position, I must extricate myself as best I can. Now, Lizzie, I want to ask a favor of you. It is imperative that I should do something for my relief, and I want you to meet me in New York, between the 30th of August and the 5th of September next, to assist me in disposing of a portion of my wardrobe."
I knew that Mrs. Lincoln's income was small, and also knew that she had many valuable dresses, which could be of no value to her, packed away in boxes and trunks. I was confident that she would never wear the dresses again, and thought that, since her need was urgent, it would be well enough to dispose of them quietly, and believed that New York was the best place to transact a delicate business of the kind. She was the wife of Abraham Lincoln, the man who had done so much for my race, and I could refuse to do nothing for her, calculated to advance her interests. I consented to render Mrs. Lincoln all the assistance in my power, and many letters passed between us in regard to the best way to proceed. It was finally arranged that I should meet her in New York about the middle of September. While thinking over this question, I remembered an incident of the White House. When we were packing up to leave Washington for Chicago, she said to me, one morning:
"Lizzie, I may see the day when I shall be obliged to sell a portion of my wardrobe. If Congress does not do something for me, then my dresses some day may have to go to bring food into my mouth, and the mouths of my children."
I also remembered of Mrs. L. having said to me at different times, in the years of 1863 and Ɗ, that her expensive dresses might prove of great assistance to her some day.
"In what way, Mrs. Lincoln? I do not understand," I ejaculated, the first time she made the remark to me.
"Very simple to understand. Mr. Lincoln is so generous that he will not save anything from his salary, and I expect that we will leave the White House poorer than when we came into it and should such be the case, I will have no further need for an expensive wardrobe, and it will be policy to sell it off."
I thought at the time that Mrs. Lincoln was borrowing trouble from the future, and little dreamed that the event which she so dimly foreshadowed would ever come to pass.
I closed my business about the 10th of September, and made every arrangement to leave Washington on the mission proposed. On the 15th of September I received a letter from Mrs. Lincoln, postmarked Chicago, saying that she should leave the city so as to reach New York on the night of the 17th, and directing me to precede her to the metropolis, and secure rooms for her at the St. Denis Hotel in the name of Mrs. Clarke, as her visit was to be incog. The contents of the letter were startling to me. I had never heard of the St. Denis, and therefore presumed that it could not be a first&ndashclass house. And I could not understand why Mrs. Lincoln should travel, without protection, under an assumed name. I knew that it would be impossible for me to engage rooms at a strange hotel for a person whom the proprietors knew nothing about. I could not write to Mrs. Lincoln, since she would be on the road to New York before a letter could possibly reach Chicago. I could not telegraph her, for the business was of too delicate a character to be trusted to the wires that would whisper the secret to every curious operator along the line. In my embarrassment, I caught at a slender thread of hope, and tried to derive consolation from it. I knew Mrs. Lincoln to be indecisive about some things, and I hoped that she might change her mind in regard to the strange programme proposed, and at the last moment despatch me to this effect. The 16th, and then the 17th of September passed, and no despatch reached me, so on the 18th I made all haste to take the train for New York. After an anxious ride, I reached the city in the evening, and when I stood alone in the streets of the great metropolis, my heart sank within me. I was in an embarrassing situation, and scarcely knew how to act. I did not know where the St. Denis Hotel was, and was not certain that I should find Mrs. Lincoln there after I should go to it. I walked up to Broadway, and got into a stage going up town, with the intention of keeping a close look&ndashout for the hotel in question. A kind&ndashlooking gentleman occupied the seat next to me, and I ventured to inquire of him:
"If you please, sir, can you tell me where the St. Denis Hotel is?"
"Yes we ride past it in the stage. I will point it out to you when we come to it."
The stage rattled up the street, and after a while the gentleman looked out of the window and said:
"This is the St. Denis. Do you wish to get out here?"
He pulled the strap, and the next minute I was standing on the pavement. I pulled a bell at the ladies' entrance to the hotel, and a boy coming to the door, I asked:
"Is a lady by the name of Mrs. Clarke stopping here? She came last night, I believe."
"I do not know. I will ask at the office" and I was left alone.
The boy came back and said:
"Yes, Mrs. Clarke is here. Do you want to see her?"
"Well, just walk round there. She is down here now."
I did not know where "round there" exactly was, but I concluded to go forward.
I stopped, however, thinking that the lady might be in the parlor with company and pulling out a card, asked the boy to take it to her. She heard me talking, and came into the hall to see herself.
"My dear Lizzie, I am so glad to see you," she exclaimed, coming forward and giving me her hand. "I have just received your note"&mdashI had written her that I should join her on the 18th&mdash"and have been trying to get a room for you. Your note has been here all day, but it was never delivered until to&ndashnight. Come in here, until I find out about your room" and she led me into the office.
The clerk, like all modern hotel clerks, was exquisitely arrayed, highly perfumed, and too self&ndashimportant to be obliging, or even courteous.
"This is the woman I told you about. I want a good room for her," Mrs. Lincoln said to the clerk.
"We have no room for her, madam," was the pointed rejoinder.
"But she must have a room. She is a friend of mine, and I want a room for her adjoining mine."
"We have no room for her on your floor."
"That is strange, sir. I tell you that she is a friend of mine, and I am sure you could not give a room to a more worthy person."
"Friend of yours, or not, I tell you we have no room for her on your floor. I can find a place for her on the fifth floor."
"That, sir, I presume, will be a vast improvement on my room. Well, if she goes to the fifth floor, I shall go too, sir. What is good enough for her is good enough for me."
"Very well, madam. Shall I give you adjoining rooms, and send your baggage up?"
"Yes, and have it done in a hurry. Let the boy show us up. Come, Elizabeth," and Mrs. L. turned from the clerk with a haughty glance, and we commenced climbing the stairs. I thought we should never reach the top and when we did reach the fifth story, what accommodations! Little three&ndashcornered rooms, scantily furnished. I never expected to see the widow of President Lincoln in such dingy, humble quarters.
"How provoking!" Mrs. Lincoln exclaimed, sitting down on a chair when we had reached the top, and panting from the effects of the climbing. "I declare, I never saw such unaccommodating people. Just to think of them sticking us away up here in the attic. I will give them a regular going over in the morning."
"But you forget. They do not know you. Mrs. Lincoln would be treated differently from Mrs. Clarke."
"True, I do forget. Well, I suppose I shall have to put up with the annoyances. Why did you not come to me yesterday, Lizzie? I was almost crazy when I reached here last night, and found you had not arrived. I sat down and wrote you a note&mdashI felt so badly&mdashimploring you to come to me immediately."
This note was afterwards sent to me from Washington. It reads as follows:
ST. DENIS HOTEL, BROADWAY, N.Y.
"MY DEAR LIZZIE:&mdashI arrived here last evening in utter despair at not finding you. I am frightened to death, being here alone. Come, I pray you, by next train. Inquire for
"House so crowded could not get another spot. I wrote you especially to meet me here last evening it makes me wild to think of being here alone. Come by next train, without fail.
