Since 1851, obituaries in The New York Times have been dominated by white men. With Overlooked, we’re adding the stories of remarkable people whose deaths went unreported in The Times.
By Nancy Wartik
It was the morning of April 15, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln had just died of an assassin’s bullet. Mary Todd Lincoln, his widow, was cloistered in the White House, wailing in grief, unable to reach her closest confidante: her dressmaker.
Elizabeth Keckly was finally ushered into the darkened room.
“Why did you not come to me last night, Elizabeth?” Mary Lincoln said, reproaching her. “I sent for you.”
“I did try to come to you, but I could not find you,” Keckly answered, laying her hand on the widow’s brow.
The moment, as recounted in Keckly’s 1868 memoir, “Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House,” was indicative of how far she had come.
The path that had led Keckly to become a first lady’s most trusted friend was almost unimaginable. She survived rape and years of beatings, going on to start her own business and eventually buying her way out of captivity. Then she earned a place as one of the reigning couturiers of high society in Washington.
One of a relatively small number of literate slaves, Keckly was also among the first African-American women to publish a book. Her memoir is now considered one of the most important narratives of the Lincolns’ domestic life.
“She was an historian, and that was really unusual — for a black woman to write as an historian of a time and a place and a White House,” Jennifer Fleischner, author of the 2003 biography “Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly,” said in an interview.
Keckly suffered for it: Reviewers lambasted the book — and her — when it came out, and it soon disappeared from bookstores.
“She would much better have stuck to her needle,” The New York Times wrote that year. “We cannot but look upon many of the disclosures made in this volume as gross violations of confidence.”
“Behind the Scenes” was sympathetic to Mary Lincoln yet honest about her flaws. The appendix included — almost certainly without Keckly’s permission — correspondence from Mrs. Lincoln to Keckly that put the first lady’s difficult personality on display.
“Readers in her day, white readers — they took it as an audacious tell-all,” Fleischner said. “You know, ‘How dare she’? There were two categories: the faithful Negro servant or the angry Negro servant. Keckly was neither servant, nor faithful, nor angry. She presented herself, the White House and Mary Lincoln as she saw and knew them. And that didn’t work.”
“Behind the Scenes” is again in print, and Keckly has been cited in books and portrayed in movies and plays about the Lincolns, including Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film “Lincoln.”
Jennifer Chiaverini’s novel “Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker” (2013) took Keckly as its subject, and George Saunders quoted from her memoir in his novel “Lincoln in the Bardo” (2017), about the Lincolns and the death of their son Willie.
“I don’t think it would exist, if I hadn’t read her memoir,” Saunders said of his novel in an email. “It was reading her firsthand account that made me feel that an anecdote I’d heard, about Lincoln entering his son’s tomb, could support a book. It’s the most detailed, moving thing written about the death of Willie and his parents’ grief.”
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly (sometimes spelled Keckley), was born in February 1818 in Dinwiddie, Va. She was the daughter not of the black slave whom she believed was her father but — as her mother, Agnes, disclosed in her last days — of Armistead Burwell, the white planter who owned their family.
In her teens, Keckly was sent to North Carolina to work for Burwell’s son Robert, whom she would one day learn was her white half brother. There, she was sometimes savagely whipped. Of one such occasion, she wrote in her book, “I did not scream; I was too proud to let my tormentor know what I was suffering.”
Repeatedly raped by a white store owner, she gave birth to her only child, George, when she was about 23.
Keckly was eventually given to kinder owners and moved with them to St. Louis. To help the family earn money, she started a seamstress business there and was soon in high demand. Her mother had taught her to sew when she was as young as 3, and she had an unusual talent for it.
Shortly after, she received a marriage proposal, but she declined to accept it, writing, “I could not bear the thought of bringing children into slavery — of adding one single recruit to the millions bound in hopeless servitude.”
Keckly raised with her owners the idea of buying her freedom for herself and her son, and after long negotiations they finally accepted $1,200 and freed her in 1855. She settled in Washington and continued her work as a seamstress.
One day in 1861, after Lincoln had taken office, a well-connected client wanted a gown made quickly. She promised Keckly that if she could complete the task, she would introduce her to the fashion-conscious new first lady, who was looking for a “modiste,” or dressmaker.
Mary Todd Lincoln in 1861 wearing what is believed to be the ball gown that Keckly made for Lincoln’s Inaugural festivities.CreditMathew Brady
Mary Lincoln summoned Keckly for an interview, then asked her to make a “bright rose-colored moiré-antique” dress that she could wear to the Inaugural festivities.
Keckly got the job. (Lincoln himself declared the completed dress “charming.”)
In her new position Keckly became a celebrity of sorts; Lincoln addressed her as “Madam Elizabeth.”
The first lady could be difficult and moody; Keckly was sometimes the only person who could manage her.
In turn, Mary Lincoln confided in Keckly about her debts and sought counsel on such White House matters as planning state dinners or Lincoln’s campaign for a second term.
“Lizabeth, you are my best and kindest friend, and I love you,” Mary once wrote to her.
Keckly had a unique inside look into the lives of the Lincolns. After Willie Lincoln died of typhoid at 11, she was helping to prepare his body when the president walked in.
“I never saw a man so bowed down with grief,” she wrote.
During the Civil War, Keckly also started the influential Contraband Relief Association, with support from Mary Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The “contraband” was former slaves who had sought refuge in the nation’s capital.
After the publication of her memoir, which angered Mary Lincoln, she and Keckly never spoke again. Still running her business, though with fewer clients, Keckly committed herself to teaching young African-American women her trade. For a time, she headed the domestic sciences department at Wilberforce University, which her son George had attended before dying on a Civil War battlefield.
She spent her last years in Washington, in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, which her Contraband Relief Association had helped found.
There, “she suffered greatly from headaches and crying spells,” John E. Washington wrote in the 1942 book “They Knew Lincoln.”
“All day long she looked at Mrs. Lincoln’s picture above the dresser, and seldom left her room except for meals,” he said.
Elizabeth Keckly died in her sleep in May 1907. She was 89.
“What a life she had,” George Saunders said in an email, “to go from slavery to the White House, lose a son in the war, write a book, befriend the Lincolns, fall out of their favor, witness so many essential historical moments. To me, her book is beautiful and I think we are so lucky to have it.”