The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave
by Jennifer Fleischner
Not only is this the record of an unusual friendship but also a dual biography of two very divergent lives. The narrative follows two very different women from childhood on. Lizzy is born into slavery and later flogged brutally while on loan to another family. As a young woman, a white man who frequents the house forces himself on her for four years and she gives birth to a son. She does not become a victim, but moves on and eventually purchases her freedom and that of her infant son. Lizzy is educated and a gifted seamstress and earns her own way by using her skills.
Mary Lincoln Todd, on the otherhand , comes across as a strong-willed and spoiled woman who never has to fend for herself in life. Mary isn’t shown in such a flattering light nor the union with Abraham Lincoln as a compatible one. It would seem that Lincoln was having second thoughts even at the altar, but felt honor-bound to go through with it.
Married in a relative’s parlor in a plain muslin dress, Mary just escaped becoming an old maid. It was not a happy marriage and she was not a first lady in whom her husband could confide. During the Civil War when money was needed desperately for arms and more men, she went on shopping sprees to purchase more china, drapes and wallpaper for the White House. She ran up extensive bills beyond her allowance and tried many ways to hide her debts.
In the meantime, Elizabeth Keckly was making dresses for the most prominent women in Washington, including Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis. She valued Lizzy’s talent so much that, when war broke out, she tried to persuade Lizzy to come south to the Confederate states with her! Eventually Lizzy’s talent attracted the attention of the First Lady who brought her to the White House.
Heartbroken after the death of her young son Willie, Mary Lincoln descended into temporary madness. From this time she suffered frequent debilitating headaches and depression. Spiritualism was popular at the time and she even held a seance in the White House in room in which Willie died.
After the death of Lincoln, Mary Lincoln was in financial trouble and was being hounded by creditors. She contacted her former dressmaker, Lizzy Keckly, to help her sell some of her elaborate gowns to pay off her bills. Lizzy did all she could to aid Mary. What happens between them after that, I’ll leave for you to find out in this very readable true story of an unusual friendship.
The author observes that Mary felt safe confiding in Lizzy and keeping her close whereas she would have looked upon another white woman as competition. Though Lizzy was gifted, intelligent and attractive, she was not white so Mary didn’t feel threatened by her.
“Mary needed the attentions of someone that felt more like family and would not leave.” After the death of Willie, her sister stayed with her for a few months but had to go home. “It was apparently at this time that Mary began to look at Lizzy as a possible companion.”
It is also important to remember Lizzy for the role she played in aiding all the former slaves that began pouring into the District of Columbia after slavery was abolished there in 1862. At that time, about 400 “contraband” or former slaves who had fled the south were living in Washington.Within six months, it was 4,200 and by the end of the war in 1865 over 40,000 newly freed men and women were living in the Capitol.
These people had no jobs, no food and no housing at first. They were literally starving. Mary was one of the first to address this problem by forming a relief society and raising money to help. The Contraband Relief Society started out with 40 members and Lizzy as president.
Slavery had ended so abruptly that no one had thought about what would happen to the freed people. Elizabeth Keckly realized that it would take time for them to find jobs and learn to fend for themselves.
I came away from the book with a great admiration for this woman whom history has forgotten and whose grave is even unmarked. You should definitely read about her!