"I am booked Mrs. Clarke inquire for no other person. Come, come, come. I will pay your expenses when you arrive here. I shall not leave here or change my room until you come.
"Do not leave this house without seeing me.
I transcribe the letter literally.
In reply to Mrs. Lincoln's last question, I explained what has already been explained to the reader, that I was in hope she would change her mind, and knew that it would be impossible to secure the rooms requested for a person unknown to the proprietors or attachés of the hotel.
The explanation seemed to satisfy her. Turning to me suddenly, she exclaimed:
"You have not had your dinner, Lizzie, and must be hungry. I nearly forgot about it in the joy of seeing you. You must go down to the table right away."
She pulled the bell&ndashrope, and a servant appearing, she ordered him to give me my dinner. I followed him down&ndashstairs, and he led me into the dining&ndashhall, and seated me at a table in one corner of the room. I was giving my order, when the steward came forward and gruffly said:
"You are in the wrong room."
"I was brought here by the waiter," I replied.
"It makes no difference I will find you another place where you can eat your dinner."
I got up from the table and followed him, and when outside of the door, said to him:
"It is very strange that you should permit me to be seated at the table in the dining&ndashroom only for the sake of ordering me to leave it the next moment."
"Are you not Mrs. Clarke's servant?" was his abrupt question.
"It is all the same servants are not allowed to eat in the large dining&ndashroom. Here, this way you must take your dinner in the servants' hall."
Hungry and humiliated as I was, I was willing to follow to any place to get my dinner, for I had been riding all day, and had not tasted a mouthful since early morning.
On reaching the servants' hall we found the door of the room locked. The waiter left me standing in the passage while he went to inform the clerk of the fact.
In a few minutes the obsequious clerk came blustering down the hall:
"Did you come out of the street, or from Mrs. Clarke's room?"
"From Mrs. Clarke's room," I meekly answered. My gentle words seemed to quiet him, and then he explained:
"It is after the regular hour for dinner. The room is locked up, and Annie has gone out with the key."
My pride would not let me stand longer in the hall.
"Very well," I remarked, as I began climbing the stairs, "I will tell Mrs. Clarke that I cannot get any dinner."
He looked after me, with a scowl on his face:
"You need not put on airs! I understand the whole thing."
I said nothing, but continued to climb the stairs, thinking to myself: "Well, if you understand the whole thing, it is strange that you should put the widow of ex&ndashPresident Abraham Lincoln in a three&ndashcornered room in the attic of this miserable hotel."
When I reached Mrs. Lincoln's rooms, tears of humiliation and vexation were in my eyes.
"What is the matter, Lizzie?" she asked.
"Cannot get any dinner! What do you mean?"
I then told her of all that had transpired below.
"The insolent, overbearing people!" she fiercely exclaimed. "Never mind, Lizzie, you shall have your dinner. Put on your bonnet and shawl."
"What for! Why, we will go out of the hotel, and get you something to eat where they know how to behave decently" and Mrs. Lincoln already was tying the strings of her bonnet before the glass.
Her impulsiveness alarmed me.
"Surely, Mrs. Lincoln, you do not intend to go out on the street to&ndashnight?"
"Yes I do. Do you suppose I am going to have you starve, when we can find something to eat on every corner?"
"But you forget. You are here as Mrs. Clarke and not as Mrs. Lincoln. You came alone, and the people already suspect that everything is not right. If you go outside of the hotel to&ndashnight, they will accept the fact as evidence against you."
"Nonsense what do you suppose I care for what these low&ndashbred people think? Put on your things."
"No, Mrs. Lincoln, I shall not go outside of the hotel to&ndashnight, for I realize your situation, if you do not. Mrs. Lincoln has no reason to care what these people may say about her as Mrs. Lincoln, but she should be prudent, and give them no opportunity to say anything about her as Mrs. Clarke."
It was with difficulty I could convince her that she should act with caution. She was so frank and impulsive that she never once thought that her actions might be misconstrued. It did not occur to her that she might order dinner to be served in my room, so I went to bed without a mouthful to eat.
The next morning Mrs. Lincoln knocked at my door before six o'clock:
"Come, Elizabeth, get up, I know you must be hungry. Dress yourself quickly and we will go out and get some breakfast. I was unable to sleep last night for thinking of you being forced to go to bed without anything to eat."
I dressed myself as quickly as I could, and together we went out and took breakfast, at a restaurant on Broadway, some place between 609 and the St. Denis Hotel. I do not give the number, as I prefer leaving it to conjecture. Of one thing I am certain&mdashthe proprietor of the restaurant little dreamed who one of his guests was that morning.
After breakfast we walked up Broadway, and entering Union Square Park, took a seat on one of the benches under the trees, watched the children at play, and talked over the situation. Mrs. Lincoln told me: "Lizzie, yesterday morning I called for the Herald at the breakfast table, and on looking over the list of diamond brokers advertised, I selected the firm of W. H. Brady & Co., 609 Broadway. After breakfast I walked down to the house, and tried to sell them a lot of jewelry. I gave my name as Mrs. Clarke. I first saw Mr. Judd, a member of the firm, a very pleasant gentleman. We were unable to agree about the price. He went back into the office, where a stout gentleman was seated at the desk, but I could not hear what he said. [I know now what was said, and so shall the reader, in parentheses. Mr. Brady has since told me that he remarked to Mr. Judd that the woman must be crazy to ask such outrageous prices, and to get rid of her as soon as possible.] Soon after Mr. Judd came back to the counter, another gentleman, Mr. Keyes, as I have since learned, a silent partner in the house, entered the store. He came to the counter, and in looking over my jewelry discovered my name inside of one of the rings. I had forgotten the ring, and when I saw him looking at the name so earnestly, I snatched the bauble from him and put it into my pocket. I hastily gathered up my jewelry, and started out. They asked for my address, and I left my card, Mrs. Clarke, at the St. Denis Hotel. They are to call to see me this forenoon, when I shall enter into negotiations with them."
Scarcely had we returned to the hotel when Mr. Keyes called, and Mrs. Clarke disclosed to him that she was Mrs. Lincoln. He was much elated to find his surmise correct. Mrs. L. exhibited to him a large number of shawls, dresses, and fine laces, and told him that she was compelled to sell them in order to live. He was an earnest Republican, was much affected by her story, and denounced the ingratitude of the government in the severest terms. She complained to him of the treatment she had received at the St. Denis, and he advised her to move to another hotel forthwith. She readily consented, and as she wanted to be in an out&ndashof&ndashthe&ndashway place where she would not be recognized by any of her old friends, he recommended the Earle Hotel in Canal street.
On the way down to the hotel that morning she acceded to a suggestion made by me, and supported by Mr. Keyes, that she confide in the landlord, and give him her name without registering, so as to ensure the proper respect. Unfortunately, the Earle Hotel was full, and we had to select another place. We drove to the Union Place Hotel, where we secured rooms for Mrs. Clarke, Mrs. Lincoln changing her mind, deeming it would not be prudent to disclose her real name to any one. After we had become settled in our new quarters, Messrs. Keyes and Brady called frequently on Mrs. Lincoln, and held long conferences with her. They advised her to pursue the course she did, and were sanguine of success. Mrs. Lincoln was very anxious to dispose of her things, and return to Chicago as quickly and quietly as possible but they presented the case in a different light, and, I regret to say, she was guided by their counsel. "Pooh," said Mr. Brady, "place your affairs in our hands, and we will raise you at least $100,000 in a few weeks. The people will not permit the widow of Abraham Lincoln to suffer they will come to her rescue when they know she is in want."
