Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> North American Slave Narratives, The North Carolina Experience >> Document Menu >> Summary

Elizabeth Keckley, ca. 1818-1907
Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House
New York: G. W. Carleton & Co., Publishers, 1868.


Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (ca. 1818-1907) was born enslaved in Dinwiddie County, Virginia, to Agnes Hobbs and George Pleasant, a man owned by a different master. Keckley experienced harsh treatment under slavery, including beatings as well as the sexual assault of a white man, Alexander Kirkland, by whom she had a son named George. She was eventually given to Burwell's daughter, Ann Garland—with whom she moved to St. Louis. There she became a dressmaker and supported Garland's entire household for over two years. She married James Keckley around 1852, discovering only afterward that he was not a freeman. Prior to her marriage, Keckley had negotiated with the Garlands to purchase her freedom and that of her son, but she could not raise the required $1,200, because of the strain of supporting her "dissipated" husband and the Garland household (p. 50). Sympathetic customers loaned Keckley the money to purchase her freedom and that of her son in 1855. In 1860, she left her husband and moved to Washington, D.C., where she set up a dressmaking shop. Keckley's clients were the wives of influential politicians, and she eventually became the dresser and close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. After President Lincoln's assassination, Keckley made several attempts to raise money for the former first lady, including an 1867 clothing auction that scandalized the public. Keckley published Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House in 1868, partly to help Mrs. Lincoln financially and partly to counter criticism of Mrs. Lincoln. Though Keckley anticipated some disapproval for publishing personal details about Mrs. Lincoln and White House private life, she did not foresee the overwhelming public disapproval that led to the end of her dressmaking career as well as condemnation from the Lincoln family. She left Washington in 1892 to teach domestic skills at Wilberforce University, but ill health forced her to return and spend her final years in the Home for Destitute Women and Children, which she had helped to establish. She died there after a stroke in 1907.

Though the verifiable facts in Behind the Scenes have affirmed the text's authenticity, there is speculation about the level of involvement of Keckley's editor, James Redpath. Some critics have conjectured that Redpath might have been involved more as a transcriber who helped Keckley compile the text from interviews than as an editor of her manuscript. Behind the Scenes remains an important text for its insight into Keckley's early life in slavery as well as its intimate look at Mary Lincoln's life. Lincoln scholars have relied on the autobiography for information about White House domestic life, anecdotes about President Lincoln, and Mary Lincoln's experiences and opinions during the 1860s. Lincoln biographers including Carl Sandburg and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., as well as biographers of Mary Todd Lincoln, have quoted extensively from Keckley's text.

In her preface to Behind the Scenes, Keckley acknowledges the potentially controversial nature of her autobiography but justifies its publication as a defense of Mrs. Lincoln, who was being attacked by those with limited knowledge of Mrs. Lincoln or her circumstances for allowing her clothes to be viewed and sold publicly. Keckley argues: "The world have judged Mrs. Lincoln by the facts which float upon the surface, and through her have partially judged me, and the only way to convince them that wrong was not meditated is to explain the motives that actuated us" (p. xiv).

The first chapters describe Keckley's childhood and life in slavery. The love of Keckley's immediate family contrasts sharply with the abuse she receives at the hands of her owners. Keckley's mother is "kind and forbearing," and although her father, George, is allowed to visit only once a year, his affection is evident. When George's master takes him west, the family is forever parted, to their intense distress. Mrs. Burwell, however, is unmoved by the family's sorrow, remarking "Stop your nonsense . . . Your husband is not the only slave that has been sold from his family . . . There are plenty more men about here, and if you want a husband so badly, stop your crying and go and find another" (pp. 24-25). Writing against the antebellum myth of the happy slave, Keckley observes that slave owners were the cause of much suffering, and yet Colonel Burwell "never liked to see one of his slaves wear a sorrowful face, and those who offended in this particular way were always punished. Alas! the sunny face of the slave is not always an indication of sunshine in the heart" (p. 29).

