The close but unlikely friendship between Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley would be permanently shattered by what Mrs. Lincoln would consider a gross betrayal. It was not intended as such.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Debts
When Mary Lincoln was First Lady, merchants in New York and Philadelphia were delighted to grant her unlimited credit. She ran up huge bills that her husband knew nothing about.
Once Abraham Lincoln was dead, however, the merchants had no reason to court his widow. They began dunning her for payment. Mary confessed to Elizabeth Keckley, her mulatto dressmaker and close confidante, that she believed she owed about $38,000 – an enormous sum. Modern historians have tried, but have never been able to make an exact calculation. Historian Jean Baker surmises the debts were more like $10,000 – still an enormous sum. In Lincoln’s best financial year in Springfield, he only earned $6,000.
Lincoln had died without a will. It would take more than two years to settle his estate, and even then, it was divided equally between Mary, his widow, and his two sons: Robert and Tad, a minor.
Congress had been miserly with the Widow Lincoln. There was no such thing as a Presidential Widow’s pension. They gave her the balance of Lincoln’s one-year salary of $25,000. That is what they had given the widow of William Henry Harrison, and that was a quarter-century earlier.
Congress as a whole did not like Mrs. Lincoln. They believed she was extravagant (probably very true), and some still believed she was a Confederate sympathizer (not true).
Meanwhile Mary was panicked by her mountain of debt, compounded by her need to keep it as private as possible.
Mary had prevailed upon Elizabeth Keckley to accompany her and her children back to Chicago. “Lizzie” stayed for about six weeks, and later claimed that “listening to Mrs. Lincoln sob for three months was about as much as she could stand.” More importantly, the former First Lady could no longer pay Mrs. Keckley, and the dressmaker was neglecting her own business. Mary was very generous in her promises, and sincere in her willingness to repay Mrs. K. She would be happy to share whatever pension or contributions Congress or the rich Republicans would give her, but they were not giving her anything. Meanwhile Lizzie was just as broke as Mary Lincoln claimed to be.
The Old Clothes Scandal: A Brief Overview
Mary Lincoln wore only “widow’s weeds” after her husband’s death, but she had accumulated a large First Lady wardrobe of elegant and expensive gowns that she would never wear again. In an effort to raise money, she decided to sell some of her clothing.
This was 1868 – long before the Smithsonian began its First Ladies collection. If any one of Mary’s dresses were available to the public today, it would bring thousands of dollars. But in 1868 it was not only tacky, but was considered scandalous.
The former First Lady went to New York under an assumed name, and with a reluctant Elizabeth Keckley, the only person she trusted in tow, they haunted the thrift stores and resale shops, hoping for a buyer. Nobody was going to give “Mrs. Clarke,” as she was calling herself, the money she sought.
Finally she became entangled with a shady pair of salesmen who sold her the proverbial bill of goods. They had guessed her true identity, and convinced her that it would be beneficial to hold an auction. Mary took the bait.
It became a complicated and convoluted series of events. Mrs. Lincoln finally returned to Chicago, leaving a completely unequipped Lizzie Keckley to manage. Then the auctioneers compounded the problem by coaxing Mrs. Lincoln into providing “personal letters” they could show to potential buyers. Sort of a shiny version of blackmail. The auction became a huge scandal and was reported in all the newspapers, completely humiliating the former First Lady, and her son Robert as well. Her mortification was further exacerbated since the event was a total failure and she had to pay more than $800 to retrieve her own clothes.
“Behind the Scenes”
Elizabeth Keckley never had any intention or desire to harm Mrs. Lincoln or any of the Lincoln family. Whatever she did was motivated by her own financial need.
Her dressmaking business in Washington was failing rapidly without the First Lady’s patronage. The Widow Mary had no money to pay a seamstress, but was still commandeering an enormous amount of Mrs. Keckley’s unpaid time.
Leaving Lizzie in New York to oversee the auction was a foolish decision in many ways. First and foremost, the seamstress was totally unequal to handling delicate business responsibilities. Secondly, she was desperate for money. She was approached by a writer who suggested they collaborate on her story: the memoir of a Negro woman who had purchased her own freedom and had become the seamstress to the First Lady of the land. They titled it Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. The publishers wanted to make money. Lizzie Keckley wanted to avoid poverty.
When Behind the Scenes was published, Mrs. Lincoln (and Lincoln intimates) were horrified at the invasion of the Lincolns’ privacy. Mary was particularly devastated at the publication of several of her personal letters to her seamstress.
Her son Robert and some of Lincoln’s old friends quietly bought up as many copies as possible, and Behind the Scenes was as much a failure as Mary’s old clothes auction.
Elizabeth Keckley never made any money from the book, and would die forgotten and in the poverty she justly feared.
And Mary Lincoln never spoke to her – or of her – again.
Baker, Jean – Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography – W.W.Norton & Co. 1999
Clinton, Catherine – Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, HarperCollins, 2009
Fleischner, Jennifer – Mrs Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly. New York: Broadway Books, 2003.