Mary Lincoln’s Dressmaker
Elizabeth Keckley’s Remarkable Rise from Slave to White House Confidante
Walker Publishing Company, 1995
Chapter One – the reader is introduced to Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, or Lizzie, as she herself is waiting to be introduced to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of newly elected President Abraham Lincoln.
Chapters Two through Four goes back to the beginning and covers the years 1822-1860, where Lizzie grew up as a slave and in time bought freedom for her and her son. She experienced her first beating as a four year old girl and suffered through many more as she grew up into a strong- willed young woman. Her mistresses and masters were mostly cruel and one master even encouraged a near-by plantation owner to rape her continually for 4 years by whom she had her son George. Through all the suffering she pressed forward with the hope she might one day be free; she learned sewing and became an accomplished dressmaker. When, through the gift of abolitionists, she saved enough money she bought the freedom of herself and her son for $1,200. In 1860 with her son in college, she left her husband and moved to Baltimore.
Chapters Five through Eleven covers the years just before the Civil War until just before President Lincoln’s assassination. During that time Lizzie became highly sought after as a dressmaker in Washington, D. C and was one of the only people able to handle the temperamental Mary Todd Lincoln (the other one being the President himself). Mrs. Lincoln had no friends save Lizzie and relied heavily on her for emotional support, especially during her mourning for her son, Willie. Though Mrs. Lincoln is important to the narrative, the focus is on Lizzie and her efforts to help newly freed slaves adjust themselves to their new life of independence.
Chapters Twelve through Sixteen covers the aftermath of the President’s death, Mrs. Lincoln’s further descent into depression and Lizzie’s efforts to help relieve her friend’s crushing debt and defend her against her detractors. Through it all Lizzie remains a strong, independent and proud woman. She ultimately decides to write a memoir of her years as a slave and in the White House in hopes it would raise enough money to help Mrs. Lincoln and perhaps even herself.
Chapter Seventeen and Epilogue covers the publication of Lizzie’s book and her final years. Her book was not well received and provided more fodder for Mary Todd Lincoln’s detractors. Mrs. Lincoln herself felt betrayed and went to Europe for a while, eventually returning in 1871, when, three months later her son Tad died. After that her behavior took a turn for the worse and her only surviving son, Robert, had her declared insane and committed to an asylum. Lizzie went to Ohio to teach for a while but eventually returned to Washington in 1898. She retired to the Home for Destitute Women and Children. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley lived a quiet life until her death at age 88 on May 26, 1907.
Until I read this book neither my mom’s sister nor I had ever heard of this grand lady. She did much for the President and Mrs. Lincoln, but even more so for the freed slaves. She started charitable organizations, taught young girls how to stand tall and be proud of who they were and made her own way in an inhospitable world.
Rating 4 paws out of 5 because if you ever felt like you couldn’t do anything because of who and what you believe yourself to be, reading the story of Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley should provide inspiration enough. I do think the author did her subject a disservice by naming the book as she did because Mrs. Keckley is way more than a dressmaker.
I couldn’t find any information about the author, Becky Rutberg. She exists in some form because our copy of the book is signed by her!
go Here for her Pinterest Board
go Here for her Wikipedia page
More books about Elizabeth Keckley