Excerpts from "Behind the Scenes - Thirty Years
a Slave and Four Years in the White House"
by Elizabeth Keckly
Mrs. Burwell gave birth
to a daughter, a sweet, black-eyed baby, my
earliest and fondest pet. To take care of this
baby was my first duty. True, I was but a
child myself only four years old but then I
had been raised in a hardy school had been
taught to rely upon myself, and to prepare my
self to render assistance to others. The lesson
was not a bitter one, for I was too young to
indulge in philosophy, and the precepts that I
then treasured and practised I believe developed
those principles of character which have enabled
me to triumph over so many difficulties. Not
withstanding all the wrongs that slavery heaped
upon ine, I can bless it for one thing youth' s
important lesson of self-reliance. The baby was
named Elizabeth, and it was pleasant to me to
be assigned a duty in connection with it, for
the discharge of that duty transferred me from
the rude cabin to the household of my master.
My simple attire was a short dress and a little
white apron. My old mistress encouraged me
in rocking the cradle, by telling me that if I
would watch over the baby well, keep the flies
out of its face, and not let it cry, I should be
its little maid. This was a golden promise, and
I required no better inducement for the faithful
performance of my task. I began to rock the
cradle most industriously, when lo ! out pitched
little pet on the floor. I instantly cried out,
" Oh ! the baby is on the floor ;" and, not
knowing what to do, I seized the fire-shovel in
my perplexity, and was trying to shovel up my
tender charge, when my mistress called to me
to let the child alone, and then ordered that I
be taken out and lashed for my carelessness.
The blows were not administered with a light
hand, I assure yon, and doubtless the severity
of the lashing has made me remember the in
cident so well. This was the first time I was
punished in this cruel way, but not the last.
The black-eyed baby that I called my pet grew
into a self-willed girl, and in after years was
the cause of much trouble to me. I grew strong
and healthy, and, notwithstanding I knit socks
and attended to various kinds of work, I was
repeatedly told, when even fourteen years old,
that I would never be worth my salt. When
I was eight, Mr. Burwell s family consisted of
six sons and four daughters, with a large family
My mother, my poor aged mother, go
among strangers to toil for a living! No, a
thousand times no ! I would rather work my
fingers to the bone, bend over my sewing till the
film of blindness gathered in my eyes ; nay, even
beg from street to street. I told Mr. Garland so,
and he gave me permission to see what I could
do. I was fortunate in obtaining work, and in a
short time I had acquired something of a reputa
tion as a seamstress and dress-maker. The best
ladies in St. Louis were my patrons, and when
my reputation was once established I never
lacked for orders. With my needle I kept bread
in the mouths of seventeen persons for two years
and five months. While I was working so hard
that others might live in comparative comfort,
and move in those circles of society to which
their birth gave them entrance, the thought often
occurred to me whether I was really worth my
salt or not; and then perhaps the lips curled
with a bitter sneer.
One day, when I
insisted on knowing whether he would permit
me to purchase myself, and what price I must
pay for myself, he turned to me in a petulant
manner, thrust his hand into his pocket, drew
forth a bright silver quarter of a dollar, and prof
fering it to me, said :
" Lizzie, I have told you often not to trouble
me with such a question. If you really wish to
leave me, take this : it will pay the passage of
yourself and boy on the ferry-boat, and when you
are on the other side of the river you will be
free. It is the cheapest way that I know of to
accomplish what you desire."
I looked at him in astonishment, and earnestly
replied : " No, master, I do not wish to be free
in such a manner. If such had been my wish, I
should never have troubled you about obtaining
your consent to my purchasing myself. I can
cross the river any day, as you well know, and
have frequently done so, but will never leave you
in such a manner. By the laws of the land I am
your slave you are my master, and I will only
be free by such means *as the laws of the country
provide." He expected this answer, and I knew
that he was pleased. Some time afterwards he
told me that he had reconsidered the question ;
that I had served his family faithfully ; that I de
served my freedom, and that he would take
$1200 for myself and boy.
This was joyful intelligence for me, and the re
flection of hope gave a silver lining to the dark
cloud of my life faint, it is true, but still a silver
Taking a prospective glance at liberty, I con
sented to marry. The wedding was a great
event in the family. The ceremony took place
in the parlor, in the presence of the family and a
number of guests. Mr. Garland gave me away,
and the pastor, Bishop Hawks, performed the
ceremony, who had solemnized the bridals of Mr.