The argument seemed plausible, and Mrs. Lincoln quietly acceded to the proposals of Keyes and Brady.
We remained quietly at the Union Place Hotel for a few days. On Sunday Mrs. Lincoln accepted the use of a private carriage, and accompanied by me, she drove out to Central Park. We did not enjoy the ride much, as the carriage was a close one, and we could not throw open the window for fear of being recognized by some one of the many thousands in the Park. Mrs. Lincoln wore a heavy veil so as to more effectually conceal her face. We came near being run into, and we had a spasm of alarm, for an accident would have exposed us to public gaze, and of course the masquerade would have been at an end. On Tuesday I hunted up a number of dealers in secondhand clothing, and had them call at the hotel by appointment. Mrs. Lincoln soon discovered that they were hard people to drive a bargain with, so on Thursday we got into a close carriage, taking a bundle of dresses and shawls with us, and drove to a number of stores on Seventh Avenue, where an attempt was made to dispose of a portion of the wardrobe. The dealers wanted the goods for little or nothing, and we found it a hard matter to drive a bargain with them. Mrs. Lincoln met the dealers squarely, but all of her tact and shrewdness failed to accomplish much. I do not care to dwell upon this portion of my story. Let it answer to say, that we returned to the hotel more disgusted than ever with the business in which we were engaged. There was much curiosity at the hotel in relation to us, as our movements were watched, and we were regarded with suspicion. Our trunks in the main hall below were examined daily, and curiosity was more keenly excited when the argus&ndasheyed reporters for the press traced Mrs. Lincoln's name on the cover of one of her trunks. The letters had been rubbed out, but the faint outlines remained, and these outlines only served to stimulate curiosity. Messrs. Keyes and Brady called often, and they made Mrs. Lincoln believe that, if she would write certain letters for them to show to prominent politicians, they could raise a large sum of money for her. They argued that the Republican party would never permit it to be said that the wife of Abraham Lincoln was in want that the leaders of the party would make heavy advances rather than have it published to the world that Mrs. Lincoln's poverty compelled her to sell her wardrobe. Mrs. L.'s wants were urgent, as she had to borrow $600 from Keyes and Brady, and she was willing to adopt any scheme which promised to place a good bank account to her credit. At different times in her room at the Union Place Hotel she wrote the following letters:
"MR. BRADY, Commission Broker, No. 609 Broadway, New York:
"I have this day sent to you personal property, which I am compelled to part with, and which you will find of considerable value. The articles consist of four camels' hair shawls, one lace dress and shawl, a parasol cover, a diamond ring, two dress patterns, some furs, etc.
"Please have them appraised, and confer by letter with me.
"Mr Brady No 609 Broadway, N.Y. City
"**** DEAR SIR:&mdashThe articles I am sending you to dispose of were gifts of dear friends, which only urgent necessity compels me to part with, and I am especially anxious that they shall not be sacrificed.
"The circumstances are peculiar, and painfully embarrassing therefore I hope you will endeavor to realize as much as possible for them. Hoping to hear from you, I remain, very respectfully,
"W.H. BRADY, ESQ.:&mdashMy great, great sorrow and loss have made me painfully sensitive, but as my feelings and pecuniary comforts were never regarded or even recognized in the midst of my overwhelming bereavement&mdashnow that I am pressed in a most startling manner for means of subsistence, I do not know why I should shrink from an opportunity of improving my trying position.
"Being assured that all you do will be appropriately executed, and in a manner that will not startle me very greatly, and excite as little comment as possible, again I shall leave all in your hands.
"I am passing through a very painful ordeal, which the country, in remembrance of my noble and devoted husband, should have spared me.
"I remain, with great respect, very truly,
"P.S.&mdashAs you mention that my goods have been valued at over $24,000, I will be willing to make a reduction of $8,000, and relinquish them for $16,000. If this is not accomplished, I will continue to sell and advertise largely until every article is sold.
"I must have means to live, at least in a medium comfortable state.
The letters are dated Chicago, and addressed to Mr. Brady, though every one of them was written in New York for when Mrs. L. left the West for the East, she had settled upon no definite plan of action. Mr. Brady proposed to show the letters to certain politicians, and ask for money on a threat to publish them if his demands, as Mrs. Lincoln's agent, were not complied with. When writing the letters I stood at Mrs. Lincoln's elbow, and suggested that they be couched in the mildest language possible.
"Never mind, Lizzie," she said "anything to raise the wind. One might as well be killed for a sheep as a lamb."
This latter expression was a favorite one of hers she meaning by it, that if one must be punished for an act, such as theft for instance, that the punishment would be no more severe if a sheep were taken instead of a lamb.
Mr. Brady exhibited the letters quite freely, but the parties to whom they were shown refused to make any advances. Meanwhile our stay at the Union Place Hotel excited so much curiosity, that a sudden movement was rendered expedient to avoid discovery. We sent the large trunks to 609 Broadway, packed the smaller ones, paid our bills at the hotel, and one morning hastily departed for the country, where we remained three days. The movement was successful. The keen&ndasheyed reporters for the daily papers were thrown off the scent, and when we returned to the city we took rooms at the Brandreth House, where Mrs. Lincoln registered as "Mrs. Morris." I had desired her to go to the Metropolitan Hotel, and confide in the proprietors, as the Messrs. Leland had always been very kind to her, treating her with distinguished courtesy whenever she was their guest but this she refused to do.
Several days passed, and Messrs. Brady and Keyes were forced to acknowledge that their scheme was a failure. The letters had been shown to various parties, but every one declined to act. Aside from a few dresses sold at small prices to secondhand dealers, Mrs. Lincoln's wardrobe was still in her possession. Her visit to New York had proved disastrous, and she was goaded into more desperate measures. Money she must have, and to obtain it she proposed to play a bolder game. She gave Mr. Brady permission to place her wardrobe on exhibition for sale, and authorized him to publish the letters in the World.
