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  • Written by Jennifer Fleischner
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Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly

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The Remarkable Story of the Friendship Between a First Lady and a Former Slave

Written by Jennifer FleischnerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Jennifer Fleischner


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41915-6
Published by : Broadway Books Crown/Archetype
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A vibrant social history set against the backdrop of the Antebellum south and the Civil War that recreates the lives and friendship of two exceptional women: First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and her mulatto dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly.

“I consider you my best living friend,” Mary Lincoln wrote to Elizabeth Keckly in 1867, and indeed theirs was a close, if tumultuous, relationship. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly was Mary Lincoln’s dressmaker, confidante, and mainstay during the difficult years that the Lincolns occupied the White House and the early years of Mary’s widowhood. But she was a fascinating woman in her own right, independent and already well-established as the dressmaker to the Washington elite when she was first hired by Mary Lincoln upon her arrival in the nation’s capital. Lizzy had bought her freedom in 1855 and come to Washington determined to make a life for herself as a free black, and she soon had Washington correspondents reporting that “stately carriages stand before her door, whose haughty owners sit before Lizzy docile as lambs while she tells them what to wear.” Mary Lincoln had hired Lizzy in part because she was considered a “high society” seamstress and Mary, an outsider in Washington’s social circles, was desperate for social cachet. With her husband struggling to keep the nation together, Mary turned increasingly to her seamstress for companionship, support, and advice—and over the course of those trying years, Lizzy Keckly became her confidante and closest friend.

With Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly, pioneering historian Jennifer Fleischner allows us to glimpse the intimate dynamics of this unusual friendship for the first time, and traces the pivotal events that enabled these two women—one born to be a mistress, the other to be a slave—to forge such an unlikely bond at a time when relations between blacks and whites were tearing the nation apart. Beginning with their respective childhoods in the slaveholding states of Virginia and Kentucky, their story takes us through the years of tragic Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the early Reconstruction period. An author in her own right, Keckly wrote one of the most detailed biographies of Mary Lincoln ever published, and though it led to a bitter feud between the friends, it is one of the many rich resources that have enhanced Fleischner’s trove of original findings.

A remarkable, riveting work of scholarship that reveals the legacy of slavery and sheds new light on the Lincoln White House, Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly brings to life a mesmerizing, intimate aspect of Civil War history, and underscores the inseparability of black and white in our nation’s heritage.

From the Hardcover edition.



As Mr. and Mrs. Robert Smith Todd looked forward to the birth of their fourth child in 1818, they were likely hoping for a boy. Two little girls--five-year-old Elizabeth and nearly three-year-old Frances--and one boy, one-and-a-half-year-old Levi, were already running around the yard on Short Street at the center of town and up the hill to their widowed Grandma Parker's house next door. By December, as her time neared, the children's twenty-four-year-old mother, Eliza Parker Todd, had retreated to her bedroom on the second floor of the nine-room house, leaving them to be watched by their slave mammy. The Widow Parker, who had given the young Todds the lower part of her double lot as a wedding gift, probably helped supervise the household slaves, among them three of her own whom she had loaned to her daughter: a young girl, a woman in her twenties, and an older woman. The sweet-natured Eliza admitted when she first married at eighteen that she had no idea housekeeping "was attended with so much trouble." Indeed, six months into her marriage, while the young couple were still living with the Widow Parker waiting for their house to be built, she had written, perhaps teasingly, to her maternal grandfather, "It really is almost enough to deter girls from getting married." In any event, she concluded, "it would never do for me to go far from Mama as I shall stand so much in need of her instruction."

Her husband, a second cousin whom she'd known virtually all her life growing up in Lexington, would not have asked her to move anyway. Robert Smith Todd had his own parental ties to Lexington, Kentucky, in the shape of a patriarchal Todd tradition of local power and influence. Well-connected and trained as a lawyer, twenty-seven-year-old Robert was already launched upon hectic political and business careers, apparently determined, if not absolutely destined, to follow in his father's and uncles' footsteps. His concerns kept him from home for long periods elsewhere--in Frankfort, thirty miles to the west, where he served as clerk in the Kentucky House of Representatives, and at other times almost eight hundred miles south in New Orleans on buying trips for his struggling wholesale/retail firm. So Robert Todd may not have minded the constant presence of a mother-in-law in the house. Later, he would come to depend on it.

