- Historic Sites
Another Assassination, Another Widow, Another Embattled Book
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
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.”
“But, Mother, I insist that I must talk with somebody. I can’t stand around like a simpleton, and say nothing. If you will not tell me who I may talk with, please tell me who I may not talk with.”
“There is Mrs. D. and Miss C. in particular. I detest them both. Mrs. B. also will come around you, but you need not listen to her flattery. These are the ones in particular.”
“Very well, Mother; now that we have settled the question to your satisfaction, we will go down-stairs”; and always with stately dignity, he proffered his arm and led the way.
* * *
The President and young Tad were visiting Grant’s headquarters at City Point, Virginia, when Richmond fell, on April 2, 1865. Two days later Lincoln made his dramatic visit to that city. On April 6, Mary Lincoln arrived from Washington and joined her husband on the steamer River Queen.
The Presidential party were all curiosity on entering Richmond. They drove about the streets of the city, and examined every object of interest. … After a delightful visit we returned to City Point.
That night, in the cabin of the River Queen, smiling faces gathered around the dinner-table. One of the guests was a young officer attached to the Sanitary Commission. He was seated near Mrs. Lincoln, and, by way of pleasantry, remarked: “Mrs. Lincoln, you should have seen the President the other day, on his triumphal entry into Richmond. He was the cynosure of all eyes. The ladies kissed their hands to him, and greeted him with the waving of handkerchiefs. He is quite a hero when surrounded by pretty young ladies.”
The young officer suddenly paused with a look of embarrassment. Mrs. Lincoln turned to him with flashing eyes with the remark that his familiarity was offensive to her. Quite a scene followed, and I do not think that the Captain who incurred Mrs. Lincoln’s displeasure will ever forget that memorable evening …
* * *
Often Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln discussed … gentlemen prominent in politics, in my presence. I soon learned that the wife of the President had no love for Mr. Salmon P. Chase, at that time Secretary of the Treasury.…
“Father, I do wish that you would inquire a little into the motives of Chase,” said [Mrs. Lincoln] one day.
The President was lying carelessly upon a sofa, holding a newspaper in his hands. “Mother, you are too suspicious. I give you credit for sagacity, but you are disposed to magnify trifles. Chase is a patriot, and one of my best friends.”
“Yes, one of your best friends because it is his interest to be so. He is anything for Chase. If he thought he could make anything by it, he would betray you to-morrow.” …
Mrs. Lincoln was especially severe on Mr. Wm. H. Seward, Secretary of State. She but rarely lost an opportunity to say an unkind word of him.
One morning I went to the White House earlier than usual. Mr. Lincoln was sitting in a chair, reading a paper, stroking with one hand the head of little Tad. I was basting a dress for Mrs. Lincoln. A servant entered, and handed the President a letter just brought by a messenger. He broke the seal, and when he had read the contents his wife asked:
“Who is the letter from, Father?”
“Seward; I must go over and see him today.”
“Seward! I wish you had nothing to do with that man. He cannot be trusted.”
“You say the same of Chase. If I listened to you, I should soon be without a Cabinet.”
“Better be without it than to confide in some of the men that you do. Seward is worse than Chase. He has no principle.”
“Mother, you are mistaken; your prejudices are so violent that you do not stop to reason. Seward is an able man, and the country as well as myself can trust him.”
“Father, you are too honest for this world! You should have been born a saint. You will generally find it a safe rule to distrust a disappointed, ambitious politician. It makes me mad to see you sit still and let that hypocrite, Seward, twine you around his finger as if you were a skein of thread.”
“It is useless to argue the question, Mother. You cannot change my opinion.” …
When Andrew Johnson was urged for military Governor of Tennessee, Mrs. Lincoln bitterly opposed the appointment.
“He is a demagogue,” she said, almost fiercely, “and if you place him in power, Mr. Lincoln, mark my words, you will rue it some day.”
General McClellan, when made Commander-in-Chief, was the idol of the soldiers, and never was a general more universally popular. “He is a humbug,” remarked Mrs. Lincoln one day in my presence.
“What makes you think so, Mother?” good-naturedly inquired the President.
“Because he talks so much and does so little. If I had the power I would very soon take off his head, and put some energetic man in his place.” …
Mrs. Lincoln could not tolerate General Grant. “He is a butcher,” she would often say, “and is not fit to be at the head of an army.”
“But he has been very successful in the field,” argued the President.
“Yes, he generally manages to claim a victory, but such a victory! He loses two men to the enemy’s one. He has no management, no regard for life. If the war should continue four years longer, and he should remain in power, he would depopulate the North. … Grant, I repeat, is an obstinate fool and a butcher.”
“Well, Mother, supposing that we give you command of the army. No doubt you would do much better than any general that has been tried.” There was a twinkle in the eyes, and a ring of irony in the voice.
I have often heard Mrs. Lincoln say that if Grant should ever be elected President of the United States she would desire to leave the country, and remain absent during his term of office.
