Cover image for Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly : the remarkable story of the friendship between a first lady and a former slave
Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly : the remarkable story of the friendship between a first lady and a former slave
Publication Information:
New York, N.Y. : Broadway Books, c2003.
Physical Description:
372 pages : illustrations, map 25 cm.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 920 FLE 1 1
Book 920 FLE 1 1
Book 920 FLE 1 1

On Order



A vibrant social history set against the backdrop of the Antebellum south and the Civil War that recreates the lives and friendship of two exceptional women: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her mulatto dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly. "I consider you my best living friend," Mary Lincoln wrote to Elizabeth Keckly in 1867, and indeed theirs was a close, if tumultuous, relationship. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly was Mary Lincoln's dressmaker, confidante, and mainstay during the difficult years that the Lincolns occupied the White House and the early years of Mary's widowhood. But she was a fascinating woman in her own right, independent and already well-established as the dressmaker to the Washington elite when she was first hired by Mary Lincoln upon her arrival in the nation's capital. Lizzy had bought her freedom in 1855 and come to Washington determined to make a life for herself as a free black, and she soon had Washington correspondents reporting that "stately carriages stand before her door, whose haughty owners sit before Lizzy docile as lambs while she tells them what to wear." Mary Lincoln had hired Lizzy in part because she was considered a "high society" seamstress and Mary, an outsider in Washington's social circles, was desperate for social cachet. With her husband struggling to keep the nation together, Mary turned increasingly to her seamstress for companionship, support, and advice--and over the course of those trying years, Lizzy Keckly became her confidante and closest friend. With Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, pioneering historian Jennifer Fleischner allows us to glimpse the intimate dynamics of this unusual friendship for the first time, and traces the pivotal events that enabled these two women--one born to be a mistress, the other to be a slave--to forge such an unlikely bond at a time when relations between blacks and whites were tearing the nation apart. Beginning with their respective childhoods in the slaveholding states of Virginia and Kentucky, their story takes us through the years of tragic Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the early Reconstruction period. An author in her own right, Keckly wrote one of the most detailed biographies of Mary Lincoln ever published, and though it led to a bitter feud between the friends, it is one of the many rich resources that have enhanced Fleischner's trove of original findings. A remarkable, riveting work of scholarship that reveals the legacy of slavery and sheds new light on the Lincoln White House, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly brings to life a mesmerizing, intimate aspect of Civil War history, and underscores the inseparability of black and white in our nation's heritage.

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

This double biography opens with an arresting image: two middle-aged women, one white, one black, are seated on a park bench in New York's Union Square in 1867. The white woman is Mary Todd Lincoln, widow of the president and desperately in need of money. The black woman is her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly, who is trying to help Mrs. Lincoln realize some profit out of the sale of the clothes that Mrs. Keckly made for her in happier times. Neither woman has been treated well by history. Mrs. Lincoln has gone down as a compulsive shopper whose own son tried to have her declared a lunatic; Mrs. Keckly was at one time thought to be a figment of the abolitionist imagination. Although Fleischner (Mastering Slavery), a former Mellon Faculty Fellow in Afro-American Studies at Harvard, is sympathetic to Mrs. Lincoln, the first lady's portrait here will not enhance her reputation significantly. But Fleischner's rehabilitation of Mrs. Keckly, portrayed as a strong-minded and talented woman who bought her freedom from slavery, lost her son on a Civil War battlefield and wrote a detailed biography of her former employer, is a revelation. Of particular interest is the glimpse provided into the vexed and ambiguous nature of the relations between the races both before and after abolition, a terrain the author negotiates with tact and sensitivity. (On sale Apr. 8) Forecast: This portrait of an interracial friendship will be of great interest to readers of women's history and African-American history. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

Fleischner analyzes the dynamics of the great friendship that existed between first lady Mary Todd Lincoln and former slave Elizabeth Keckly. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, Lizzy Keckly was already established as the most sought after dressmaker in Washington D.C. The mulatto daughter of a Virginia landowner and his slave, Mrs. Keckly had purchased her freedom and parlayed her talent with a needle into a successful business venture. When the fashion-conscious wife of the new president moved to the capitol, she immediately sought Keckly's help, and a powerful bond was forged between these two southern-born women from vastly different backgrounds. Set against the backdrop of mid-nineteenth-century America, this fascinating dual biography provides a glimpse into a friendship that defied convention and flourished during an age when social associations between the races were feared and actively discouraged. --Margaret Flanagan