The new baby, another girl, arrived on a cold Sunday, December 13, 1818. Her parents named her Mary Ann, after her mother's only sister. Like other well-to-do Kentucky women of her day, Eliza, having survived this infant's birth, would have breast-fed her daughter for several weeks or more before handing her over to a wet nurse, most likely a slave. After recovering from the birth, Eliza would have enjoyed returning to some of Lexington's social and cultural activities: paying and receiving morning calls, for which Lexington ladies dressed formally in silks and satins; taking afternoon drives in the Todds' Lexington-built carriage; and visiting the public library, which was open every afternoon except Sunday in a building on the corner of the town square. More likely, she looked forward to visiting Mrs. Plimpton's millinery in Mr. Plimpton's store, at Main and Main Cross Street; attending music concerts in the public rooms of the town's many taverns; and gathering with her neighbors for the thrilling lottery drawings, also held in the taverns, which were the town's favorite means of raising money for schools and churches. There were always plenty of parties and picnics and frequent celebrations honoring a steady parade of patriots and politicians. When little Mary Ann was almost seven months, Eliza may have stood outside Postlethwait's Tavern on July 3, waving a handkerchief as salutes were fired to honor President Monroe and General Jackson, who beamed acknowledgment to the assembled crowd. Later in July she might have attended the university's Commencement Ball, for which gentlemen could get tickets at Postlethwait's but ladies had to apply to the ball's managers.

There would not have been much for her to do at home. Aunt Chaney, one of the family slaves, did all the cooking and had absolute charge of the kitchen; when the children got on her nerves, she banged the pots and kettles and ordered them out. It was Chaney who baked the memorable beaten biscuits and corn bread, whose recipes ("jes' a pinch--jes' a bit more") the future Mary Lincoln would one day try to record in a notebook for the benefit of her Irish serving girl in Springfield. Aunt Chaney considered it criminal--and not a bit surprising--that "the po' white trash Irish" didn't know how to make good corn bread. Equally chauvinistic Nelson drove the family carriage, served in the dining room, and did the marketing across the way at the tradesmen's stalls in the Main Street market house, next to the courthouse. Female slaves aired and made the beds, carried the water, started the fires, washed and hung out the clothes, swept, dusted, scrubbed, and polished in every room in the house. Another slave tended the garden. And although Mrs. Todd did her own mending and trimmed her own hats, the French swisses and sheer muslins that her husband brought back from New Orleans all went to a sewing woman, possibly a local woman or a slave. Above all, there was the children's Mammy Sally. She loved "her" Todd children as if they were her own--at least, according to the Todds.

Lexington sits in the region of Kentucky known as the Bluegrass, named for the bluish tint of the wind-rippled long-stemmed grass whose seeds were sown in the nineteenth century. The Bluegrass covers a circular area of roughly eight thousand square miles at the heart of the state. With its long growing season, temperate climate, plentiful rainfall, and limestone-laden, phosphate-rich soil, this section of Kentucky seemed like an Eden to early visitors--or, in the language of a nineteenth-century gazetteer writing for Easterners considering emigration, "The Garden . . . of the world." Not satisfied with the idea of Kentucky as Paradise, one Western preacher reckoned that heaven was a "Kaintuck of a place." But travelers reserved their most extravagant praise for the "small portion of highly beautiful land" directly surrounding Lexington, the two thousand square miles of the Inner Bluegrass. "The country around Lexington," wrote one Pennsylvanian, "for many miles in every direction is equal in beauty and fertility to anything the imagination can paint." When an eastern Kentuckian dies, it is said, he wants to go to Lexington.

With a grid layout reminding visitors of stately Philadelphia, Lexington in 1818 was a center of culture and refinement, known as "the Athens of the West" and noted not only for its girls and boys academies but also for Transylvania University, the first university in the Western United States, founded in 1780. Already it boasted a leading law school, where the young Henry Clay was a professor; more famous still was the medical school, with an extraordinary library of rare and valuable works that were bought in Europe by the school's charismatic Dr. Charles Caldwell, who also gave regular lectures abroad.