It was well known that Mrs. Lincoln’s brothers were in the Confederate army, and for this reason it was often charged that her sympathies were with the South. Those who made the hasty charge were never more widely mistaken.
One morning, on my way to the White House, I heard that Captain Alexander Todd, one of her brothers, had been killed. I did not like to inform Mrs. Lincoln of his death, judging that it would be painful news to her. I had been in her room but a few minutes when she said, with apparent unconcern, “Lizzie, I have just heard that one of my brothers has been killed in the war.”
“I also heard the same, Mrs. Lincoln, but hesitated to speak of it, for fear the subject would be a painful one to you.”
“You need not hesitate. Of course, it is but natural that I should feel for one so nearly related to me, but not to the extent that you suppose. He made his choice long ago. He decided against my husband, and through him against me. He has been fighting against us; and since he chose to be our deadly enemy, I see no special reason why I should bitterly mourn his death.” …
Mr. Lincoln was generous by nature, and though his whole heart was in the war, he could not but respect the valor of those opposed to him.… Time and again I have heard him speak in the highest terms of the soldierly qualities of such brave Confederate generals as Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Joseph E. Johnston. Jackson was his ideal soldier. “He is a brave, honest Presbyterian soldier,” were his words: “what a pity that we should have to fight such a gallant fellow! If we only had such a man to lead the armies of the North, the country would not be appalled with so many disasters.”
As this is a rambling chapter, I will here record an incident showing his feeling toward Robert E. Lee. The very morning of the day on which he was assassinated, his son, Captain Robert Lincoln, came into the room with a portrait of General Lee in his hand. The President… scanned the face thoughtfully, and said: “It is a good face; it is the face of a noble, noble, brave man. I am glad that the war is over at last.”
* * *
Mr. Lincoln, as every one knows, was far from handsome. He was not admired for his graceful figure and finely moulded face, but for the nobility of his soul and the greatness of his heart.
His wife was different. He was wholly unselfish in every respect, and I believe that he loved the mother of his children very tenderly. He asked nothing but affection from her, but did not always receive it. When in one of her wayward impulsive moods, she was apt to say and do things that wounded him deeply. If he had not loved her, she would have been powerless to cloud his thoughtful face, or gild it with a ray of sunshine as she pleased. We are indifferent to those we do not love, and certainly the President was not indifferent to his wife. She often wounded him in unguarded moments, but calm reflection never failed to bring regret.
Mrs. Lincoln was extremely anxious that her husband should be re-elected President of the United States. In endeavoring to make a display becoming her exalted position, she had to incur many expenses. Mr. Lincoln’s salary was inadequate to meet them, and she was forced to run in debt, hoping that good fortune would favor her, and enable her to extricate herself from an embarrassing situation. She bought the most expensive goods on credit, and in the summer of 1864 enormous unpaid bills stared her in the face.
“What do you think about the election, Lizabeth?” she said to me one morning.
“I think that Mr. Lincoln will remain in the White House four years longer,” I replied, looking up from my work.
“What makes you think so? Somehow I have learned to fear that he will be defeated. … If he should be defeated, I do not know what would become of us all. To me, to him, there is more at stake in this election than he dreams of.”
”What can you mean, Mrs. Lincoln? I do not comprehend.”
“Simply this. I have contracted large debts, of which he knows nothing, and which he will be unable to pay if he is defeated.”
“What are your debts, Mrs. Lincoln?”
“They consist chiefly of store bills. I owe altogether about twenty-seven thousand dollars; the principal portion at Stewart’s, in New York. You understand, Lizabeth, that Mr. Lincoln has but little idea of the expense of a woman’s wardrobe. He glances at my rich dresses, and is happy in the belief that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity. The very fact of having grown up in the West subjects me to more searching observation. To keep up appearances, I must have money—more than Mr. Lincoln can spare for me. He is too honest to make a penny outside of his salary; consequently I had, and still have, no alternative but to run in debt.”
“And Mr. Lincoln does not even suspect how much you owe?”
“God, no!”—this was a favorite expression of hers—“and I would not have him suspect. If he knew that his wife was involved to the extent that she is, the knowledge would drive him mad. He is so sincere and straightforward himself, that he is shocked by the duplicity of others. He does not know a thing about any debts, and I value his happiness, not to speak of my own, too much to allow him to know anything. This is what troubles me so much. If he is re-elected, I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs; but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent in, and he will know all”; and something like a hysterical sob escaped her.
Mrs. Lincoln sometimes feared that the politicians would get hold of the particulars of her debts, and use them in the presidential campaign against her husband; and when this thought occurred to her, she was almost crazy with anxiety and fear.