After coming to this determination, she packed her trunks to return to Chicago. I accompanied her to the depot, and told her good&ndashby, on the very morning that the letters appeared in the World. Mrs. Lincoln wrote me the incidents of the journey, and the letter describes the story more graphically than I could hope to do. I suppress many passages, as they are of too confidential a nature to be given to the public:
"My DEAR LIZZIE:&mdashMy ink is like myself and my spirits failing, so I write you to&ndashday with a pencil. I had a solitary ride to this place, as you may imagine, varied by one or two amusing incidents. I found, after you left me, I could not continue in the car in which you left me, owing to every seat's berth being engaged so, being simple Mrs. Clarke, I had to eat 'humble&ndashpie' in a car less commodious. My thoughts were too much with my 'dry goods and interests' at 609 Broadway, to care much for my surroundings, as uncomfortable as they were. In front of me sat a middle&ndashaged, gray&ndashhaired, respectable&ndashlooking gentleman, who, for the whole morning, had the page of the World before him which contained my letters and business concerns. About four hours before arriving at Chicago, a consequential&ndashlooking man, of formidable size, seated himself by him, and it appears they were entirely unknown to each other. The well&ndashfed looking individual opened the conversation with the man who had read the World so attentively, and the conversation soon grew warm and earnest. The war and its devastation engaged them. The bluffy individual, doubtless a Republican who had pocketed his many thousands, spoke of the widows of the land, made so by the war. My reading man remarked to him:
"'Are you aware that Mrs. Lincoln is in indigent circumstances, and has to sell her clothing and jewelry to gain means to make life more endurable?'
"The well&ndashconditioned man replied: 'I do not blame her for selling her clothing, if she wishes it. I suppose when sold she will convert the proceeds into five&ndashtwenties to enable her to have means to be buried.'
"The World man turned towards him with a searching glance, and replied, with the haughtiest manner: 'That woman is not dead yet.'
"The discomfited individual looked down, never spoke another word, and in half an hour left his seat, and did not return.
"I give you word for word as the conversation occurred. May it be found through the execution of my friends, Messrs. Brady and Keyes, that 'that woman is not yet dead,' and being alive, she speaketh and gaineth valuable hearers. Such is life! Those who have been injured, how gladly the injurer would consign them to mother earth and forgetfulness! Hoping I should not be recognized at Fort Wayne, I thought I would get out at dinner for a cup of tea. * * * will show you what a creature of fate I am, as miserable as it sometimes is. I went into the dining&ndashroom alone and was ushered up to the table, where, at its head, sat a very elegant&ndashlooking gentleman&mdashat his side a middle&ndashaged lady. My black veil was doubled over my face. I had taken my seat next to him&mdashhe at the head of the table, I at his left hand. I immediately felt a pair of eyes was gazing at me. I looked him full in the face, and the glance was earnestly returned. I sipped my water, and said: 'Mr. S., is this indeed you?' His face was as pale as the table&ndashcloth. We entered into conversation, when I asked him how long since he had left Chicago. He replied, 'Two weeks since.' He said, 'How strange you should be on the train and I not know it!'
"As soon as I could escape from the table, I did so by saying, 'I must secure a cup of tea for a lady friend with me who has a head&ndashache.' I had scarcely returned to the car, when he entered it with a cup of tea borne by his own aristocratic hands. I was a good deal annoyed by seeing him, and he was so agitated that he spilled half of the cup over my elegantly gloved hands. He looked very sad, and I fancied 609 Broadway occupied his thoughts. I apologized for the absent lady who wished the cup, by saying that 'in my absence she had slipped out for it.' His heart was in his eyes, notwithstanding my veiled face. Pity for me, I fear, has something to do with all this. I never saw his manner so gentle and sad. This was nearly evening, and I did not see him again, as he returned to the lady, who was his sister&ndashin&ndashlaw from the East. * * * What evil spirit possessed me to go out and get that cup of tea? When he left me, woman&ndashlike I tossed the cup of tea out of the window, and tucked my head down and shed bitter tears. * * At the depot my darling little Taddie was waiting for me, and his voice never sounded so sweet. * * * My dear Lizzie, do visit Mr. Brady each morning at nine o'clock, and urge them all you can. I see by the papers Stewart has returned. To&ndashmorrow I will send the invoice of goods, which please to not give up. How much I miss you, tongue cannot tell. Forget my fright and nervousness of the evening before. Of course you were as innocent as a child in all you did. I consider you my best living friend, and I am struggling to be enabled some day to repay you. Write me often, as you promised.
It is not necessary for me to dwell upon the public history of Mrs. Lincoln's unfortunate venture. The question has been discussed in all the newspapers of the land, and these discussions are so recent that it would be useless to introduce them in these pages, even if I had an inclination to do so. The following, from the New York Evening Express, briefly tells the story:
"The attraction for ladies, and the curious and speculative of the other sex in this city, just now, is the grand exposition of Lincoln dresses at the office of Mr. Brady, on Broadway, a few doors south of Houston street. The publicity given to the articles on exhibition and for sale has excited the public curiosity, and hundreds of people, principally women with considerable leisure moments at disposal, daily throng the rooms of Mr. Brady, and give himself and his shop&ndashwoman more to do than either bargained for, when a lady, with face concealed with a veil, called and arranged for the sale of the superabundant clothing of a distinguished and titled, but nameless lady. Twenty&ndashfive dresses, folded or tossed about by frequent examinations, lie exposed upon a closed piano, and upon a lounge shawls rich and rare are displayed upon the backs of chairs, but the more exacting obtain a better view and closer inspection by the lady attendant throwing them occasionally upon her shoulders, just to oblige, so that their appearance on promenade might be seen and admired. Furs, laces, and jewelry are in a glass case, but the 'four thousand dollars in gold' point outfit is kept in a paste&ndashboard box, and only shown on special request.
"The feeling of the majority of visitors is adverse to the course Mrs. Lincoln has thought proper to pursue, and the criticisms are as severe as the cavillings are persistent at the quality of some of the dresses. These latter are labelled at Mrs. Lincoln's own estimate, and prices range from $25 to $75&mdashabout 50 per cent less than cost. Some of them, if not worn long, have been worn much they are jagged under the arms and at the bottom of the skirt, stains are on the lining, and other objections present themselves to those who oscillate between the dresses and dollars, 'notwithstanding they have been worn by Madam Lincoln,' as a lady who looked from behind a pair of gold spectacles remarked. Other dresses, however, have scarcely been worn&mdashone, perhaps, while Mrs. Lincoln sat for her picture, and from one the basting threads had not yet been removed. The general testimony is that the wearing apparel is high&ndashpriced, and some of the examiners say that the cost&ndashfigures must have been put on by the dressmakers or, if such was not the case, that gold was 250 when they were purchased, and is now but 140&mdashso that a dress for which $150 was paid at the rate of high figures cannot be called cheap at half that sum, after it has been worn considerable, and perhaps passed out of fashion. The peculiarity of the dresses is that the most of them are cut low&ndashnecked&mdasha taste which some ladies attribute to Mrs. Lincoln's appreciation of her own bust.
"On Saturday last an offer was made for all the dresses. The figure named was less than the aggregate estimate placed on them. Mr. Brady, however, having no discretionary power, he declined to close the bargain, but notified Mrs. Lincoln by mail. Of course, as yet, no reply has been received. Mrs. L. desires that the auction should be deferred till the 31st of the present month, and efforts made to dispose of the articles at private sale up to that time.
"A Mrs. C&mdash called on Mr. Brady this morning, and examined minutely each shawl. Before leaving the lady said that, at the time when there was a hesitancy about the President issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, she sent to Mrs. Lincoln an ashes&ndashof&ndashrose shawl, which was manufactured in China, forwarded to France, and thence to Mrs. C&mdash, in New York. The shawl, the lady remarked, was a very handsome one, and should it come into the hands of Mr. Brady to be sold, would like to be made aware of the fact, so as to obtain possession again. Mr. Brady promised to acquaint the ashes&ndashof&ndashrose donor, if the prized article should be among the two trunks of goods now on the way from Chicago."