Under the circumstances, Robert Smith and Eliza Todd could have been forgiven for thinking themselves among the "first people" in the land, despite their location west of the Alleghenies. On both sides of the Todd-Parker union there were Revolutionary War heroes: generals and majors and Eliza Parker's great-grandmother, who rode out to the camp at Valley Forge in the winter of '77 with provisions for her husband, Captain Andrew Porter, and was said to have impressed Washington with her devotion.

Indeed, the Todds could have been forgiven for thinking themselves at the center of their universe, for they could boast of being a vital part of a wide network of leading local families, beginning with their Porter and Parker cousins and extending to their Kentucky kin by marriage, which would in time include the prestigious Shelbys, Breckenridges, Wickliffes, McDowells, Bullocks, Woodleys, Brents, Didlakes, "and so on and on," as the Lexington Herald put it. Even the nation's heroine, the stalwart Dolley Madison, who, four years earlier, standing in the charred and gutted ruins of the White House, had announced, "We shall rebuild . . . the enemy cannot frighten a free people," had been married to a Todd before a Madison. Such connections made a difference in a world where (as one lady wrote) "we claim our relations to the forty-fifth cousin." Even the Almighty was bound to be impressed: as Abraham Lincoln quipped on the family's changing their name from Tod to Todd, one "d" was good enough for God, but not the Todds.

Perhaps the Todds were justified if they were inclined to consider Lexington their particular contribution to the American West. Their neighbor and Robert's political mentor Congressman Henry Clay (the future senator and frequent presidential candidate) may have become Lexington's most famous and influential resident, but by the time he arrived in 1797, an eager young lawyer on the make, the Todds had already helped build Lexington into the town where ambitious men like Clay aimed to be.

"Start early and git down to Caintuck," wrote William Calk in his diary on April 20, 1775. Soon afterward, soldiers encamped in a wilderness clearing at McConnell Springs in central northern Kentucky decided to give to their fledgling settlement the name of the town in far-off Massachusetts where, on April 19, minutemen had exchanged the first shots of the Revolution with British soldiers. Among the party of soldiers was said to have been the nineteen-year-old Pennsylvania-born Levi Todd. With his two older brothers, John and Robert, Levi helped found a Kentucky dynasty that would shape his granddaughter Mary Todd's childhood, permeating her earliest sense of identity and place.

Yet when Mary Ann Todd was born, Lexington was barely a generation--and not many miles--from its frontier days. Six years earlier, above the mouth of the Green River in northwestern Kentucky, three Indians attacked a white family, killing the elderly father and wounding his son. The then-single Robert Smith Todd gave a friend a matter-of-fact report: "It appears that there was a Quarrel between this young man and one of the Indians because he had beat him shooting, and no doubt had given him some provocation, one of the Indians was killed in the encounter which no doubt saved the lives of all the family." If his daughter Mary ever fantasized about transforming a backwoodsman and Indian fighter into a gentleman, she no doubt drew on her hometown for models.

Inheritors of a spirit of rebellion, the Todds were descended from Scottish Covenanters who fought against England's king and Church, then found refuge in northern Ireland before immigrating to Montgomery Country, Pennsylvania, in 1737. These immigrants, David and Hannah Todd, sent three of their sons to be educated at the Virginia school run by the boys' eminent uncle, the Presbyterian Reverend John Todd. In 1778, through their uncle's friendship with Virginia Governor Patrick Henry, the Todd sons were commissioned to fight under General George Rogers Clark to secure the conquest of the Illinois territory. Afterward, Henry appointed the oldest son, John, the first civil governor of Illinois.

But it was Kentucky that promised most fair, a region where whites and Indians clashed bitterly over the area's unsurpassed hunting grounds. A decade earlier, older Indian leaders' efforts to reach accommodation with pioneers had faltered, and an enraged young Cherokee leader named Dragging Canoe had warned Daniel Boone that white settlers would find Kentucky "a dark and bloody land." Anglo-American expansion during the 1770s unified Indian militants, to whom white settlers were little more than invading colonizers who razed their villages and burned their corn. Indian raids on white settlements grew bloody and fierce; hundreds of Kentuckians were captured or killed and thousands of their horses stolen. During the Revolution, the British spurred the Indians on.