When in one of these excited moods, she would fiercely exclaim—
“The Republican politicians must pay my debts. Hundreds of them are getting immensely rich off the patronage of my husband, and it is but fair that they should help me out of my embarrassment. I will make a demand of them, and when I tell them the facts they cannot refuse to advance whatever money I require.” …
* * *
With the first early breath of spring, thousands of people gathered in Washington to witness the second inauguration of [Mr.] Lincoln… It was a stirring day in the National Capital, and one that will never fade from the memory of those who witnessed the imposing ceremonies. The morning was dark and gloomy; clouds hung like a pall in the sky, as if portending some great disaster. But when the President stepped forward to receive the oath of office, the clouds parted, and a ray of sunshine streamed from the heavens to fall upon and gild his face. … This was Saturday, and on Monday evening I went to the White House to dress Mrs. Lincoln for the first grand levee. While arranging Mrs. L.’s hair, the President came in. It was the first time I had seen him since the inauguration, and I went up to him, proffering my hand with words of congratulation.
He grasped my outstretched hand warmly, and held it while he spoke: “Thank you. Well, Madam Elizabeth”—he always called me Madam Elizabeth—“I don’t know whether I should feel thankful or not. The position brings with it many trials. We do not know what we are destined to pass through. But God will be with us all. I put my trust in God.” He dropped my hand, and with solemn face walked across the room and took his seat on the sofa. Prior to this I had congratulated Mrs. Lincoln, and she had answered with a sigh, “Thank you, Elizabeth; but now that we have won the position, I almost wish it were otherwise. Poor Mr. Lincoln is looking so broken-hearted, so completely worn out, I fear he will not get through the next four years.”
Was it a presentiment that made her take a sad view of the future? News from the front was never more cheering. On every side the Confederates were losing ground, and the lines of blue were advancing in triumph. As I would look out my window almost every day, I could see the artillery going past on its way to the open space of ground, to fire a salute in honor of some new victory. From every point came glorious news of the success of the soldiers that fought for the Union. And yet, in their private chamber, away from the curious eyes of the world, the President and his wife wore sad, anxious faces. …
The days passed without any incident of particular note disturbing the current of life. Oil Friday morning, April 14th—alas! what American does not remember the day—I saw Mrs. Lincoln but for a moment. She told me that she was to attend the theatre that night with the President, but I was not summoned to assist her in making her toilette. Sherman had swept from the northern border of Georgia through the heart of the Confederacy down to the sea, striking the deathblow to the rebellion. Grant had pursued General Lee beyond Richmond, and the army of Virginia, that had made such stubborn resistance, was crumbling to pieces. … There was great rejoicing throughout the North. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, flags were gayly thrown to the breeze, and at night every city blazed with its tens of thousand lights. But scarcely had the fireworks ceased to play, and the lights been taken down from the windows, when the lightning flashed the most appalling news over the magnetic wires. “The President has been murdered!” spoke the swift-winged messenger, and the loud huzza died upon the lips. A nation suddenly paused in the midst of festivity, and stood paralyzed with horror. …
At eleven o’clock [that] night I was awakened by an old friend and neighbor, Miss M. Brown, with the startling intelligence that the entire Cabinet had been assassinated, and Mr. Lincoln shot, but not mortally wounded. When I heard the words I felt as if the blood had been frozen in my veins, and that my lungs must collapse for the want of air. Mr. Lincoln shot! the Cabinet assassinated! What could it mean? The streets were alive with wondering, awe-stricken people. Rumors flew thick and fast, and the wildest reports came with every new arrival. The words were repeated with blanched cheeks and quivering lips. I waked Mr. and Mrs. Lewis, and told them that the President was shot, and that I must go to the White House. I could not remain in a state of uncertainty. I felt that the house would not hold me. They tried to quiet me, but gentle words could not calm the wild tempest. They quickly dressed themselves, and we sallied out into the street to drift with the excited throng. We walked rapidly towards the White House and … [found it] surrounded with soldiers. Every entrance was strongly guarded, and no one was permitted to pass. The guard at the gate told us that Mr. Lincoln had not been brought home, but refused to give any other information. More excited than ever, we wandered down the street. Grief and anxiety were making me weak, and as we joined the outskirts of a large crowd, I began to feel as meek and humble as a penitent child. … Never did the hours drag so slowly. Every moment seemed an age, and I could do nothing but walk about and hold my arms in mental agony.
Morning came at last, and a sad morning was it. The flags that floated so gayly yesterday now were draped in black, and hung in silent folds at half-mast. The President was dead, and a nation was mourning for him. Every house was draped in black, and every face wore a solemn look. People spoke in subdued tones, and glided whisperingly, wonderingly, silently about the streets.
About eleven o’clock on Saturday morning a carriage drove up to the door, and a messenger asked for “Elizabeth Keckley.”
“Who wants her?” I asked.
“I come from Mrs. Lincoln. If you are Mrs. Keckley, come with me immediately to the White House.”
I hastily put on my shawl and bonnet, and was driven at a rapid rate to the White House. Everything about the building was sad and solemn. I was quickly shown to Mrs. Lincoln’s room, and on entering, saw Mrs. L. tossing uneasily about upon a bed. The room was darkened, and the only person in it besides the widow of the President was Mrs. Secretary Welles, who had spent the night with her.…
“Why did you not come to me last night, Elizabeth—I sent for you?” Mrs. Lincoln asked in a low whisper.
