Mrs. Lincoln and Mrs. Keckly by Jennifer Fleischner

This book tells about the relationship between first lady Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly, her Linkeck dressmaker. In 1867, Mary Lincoln wrote to this former slave, “I consider you my best living friend.”

As soon as Mrs. Lincoln arrived at the White House, shortly before the Civil War broke out, she contacted this dressmaker, who sewed for such prominent women as Jefferson Davis’ wife and Robert E. Lee’s wife. She found Mrs. Keckly’s work  thoroughly satisfactory, and as the two women continued their business relationship, they became much more than seamstress and customer. Mrs. Keckly helped to care for the Lincoln’s son during his final illness and to comfort Mrs. Lincoln after his death and again after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. She later assisted the former first lady to get settled in Chicago and tried to help Mrs. Lincoln to raise funds, since Lincoln’s assassination and the loss of his salary left Mrs. Lincoln in serious financial difficulty.

I knew a little about this book and planned to read it. Then, after learning that Elizabeth Keckly lived as a slave in Hillsborough, my home town, I became even more interested in learning about Mrs. Keckly.  I know well the street where Mrs. Keckly lived as a young slave girl, and as a child I met a member of the family whose son repeatedly forced himself on her, giving her a son. I’d never heard of this terrible scandal before, and the mistreatment of slave women became even more real to me than ever before.The rapist wasn’t some anonymous man–he was an ancestor of someone I’d met!

The book tells the fairly familiar tale of Mary Lincoln’s sad life. The story of Elizabeth Keckly’s days as a slave, her purchasing herself and her son, so that they gained their freedom before the Civil War, and her success as a businesswoman is equally compelling and less well known. I highly recommend this dual biography!

(Helen Snow, Information Services)

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