Mary and her siblings grew up hearing tales of the frontier exploits of her grandfather and great-uncles, especially her legendary uncle, Illinois Governor John Todd, who, as Colonel Todd, was second in military rank on the frontier only to General Clark. On August 19, 1782, ten months after the British surrender at Yorktown, Colonel Todd led 182 Kentuckians against the combined forces, almost one thousand strong, of Ohio Indian Nations warriors and British soldiers in the Battle of Blue Licks, outside Lexington. When a third of the Kentucky force was killed that day, compared with three killed and four slightly wounded of the British and Indian force, John Todd lay among the dead. Adding luster was John's legendary wealth: he had owned twenty thousand acres, and when he died his only child, a daughter, became one of the wealthiest people in Kentucky. It was also Uncle John Todd, as Mary knew, who had a Kentucky county named after him.

Meanwhile, Mary's grandfather, John's younger brother General Levi Todd, had been sowing his own fortune in Lexington and surrounding Fayette County. In 1781, he became one of the first purchasers of Lexington's half-acre lots, with an additional five acres for crops, which were laid out on a grid plan in the original 710-acre town. Then, after the war ended, Levi, like other veterans holding warrants for land west of the Alleghenies, moved in to settle his claims. Using warrants and purchase rights, he built an estate of seven thousand acres in Fayette and Franklin Counties.

By 1790, the earliest wave of Lexington residents had transformed their corner of Kentucky from a handful of log huts outside Colonel John Todd's stockade--with forty-seven inhabitants, mostly bachelors in frontier dress, who lived off the buffalo, deer, turkey, and geese they shot and were menaced by Shawnees and other Ohio Indians--into a bustling commercial and intellectual center of 843 residents. They slashed and burned away the thick-quilled canebrakes, which grew in dense clusters and could reach twenty feet high, and began planting pastures and fields. They divvied up town lots, designated ground for a cemetery and "a house of worship," and erected a courthouse, a jail, and a schoolhouse. Town fathers made attendance at the log schoolhouse mandatory for Lexington boys to keep them from wandering where Indians might capture them. Levi Todd wrote to his parents in Pennsylvania to join him in Kentucky, where, with his new wife, Jane Briggs, whom he had married in 1779 in the fort at St. Asaph's in Lincoln County, he had begun a family. Also contributing to the end-of-century population boom were Mary Ann's maternal grandparents. Major Robert Parker was a Pennsylvania cousin of the Todds, and his bride, the spirited Elizabeth Porter, was the daughter of General Andrew and Elizabeth Porter. They arrived in 1790, having set out from Pennsylvania on horseback the day after their wedding.

For ambitious men moving west at the end of the eighteenth century, Kentucky was an open field. Cheap land and opportunity attracted thousands of migrants, and the tendency of the laws encouraged enormous land claims for wealthier men like the Todd brothers. Later immigrants came down the Ohio River in flatboats, then overland on the Buffalo Trace into the interior, or made their way slowly from Cumberland Gap across the narrow Wilderness Road (cut through in twenty-two days in the spring of 1792 by woodcutters paid with the donations of 104 subscribers, among them Robert Todd, Robert Breckinridge, Governor Shelby, and Levi Todd, who gave $12). Still others sent their slaves ahead to take the risks and burdens of frontier settling for them; these included North Carolina merchant Thomas Hart, the future father-in-law of Henry Clay, who joined in a land speculation company and, from the comfort of his home in Hillsborough, fretted about "send[ing] a parcel of poor slaves where I dare not go myself." In the 1790s, Kentucky's population tripled, reaching 220,955 in 1800. Meanwhile, the slave population quadrupled, totaling 40,343 in the state, their numbers concentrated in the plantation-rich Bluegrass; soon, that number would be one-third of the population of Lexington and the Inner Bluegrass.

