In 1855, Elizabeth Keckley, a slave for 30 years, bought her freedom and that of her son for $1,200.
Five years later, she was in Washington, in the most challenging position in the White House: keeping Mary Todd Lincoln sane and sociable.
Keckley was not only Mrs. Lincoln's seamstress but also her confidante, according to Jennifer Fleischner, an associate professor at State University of New York at Albany who is writing a book about the two women. At the recent Lincoln Symposium at the National Archives, Fleischner gave new explanations of Keckley's relations with and importance to the first family.
She described "Keckley's conflicted feelings about Mary Lincoln and the possibility that her attachment to the White House was a bond -- and a symmetry -- with Abraham Lincoln. It is as if they worked together to contain Mary Lincoln in ways that both aided and hurt her."
Even in Springfield, Ill., Lincoln had tried "to check and manage his wife's behavior," Fleischner said. And in 1848, Rep. Lincoln wrote Mary from his Washington boardinghouse: "All the house -- or rather, all with whom you were on decided good terms -- send their love to you. The others say nothing." He added, "Get weighed and write me how much you weigh." Fleischner said, "The import of the letter is clear: Lincoln is trying to manage his wife."
At the White House, "Keckley was performing a similar task -- a sustaining role which has not been given its due. . . . More importantly, her relationship with Lincoln has been overlooked entirely," Fleischner said.
The day after his inauguration, the new president's wife hired Keckley -- and ordered 16 dresses from her. As her caretaker, Keckley dressed the first lady's hair, made her clothes, listened to her confidences and dealt with her wild mood swings.
Keckley was also dressmaker to wives of congressmen and high-ranking military officers. A Washington correspondent reported in 1862 that "stately carriages stand before her door, whose haughty owners sit before Lizzie docile as lambs while she tells them what to wear." Ironically, Mrs. Jefferson Davis, wife of the man who became the Confederacy's president, was among Keckley's clients.
Mary Todd Lincoln didn't settle easily into the nation's capital. After the inauguration, Elizabeth Blair Lee, of an old local family, told her husband, "the womankind are giving Mrs. Lincoln the cold shoulder in the City & consequently we Republicans ought to Rally," Fleischner reported. Among Mrs. Lincoln's 600 letters, she said, are some to cousins and Illinois friends written in "self-absorbed, imperial, and finally sadly pleading tones."
According to his secretary, Orville Browning, "Lincoln confided his apprehension lest his wife do something, which should bring him into disgrace." In fact, Lincoln biographer Michael Burlingame writes, "Mary Lincoln was sinking into the mire of debt, fraud and unsavory relationships that would set in motion her reputation's undoing."
The unsavory relationship was financial, though there were rumors of adultery, Fleischner said. "It was in this connection that Lincoln worried about disgrace. Certainly, he knew enough to suspect more, and perhaps to wish not to know the rest."
After the death of the Lincolns' 11-year-old son Willie, in February 1862, one of Mary's sisters said the president rightly feared that "his wife's nerves have gone to pieces." Her reliance on Keckley certainly increased. "She consulted Keckley on her plans, fears, ambitions, finances . . . views on slavery," Fleischner said. Keckley even "induced Mary Lincoln to attend seances to speak with Willie," who likely had died from typhoid fever.
Fleischner said that "Keckley, like Lincoln, responded to Mary Lincoln's need to be contained -- a form of demand for attention -- with an impulse to contain her."
In Keckley's autobiography, "Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House," written in 1868, Fleischner also sees "hints of a bond with Lincoln that excludes Mary Lincoln . . . he invites her to stand by the window and admire Tad's pet goats . . . saying, `See, Madame Elizabeth, my pets recognize me!' "
After Lincoln's death, Keckley was not anxious to continue in the widow's employment. The dressmaker did agree to go to New York when Mary Lincoln hired brokers there to sell her old clothes. At their instigation, Fleischner said, "she wrote letters to politicians who had received appointments through her husband hinting at exposure should they fail to make contributions in her support. . . . When the brokers released these letters to the papers, Republicans and Democratic newspapers alike let fly what was no doubt some several years of pent-up invective . . ."
Mary Lincoln wrote Keckley: "If I had committed murder in every city in this blessed Union, I could not have been more traduced."
Fleischner's speech could perhaps be summed up by her quote of Lincoln on the fact that he'd just married: He called it a "matter of profound wonder."
CAPTION: Elizabeth Keckley, from slave to confidante.