Saturday, March 4, 2023

Silk Eagle Quilt #5: New Look at Elizabeth Keckley's "Autobiography"


We've discussed Elizabeth Keckly's relationship to this silk quilt,
concluding that there is no evidence she had anything to do with it.

Elizabeth Keckly (1818-1907 ) portrait, 
frontispiece of Behind the Scenes

I, like many other readers of Elizabeth Keckley's Behind the Scenes or, Thirty years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, have given her "autobiography" another look. My dog-eared copy of the 1868 book republished in 1988 has long provided me with a perspective on women's work, professional dressmaking and the Lincoln presidency, the last of which is called increasingly into question. 

A first edition

To summarize: In 1868 Elizabeth Keckley published the book with the New York publishing house of G.W. Carleton & Company (note spelling of Keckley with two E's) . The book is available online at various sites (See links at the bottom here.)  One source is Documenting the American South, which tells us:

"Though the verifiable facts in Behind the Scenes have affirmed the text's authenticity, there is speculation about the level of involvement of Keckley's editor, James Redpath. Lincoln scholars have relied on the autobiography for information about White House domestic life, anecdotes about President Lincoln, and Mary Lincoln's experiences and opinions during the 1860s. Lincoln biographers have quoted extensively from Keckley's text." (And many of the domestic scenes in the Stephen Spielberg 2012 film Lincoln are drawn from the book.)

The book now is thought to have been dictated, told to or ghost written by someone other than Elizabeth.
Kansas Museum of History Collection
British-born James Redpath (1833-1891) in Kansas
during the Troubles, about 1856, wearing the outfit
popular among men on the Kansas/Missouri border.
 He was an antislavery correspondent for 
Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, a copy in his lap.

Many believe the "editor" or actual author to be James Redpath. The New York Public Library files on his correspondence describe him as an "Abolitionist, reformer, and author" and he seems a likely candidate as someone she referred to as her amanuensis---"a literary or artistic assistant, one who takes dictation or copies manuscripts. "

We have no idea what kind of agreement Elizabeth, the publishing assistant(s) and Carleton had but it looks like Elizabeth was betrayed by all. The book's text illuminating a Behind the Scenes view of the Lincoln family was far too intimate a disclosure for the times. Reviewers were scandalized.

Widely copied review 1868

But much worse than remembered conversations were appended letters from Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, who'd been close friends for several years, never spoke again after the publication.  Elizabeth betrayed Mary, but who betrayed Elizabeth?

The 1864 city directory listed Elizabeth Keckley boarding in Washington.
She never seems to have established housekeeping. 

The 1880 census found Elizabeth Keckley, a seamstress, boarding with Samuel W. and Louisa E. Estren in F Street North West in Washington. The Estrens were in the hair dressing business making wigs.

Although she never published another book she did leave a trail, paper and otherwise, of her interesting life. The first thing we learn in looking at the documents of that life is that Keckley with two E's was not the way she spelled her name, acquired from her only husband. She divorced James Keckly after a short, unhappy marriage in St. Louis. Public records though include 2 E's in the spelling.
1875 Washington Star
Mrs. E. Keckly advertising for women to learn dressmaking. No extra E.

1879 Washington Star
Mrs. E. Keckly, Modiste (Dressmaker)
Teaching a dressmaking method rather than actually making
dresses seems to have provided income after the war.

For a short time in the 1890s she taught her method at Ohio's Wilberforce University,
 a Historically Black University, as Mrs. Elizabeth Keckly with no extra E.

After her death in 1907 her attorney spelled her name correctly.

The spelling error is minor compared to other injuries from the book but it is interesting that she seems so far removed from the publication process that she had no say in proofreading her own name. And ever after there is an extra E.

September 4, 1904
Washington Times

Reporters occasionally revived her story with a Keckly interview. In the early 20th century she wanted to talk about the book, telling perhaps the true story. How reliable were her words?

From the lengthy 1904 article...

"I never intended to write that book. and, in fact, I never wrote it."

Regretting the letters' publication

"I was a stranger to my new friends..." the "amanuensis" and the "doctor."
If Redpath was the amanuensis who was the doctor?

The end of the article about her story: "[f]ilched...so was the revenue."
Who were the "two men" responsible for the book?
Redpath does seem likely; in the late-19th century he was acting as
ghostwriter for Jefferson Davis and assisting widow Varina Davis with
her biography of Davis.

Article copied widely in June & July, 1901

An earlier interview by Smith D. Fry, "Lincoln Liked Her: Story of Elizabeth Keckly, a White House Factotum," in which she refers to "a couple of sharpers...two newspaper men. They employed stenographers...published all that she said and a great deal that she did not say."

Jane Gray Swisshelm (1818-1884)

We can eliminate Jane Swisshelm, a mid-19th century journalist, whose name has been suggested as the actual writer. Chicago Tribune writer George Alfred Townsend used the fictional device of Mrs. Bibbapron’s diary to credit Swisshelm with authorship in his 1873 book Washington, Outside and Inside:
“Mrs. Swizzlem, the colored authoress of Mrs. Keckley's book, was in the diplomatic gallery with one of Mrs. Lincoln's dresses on, counting through an opera glass the pimples on the face of one of the Senators. She hates his wife, Alonzo says, and means to worry her.”

Mrs. B., not a reliable source.

How reliable is Mrs. K?

Later in life.

Two links to read Behind the Scenes:



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