Choice Review

Formatted as a double biography, this book traces in alternate chapters the lives of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth "Lizzy" Hobbs Keckly. Born into affluence in Lexington, KY, in 1818, Mary became the wife and widow of Abraham Lincoln. Born into slavery in Virginia in 1818, Lizzy was a house servant and seamstress who purchased her freedom in 1859 and moved to Washington, D. C., where she became a highly successful seamstress for prominent whites. Mary hired her to make dresses shortly after Lincoln's election. Their ties evolved into a friendship, as Keckly helped Mary cope with the White House, the deaths of a son and husband, and to regain financial footing after leaving Washington. Despite being "friends," Mary was a troubled and difficult person; their relationship was asymmetrical and ended when Lizzy published her memoirs, Behind the Scenes (1868). This book is well written, extensively researched, and rich in context throughout, though the central story, based on Keckly's memoirs and Lincoln's published letters, remains thin. Fleischner (English, Adelphi Univ.) often relies on hypotheticals to imagine some of their thoughts and conversations. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. For general readers and undergraduates. J. Borchert emeritus, Cleveland State University

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-A fascinating look at the lives and friendship of two women-one about whom historians have told us much, the other, a person who deserves far more recognition than she has received. But before it is possible to understand how two seemingly unlikely people could become friends, it is important to know the circumstances that brought a president's wife and a former slave and dressmaker to the moment of their fateful meeting. To take readers to that point, the author uses alternating chapters to discuss the circumstances and people who molded each woman. Lincoln was used to others stepping in and taking care of her when life got too tough and Keckly took on that role. As their friendship progressed, they shared difficult and heart-wrenching situations. When the president was assassinated, Mary sent for Lizzy. The book gives an in-depth look at a time, a friendship, and two very different women. The author's almost conversational writing style will keep readers engrossed.-Peggy Bercher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Review

Meticulous reconstruction of the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, a former slave who became the First Lady's personal dressmaker and confidante. Fleischner (English/Adelphi Univ.; Mastering Slavery, not reviewed) brings to light a compelling story long obscured by events of greater consequence. She begins with a post-assassination meeting in New York City between Mary and Lizzy during which the emotionally damaged and deeply indebted widow revealed to her friend a plan to raise money by selling the scores of gowns she wore during her White House years. (The plan, we find out 300 pages later, failed miserably.) Then the author moves back to chronicle in alternating chapters the biographies of Mary Todd and Elizabeth Hobbs, the former born into a fairly prosperous slave-owning family in Lexington, Kentucky; the latter born into slavery in Virginia. It takes 200 pages for their lives to converge. By then Lizzy had married a man named Keckly (who soon vanished), become a talented and popular seamstress, purchased freedom for herself and her son at the enormous price of $1,200, and established herself in Washington, D.C., as the favored seamstress of such luminaries as Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Lizzy and Mary met on the eve of Lincoln's first inauguration, when Mary ordered the first of what would be many dresses. The relationship, argues Fleischner, grew into a friendship as Lizzy helped Mary with everything from childcare to shopping to grieving. It fractured, however, when Lizzy, who had damaged her own business to attend to the First Widow, elected to publish a memoir. This was much too uppity for proud, frangible Mary Lincoln, and the two never met again. The author provides many fascinating details about fashion and mantua-making, although she could have omitted much material available elsewhere about the rise of Abraham Lincoln and horrors of the Civil War. Still, an important, absorbing addition to the vast Lincoln library. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Mrs. Lincoln was the wife of a President. Mrs. Keckly, a slave who bought her freedom, became a celebrated dressmaker in Washington, DC, and eventually the confidante of the First Lady. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



