Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress pens tell-all

Maggie Braun

By A Contributor

Jennifer Chiaverini writes a historical novel rich with details of the relationship between President Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and her personal “modiste,” Elizabeth Keckley.

Elizabeth was a freed slave who moved to Washington, D.C., after living in several other cities. Through hard work as a seamstress, she bought her freedom for herself and her son. One of Elizabeth’s first devoted customers was the wife of Robert E. Lee, who wanted Elizabeth to move with her to their Virginia home because the Southern states were talking of secession. Elizabeth enjoyed her freedom too much and did not want to return to an area that might jeopardize that.

She also sewed clothes for the McLean family, which promised to introduce her to Mrs. Lincoln at about the time of President Lincoln’s first inauguration. Mrs. Lincoln did hire Elizabeth to be her dressmaker and confidante. In her role, Elizabeth learned a lot about Mrs. Lincoln and her family; she also learned that the first lady was not the easiest person to get along with. The White House was in disarray and Mrs. Lincoln wanted to make it the showcase she thought it should be. However, Congress didn’t want to spend much money on a house when there was a war to pay for.

Elizabeth’s son was in college but enlisted in the army and served in the First Missouri Volunteers. He was killed in action in 1861. The Lincolns had three sons, Robert, Willie and Tad. Willie had become sick as the Lincolns were preparing for the New Year’s ball; the family thought about canceling the event but went ahead with it.

Willie never recovered and died a short time afterward. Ms. Lincoln was overcome with grief and never fully got over Willie’s death. She tried to ease her grief by using mediums who told her they could communicate with the dead.

Elizabeth decided after her own son’s death and Willie’s that she needed to help others. She focused her energies on the thousands of freed slaves who sought refuge in the country’s capital. They had nowhere to go or live and had no means of support. She raised money for them, taught a few of them how to sew and started the Contraband Relief Association. 

One day when Ms. Lincoln was riding in her carriage, it suddenly broke apart and she fell and hit her head.  Later it was discovered that the carriage had been tampered with and that President Lincoln, not his wife, was supposed to be riding in it that day. After that, Mrs. Lincoln had her husband increase security around. The president had received many death threats while in office.

After President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Mrs. Lincoln and her two sons had to move out of the White House.

At that time there were no provisions for widows of the president, and President Lincoln had not written a will. Mrs. Lincoln had a hard time trying to figure out how to support herself. She was several thousand dollars in debt. She enlisted Elizabeth to help her with a bizarre scheme of selling her old dresses.

This didn’t work out well. Mrs. Lincoln was depicted negatively in the newspapers because Andrew Johnson, who succeeded President Lincoln, had to spend a lot of money to refurbish the White House. That was necessary because after Lincoln was killed, servants and strangers looted the White House of furniture; the press blamed Mrs. Lincoln. Even though her husband had been loved, she was not. All during this time, Elizabeth was too busy helping Mrs. Lincoln to cope with her own troubles. To support herself, Elizabeth wrote a biography titled “Behind the Scenes” about living at the White House. Reviewers considered gossip and the book was not well received.

Mrs. Lincoln, who felt her trust had been betrayed, never talked to Elizabeth again. Elizabeth lived to be 82.

The book is a fascinating read, filled with details of the goings-on in Washington during the Civil War. Seen through Elizabeth’s eyes, the story portrays one of the darkest times in American history as well as one of the darkest of times for Mrs. Lincoln.

Ms. Chiaverini, a graduate of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, is perhaps best known for her Elm Creek Quilts novels; she is a quilter herself.

Maggie Braun is a special education teacher at Manhattan High and a Manhattan resident.

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