So many erroneous reports were circulated, that I made a correct statement to one of the editors of the New York Evening News. The article based upon the memoranda furnished by me appeared in the News of Oct. 12, 1867. I reproduce a portion of it in this connection:
"Mrs. Lincoln feels sorely aggrieved at many of the harsh criticisms that have been passed upon her for travelling incognito. She claims that she adopted this course from motives of delicacy, desiring to avoid publicity. While here, she spoke to but two former acquaintances, and these two gentlemen whom she met on Broadway. Hundreds passed her who had courted her good graces when she reigned supreme at the White House, but there was no recognition. It was not because she had changed much in personal appearance, but was merely owing to the heavy crape veil that hid her features from view.
"She seeks to defend her course while in this city&mdashand with much force, too. Adverting to the fact that the Empress of France frequently disposes of her cast&ndashoff wardrobe, and publicly too, without being subjected to any unkind remarks regarding its propriety, she claims the same immunity here as is accorded in Paris to Eugenie. As regards her obscurity while in this city, she says that foreigners of note and position frequently come to our stores, and under assumed names travel from point to point throughout our vast domain, to avoid recognition and the inconveniences resulting from being known, though it even be in the form of honors. For herself she regards quiet preferable to ostentatious show, which would have cost her much indirectly, if not directly and this she felt herself unable to bear, according to the measure of her present state of finances.
"In a recent letter to her bosom friend, Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln pathetically remarks, 'Elizabeth, if evil come from this, pray for my deliverance, as I did it for the best.' This referred to her action in placing her personal effects before the public for sale, and to the harsh remarks that have been made thereon by some whom she had formerly regarded as her friends.
"As to the articles which belonged to Mr. Lincoln, they can all be accounted for in a manner satisfactory even to an over&ndashcritical public. During the time Mr. Lincoln was in office he was the recipient of several canes. After his death one was given to the Hon. Charles Sumner another to Fred. Douglass another to the Rev. H. H. Garnet of this city, and another to Mr. Wm. Slade, the present steward of the White House, who, in Mr. Lincoln's lifetime, was his messenger. This gentleman also received some of Mr. Lincoln's apparel, among which was his heavy gray shawl. Several other of the messengers employed about the White House came in for a share of the deceased President's effects.
"The shepherd plaid shawl which Mr. Lincoln wore during the milder weather, and which was rendered somewhat memorable as forming part of his famous disguise, together with the Scotch cap, when he wended his way secretly to the Capitol to be inaugurated as President, was given to Dr. Abbot, of Canada, who had been one of his warmest friends. During the war this gentleman, as a surgeon in the United States army, was in Washington in charge of a hospital, and thus became acquainted with the head of the nation.
"His watch, his penknife, his gold pencil, and his glasses are now in possession of his son Robert. Nearly all else than these few things have passed out of the family, as Mrs. Lincoln did not wish to retain them. But all were freely given away, and not an article was parted with for money.
"The Rev. Dr. Gurley of Washington was the spiritual adviser of the President and his family. They attended his church. When little 'Willie' died, he officiated at the funeral. He was a most intimate friend of the family, and when Mr. Lincoln lay upon his death&ndashbed Mr. Gurley was by his side. He, as his clergyman, performed the funeral rites upon the body of the deceased President, when it lay cold in death at the City of Washington. He received the hat worn last by Mr. Lincoln, as we have before stated, and it is still retained by him.
"The dress that was worn by Mrs. Lincoln on the night of the assassination was presented to Mrs. Wm. Slade. It is a black silk with a little white stripe. Most of the other articles that adorned Mrs. Lincoln on that fatal night became the property of Mrs. Keckley. She has the most of them carefully stowed away, and intends keeping them during her life as mementos of a mournful event. The principal articles among these are the earrings, the bonnet, and the velvet cloak. The writer of this saw the latter on Thursday. It bears most palpable marks of the assassination, being completely bespattered with blood, that has dried upon its surface, and which can never be removed.
"A few words as regard the disposition and habits of Mrs. Lincoln. She is no longer the sprightly body she was when her very presence illumed the White House with gayety. Now she is sad and sedate, seeking seclusion, and maintaining communication merely with her most intimate personal friends. The most of her time she devotes to instructive reading within the walls of her boudoir. Laying her book aside spasmodically, she places her hand upon her forehead, as if ruminating upon something momentous. Then her hand wanders amid her heavy tresses, while she ponders for but a few seconds&mdashthen, by a sudden start, she approaches her writing&ndashstand, seizes a pen, and indites a few hasty lines to some trusty friend, upon the troubles that weigh so heavily upon her. Speedily it is sent to the post&ndashoffice but, hardly has the mail departed from the city before she regrets her hasty letter, and would give much to recall it. But, too late, it is gone, and probably the secrets it contains are not confidentially kept by the party to whom it was addressed, and soon it furnishes inexhaustible material for gossip&ndashloving people.
"As some citizens have expressed themselves desirous of aiding Mrs. Lincoln, a subscription&ndashbook was opened at the office of her agent, Mr. Brady, No. 609 Broadway, this morning. There is no limitation as to the amount which may be given, though there was a proposition that a dollar should be contributed by each person who came forward to inspect the goods. Had each person who handled these articles given this sum, a handsome amount would already have been realized.
"The colored people are moving in this matter. They intend to take up collections in their churches for the benefit of Mrs. Lincoln. They are enthusiastic, and a trifle from every African in this city would, in the aggregate, swell into an immense sum, which would be doubly acceptable to Mrs. Lincoln. It would satisfy her that the black people still have the memory of her deceased husband fresh in their minds.
"The goods still remain exposed to sale, but it is now announced that they will be sold at public auction on the 30th of this month, unless they be disposed of before that at private sale."
It is stated in the article that the "colored people are moving in this matter." The colored people were surprised to hear of Mrs. Lincoln's poverty, and the news of her distress called forth strong sympathy from their warm, generous hearts. Rev. H. H. Garnet, of New York City, and Mr. Frederick Douglass, of Rochester, N.Y., proposed to lecture in behalf of the widow of the lamented President, and schemes were on foot to raise a large sum of money by contribution. The colored people recognized Abraham Lincoln as their great friend, and they were anxious to show their kind interest in the welfare of his family in some way more earnest and substantial than simple words. I wrote Mrs. Lincoln what we proposed to do, and she promptly replied, declining to receive aid from the colored people. I showed her letter to Mr. Garnet and Mr. Douglass, and the whole project was at once abandoned. She afterwards consented to receive contributions from my people, but as the services of Messrs. Douglass, Garnet, and others had been refused when first offered, they declined to take an active part in the scheme so nothing was ever done. The following letters were written before Mrs. Lincoln declined to receive aid from the colored people:
"183 BLEECKER ST., NEW YORK, October 16th, 1867.