Gr. s own children. The day was a happy one,
but it faded all too soon. Mr. Keckley let me
speak kindly of his faults proved dissipated, and
a burden instead of a helpmate. More than all,
I learned that he was a slave instead of a free
man, as he represented himself to be. With the
simple explanation that I lived with him eight
years, let charity draw around him the mantle of
I went to work in earnest to purchase my
freedom, but the years passed, and I was still a
slave. Mr. Garland s family claimed so much of
my attention in fact, I supported them that I
was not able to accumulate anything. In the
mean time Mr. Garland died, and Mr. Burwell, a
Mississippi planter, came to St. Louis to settle
up the estate. He was a kind-hearted man, and
said I should be free, and would afford me every
facility to raise the necessary amount to pay the
price of my liberty. Several schemes were urged
upon me by my friends.
The first paroxysm of grief was scarcely over,
when a carriage stopped in front of the house;
Mrs. Le Bourgois, one of my kind patrons, got
out of it and entered the door. She seemed to
bring sunshine with her handsome cheery face.
She came to where I was, and in her sweet way
"Lizzie, I hear that you are going to New
York to beg for money to buy your freedom. I
have been thinking over the matter, and told Ma
it would be a shame to allow you to go North to
beg for what we should give you. You have
many friends in St. Louis, and I am going to
raise the twelve hundred dollars required among
them. I have two hundred dollars put away for
a present ; am indebted to you one hundred dol
lars ; mother owes you fifty dollars, and will add
another fifty to it; and as I do not want the
present, I will make the money a present to yon.
Don t start for New York now until I see what
I can do among your friends."
Like a ray of sunshine she came, and like a ray
of sunshine she went away. The flowers no
longer were withered, drooping. Again they
seemed to bud and grow in fragrance and beauty.
Mrs. Le Bourgois, God bless her dear good heart,
was more than successful. The twelve hundred
dollars were raised, and at last my son and my
self were free. Free, free ! what a glorious ring
to the word. Free! the bitter heart-struggle
was over. Free ! the soul could go out to heaven
and to God with no chains to clog its flight or
pull it down. Free ! the earth wore a brighter
look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy.
Yes, free ! free by the laws of man and the smile
of God and Heaven bless them who made me
The holidays were approaching,
and Mrs. Davis kept me busy in manufacturing
articles of dress for herself and children. She
desired to present Mr. Da.vis on Christmas with
a handsome dressing-gown. The material was
purchased, and for weeks the work had been
under way. Christmas eve came, and the gown
had been laid aside so often that it was still un
finished. I saw that Mrs. D. was anxious to
have it completed, so I volunteered to remain
and work on it. Wearily the hours dragged on,
but there was no rest for my busy fingers. I
persevered in my task, notwithstanding my head
was aching. Mrs. Davis was busy in the adjoin
ing room, arranging the Christmas tree for the
children. I looked at the clock, and the hands
pointed to a quarter of twelve. I w r as arranging
the cords on the gown when the Senator came
in; he looked somewhat careworn, and his step
seemed to be a little nervous. lie leaned
against the door, and expressed his admiration of
the Christmas tree, but there was no smile on his
face. Turning round, he saw me sitting in the
adjoining room, and quickly exclaimed :
" That you, Lizzie ! why are you here so late ?
Still at work ; I hope that Mrs. Davis is not too
" No, sir," I answered. " Mrs. Davis was very
anxious to have this gown finished to-night, and
I volunteered to remain and complete it."
" "Well, well, the case must be urgent," and he
came slowly towards me, took the gown in his
hand, and asked the color of the silk, as he said
the gas-light was so deceptive to his old eyes.
" It is a drab changeable silk, Mr. Davis," I
answered ; and might have added that it was rich
and handsome, but did not, well knowing- that he
would make the discovery in the morning.
He smiled curiously, but turned and walked
from the room without another question. He
inferred that the gown was for him, that it was tc
be the Christmas present from his wife, and he
did not wish to destroy the pleasure that she
would experience in believing that the gift would
prove a surprise. In this respect, as in many
others, he always appeared to rue as a thoughtful,
considerate man in the domestic circle. As the
clock struck twelve I finished the gown, little
dreaming of the future that was before it. It
was worn, I have not the shadow of a doubt, by
Mr. Davis during the stormy years that he was
the President of the Confederate States.
" You have come at -last. Mrs. Keckley, who
have you worked for in the city ?"
" Among others, Mrs. Senator Davis has been
one of my best patrons," was my reply.
" Mrs. Davis ! So you have worked for her,
have you ? Of course you gave satisfaction ; so
far, good. Can you do ray work ? "
"Yes, Mrs. Lincoln. Will you have much
work for me to do ? "
" That, Mrs. Keckley, will depend altogether
upon your prices. I trust that your terms are
reasonable. I cannot afford to be extravagant.
We are just from the West, and are poor. If you
do not charge too much, I shall be able to give
you all my work."