“I did try to come to you, but I could not find you,” I answered, as I laid my hand upon her hot brow. …
Shortly after entering the room on Saturday morning, Mrs. Welles excused herself, as she said she must go to her own family, and I was left alone with Mrs. Lincoln.
She was nearly exhausted with grief, and when she became a little quiet, I asked and received permission to go into the Guests’ Room, where the body of the President lay in state. When I crossed the threshold of the room, I could not help recalling the day on which I had seen little Willie lying in his coffin where the body of his father now lay. I remembered how the President had wept over the pale beautiful face of his gifted boy, and now the President himself was dead. The last time I saw him he spoke kindly to me, but alas! the lips would never move again. … The Moses of my people had fallen in the hour of his triumph. …
When I entered the room, the members of the Cabinet and many distinguished officers of the army were grouped around the body of their fallen chief. They made room for me, and, approaching the body, I lifted the white cloth from the white face of the man that I had worshipped as an idol—looked upon as a demi-god. Notwithstanding the violence of the death of the President, there was something beautiful as well as grandly solemn in the expression of the placid face. There lurked the sweetness and gentleness of childhood, and the stately grandeur of god-like intellect. I gazed long at the face, and turned away with tears in my eyes and a choking sensation in my throat. …
Returning to Mrs. Lincoln’s room, I found her in a new paroxysm of grief. Robert was bending over his mother with tender affection, and little Tad was crouched at the foot of the bed with a world of agony in his young face. I shall never forget the scene—the wails of a broken heart, the unearthly shrieks, the terrible convulsions, the wild, tempestuous outbursts of grief from the soul. I bathed Mrs. Lincoln’s head with cold water, and soothed the terrible tornado as best I could. Tad’s grief at his father’s death was as great as the grief of his mother, but her terrible outbursts awed the boy into silence. Sometimes he would throw his arms around her neck, and exclaim, between his broken sobs, “Don’t cry so. Mamma! don’t cry, or you will make me cry, too! You will break my heart.”
Mrs. Lincoln could not bear to hear Tad cry, and when he would plead to her not to break his heart, she would calm herself with a great effort, and clasp her child in her arms.
Every room in the White House was darkened, and every one spoke in subdued tones, and moved about with muffled tread. The very atmosphere breathed of the great sorrow which weighed heavily upon each heart. Mrs. Lincoln never left her room, and while the body of her husband was being borne in solemn state from the Atlantic to the broad prairies of the West, she was weeping with her fatherless children in her private chamber. She denied admittance to almost every one, and I was her only companion, except her children.…
After the President’s funeral Mrs. Lincoln rallied, and began to make preparations to leave the White House. One day she suddenly exclaimed: “God, Elizabeth, what a change! Did ever woman have to suffer so much and experience so great a change? I had an ambition to be Mrs. President; that ambition has been gratified, and now I must step down from the pedestal. My poor husband! had he never been President, he might be living to-day. Alas! all is over with me!”
Folding her arms for a few moments, she rocked back and forth, then commenced again, more vehemently than ever: “My God, Elizabeth, I can never go back to Springfield! no, never, until I go in my shroud to be laid by my dear husband’s side, and may Heaven speed that day! I should like to live for my sons, but life is so full of misery that I would rather die.” And then she would go off into a fit of hysterics.
* * *
There was much surmise, when Mrs. Lincoln left the White House, what her fifty or sixty boxes, not to count her score of trunks, could contain. … The boxes were loosely packed, and many of them with articles not worth carrying away. …
The bonnets that she brought with her from Springfield, in addition to every one purchased during her residence in Washington, were packed in the boxes, and transported to Chicago. She remarked that she might find use for the material some day, and it was prudent to look to the future. I am sorry to say that Mrs. Lincoln’s foresight in regard to the future was only confined to cast-off clothing, as she owed, at the time of the President’s death, different store bills amounting to seventy thousand dollars. Mr. Lincoln knew nothing of these bills, and the only happy feature of his assassination was that he died in ignorance of them. Had he known … [it] would have embittered the only pleasant moments of his life.
At last everything was packed, and the day for departure for the West came. I can never forget that day; it was so unlike the day when the body of the President was borne from the hall in grand and solemn state. Then thousands gathered to bow the head in reverence as the plumed hearse drove down the line. There was all the pomp of military display—drooping flags, battalions with reversed arms, and bands playing dirge-like airs. Now, the wife of the President was leaving the White House, and there was scarcely a friend to tell her good-by. She passed down the public stairway, entered her carriage, and quietly drove to the depot where we took the cars. The silence was almost painful. …
The trip was devoid of interest. We arrived in Chicago without accident or delay, and apartments were secured for us at the Tremont House, where we remained one week. At the expiration of this time Mrs. Lincoln decided that living at the hotel was attended with too much expense, so it was arranged that we should go to the country. Rooms were selected at Hyde Park, a summer resort.
