Another Assassination, Another Widow, Another Embattled Book

Just about a hundred years ago, there was another shattering presidential assassination, another desperately unhappy (albeit very different) widow, and another well-meaning but indiscreet intimate who wrote a book that someone named Robert would have liked to suppress. The book that outraged Robert Todd Lincoln was called Behind the Scenes; Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. It was published in 1868, three years after the fatal shot in Ford’s Theatre, and the author meant only to do good. She was Elizabeth Keckley, a modiste (in her own elegant phrase] who wanted to present a true picture of the much-maligned Mary Lincoln and to aid her financially. —The Editors

Elizabeth Keckley, a mulatto woman and a former slave, was Mary Lincoln’s choice as a dressmaker when the President’s wife first came to the White House. Her skill, tact, and trustworthiness endeared her to Mrs. Lincoln, and she became in turn personal maid, travelling companion, nurse, and confidante. She shared the joys and sorrows of the White House family and helped to nurse Willie Lincoln in his fatal illness. She aided in washing his body and preparing him for burial. She was in attendance when Mrs. Lincoln’s inconsolable grief at the loss of her child brought her to the edge of madness. Three years later, after President Lincoln’s assassination, Mrs. Keckley nursed the widow in the White House and together with Robert Lincoln undertook the tremendous task of packing Mrs. Lincoln’s effects preparatory to leaving the official residence. Mrs. Lincoln, a compulsive shopper and incorrigible hoarder, would leave nothing behind. Her exasperated son urged her to set fire to the lot. “Robert is so impulsive,” said Mrs. Lincoln to Mrs. Keckley.

After waiting upon Mrs. Lincoln for some time in Chicago, Mrs. Keckley returned to Washington to rehire her sewing girls and set her dressmaking establishment in working order once more. In March, 1867, Mary Lincoln asked Mrs. Keckley to join her in New York to help her market part of her elaborate wardrobe. With many misgivings her faithful friend embarked with her on the sorry business that the newspapers gibed at as “the Old Clothes Speculation.”

In every sense the venture was a disaster. It brought much publicity, all of it bad; Mrs. Lincoln’s groundless belief that she was virtually destitute was exposed for all to see; hardly anything was sold; and in the end she actually lost money on the deal. Robert Lincoln, who had quietly been getting the family finances in order (they were not nearly as desperate as his mother had led herself to believe), was deeply humiliated; Mrs. Lincoln herself was almost distracted.

Then, in the spring of 1868, Elizabeth Keckley brought out her book, Behind the Scenes. She had procured the help of a ghost writer and hoped that the book would make enough money to enable her to help Mrs. Lincoln. Unfortunately, it did nothing of the kind. It got a good deal of space in the newspapers, but the effect was simply to tarnish Mrs. Lincoln’s image further and to make Mrs. Keckley the target of bitter attacks. Before long the book simply dropped out of sight and is now hard to find. One account says that Robert Lincoln put pressure on the publisher to suppress it; another, that it simply died.

Nevertheless, the book has been a valuable source for historians, and biographers of the Lincolns have used much of its material. It includes a number of Mrs. Lincoln’s letters which do not appear anywhere else and which present a graphic picture of her deep emotional instability. Apparently Mrs. Keckley had trustfully given the letters to her collaborator with strict instructions to exclude all personal material and to use only brief extracts. However, they were printed with little editing and reveal much that embarrassed Mrs. Lincoln and infuriated her sensitive son.

When Mrs. Keckley found out that her instructions had been disobeyed, she hurried to Robert Lincoln to explain and apologize. She was brusquely turned away. Years later, when about to retire to a home for the destitute, the aged seamstress appealed once more to Mr. Lincoln. Once more he utterly refused to see her.

To the end of her days the episode of her book was a grief of which Mrs. Keckley could hardly bear to speak. It has been claimed that in her latter days she heard from Mrs. Lincoln “in a roundabout way.” However, their friendship had been flawed forever.

Here are excerpts from the book:

Mrs. Lincoln’s love for her husband … [made her] extremely jealous of him, and if a lady desired to court her displeasure, she could select no surer way to do it than to pay marked attention to the President. These little jealous freaks often were a source of perplexity to Mr. Lincoln. If it was a reception for which they were dressing, he would come into her room to conduct her downstairs, and while pulling on his gloves ask, with a merry twinkle in his eyes:

“Well, Mother, who must I talk with to-night—shall it be Mrs. D.?”

“That deceitful woman! No, you shall not listen to her flattery.”

“Well, then, what do you say to Miss C.? She is too young and handsome to practice deceit.”

“Young and handsome, you call her! You should not judge beauty for me. No, she is in league with Mrs. D., and you shall not talk with her.”

“Well, Mother, I must talk with some one. Is there any one that you do not object to?” trying to button his glove, with a mock expression of gravity.

“I don’t know as it is necessary that you should talk to anybody in particular. You know well enough, Mr. Lincoln, that I do not approve of your flirtations with silly women, just as if you were a beardless boy, fresh from school.”