"J. H. BRADY, ESQ.:&mdash
"I have just received your favor, together with the circulars. I will do all that lies in my power, but I fear that will not be as much as you anticipate. I think, however, that a contribution from the colored people of New York will be worth something in a moral point of view, and likely that will be the most that will be accomplished in the undertaking. I am thoroughly with you in the work, although but little may be done.
"I am truly yours,
"HENRY HIGHLAND GARNET.
"P.S.&mdashI think it would be well if you would drop a line to Mr. Frederick Douglass, at Rochester, New York.
"MY DEAR MRS. KECKLEY:&mdashYou judge me rightly&mdashI am willing to do what I can to place the widow of our martyr President in the affluent position which her relation to that good man and to the country entitles her to. But I doubt the wisdom of getting up a series of lectures for that purpose that is just the last thing that should be done. Still, if the thing is done, it should be done on a grand scale. The best speakers in the country should be secured for the purpose. You should not place me at the head nor at the foot of the list, but sandwich me between, for thus out of the way, it would not give color to the idea. I am to speak in Newark on Wednesday evening next, and will endeavor to see you on the subject. Of course, if it would not be too much to ask, I would gladly see Mrs. Lincoln, if this could be done in a quiet way without the reporters getting hold of it, and using it in some way to the prejudice of that already much abused lady. As I shall see you soon, there is less reason to write you at length.
"I am, dear madam,
"With high respect,
"Very truly yours,
"MY DEAR MRS. KECKLEY:&mdashYou know the drift of my views concerning the subscription for Mrs. Lincoln. Yet I wish to place them more distinctly before you, so that, if you have occasion to refer to me in connection with the matter, you can do so with accuracy and certainty.
"It is due Mrs. Lincoln that she should be indemnified, as far as money can do so, for the loss of her beloved husband. Honor, gratitude, and a manly sympathy, all say yes to this. I am willing to go farther than this, and say that Mrs. Lincoln herself should be the judge of the amount which shall be deemed sufficient, believing that she would not transcend reasonable limits. The obligation resting on the nation at large is great and increasing, but especially does it become colored men to recognize that obligation. It was the hand of Abraham Lincoln that broke the fetters of our enslaved people, and let them out of the house of bondage. When he was slain, our great benefactor fell, and left his wife and children to the care of those for whom he gave up all. Shame on the man or woman who, under such circumstances, would grudge a few paltry dollars, to smooth the pathway of such a widow! All this, and more, I feel and believe. But such is the condition of this question, owing to party feeling, and personal animosities now mixed up with it, that we are compelled to consider these in the effort we are making to obtain subscriptions.
"Now, about the meeting in Cooper Institute I hold that that meeting should only be held in concert with other movements. It is bad generalship to put into the field only a fraction of your army when you have no means to prevent their being cut to pieces. It is gallant to go forth single&ndashhanded, but is it wise? I want to see something more than the spiteful Herald behind me when I step forward in this cause at the Cooper Institute. Let Mr. Brady out with his circulars, with his list of commanding names, let the Herald and Tribune give a united blast upon their bugles, let the city be placarded, and the doors of Cooper Institute be flung wide open, and the people, without regard to party, come up to the discharge of this national duty.
"Don't let the cause be made ridiculous by failure at the outset. Mr. Garnet and I could bear any mortification of this kind but the cause could not. And our cause must not be damaged by any such generalship, which would place us in the van unsupported.
"I shall be at home by Saturday please write me and let me know how matters are proceeding. Show this letter to Messrs. Brady and Garnet.
"I am, dear madam,
"Very truly yours,
"MY DEAR MRS. KECKLEY:&mdashIt is just possible that I may not take New York in my route homeward. In that case please write me directly at Rochester, and let me know fully how the subscription business is proceeding. The meeting here last night was a grand success. I speak again this evening, and perhaps at Reading tomorrow evening. My kind regards to all who think of me at 21, including Mrs. Lawrence.
"Very truly yours,
"MY DEAR MRS. KECKLEY:&mdashI very easily read your handwriting. With practice you will not only write legibly but elegantly so no more apologies for bad writing. Penmanship has always been one of my own deficiencies, and I know how to sympathize with you.
"I am just home, and find your letter awaiting me. You should have received an earlier answer but for this absence. I am sorry it will be impossible for me to see you before I go to Washington. I am leaving home this week for Ohio, and shall go from Ohio to Washington. I shall be in New York a day or two after my visit to Washington, and will see you there. Any public demonstration in which it will be desirable for me to take part, ought to come off the last of this month or the first of next. I thank you sincerely for the note containing a published letter of dear Mrs. Lincoln both letters do credit to the excellent lady. I prize her beautiful letter to me very highly. It is the letter of a refined and spirited lady, let the world say what it will of her. I would write her a word of acknowledgment but for fear to burden her with correspondence. I am glad that Mr. Garnet and yourself saw Mr. Greeley, and that he takes the right view of the matter but we want more than right views, and delay is death to the movement. What you now want is action and cooperation. If Mr. Brady does not for any reason find himself able to move the machinery, somebody else should be found to take his place he made a good impression on me when I saw him, but I have not seen the promised simultaneous movement of which we spoke when together. This whole thing should be in the hands of some recognized solid man in New York. No man would be better than Mr. Greeley no man in the State is more laughed at, and yet no man is more respected and trusted a dollar placed in his hands would be as safe for the purpose as in a burglar&ndashproof safe, and what is better still, everybody believes this. This testimonial must be more than a negro testimonial. It is a great national duty. Mr. Lincoln did everything for the black man, but he did it not for the black man's sake, but for the nation's sake. His life was given for the nation but for being President, Mr. Lincoln would have been alive, and Mrs. Lincoln would have been a wife, and not a widow as now. Do all you can, dear Mrs. Keckley&mdashnobody can do more than you in removing the mountains of prejudice towards that good lady, and opening the way of success in the plan.
"I am, dear madam, very truly yours,
Many persons called at 609 Broadway to examine Mrs. Lincoln's wardrobe, but as curiosity prompted each visit, but few articles were sold. Messrs. Brady & Keyes were not very energetic, and, as will be seen by the letters of Mrs. Lincoln, published in the Appendix, that lady ultimately lost all confidence in them. It was proposed to send circulars, stating Mrs. Lincoln's wants, and appealing to the generosity of the people for aid, broad&ndashcast over the country but the scheme failed. Messrs. Brady & Keyes were unable to obtain the names of prominent men, whom the people had confidence in, for the circular, to give character and responsibility to the movement&mdashso the whole thing was abandoned. With the Rev. Mr. Garnet, I called on Mr. Greeley, at the office of the Tribune, in connection with this scheme. Mr. Greeley received us kindly, and listened patiently to our proposals&mdashthen said:
"I shall take pleasure in rendering you what assistance I can, but the movement must be engineered by responsible parties. Messrs. Brady & Keyes are not the men to be at the head of it. Nobody knows who they are, or what they are. Place the matter in the hands of those that the people know and have some confidence in, and then there will be a chance for success."
