Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs

Life Span
    Full name
    Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley
    Place of Birth
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    Sectional choice
    Slave State
    No. of Children
    Armistead Burwell (father), Agnes Hobbs (mother)
    Other Occupation
    Relation to Slavery
    Slave or Former Slave

    Elizabeth Keckley (American National Biography)

    As Mary Lincoln's dresser, Keckley prepared her for every public occasion; as her confidante, she shared her anxieties; as her traveling companion, she went to the Gettysburg dedication and toured Richmond after the city fell; and, as her attendant, she cared for her after her son Willie's death and her husband's assassination. When Mary Lincoln left the White House in 1865, Keckley accompanied her to Chicago. After seeing the family settled, she returned to Washington, D.C., where she reopened her dressmaking business.

    In the spring of 1867 she began to receive letters from Mary Lincoln, who wrote that she was impoverished and planned to sell her clothes and jewelry to raise money. After she begged Keckley to join her in New York City to help with the sale, Keckley closed her business and went. Newspapers had a field day with the "old clothes scandal," heaping scathing criticism on the president's widow for trying to augment her income in what was considered a vulgar manner. The clothes did not sell, however, and Mary Lincoln returned to Chicago. Keckley stayed in New York City to wind up affairs. She raised money within the black community to aid her former employer, but Mary Lincoln refused it. In 1868 Keckley published her autobiography, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, which she said she wrote to help Mary Lincoln financially as well as to counter what she considered unjust criticisms. Given her loyalty to Mary Lincoln, she must have had a strong motive to violate the code of confidentiality.
    Gertrude Woodruff Marlowe, "Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs," American National Biography Online, February 2000,

    Elizabeth Keckley, Her Enslavement and Emancipation (American National Biography)

    Elizabeth's life as a slave included harsh, arbitrary beatings "to subdue her stubborn pride," frequent moves to work for often poor family members, and being "persecuted for four years" by Alexander Kirkland, a white man, by whom she had a son. Her life improved when she was loaned to a Burwell daughter, Anne Garland, with whose family Keckley moved to St. Louis. There, her labor as a dressmaker was the sole support of the Garland household of seventeen members for more than two years. Because of her skill, engaging personality, and capacity for hard work, she developed a devoted clientele among the city's elite women. She persuaded the Garlands to set a price, $1,200, for her freedom and that of her son. In St. Louis (probably in 1852) she married James Keckley, a man who had told her he was free but was actually a "dissipated" slave. Because of the strain of supporting both her husband and the Garlands, she could not save the money needed to purchase her freedom. Her customers raised it among themselves, however, and the Deed of Emancipation was registered in 1855. With her labor now her own, she was soon able to repay the loan. In 1860 she separated from her husband and moved to Washington, D.C., where she set up a dressmaking establishment that trained dozens of young women over the years. Keckley's clients were the wives of politically prominent men, such as Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis.
    Gertrude Woodruff Marlowe, "Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs," American National Biography Online, February 2000,

    Elizabeth Keckley (Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery)

    Elizabeth Keckley was born a slave at Dinwiddie Court House in Virginia around 1818. Her earliest recollections of slave life come at age four, when she began taking care of her owner’s child. At about age eighteen Keckley was sold to a North Carolinian, who fathered her son. Later, when her master moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, her skills as a seamstress provided much needed income for the entire household. After a disastrous marriage…Elizabeth decided to use her own considerable talents to provide a better life for herself and her son. Borrowing money from customers, in 1855 she purchased her and her son’s freedom. She also learned to read and write. Finally settling in Washington, D.C., she established a flourishing dressmaking business with such prominent customers as Mrs. Jefferson Davis. Eventually Keckley became dressmaker and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln, thereby gaining an intimate view of the Lincoln household. She made a personal contribution to the war effort, in 1862, when she helped establish, and became first president of, the Contraband Relief Association.

    Believing Mrs. Lincoln to be unfairly misunderstood, in 1868 Keckley published Behind the Scenes; or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, probably with the help of James Redpath. Keckley hoped the book would provide much needed funds for Mrs. Lincoln….
    Randall M. Miller and John David Smith eds., Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery (New York:  Greenwood Press, 1988), s.v. “Keckley, Elizabeth.”

    Elizabeth Keckley (Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History)

    After the assassination of President Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln and Keckley remained close friends until 1868, when Keckley’s diaries were published as a book, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Mary Todd Lincoln considered the book a betrayal and broke off her relationship with Keckley. Even several noted African Americans criticized Keckleyt for what they believed to be a dishonorable attack on “the Great Emancipator.” Nonetheless, the book has long been considered an invaluable resource for scholars of the Lincoln presidency. It reveals much about the personalities of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, their family life, and their opinions about government officials. The memoir also offers an intimate depiction of Keckley’s life in slavery, particularly of the sexual violence she endured as a teenager. While its accuracy has not been questioned, the book’s true authorship has been subject of considerable debate.
    Jack Salzman, David Lionel Smith and Cornel West eds., Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History (New York: Simon & Schuster MacMillan), s.v. “Keckley, Elizabeth.”
    Chicago Style Entry Link
    Adams, Katherine. "Freedom and Ballgowns: Elizabeth Keckley and the Work of Domesticity." Arizona Quarterly 57, no. 4 (2001): 45-87. view record
    Andrews, William L. "Reunion in the Postbellum Slave Narrative: Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley." Black American Literature Forum 23, no. 1 (1989): 5-16. view record
    Fleischner, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly: The Remarkable Story of the Friendship between a First Lady and a Former Slave. New York: Broadway Books, 2003. view record
    Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs. Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., 1868. view record
    Rinaldi, Ann. An Unlikely Friendship: A Novel of Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2007. view record
    Sorisio, Carolyn. "Unmasking The Genteel Performer: Elizabeth Keckley's 'Behind The Scenes' and the Politics of Public Wrath." African American Review 34, no. 1 (2000): 19-38. view record
    How to Cite This Page: "Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,