At fourteen, Keckley is sent to live in North Carolina as a charitable loan to Burwell's eldest son, who could not afford his own servants. Keckley's presence causes rancor with young Mrs. Burwell. She encourages Mr. Bingham, the village schoolmaster, to abuse Keckley physically in order to subdue her "proud, rebellious spirit" (p. 38). After numerous encounters in which Keckley fights back against Bingham's severe floggings, Mrs. Burwell's heart is moved to pity, and Bingham ceases to flog her. During this period, Keckley is raped by a white man, a topic to which she alludes only obliquely, explaining that "I do not care to dwell upon this subject, for it is one that is fraught with pain" (p. 39). She gives birth to a son, named George. After several years, Keckley and her son are given to Mr. Garland, who had married Col. Burwell's daughter, Ann. Garland moves the family to St. Louis, but he is poor and unable to support his family, so Keckley becomes a seamstress and dressmaker. She quickly acquires a good reputation and large clientele: "The best ladies in St. Louis were my patrons . . . With my needle I kept bread in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years and five months" (p. 45). At this time she begins to consider a marriage proposal from James Keckley, whom she believes is a freeman from Virginia. However, she does not wish to marry or have additional children while enslaved. She negotiates with Garland to buy her freedom and that of her son for $1200, under which condition she consents to marry. Unfortunately, Keckley is soon disillusioned, as her husband "proved dissipated, and a burden instead of a helpmate. More than all, I learned that he was a slave" (p. 50). Unable to raise the money while also supporting her husband and the Garland family, Keckley receives a loan from sympathetic patrons and obtains her freedom in 1855.

After paying back her clients, Keckley leaves her husband and takes her son to Washington, D.C., where she opens a dressmaking shop in the spring of 1860. Her clients are the wives of well-known politicians, including Senator Jefferson Davis. Davis's wife is so pleased with Keckley that she offers to take her south. Although Keckley promises to consider her offer, she prefers "to cast my [lot] among the people of the North" (p. 73). Keckley's dream is to become dressmaker to the wife of the President, which she achieves when she is referred by one of her clients. Keckley becomes Mary Todd Lincoln's primary dressmaker and "modiste," as well as the dressmaker for such leading ladies of Washington society as the wives of Senator Stephen Douglass, Commissioner of Revenue David Wells, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.

Over the following years, Keckley and Mary Todd Lincoln become close. Keckley is often called to the White House to dress the first lady, where she witnesses intimate moments between the President and his wife, receives the confidences of Mrs. Lincoln, and observes the domestic interactions of the first family. Keckley is also present during many of Mrs. Lincoln's discussions with her husband, during which the latter offers opinions about members of his cabinet or his political affairs. Keckley and Mrs. Lincoln also bond over the loss of their sons—Keckley appreciates Mrs. Lincoln's consoling letter after her son George is killed at the battle of Wilson's Creek, Missouri, in August 1861, and Mrs. Lincoln relies heavily on Keckley during her grief after young Willie Lincoln dies of typhoid fever. As the Civil War draws to a close, Keckley is close enough to the Lincoln family to be invited to join the presidential party during a triumphant tour of conquered Richmond.

Keckley is Mrs. Lincoln's primary confidante during the devastating period after President Lincoln's assassination. She describes Mrs. Lincoln's intense grief as well as her financial troubles, during which the former First Lady relies on Keckley for solace. She accompanies the Lincolns on their return west, and Behind the Scenes includes much of the correspondence written during this time, illustrating Mrs. Lincoln's grief, her frustration at Congress' failure to provide financial support, and her anxiety about finding alternative sources of income. In publishing these letters, Keckley attempts to justify the dress sale that so outraged the public and caused them to criticize Mrs. Lincoln for her lack of decorum. However, by revealing even more private details regarding Mary Todd Lincoln's feelings and her financial struggles, Keckley transgresses further conventions of modesty and privacy, regardless of her intended desire to counter the original public censure. Thus, Behind the Scenes is a valuable text for its insightful and very human portrayal of two lionized figures of American history, although the book's publication extracted a high cost from its author.

Works Consulted: Keough, Leyla, "Keckley, Elizabeth," Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience, Second Ed., eds. Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr., Oxford African American Studies Center, retrieved 26 February 2009; Marlowe, Gertrude Woodruff, "Keckley, Elizabeth Hobbs," American National Biography Online, retrieved 26 February 2009; Reed, Rosemary, "Keckley, Elizabeth," Black Women in America, Second Ed., ed. Darlene Clark-Hine, Oxford African American Studies Center, retrieved 26 February 2009.

Jenn Williamson

Document menu