We thanked Mr. Greeley for his advice, for we believed it to be good advice, and bowed ourselves out of his room. When Messrs. Brady & Keyes were informed of the result of our interview, they became very much excited, and denounced Mr. Greeley as "an old fool." This put an end to the circular movement. The enterprise was nipped in the bud, and with the bud withered Mrs. Lincoln's last hope for success. A portion of the wardrobe was then taken to Providence, to be exhibited, but without her consent. Mr. Brady remarked that the exhibition would bring in money, and as money must be raised, this was the last resort. He was of the impression that Mrs. Lincoln would approve of any movement, so it ended in success. This, at least, is a charitable view to take of the subject. Had the exhibition succeeded in Providence, it is my opinion that the agents of Brady & Keyes would now be travelling over the country, exposing Mrs. Lincoln's wardrobe to the view of the curious, at so much per head. As is well known, the city authorities refused to allow the exhibition to take place in Providence therefore Mr. Brady returned to New York with the goods, and the travelling show scheme, like the circular scheme, was abandoned. Weeks lengthened into months, and at Mrs. Lincoln's urgent request I remained in New York, to look after her interests. When she left the city I engaged quiet lodgings in a private family, where I remained about two months, when I moved to 14 Carroll Place, and became one of the regular boarders of the house. Mrs. Lincoln's venture proved so disastrous that she was unable to reward me for my services, and I was compelled to take in sewing to pay for my daily bread. My New York expedition has made me richer in experience, but poorer in purse. During the entire winter I have worked early and late, and practised the closest economy. Mrs. Lincoln's business demanded much of my time, and it was a constant source of trouble to me. When Mrs. L. left for the West, I expected to be able to return to Washington in one week from the day but unforeseen difficulties arose, and I have been detained in the city for several months. As I am writing the concluding pages of this book, I have succeeded in closing up Mrs. Lincoln's imprudent business arrangement at 609 Broadway. The firm of Brady & Keyes is dissolved, and Mr. Keyes has adjusted the account. The story is told in a few words. On the 4th of March I received the following invoice from Mr. Keyes:
"Invoice of articles sent to Mrs. A. Lincoln:
1 Lace dress.
1 do. do. flounced.
5 Lace shawls.
3 Camel hair shawls.
1 Lace parasol cover.
1 do. handkerchief.
1 Sable boa.
1 White do.
1 Set furs.
2 Paisley shawls.
2 Gold bracelets.
2 Opera cloaks.
1 Purple shawl.
1 Feather cape.
28 yds. silk.
1 Diamond ring.
3 Small do.
1 Set furs.
1 Camel hair shawl.
1 Red do.
1 Child's shawl.
1 Lace Chantilly shawl."
The charges of the firm amounted to eight hundred dollars. Mrs. Lincoln sent me a check for this amount. I handed this check to Mr. Keyes, and he gave me the following receipt:
"Received, New York, March 4, 1868, of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, eight hundred and twenty dollars by draft on American National Bank, New York.
I packed the articles invoiced, and expressed the trunks to Mrs. Lincoln at Chicago. I then demanded and received a receipt worded as follows:
"Received, New York, March 4, 1868, of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, eight hundred and twenty dollars in full of all demands of every kind up to date.
This closed up the business, and with it I close the imperfect story of my somewhat romantic life. I have experienced many ups and downs, but still am stout of heart. The labor of a lifetime has brought me nothing in a pecuniary way. I have worked hard, but fortune, fickle dame, has not smiled upon me. If poverty did not weigh me down as it does, I would not now be toiling by day with my needle, and writing by night, in the plain little room on the fourth floor of No. 14 Carroll Place. And yet I have learned to love the garret&ndashlike room. Here, with Mrs. Amelia Lancaster as my only companion, I have spent many pleasant hours, as well as sad ones, and every chair looks like an old friend. In memory I have travelled through the shadows and the sunshine of the past, and the bare walls are associated with the visions that have come to me from the long&ndashago. As I love the children of memory, so I love every article in this room, for each has become a part of memory itself. Though poor in worldly goods, I am rich in friendships, and friends are a recompense for all the woes of the darkest pages of life. For sweet friendship's sake, I can bear more burdens than I have borne.
The letters appended from Mrs. Lincoln to myself throw a flood of light upon the history of the "old clothes" speculation in New York.
This collection of children's literature is a part of the Educational Technology Clearinghouse and is funded by various grants.
Freedom in the capitol
Once she reimbursed her clients, she relocated to Washington, D.C. It was 1860 and the country was on the cusp of war. Newly free and in a bustling city, Elizabeth set out to rebuild her dressmaking business. To do so, she had to navigate complex district laws. With the help of a client from St. Louis, she gained an introduction to an elite group of Southern ladies. One of these women was Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis’s wife, Varina Davis. Jefferson Davis would go on to become the president of the Confederate States during the Civil War years.
Soon, Elizabeth was working as a stylist to Varina and other upper-class women of the city. This job gained her access to an exclusive clique of people – the D.C. political elite. Tensions in the country were rising in the buildup to the Civil War. When the Davis’ decided to return to the South, Elizabeth declined to join them. She believed the North was more likely to emerge victorious.
Her position made her privy to discussions among the political elite about the probability of war. In early 1861, tensions were brewing and a new president, Abraham Lincoln, was coming in. Meanwhile, a client names Margaret McClean offered Elizabeth the chance of a lifetime. Mrs. McClean happened to be a friend of incoming first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and she knew that Mrs. Lincoln was looking for a personal stylist in Washington. She introduced Elizabeth to the first lady, setting in motion an extraordinary partnership.
Elizabeth Keckley - History
Elizabeth Keckley (Courtesy Photo)
A Black woman’s memoir published 153 years ago still tops Amazon’s books sales chart.
“Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” by Elizabeth Keckley, currently stands as the 24th most popular book in Amazon’s category of U.S. Civil War Women’s History.
The historical work was perhaps the bluntest and most controversial of its era. Keckley detailed her life as a slave who purchased her freedom and then worked in the White House for two U.S. first ladies – Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, and Varina Davis, the wife of President Jefferson Davis.
A seamstress to both Davis and Lincoln, Keckley practically lived in the White House during the Civil War.
Because Keckley made her close relationships with the Lincolns so public, the reaction nearly ruined the Lincolns’ reputation and almost destroyed Keckley’s life.
In the 166-page memoir, Keckley recalls an intimate scene between President and Mrs. Lincoln after learning their son, Willie, had died in 1862.
“I assisted in washing him and dressing him, and then laid him on the bed when Mr. Lincoln came in. I never saw a man so bowed down with grief,” Keckley wrote.
Elizabeth Keckley (Courtesy Photo)
“He came to the bed, lifted the cover from the face of his child, gazed at it long and earnestly, murmuring, ‘My poor boy, he was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die.’”
Immediately after President Lincoln’s 1865 assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln sent for Keckley.
According to WhiteHouseHistory.org, when Mrs. Lincoln was later “drowning in debt,” she reached out to Keckley to assist in selling off her wardrobe and other items to raise money.
Because the auctions failed to solicit any funds for Lincoln, Keckley reached out to prominent African Americans for assistance, including asking leaders in the Black church to take up offerings for her former boss.