Robert and Tad accompanied their mother to Hyde Park. We arrived about three o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday. The place had just been opened the summer before, and there was a newness about everything. The accommodations were not first-class, the rooms being small and plainly furnished. It was a lively day for us all. Robert occupied himself unpacking his books, and arranging them on the shelves in the corner of his small but neat room. I assisted him, he talking pleasantly all the while. When we were through, he folded his arms, stood off a little distance from the mantel, with an abstracted look as if he were thinking of the great change in his fortunes—contrasting the present with the past. Turning to me, he asked: “Well, Mrs. Keckley, how do you like our new quarters?”
“This is a delightful place, and I think you will pass your time pleasantly,” I answered.
He looked at me with a quizzical smile, then remarked: “You call it a delightful place! Well, perhaps it is. Since you do not have to stay here, you can safely say as much about the charming situation as you please. I presume that I must put up with it, as mother’s pleasure must be consulted before my own. But candidly, I would almost as soon be dead as be compelled to remain three months in this dreary house.”
He seemed to feel what he said, and going to the window, he looked out upon the view with moody countenance. I passed into Mrs. Lincoln’s room, and found her lying upon the bed, sobbing as if her heart would break.
“What a dreary place, Lizzie! and to think that I should be compelled to live here, because I have not the means to live elsewhere. Ah! what a sad change has come to us all.” I had listened to her sobbing for eight weeks, therefore I was never surprised to find her in tears. Tad was the only cheerful one of the party. He was a child of sunshine, and nothing seemed to dampen the ardor of his spirits.
On Monday morning, Robert was getting ready to ride into Chicago, as business called him to the city.
“Where you goin’, Brother Bob?”—Tad generally called Robert “Brother Bob.”
“Only into town!” was the brief reply.
“Mayn’t I go with you?”
“Ask Mother. I think that she will say no.”
Just then Mrs. Lincoln came in, and Tad ran to her, with the eager question:
“Oh, Ma! can’t I go to town with Brother Bob? I want to go so badly.”
“Go to town! No; you must stay and keep me company. Besides, I have determined that you shall get a lesson every day, and I am going to commence to-day with you.”
“I don’t want to get a lesson—I won’t get a lesson,” broke in the impetuous boy. “I don’t want to learn my book; I want to go to town!”
“I suppose you want to grow up to be a great dunce. Hush, Tad; you shall not go to town until you have said a lesson”; and the mother looked resolute.
“May I go after I learn my book?” was the next question.
“Yes; if Robert will wait for you.”
“Oh, Bob will wait; won’t you, Bob?”
“No, I cannot wait; but the landlord is going in this afternoon, and you can go with him. You must do as Mother tells you, Tad. You are getting to be a big boy now, and must start to school next fall; and you would not like to go to school without knowing how to read.”
“Where’s my book, Ma? Get my book quick. I will say my lesson,” and he jumped about the room, boisterously, boylike.
“Be quiet, Tad. Here is your book, and we will now begin the first lesson,” said his mother, as she seated herself in an easy chair.
Tad had always been much humored by his parents, especially by his father. He suffered from a slight impediment in his speech, and had never been made to go to school; consequently his book knowledge was very limited. I knew that his education had been neglected, but had no idea he was so deficient as the first lesson at Hyde Park proved him to be.
Drawing a low chair to his mother’s side, he opened his book, and began to slowly spell the first word, “a-p-e.”
“Well, what does a-p-e spell?”
“Monkey,” was the instant rejoinder. The word was illustrated by a small woodcut of an ape, which looked to Tad’s eyes very much like a monkey; and his pronunciation was guided by the picture, and not by the sounds of the different letters.
“Nonsense!” exclaimed his mother. “A-p-e does not spell monkey.”
“Does spell monkey! Isn’t that a monkey?” and Tad pointed triumphantly to the picture.
“No, it is not a monkey.”
“Not a monkey! what is it, then?”
“An ape! ‘taint an ape. Don’t I know a monkey when I see it?”
“No, if you say that is a monkey.”
“I do know a monkey. I’ve seen lots of them in the street with the organs. I know a monkey better than you do, ‘cause I always go out into the street to see them when they come by, and you don’t.”
“But, Tad, listen to me. An ape is a species of the monkey. It looks like a monkey, but it is not a monkey.”
“It shouldn’t look like a monkey, then. Here, Yib—he always called me Yib—”isn’t this a monkey, and don’t a-p-e spell monkey? Ma don’t know anything about it”; and he thrust his book into my face in an earnest, excited manner.
I could no longer restrain myself, and burst out laughing. Tad looked very much offended, and I hastened to say: “I beg your pardon, Master Tad; I hope that you will excuse my want of politeness.”
He bowed his head in a patronizing way, and returned to the original question: “Isn’t this a monkey? Don’t a-p-e spell monkey?”
“No, Tad; your mother is right. A-p-e spells ape.”