"I do not think there will be any difficulty
about charges, Mrs. Lincoln ; my terms are
" Well, if you will work cheap, you shall have
plenty to do. I can t afford to pay big prices, so
I frankly tell you so in the beginning."
The terms were satisfactorily arranged, and I
measured Mrs. Lincoln, took the dress with me,
a bright rose-colored moire-antique, and returned
the next day to n t it on her.
I became the regular modiste
of Mrs. Lincoln. I made fifteen or sixteen
dresses for her during the spring and early part
of the summer, when she left Washington ;
spending the hot weather at Saratoga, Long
Branch, and other places. In the mean time I
was employed by Mrs. Senator Douglas, one of
the loveliest ladies that I ever met, Mrs. Secretary
Wells, Mrs. Secretary Stanton, and others. Mrs.
Douglas always dressed in deep mourning, with
excellent taste, and several of the leading ladies
of Washington society were extremely jealous of
her superior attractions.
" I am sure that you could influence her, Mrs.
Keckley. Now listen ; I have a proposition to
make. I have a great desire to become an in
mate of the White House. I have heard so
much of Mr. Lincoln s goodness that I should
like to be near him ; and if I can enter the
White House no other way, I am willing to go
as a menial. My dear Mrs. Keckley, will you
not recommend me to Mrs. Lincoln as a friend
of yours out of employment, and ask her to take
me as a chambermaid ? If you will do this you
shall be well rewarded. It may be w^orth several
thousand dollars to you in time."
I looked at the woman in amazement. A
bribe, and to betray the confidence of my
employer ! Turning to her with a glance of
scorn, I said :
" Madam, you are mistaken in regard to my
character. Sooner than betray the trust of a
friend, I would throw myself into the Potomac
river. I am not so base as that. Pardon me,
but there is the door, and I trust that you will
never enter my room again."
She sprang to her feet in deep confusion, and
passed through the door, murmuring : " Very
well ; you will live to regret your action to
She sprang to her feet in deep confusion, and
passed through the door, murmuring : " Very
well ; you will live to regret your action to
" Never, never ! " I exclaimed, and closed the
door after her with a bang. I afterwards learned
that this woman was an actress, and that her
object was to enter the White House as a ser
vant, learn its secrets, and then publish a scan
dal to the world. I do not give her name, for
such publicity would wound the sensitive feel
ings of friends, who would have to share her
disgrace, without being responsible for her faults.
I simply record the incident to show how I
often was approached by unprincipled parties.
It is unnecessary to say that I indignantly re
fused every bribe offered.
Mr. Lincoln is certain to be re-elected. He
represents a principle, and to maintain this prin
ciple the loyal people of the loyal States will vote
for him, even if he had no merits to commend
" Your view is a plausible one, Lizabeth, and
your confidence gives me new hope. If he
should be defeated, I do not know what would
become of us all. To me, to him, there is more
at stake in this election than he dreams of."
" What can you mean, Mrs. Lincoln ? I do
" Simply this. I have contracted large debts,
of whicli he knows nothing, and which he will
be unable to pay if he is defeated."
" What are your debts, Mrs. Lincoln ? "
" They consist chiefly of store bills. I owe
altogether about twenty-seven thousand dollars ;
the principal portion at Stewart s, in New York.
You understand, Lizabeth, that Mr. Lincoln has
but little idea of the expense of a woman s ward
robe. He glances at my rich dresses, and is
happy in the belief that the few hundred dollars
that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I
must dress in costly materials. The people scru-
tinize every article that I wear with critical curi
osity. The very fact of having grown up in the
West, subjects me to more searching observation.
To keep up appearances, I must have money
more than Mr. Lincoln can spare for me. He is
too honest to make a penny outside of his salary ;
consequently I had, and still have, no alternative
but to run in debt."
" And Mr. Lincoln does not even suspect how
much you owe ? "
" God, no ! " this was a favorite expression of
hers " and I would not have him suspect. If
he knew that his wife was involved to the extent
that she is, the knowledge would drive him mad.
He is so sincere and straightforward himself,
that he is shocked by the duplicity of others.
He does not know a thing about any debts, and
I value his happiness, not to speak of my own,
too much to allow him to know anything. This
is what troubles me so much. If he is re-elected,
I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs ; but
if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent in,
and he will know all ; " and something like a
hysterical sob escaped her.
" No matter," I replied, " Mr. Lincoln will
be re-elected. I am so confident of it, that I am
tempted to ask a favor of you."
" A favor ! Well, if we remain in the White
House I shall be able to do you many favors.
What is the special favor ? "
" Simply this, Mrs. Lincoln I should like for
you to make me a present of the right-hand glove
that the President wears at the first public recep
tion after his second inaugural ."