CHAPTER ONE As Mr. and Mrs. Robert Smith Todd looked forward to the birth of their fourth child in 1818, they were likely hoping for a boy. Two little girls--five-year-old Elizabeth and nearly three-year-old Frances--and one boy, one-and-a-half-year-old Levi, were already running around the yard on Short Street at the center of town and up the hill to their widowed Grandma Parker's house next door. By December, as her time neared, the children's twenty-four-year-old mother, Eliza Parker Todd, had retreated to her bedroom on the second floor of the nine-room house, leaving them to be watched by their slave mammy. The Widow Parker, who had given the young Todds the lower part of her double lot as a wedding gift, probably helped supervise the household slaves, among them three of her own whom she had loaned to her daughter: a young girl, a woman in her twenties, and an older woman. The sweet-natured Eliza admitted when she first married at eighteen that she had no idea housekeeping "was attended with so much trouble." Indeed, six months into her marriage, while the young couple were still living with the Widow Parker waiting for their house to be built, she had written, perhaps teasingly, to her maternal grandfather, "It really is almost enough to deter girls from getting married." In any event, she concluded, "it would never do for me to go far from Mama as I shall stand so much in need of her instruction." Her husband, a second cousin whom she'd known virtually all her life growing up in Lexington, would not have asked her to move anyway. Robert Smith Todd had his own parental ties to Lexington, Kentucky, in the shape of a patriarchal Todd tradition of local power and influence. Well-connected and trained as a lawyer, twenty-seven-year-old Robert was already launched upon hectic political and business careers, apparently determined, if not absolutely destined, to follow in his father's and uncles' footsteps. His concerns kept him from home for long periods elsewhere--in Frankfort, thirty miles to the west, where he served as clerk in the Kentucky House of Representatives, and at other times almost eight hundred miles south in New Orleans on buying trips for his struggling wholesale/retail firm. So Robert Todd may not have minded the constant presence of a mother-in-law in the house. Later, he would come to depend on it. The new baby, another girl, arrived on a cold Sunday, December 13, 1818. Her parents named her Mary Ann, after her mother's only sister. Like other well-to-do Kentucky women of her day, Eliza, having survived this infant's birth, would have breast-fed her daughter for several weeks or more before handing her over to a wet nurse, most likely a slave. After recovering from the birth, Eliza would have enjoyed returning to some of Lexington's social and cultural activities: paying and receiving morning calls, for which Lexington ladies dressed formally in silks and satins; taking afternoon drives in the Todds' Lexington-built carriage; and visiting the public library, which was open every afternoon except Sunday in a building on the corner of the town square. More likely, she looked forward to visiting Mrs. Plimpton's millinery in Mr. Plimpton's store, at Main and Main Cross Street; attending music concerts in the public rooms of the town's many taverns; and gathering with her neighbors for the thrilling lottery drawings, also held in the taverns, which were the town's favorite means of raising money for schools and churches. There were always plenty of parties and picnics and frequent celebrations honoring a steady parade of patriots and politicians. When little Mary Ann was almost seven months, Eliza may have stood outside Postlethwait's Tavern on July 3, waving a handkerchief as salutes were fired to honor President Monroe and General Jackson, who beamed acknowledgment to the assembled crowd. Later in July she might have attended the university's Commencement Ball, for which gentlemen could get tickets at Postlethwait's but ladies had to apply to the ball's managers. There would not have been much for her to do at home. Aunt Chaney, one of the family slaves, did all the cooking and had absolute charge of the kitchen; when the children got on her nerves, she banged the pots and kettles and ordered them out. It was Chaney who baked the memorable beaten biscuits and corn bread, whose recipes ("jes' a pinch--jes' a bit more") the future Mary Lincoln would one day try to record in a notebook for the benefit of her Irish serving girl in Springfield. Aunt Chaney considered it criminal--and not a bit surprising--that "the po' white trash Irish" didn't know how to make good corn bread. Equally chauvinistic Nelson drove the family carriage, served in the dining room, and did the marketing across the way at the tradesmen's stalls in the Main Street market house, next to the courthouse. Female slaves aired and made the beds, carried the water, started the fires, washed and hung out the clothes, swept, dusted, scrubbed, and polished in every room in the house. Another slave tended the garden. And although Mrs. Todd did her own mending and trimmed her own hats, the French swisses and sheer muslins that her husband brought back from New Orleans all went to a sewing woman, possibly a local woman or a slave. Above all, there was the children's Mammy Sally. She loved "her" Todd children as if they were her own--at least, according to the Todds. Lexington sits in the region of Kentucky known as the Bluegrass, named for the