“You don’t know as much as Ma. Both of you don’t know anything”; and Master Tad’s eyes flashed with indignation.
Robert entered the room, and the question was referred to him. After many explanations, he succeeded in convincing Tad that a-p-e does not spell monkey, and the balance of the lesson was got over with less difficulty.
Whenever I think of this incident I am tempted to laugh; and then it occurs to me that had Tad been a negro boy, not the son of a President, and so difficult to instruct, he would have been called thick-skulled, and would have been held up as an example of the inferiority of race.
* * *
Mrs. Lincoln was not left a pauper after her husband’s death, but she was in reduced circumstances. Ruth Painter Randall, in Mary Lincoln: Biography of a Marriage, says that the President left an estate of $83,000, which under the management of his friend and former campaign manager, Judge David Davis of Illinois, increased to $110,000 by 1868. Since Mr. Lincoln died intestate, the estate was equally divided among his wife and two surviving sons, Robert and Tad, giving each about $37,000. This brought each an annual income of between $1,500 and $1,800; in all probability, that is the “$1,700” referred to in Mrs. Lincoln’s letter to Mrs. Keckley quoted below. In addition, a public subscription for the widow netted her something over $10,000 in cash. Congress voted to pay her the late President’s salary for one year; with deductions, that came to about $22,000. There was no statutory provision in those days for a pension for a President’s widow; Congress would not get around to voting one for Mary Lincoln until 1870, and then political wrangling would keep it small: $3,000 a year. And, of course, there were all those department-store debts to be paid off.
So in 1867 she conceived the idea of selling some of the clothing she had packed away in boxes when she left the White House. She travelled to New York under the alias “Mrs. Clarke” and sought out a commission broker named W. H. Brady at 609 Broadway. Brady and an associate named Keyes were a pair of shrewd operators. They soon discovered the real identity of “Mrs. Clarke,” with the sad results Mrs. Keckley describes.
In March, 1867, Mrs. Lincoln wrote to me from Chicago that, as her income was insufficient to meet her expenses, she would be obliged to give up her house in the city and return to boarding. She said that she had struggled long enough to keep up appearances, and … “I have not the means,” she wrote, “to meet the expenses of even a first-class boarding-house, and must sell out and secure cheap rooms at some place in the country. It will not be startling news to you, my dear Lizzie, to learn that I must sell a portion of my wardrobe to add to my resources, so as to enable me to live decently, for you remember what I told you in Washington, as well as what you understood before you left me here in Chicago. I cannot live on $1,700 a year, and as I have many costly things which I shall never wear, I might as well turn them into money, and thus add to my income, and make my circumstances easier. It is humiliating to be placed in such a position, but, as I am in the position, I must extricate myself as best I can. Now, Lizzie, I want to ask a favor of you. It is imperative that I should do something for my relief, and I want you to meet me in New York, between the 30th of August and the 5th of September next, to assist me in disposing of a portion of my wardrobe.” …
She was the wife of Abraham Lincoln, the man who had done so much for my race, and I could refuse to do nothing for her, calculated to advance her interests. I consented to render Mrs. Lincoln all the assistance in my power, and many letters passed between us in regard to the best way to proceed. It was finally arranged that I should meet her in New York about the middle of September. …
I closed my business about the tenth of September, and made every arrangement to leave Washington on the mission proposed. On the fifteenth of September I received a letter from Mrs. Lincoln, postmarked Chicago, saying that she should leave the city so as to reach New York on the night of the 17th, and [stay] … at the St. Denis Hotel in the name of Mrs. Clarke, as her visit was to be incog. … I reached the city in the evening [of September 18]. … I pulled a bell at the ladies’ entrance to the hotel, and a boy coming to the door, I asked:
“Is a lady by the name of Mrs. Clarke stopping here? She came last night, I believe.” … [Mrs. Lincoln] heard me talking, and came into the hall to see herself.
“My dear Lizzie, I am so glad to see you,” she exclaimed, coming forward and giving me her hand. “I have just received your note”—I had written her that I should join her on the eighteenth—”and have been trying to get a room for you. Your note has been here all day, but it was never delivered until to-night. Come in here, until I find out about your room”; and she led me into the office.
The clerk, like all modern hotel clerks, was exquisitely arrayed, highly perfumed, and too self-important to be obliging, or even courteous.
“This is the woman I told you about. I want a good room for her,” Mrs. Lincoln said to the clerk.
“We have no room for her, madam,” was the pointed rejoinder.
“But she must have a room. She is a friend of mine, and I want a room for her adjoining mine.”
“We have no room for her on your floor.”
“That is strange, sir. I tell you that she is a friend of mine, and I am sure you could not give a room to a more worthy person.”
“Friend of yours or not, I tell you we have no room for her on your floor. I can find a place for her on the fifth floor.”
“That, sir, I presume, will be a vast improvement on my room. Well, if she goes to the fifth floor, I shall go too, sir. What is good enough for her is good enough for me.”
“Very well, madam. Shall I give you adjoining rooms, and send your baggage up?”
