It was the morning of April 15, 1865, and President Abraham Lincoln had just died from an assassin’s bullet. Mary Todd Lincoln, his widow, was cloistered in the White House, wailing in grief. There was only one person she desperately wanted to talk to: her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.
The moment was indicative of how far Keckly had come—from surviving slavery, rape, and years of beatings to being the first lady’s most trusted friend.
Keckly was born into slavery in 1818 in Dinwiddie, Virginia. In 1855, she bought freedom for herself and her son from their owners for $1,200, and settled in Washington, D.C., working as a seamstress.
One day in 1861, after Lincoln had taken office, a well-connected client introduced her to the new first lady, who was looking for a dressmaker. Keckly got the job, and in her new position 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 and sought counsel on such White House matters as planning state dinners and Lincoln’s campaign for a second term.
“Lizabeth, you are my best and kindest friend, and I love you,” Mary Lincoln once wrote to her.
In 1868, Keckly published her memoir, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, which is now considered one of the most important narratives of the Lincolns’ domestic life.
“She was a historian, and that was really unusual—for a black woman to write as a historian of a time and a place and a White House,” says Jennifer Fleischner, author of Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly.
But Keckly suffered for it: Reviewers lambasted the book—and her—when it came out, and it soon disappeared from bookstores. “Readers in her day, white readers—they took it as an audacious tell-all,” Fleischner says. “You know, ‘How dare she?’”
Mary Lincoln was angered by the publication of Keckly’s memoir. She never spoke to Keckly again.
Keckly died in her sleep in 1907, when she was 89. In his book, They Knew Lincoln, John E. Washington describes the final moments of Keckly’s life, when she was ill: “All day long she looked at Mrs. Lincoln’s picture above the dresser, and seldom left her room except for meals.”