bluish tint of the wind-rippled long-stemmed grass whose seeds were sown in the nineteenth century. The Bluegrass covers a circular area of roughly eight thousand square miles at the heart of the state. With its long growing season, temperate climate, plentiful rainfall, and limestone-laden, phosphate-rich soil, this section of Kentucky seemed like an Eden to early visitors--or, in the language of a nineteenth-century gazetteer writing for Easterners considering emigration, "The Garden . . . of the world." Not satisfied with the idea of Kentucky as Paradise, one Western preacher reckoned that heaven was a "Kaintuck of a place." But travelers reserved their most extravagant praise for the "small portion of highly beautiful land" directly surrounding Lexington, the two thousand square miles of the Inner Bluegrass. "The country around Lexington," wrote one Pennsylvanian, "for many miles in every direction is equal in beauty and fertility to anything the imagination can paint." When an eastern Kentuckian dies, it is said, he wants to go to Lexington. With a grid layout reminding visitors of stately Philadelphia, Lexington in 1818 was a center of culture and refinement, known as "the Athens of the West" and noted not only for its girls and boys academies but also for Transylvania University, the first university in the Western United States, founded in 1780. Already it boasted a leading law school, where the young Henry Clay was a professor; more famous still was the medical school, with an extraordinary library of rare and valuable works that were bought in Europe by the school's charismatic Dr. Charles Caldwell, who also gave regular lectures abroad. Under the circumstances, Robert Smith and Eliza Todd could have been forgiven for thinking themselves among the "first people" in the land, despite their location west of the Alleghenies. On both sides of the Todd-Parker union there were Revolutionary War heroes: generals and majors and Eliza Parker's great-grandmother, who rode out to the camp at Valley Forge in the winter of '77 with provisions for her husband, Captain Andrew Porter, and was said to have impressed Washington with her devotion. Indeed, the Todds could have been forgiven for thinking themselves at the center of their universe, for they could boast of being a vital part of a wide network of leading local families, beginning with their Porter and Parker cousins and extending to their Kentucky kin by marriage, which would in time include the prestigious Shelbys, Breckenridges, Wickliffes, McDowells, Bullocks, Woodleys, Brents, Didlakes, "and so on and on," as the Lexington Herald put it. Even the nation's heroine, the stalwart Dolley Madison, who, four years earlier, standing in the charred and gutted ruins of the White House, had announced, "We shall rebuild . . . the enemy cannot frighten a free people," had been married to a Todd before a Madison. Such connections made a difference in a world where (as one lady wrote) "we claim our relations to the forty-fifth cousin." Even the Almighty was bound to be impressed: as Abraham Lincoln quipped on the family's changing their name from Tod to Todd, one "d" was good enough for God, but not the Todds. Perhaps the Todds were justified if they were inclined to consider Lexington their particular contribution to the American West. Their neighbor and Robert's political mentor Congressman Henry Clay (the future senator and frequent presidential candidate) may have become Lexington's most famous and influential resident, but by the time he arrived in 1797, an eager young lawyer on the make, the Todds had already helped build Lexington into the town where ambitious men like Clay aimed to be. "Start early and git down to Caintuck," wrote William Calk in his diary on April 20, 1775. Soon afterward, soldiers encamped in a wilderness clearing at McConnell Springs in central northern Kentucky decided to give to their fledgling settlement the name of the town in far-off Massachusetts where, on April 19, minutemen had exchanged the first shots of the Revolution with British soldiers. Among the party of soldiers was said to have been the nineteen-year-old Pennsylvania-born Levi Todd. With his two older brothers, John and Robert, Levi helped found a Kentucky dynasty that would shape his granddaughter Mary Todd's childhood, permeating her earliest sense of identity and place. Yet when Mary Ann Todd was born, Lexington was barely a generation--and not many miles--from its frontier days. Six years earlier, above the mouth of the Green River in northwestern Kentucky, three Indians attacked a white family, killing the elderly father and wounding his son. The then-single Robert Smith Todd gave a friend a matter-of-fact report: "It appears that there was a Quarrel between this young man and one of the Indians because he had beat him shooting, and no doubt had given him some provocation, one of the Indians was killed in the encounter which no doubt saved the lives of all the family." If his daughter Mary ever fantasized about transforming a backwoodsman and Indian fighter into a gentleman, she no doubt drew on her hometown for models. Inheritors of a spirit of rebellion, the Todds were descended from Scottish Covenanters who fought against England's king and Church, then found refuge in northern Ireland before immigrating to Montgomery Country, Pennsylvania, in 1737. These immigrants, David and Hannah Todd, sent three of their sons to be educated at the Virginia school run by the boys' eminent