“Yes, and have it done in a hurry. Let the boy show us up. Come, Elizabeth,” and Mrs. L. turned from the clerk with a haughty glance, and we commenced climbing the stairs. I thought we should never reach the top; and when we did reach the fifth story, what accommodations! Little three-cornered rooms, scantily furnished. I never expected to see the widow of President Lincoln in such dingy, humble quarters.
“How provoking!” Mrs. Lincoln exclaimed, sitting down on a chair when we had reached the top, and panting from the effects of the climbing. “I declare, I never saw such unaccommodating people. Just to think of them sticking us away up here in the attic. I will give them a regular going over in the morning.”
“But you forget. They do not know you. Mrs. Lincoln would be treated differently from Mrs. Clarke.”
“True, I do forget. Well, I suppose I shall have to put up with the annoyances. …” Turning to me suddenly, she exclaimed:
“You have not had your dinner, Lizzie, and must be hungry. I nearly forgot about it in the joy of seeing you. You must go down to the table right away.”
She pulled the bell-rope, and a servant appearing, she ordered him to give me my dinner. I followed him down-stairs, and he led me into the dining-hall, and seated me at a table in one corner of the room. I was giving my order, when the steward came forward and gruffly said:
“You are in the wrong room.”
“I was brought here by the waiter,” I replied.
“It makes no difference; I will find you another place where you can eat your dinner.”
I got up from the table and followed him, and when outside of the door, said to him:
“It is very strange that you should permit me to be seated at the table in the dining-room only for the sake of ordering me to leave it the next moment.”
“Are you not Mrs. Clarke’s servant?” was his abrupt question.
“I am with Mrs. Clarke.”
“It is all the same; servants are not allowed to eat in the large dining-room. Here, this way; you must take your dinner in the servants’ hall.”
Hungry and humiliated as I was, I was willing to follow to any place to get my dinner, for I had been riding all day, and had not tasted a mouthful since early morning.
On reaching the servants’ hall we found the door of the room locked. The waiter left me standing in the passage while he went to inform the clerk of the fact.
In a few minutes the obsequious clerk came blustering down the hall:
“Did you come out of the street, or from Mrs. Clarke’s room?”
“From Mrs. Clarke’s room,” I meekly answered. My gentle words seemed to quiet him, and then he explained:
“It is after the regular hour for dinner. The room is locked up, and Annie has gone out with the key.”
My pride would not let me stand longer in the hall.
“Very well,” I remarked, as I began climbing the stairs, “I will tell Mrs. Clarke that I cannot get any dinner.”
He looked after me, with a scowl on his face:
“You need not put on airs! I understand the whole thing.”
I said nothing, but continued to climb the stairs, thinking to myself: “Well, if you understand the whole thing, it is strange that you should put the widow of ex-President Abraham Lincoln in a three-cornered room in the attic of this miserable hotel.” …
It is not necessary for me to dwell upon the public history of Mrs. Lincoln’s unfortunate venture. The question has been discussed in all the newspapers of the land, and these discussions are so recent that it would be useless to introduce them in these pages, even if I had an inclination to do so. The following, from the New York Evening Express, briefly tells the story:
“The attraction for ladies, and the curious and speculative of the other sex in this city, just now, is the grand exposition of Lincoln dresses at the office of Mr. Brady, on Broadway, a few doors south of Houston street. The publicity given to the articles on exhibition and for sale has excited the public curiosity, and hundreds of people, principally women with considerable leisure moments at disposal, daily throng the rooms of Mr. Brady, and give himself and his shop-woman more to do than either bargained for, when a lady, with face concealed with a veil, called and arranged for the sale of the superabundant clothing of a distinguished and titled, but nameless lady. Twenty-five dresses, folded or tossed about by frequent examinations, lie exposed upon a closed piano, and upon a lounge; shawls rich and rare are displayed upon the backs of chairs, but the more exacting obtain a better view and closer inspection by the lady attendant throwing them occasionally upon her shoulders, just to oblige, so that their appearance on promenade might be seen and admired. Furs, laces, and jewelry are in a glass case, but the ‘four thousand dollars in gold’ point outfit is kept in a pasteboard box, and only shown on special request.
“The feeling of the majority of visitors is adverse to the course Mrs. Lincoln has thought proper to pursue, and the criticisms are as severe as the cavillings are persistent at the quality of some of the dresses. These latter are labelled at Mrs. Lincoln’s own estimate, and prices range from $25 to $75—about 50 percent less than cost. Some of them, if not worn long, have been worn much; they are jagged under the arms and at the bottom of the skirt, stains are on the lining, and other objections present themselves to those who oscillate between the dresses and dollars, ‘notwithstanding they have been worn by Madam Lincoln,’ as a lady who looked from behind a pair of gold spectacles remarked. Other dresses, however, have scarcely been worn—one, perhaps, while Mrs. Lincoln sat for her picture, and from one the basting threads had not yet been removed. The general testimony is that the wearing apparel is high-priced, and some of the examiners say that the cost-figures must have been put on by the dressmakers; or, if such was not the case, that gold was 250 when they were purchased, and is now but 140- so that a dress for which $150 was paid at the rate of high figures cannot be called cheap at half that sum, after it has been worn considerable, and perhaps passed out of fashion. The peculiarity of the dresses is that the most of them are cut low-necked—a taste which some ladies attribute to Mrs. Lincoln’s appreciation of her own bust.
