Image of Elizabeth Keckley


Lifetime: 1818 - 1907 Passed: ≈ 116 years ago


Seamstress, Author


United States

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was a former slave who became a successful seamstress, civil activist, and author in Washington, DC. She was best known as the personal modiste and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady. 


As an enslaved woman, she was owned by her father, Armistead Burwell, and later his daughter who was her half-sister, Anne Burwell Garland. She became a nursemaid to an infant when she was four years old. She received brutal treatment—including being raped and whipped to the point of bleeding welts—from Burwell's family members and a family friend. When she became a seamstress, the Garland family found that it was financially advantageous to have her make clothes for others. The money that she made helped to support the Garland family of seventeen family members. 


In November 1855, she purchased her and her son's freedom in St. Louis, Missouri. Keckley moved to Washington, D.C. in 1860. She established a dressmaking business that grew to include a staff of 20 seamstresses. Her clients were the wives of elite politicians, including Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, and Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee. 


After the American Civil War, Keckley wrote and published an autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868). It was both a slave narrative and a portrait of the First Family, especially Mary Todd Lincoln, and it was considered controversial as to the extent of information shared about the Lincolns' private lives. 

Books by Elizabeth Keckley

Behind the Scenes Cover image

Behind the Scenes

Non-Fiction Biography
Slavery Freedom United States

This is the autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who bought her freedom with the money she earned as a seamstress. She eventually worked for Mary Lincoln. It is a fascinating book, filled with many recollections of her own life and her...