uncle, the Presbyterian Reverend John Todd. In 1778, through their uncle's friendship with Virginia Governor Patrick Henry, the Todd sons were commissioned to fight under General George Rogers Clark to secure the conquest of the Illinois territory. Afterward, Henry appointed the oldest son, John, the first civil governor of Illinois. But it was Kentucky that promised most fair, a region where whites and Indians clashed bitterly over the area's unsurpassed hunting grounds. A decade earlier, older Indian leaders' efforts to reach accommodation with pioneers had faltered, and an enraged young Cherokee leader named Dragging Canoe had warned Daniel Boone that white settlers would find Kentucky "a dark and bloody land." Anglo-American expansion during the 1770s unified Indian militants, to whom white settlers were little more than invading colonizers who razed their villages and burned their corn. Indian raids on white settlements grew bloody and fierce; hundreds of Kentuckians were captured or killed and thousands of their horses stolen. During the Revolution, the British spurred the Indians on. Mary and her siblings grew up hearing tales of the frontier exploits of her grandfather and great-uncles, especially her legendary uncle, Illinois Governor John Todd, who, as Colonel Todd, was second in military rank on the frontier only to General Clark. On August 19, 1782, ten months after the British surrender at Yorktown, Colonel Todd led 182 Kentuckians against the combined forces, almost one thousand strong, of Ohio Indian Nations warriors and British soldiers in the Battle of Blue Licks, outside Lexington. When a third of the Kentucky force was killed that day, compared with three killed and four slightly wounded of the British and Indian force, John Todd lay among the dead. Adding luster was John's legendary wealth: he had owned twenty thousand acres, and when he died his only child, a daughter, became one of the wealthiest people in Kentucky. It was also Uncle John Todd, as Mary knew, who had a Kentucky county named after him. Meanwhile, Mary's grandfather, John's younger brother General Levi Todd, had been sowing his own fortune in Lexington and surrounding Fayette County. In 1781, he became one of the first purchasers of Lexington's half-acre lots, with an additional five acres for crops, which were laid out on a grid plan in the original 710-acre town. Then, after the war ended, Levi, like other veterans holding warrants for land west of the Alleghenies, moved in to settle his claims. Using warrants and purchase rights, he built an estate of seven thousand acres in Fayette and Franklin Counties. By 1790, the earliest wave of Lexington residents had transformed their corner of Kentucky from a handful of log huts outside Colonel John Todd's stockade--with forty-seven inhabitants, mostly bachelors in frontier dress, who lived off the buffalo, deer, turkey, and geese they shot and were menaced by Shawnees and other Ohio Indians--into a bustling commercial and intellectual center of 843 residents. They slashed and burned away the thick-quilled canebrakes, which grew in dense clusters and could reach twenty feet high, and began planting pastures and fields. They divvied up town lots, designated ground for a cemetery and "a house of worship," and erected a courthouse, a jail, and a schoolhouse. Town fathers made attendance at the log schoolhouse mandatory for Lexington boys to keep them from wandering where Indians might capture them. Levi Todd wrote to his parents in Pennsylvania to join him in Kentucky, where, with his new wife, Jane Briggs, whom he had married in 1779 in the fort at St. Asaph's in Lincoln County, he had begun a family. Also contributing to the end-of-century population boom were Mary Ann's maternal grandparents. Major Robert Parker was a Pennsylvania cousin of the Todds, and his bride, the spirited Elizabeth Porter, was the daughter of General Andrew and Elizabeth Porter. They arrived in 1790, having set out from Pennsylvania on horseback the day after their wedding. For ambitious men moving west at the end of the eighteenth century, Kentucky was an open field. Cheap land and opportunity attracted thousands of migrants, and the tendency of the laws encouraged enormous land claims for wealthier men like the Todd brothers. Later immigrants came down the Ohio River in flatboats, then overland on the Buffalo Trace into the interior, or made their way slowly from Cumberland Gap across the narrow Wilderness Road (cut through in twenty-two days in the spring of 1792 by woodcutters paid with the donations of 104 subscribers, among them Robert Todd, Robert Breckinridge, Governor Shelby, and Levi Todd, who gave $12). Still others sent their slaves ahead to take the risks and burdens of frontier settling for them; these included North Carolina merchant Thomas Hart, the future father-in-law of Henry Clay, who joined in a land speculation company and, from the comfort of his home in Hillsborough, fretted about "send[ing] a parcel of poor slaves where I dare not go myself." In the 1790s, Kentucky's population tripled, reaching 220,955 in 1800. Meanwhile, the slave population quadrupled, totaling 40,343 in the state, their numbers concentrated in the plantation-rich Bluegrass; soon, that number would be one-third of the population of Lexington and the Inner Bluegrass. Excerpted from Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave by Jennifer Fleischner All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.