“On Saturday last an offer was made for all the dresses. The figure named was less than the aggregate estimate placed on them. Mr. Brady, however, having no discretionary power, declined to close the bargain, but notified Mrs. Lincoln by mail. Of course, as yet, no reply has been received. Mrs. L. desires that the auction should be deferred till the thirty-first of the present month, and efforts made to dispose of the articles at private sale up to that time.”
Many persons called at 609 Broadway to examine Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe, but as curiosity prompted each visit, but few articles were sold. Messrs. Brady & Keyes were not very energetic, and … that lady ultimately lost all confidence in them. It was proposed to send circulars, stating Mrs. Lincoln’s wants, and appealing to the generosity of the people for aid, broadcast over the country; but the scheme failed. Messrs. Brady & Keyes were unable to obtain the names of prominent men, whom the people had confidence in, for the circular, to give character and responsibility to the movement—so the whole thing was abandoned. …
A portion of the wardrobe was then taken to Providence, to be exhibited, but without her consent. Mr. Brady remarked that the exhibition would bring in money, and as money must be raised, this was the last resort. He was of the impression that Mrs. Lincoln would approve of any movement, so it ended in success. This, at least, is a charitable view to take of the subject.
Had the exhibition succeeded in Providence, it is my opinion that the agents of Brady & Keyes would now be travelling over the country, expos- ing Mrs. Lincoln’s wardrobe to the view of the curious, at so much per head. As is well known, the city authorities refused to allow the exhibition to take place in Providence; therefore Mr. Brady returned to New York with the goods, and the travelling show scheme, like the circular scheme, was abandoned. Weeks lengthened into months, and at Mrs. Lincoln’s urgent request I remained in New York, to look after her interests. When she left the city I engaged quiet lodgings in a private family, where I remained about two months, when I moved to 14 Carroll Place, and became one of the regular boarders of the house. Mrs. Lincoln’s venture proved so disastrous that she was unable to reward me for my services, and I was compelled to take in sewing to pay for my daily bread. My New York expedition has made me richer in experience, but poorer in purse.
During the entire winter I have worked early and late, and practised the closest economy. Mrs. Lincoln’s business demanded much of my time, and it was a constant source of trouble to me. When Mrs. L. left for the West, I expected to be able to return to Washington in one week from the day; but unforeseen difficulties arose, and I have been detained in the city for several months. As I am writing the concluding pages of this book, I have succeeded in closing up Mrs. Lincoln’s imprudent business arrangement at 609 Broadway. The firm of Brady & Keyes is dissolved, and Mr. Keyes has adjusted the account. The story is told in a few words. On the fourth of March I received the following invoice from Mr. Keyes: “March 4, ’68.
“Invoice of articles sent to Mrs. A. Lincoln:
1 Lace dress.
1 d[itt]o. do. flounced.
5 Lace shawls.
3 Camel hair shawls.
1 Lace parasol cover.
1 do. handkerchief.
1 Sable boa.
1 White do.
1 Set furs.
2 Paisley shawls.
2 Gold bracelets.
2 Opera cloaks.
1 Purple shawl.
1 Feather cape.
38 yds. silk.
1 Diamond ring.
3 Small do.
1 Set furs.
1 Camel hair shawl.
1 Red do.
1 Child’s shawl.
1 Lace Chantilly shawl.”
The charges of the firm amounted to eight hundred dollars. Mrs. Lincoln sent me a check for this amount. I handed this check to Mr. Keyes, and he gave me the following receipt:
“Received, New York, March 4, 1868, of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, eight hundred and twenty dollars by draft on American National Bank, New York.
“S.C. KEYES .”
I packed the articles invoiced, and expressed the trunks to Mrs. Lincoln at Chicago. I then demanded and received a receipt worded as follows:
“Received, New York, March 4, 1868, of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, eight hundred and twenty dollars in full of all demands of every kind up to date.
This closed up the business, and with it I close the imperfect story of my somewhat romantic life. I have experienced many ups and downs, but still am stout of heart. The labor of a lifetime has brought me nothing in a pecuniary way. I have worked hard, but fortune, fickle dame, has not smiled upon me. If poverty did not weigh me down as it does, I would not now be toiling by day with my needle, and writing by night, in the plain little room on the fourth floor of No. 14 Carroll Place. And yet I have learned to love the garret-like room. … Though poor in worldly goods, I am rich in friendships, and friends are a recompense for all the woes of the darkest pages of life. For sweet friendship’s sake, I can bear more burdens than I have borne.