From the Hardcover edition.
Jennifer Fleischner

About Jennifer Fleischner

Jennifer Fleischner - Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly

Photo © Alex Schwa

Jennifer Fleischner was awarded a one-year Mellon Faculty Fellowship in Afro-American Studies at Harvard, where she researched and taught alongside such colleagues as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Also the author of Mastering Slavery, she is now Chair of the English Department at Adelphi University.

From the Hardcover edition.


The improbable friendship of Mary Lincoln, daughter of a slaveholder, and Elizabeth Keckly, daughter of a slave, so ably recreated and documented in Fleischner's dual biography, challenges much of what we think we know about nineteenth-century American color consciousness, black as well as white.  Without understanding Lincoln's attachment to Keckly, we can never appreciate the contradictions that made the First Lady so controversial.  Without recognizing Keckly's role in the Lincoln family, our awareness of African American influence on the politics of nation in the 1860s remains incomplete.
--William L. Andrews, E. Maynard Adams Professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, editor of Classic African American Women's Narratives, and co-editor of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature
“An excellent, illuminating book that offers a fresh vision of Mary Lincoln, acquaints us with the exceedingly interesting Elizabeth Keckly, and provides new insight into race, women’s lives, and American society in the 19th century.”
–William Lee Miller, author of Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Elizabeth Keckly and Mary Todd Lincoln’s story, as well as help you examine the tumultuous era in which their friendship thrived, and the social issues surrounding their relationship.

About the Guide

She is a little-known but crucial character in one of the most volatile chapters in United States history. Born into slavery, mulatto Elizabeth Keckly bought her freedom in 1855 and went on to become the most sought-after dressmaker in Washington society. When Mary Todd Lincoln engaged her services, a fascinating friendship was born, and Keckly became the First Lady’s trusted friend and confidante during the Civil War, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and the early Reconstruction period. Against this tumultuous nineteenth-century landscape, Mrs. Lincoln & Mrs. Keckly at last restores an overlooked dimension to the Lincoln years, and to American history itself.

Historian Jennifer Fleischner’s book reveals the legacy of slavery in the lives of two women – one born to be a mistress; the other, to be a slave –who were at the heart of the nation’s most wrenching trial.

Discussion Guides

1. The story of Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly gives a view into the vexed and ambiguous relations between the races in antebellum and post-Civil War America. How were the lives of these women shaped from childhood through adulthood by the complexities of race relations? Do you think that Mary and Lizzy being women played a part in their ability to relate across the color line? Would you call their relationship a “friendship”?

2. One of the themes of the book is the development of Elizabeth Keckly’s sense of self. In what ways do you think being mixed-race affected her identity? How did her relationships to her family, white and black help and/or hurt her? How did relationships outside of her family help and/or hurt her? As a freed woman, how did she come to terms with her past?

3. How did Elizabeth Keckly cope with the traumas of enslavement? She claimed that slavery had its bright side as well as its dark side. How do you understand her point of view?

4. If we think about freedom as not only a legal, but also a psychological condition, what were the stages in Elizabeth Keckly’s becoming free? Do you think she ever became truly free? Do you think she was freer in some ways than Mary Lincoln?

5. Mary Lincoln inspired contradicting reactions in her contemporaries, while today people still argue over her character. Why did she inspire such conflicting reactions in her own time, as well as ours? Did your feelings about her change over the course of the book?

6. When Elizabeth Keckly arrived in Washington, she established herself in the local black middle class. What were your impressions of this community?

7. The author argues that Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly became closer as Mary Lincoln’s life deteriorated. Yet events in Lizzy’s life may have also contributed to their growing friendship. How did their relationship evolve? And how did the dynamic between the two women change over time?

8. Why do you think Elizabeth Keckly wrote her memoir, in which she revealed so much about Mary Lincoln’s recent private life? Was Mary Lincoln justified in feeling angry and betrayed?

9. Has reading this book changed your thinking about race and race relations in America?

10. Consider Mrs. Lincoln’s and Mrs. Keckly’s lives. Are there any parallels you can draw between the two women’s experiences from childhood onward?

From the Hardcover edition.

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