“She even asked Frederick Douglass to take part in a lecture to raise money, although the lecture ultimately did not come to fruition,” the White House historians wrote.
The book was not well received by Lincoln or the American public.
Whites turned on Keckley for disclosing conversations and her relationship with Mrs. Lincoln.
Mostly, they claimed it violated social norms of privacy, race, class, and gender.
“Her choice to publish correspondence between herself and Mary Lincoln was seen as an infringement on the former first lady’s privacy,” historians wrote.
Keckley addressed her critics in the preface to her memoir:
“If I have betrayed confidence in anything I have published, it has been to place Mrs. Lincoln in a better light before the world. A breach of trust – if breach it can be called – of this kind is always excusable,” Keckley penned.
“My own character, as well as the character of Mrs. Lincoln, is at stake since I have been intimately associated with that lady in the most eventful periods of her life. I have been her confidante, and if evil charges are laid at her door, they also must be laid at mine, since I have been a party to all her movements,” she added.
“To defend myself, I must defend the lady that I have served. The world has judged Mrs. Lincoln by the facts which float upon the surface, and through her have partially judged me, and the only way to convince them that wrong was not meditated is to explain the motives that actuated us.”
Born in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, in 1818, Keckley endured years of beatings and sexual assault as a slave. She bore her slave master’s child, George, and was then given away to her owner’s daughter, who moved her to St. Louis.
Keckley learned the art of dressmaking and, in 1852, married James Keckley, whom she believed was free.
Before her marriage, she negotiated a $1,200 price to buy her freedom but discovered she couldn’t raise the money for herself, her son, and her husband.
However, customers to her small seamstress shop loaned Keckley the money to purchase freedom for her and her son, and in 1860, she moved to Washington, D.C.
“She left Washington in 1892 to teach domestic skills at Wilberforce University, but ill health forced her to return and spend her final years in the Home for Destitute Women and Children, which she had helped to establish,” historians wrote.
Elizabeth Keckley - History
Elizabeth Keckley, ca. 1818-1907
Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House
New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., Publishers, 1868.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (ca. 1818-1907) was born enslaved in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, to Agnes Hobbs and George Pleasant. Keckley experienced harsh treatment under slavery, including beatings as well as the sexual assault of a white man, by whom she had a son named George. She was eventually given to her owner's daughter, Ann Garland, with whom she moved to St. Louis. There she became a dressmaker and supported Garland's entire household for over two years. She married James Keckley around 1852, discovering only afterward that he was not a free man. Prior to her marriage, Keckley had negotiated with the Garlands to purchase her freedom and that of her son, but she could not raise the required $1,200, because of the strain of supporting her "dissipated" husband and the Garland household (p. 50). Sympathetic customers loaned Keckley the money to purchase her freedom and that of her son in 1855. In 1860, she left her husband and moved to Washington, D.C., where she set up a dressmaking shop. Keckley's clients were the wives of influential politicians, and she eventually became the dresser and close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. After President Lincoln's assassination, Keckley made several attempts to raise money for the former first lady. Keckley published Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House in 1868, partly to help Mrs. Lincoln financially and partly to counter criticism of Mrs. Lincoln. Keckley did not foresee the overwhelming public disapproval for publishing personal details about Mrs. Lincoln and White House private life it led to the end of her dressmaking career as well as condemnation from the Lincoln family. She left Washington in 1892 to teach domestic skills at Wilberforce University, but ill health forced her to return and spend her final years in the Home for Destitute Women and Children, which she had helped to establish. She died there after a stroke in 1907.
Though the verifiable facts in Behind the Scenes have affirmed the text's authenticity, there is speculation about the level of involvement of Keckley's editor, James Redpath. Lincoln scholars have relied on the autobiography for information about White House domestic life, anecdotes about President Lincoln, and Mary Lincoln's experiences and opinions during the 1860s. Lincoln biographers have quoted extensively from Keckley's text.
The first chapters describe Keckley's childhood and life in slavery. The love of Keckley's immediate family contrasts sharply with the abuse she receives at the hands of her owners. Writing against the antebellum myth of the happy slave, Keckley observes that slave owners were the cause of much suffering, and yet Colonel Burwell "never liked to see one of his slaves wear a sorrowful face, and those who offended in this particular way were always punished. Alas! the sunny face of the slave is not always an indication of sunshine in the heart" (p. 29).
At fourteen, Keckley is sent to live in North Carolina as a loan to Burwell's eldest son. Keckley's presence causes rancor with young Mrs. Burwell. She encourages Mr. Bingham, the village schoolmaster, to abuse Keckley physically in order to subdue her "proud, rebellious spirit" (p. 38). During this period, Keckley is raped by a white man, a topic to which she alludes only obliquely. She gives birth to a son, George. After several years, Keckley and her son are given to Mr. Garland, moves the family to St. Louis. He is poor and unable to support his family, so Keckley becomes a seamstress and dressmaker. She quickly acquires a good reputation and large clientele. At this time she begins to consider a marriage proposal from James Keckley however, she does not wish to marry or have additional children while enslaved. She negotiates with Garland to buy her freedom and that of her son for $1200, under which condition she consents to marry. Unable to raise the money while also supporting her husband and the Garland family, Keckley receives a loan from sympathetic patrons and obtains her freedom in 1855.
Keckley leaves her husband and takes her son to Washington, D.C., where she opens a dressmaking shop in the spring of 1860. Keckley's dream is to become dressmaker to the wife of the President, which she achieves when she is referred by one of her clients. Keckley becomes Mary Todd Lincoln's primary dressmaker and "modiste."
Keckley is often called to the White House to dress the first lady, where she witnesses intimate moments between the President and his wife, receives the confidences of Mrs. Lincoln, and observes the domestic interactions of the first family. Keckley is also present during many of Mrs. Lincoln's discussions with her husband, during which the latter offers opinions about members of his cabinet or his political affairs. Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln also bond over the loss of their sons. As the Civil War draws to a close, Keckley is close enough to the Lincoln family to be invited to join the presidential party during a triumphant tour of conquered Richmond.
Keckley is Mrs. Lincoln's primary confidante during the devastating period after President Lincoln's assassination. She describes Mrs. Lincoln's intense grief as well as her financial troubles. She accompanies the Lincolns on their return west, and Behind the Scenes includes much of the correspondence written during this time, illustrating Mrs. Lincoln's grief, her frustration at Congress' failure to provide financial support, and her anxiety about finding alternative sources of income. Behind the Scenes is a valuable text for its insightful and very human portrayal of two lionized figures of American history, although the book's publication extracted a high cost from its author.
Works Consulted : Keough, Leyla, "Keckley, Elizabeth," Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience , Second Ed., eds. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr., Oxford African American Studies Center, retrieved 26 February 2009 Marlowe, Gertrude Woodruff, "Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs," American National Biography Online , retrieved 26 February 2009 Reed, Rosemary, "Keckley, Elizabeth," Black Women in America , Second Ed., ed. Darlene Clark-Hine, Oxford African American Studies Center, retrieved 26 February 2009.