" You shall have it in welcome. It will be so
filthy when he pulls it off, I shall be tempted to
take the tongs and put it in the fire. I cannot
imagine, Lizabeth, what you want with such a
"I shall cherish it as a precious memento of
the second inauguration of the man who has done
so much for my race. He has been a Jehovah to
my people has lifted them out of bondage, and
directed their footsteps from darkness into light.
I shall keep the glove, and hand it down to pos
" You have some strange ideas, Lizabeth.
Never mind, you shall have the glove ; that is, if
Mr. Lincoln continues President after the 4th of
I held Mrs. Lincoln to her promise. That
glove is now in my possession, bearing the marks
of the thousands of hands that grasped the honest
hand of Mr. Lincoln on that eventful night.
Alas ! it has become a prouder, sadder memento
than I ever dreamed prior to making the re
quest it would be.
Every room in the White House was dark
ened, and every one spoke in subdued tones,
and moved about with muffled tread. The
very atmosphere breathed of the great sorrow
which weighed heavily upon each heart. Mrs.
Lincoln never left her room, and while the body
of her husband was being borne in solemn state
from the Atlantic to the broad prairies of the
West, she was weeping with her fatherless chil-
dren in her private chamber. She denied ad
mittance to almost every one, and I was her only
companion, except her children, in the days of
her great sorrow.
It had been arranged that I should go to
Chicago. When Mrs. Lincoln first suggested
her plan, I strongly objected ; but I had been
with her so long, that she had acquired great
power over me.
" I cannot go West with you, Mrs. Lincoln," I
said, when the idea was first advanced.
" But you must go to Chicago with me, Eliza
beth ; I cannot do without you."
"You forget my business, Mrs. Lincoln. I
cannot leave it. Just now I have the spring
trousseau to make for Mrs. Douglas, and I have
promised to have it done in less than a week."
"Never mind. Mrs. Douglas can get some
one else to make her trousseau. You may find it
to your interest to go. I am very poor now, but
if Congress makes an appropriation for my
benefit, you shall be well rewarded."
" It is not the reward, but " I commenced, by
way of reply, but she stopped me :
" Now don t say another word about it, if you
do not wish to distress me. I have determined
that you shall go to Chicago with me, and you
When Mrs. Douglas learned that Mrs. Lincoln
wished me to accompany her West, she sent me
" Never mind me. Do all you can for Mrs.
Lincoln. My heart s sympathy is with her."
Finding that no excuse would be accepted, I
made preparations to go to Chicago with Mrs. L.
The green car had specially been chartered for
us, and in this we were conveyed to the West.
Dr. Henry accompanied us, and lie was remark
ably attentive and kind. The first night out,
Mrs. Lincoln had a severe headache ; and while I
was bathing her temples, she said to me :
" Lizabeth, you are my best and kindest friend,
and I love you as my best friend. I wish it were
in my powder to make you comfortable for the
balance of your days. If Congress provides for
me, depend upon it, I will provide for you."
In March, 1867, Mrs. Lincoln wrote
to me from Chicago that, as her in
come was insufficient to meet her
expenses, she would be obliged to
give up her house in the city, and return to
boarding. She said that she had struggled long
enough to keep up appearances, and that the
mask must be thrown aside. "I have not the
means," she wrote, " to meet the expenses of even
a first-class boarding-house, and must sell out and
secure cheap rooms at some place in the country.
It will not be startling news to you, my dear
Lizzie, to learn that I must sell a portion of my
wardrobe to add to my resources, so as to enable
me to live decently, for you remember what I
told you in "Washington, as well as what you
understood before you left me here in Chicago.
I cannot live on $1,700 a year, and as I have
many costly things which. I shall never wear,
I might as well turn them into money, and
thus add to my income, and make my circum
stances easier. It is humiliating to be placed in
such a position, but, as I am in the position, I
must extricate myself as best I can. Now, Lizzie,
I want to ask a favor of you. It is imperative
that I should do something for my relief, and
I want you to meet me in New York, between
the 30th of August and the 5th of September
next, to assist me in disposing of a portion of
I knew that Mrs. Lincoln's income was small,
and also knew that she had many valuable
dresses, which could be of no value to her,
packed away in boxes and trunks. I was confi
dent that she would never wear the dresses again,
and thought that, since her need was urgent, it
would be well enough to dispose of them quietly,
and believed that New York was the best place
to transact a delicate business of the kind. She
was the wife of Abraham Lincoln, the man who
had done so much for my race, and I could refuse
to do nothing for her, calculated to advance her
interests. I consented to render Mrs. Lincoln all
the assistance in my power, and many letters
passed between us in regard to the best way to
proceed. It was finally arranged that I should
meet her in New York about the middle of Sep-