Mary and Elizabeth Museum Gift Shop

“Mary Lincoln?” “She was crazy.”

“Elizabeth Keckley?” “Who?”

The Mary and Elizabeth Museum Gift Shop displays mementos in a tribute to the unique friendship between Mary Lincoln and her dressmaker, the former slave, Elizabeth Keckley. It is in the interest of historical accuracy to release Mary Lincoln from the damaging and incorrect label of insanity. And to rescue Elizabeth Keckley from anonymity. In the mid-1800s, slaves were forbidden to read and write and even well-educated white women were supposed to keep quiet. Both women paid for their “offenses” of superior intelligence and independent spirit. Historical accounts continue to parrot the damaging misinformation about Mary and exclude Elizabeth.

     Mary’s staunch abolitionist views were formed when she was a child and witnessed chained slaves pass by her front door to the auction block. She was born into the wealthy, slave-owning Todd family in Lexington, Kentucky, the town founded by her forebears. When she was six years old her mother died and her father remarried. The grief-stricken child sought the comfort of the slave, Mammy Sally in a household that grew from six to 15 siblings.

     Unlike most girls in her milieu, Mary received a quality education. The precocious child would develop into a sassy, articulate and politically astute woman. An ambitious and influential force behind her husband’s ascent to the presidency, her choice to stay in his shadow was deliberate. 

     Elizabeth Keckley was a slave who purchased her own freedom and her son’s. Each was the result of rape by a white man. Elizabeth went on to build a successful dressmaking business in the Capital city but when secession loomed, her most prominent clients, Mrs. Robert E. Lee and Mrs. Jefferson Davis went south. Elizabeth sought out the new First Lady.

     Elizabeth became a respected presence in the Executive Mansion as her duties extended beyond creating many of Mary’s gowns for the hundreds of required state-related events. The two women formed a deep friendship that crossed the color line—a rarity in the Civil War era. Each had sons the same age who were Union soldiers. When Elizabeth founded the Contraband Relief Association in 1862 to help former slaves become autonomous, the Lincolns donated. Mary additionally helped and solicited funds from acquaintances. Still mourning her son Eddie who died at age four, Mary would seek out the comfort of Elizabeth during two more tragedies: 11-year-old son Willie’s death and the President’s assassination.

     Enemies of the President turned on the First Lady. Newspapers stoked rumors of her extravagance that continued after the assassination. She was falsely accused of accumulating massive debt on her gowns and furnishings. In fact, she was extremely frugal, buying in bulk for the discounts. In addition, she was an excellent seamstress who made many of her own gowns. Historian Betty Ellison examined check registers proving that William S. Wood, interim commissioner of public building, stole from the accounts and blamed Mary for the short falls. Northerners were suspicious of her because of her Confederate family and Southerners believed she betrayed them.

    With neither a government widow’s pension nor a will to provide for her, Mary felt desperate. Elizabeth neglected her dressmaking business when she tried to help Mary sell articles from her wardrobe. The ensuing, widely publicized “Old Clothes” scandal raised no money.

     To produce an income and salvage Mary’s reputation, Elizabeth wrote and published “Behind the Scenes”, a book about her personal history and her time with the Lincolns. It was a disaster. Newspapers discredited her, insisting that a slave couldn’t write. The woman publisher not only didn’t pay Elizabeth but reneged on a promise and printed private correspondence between the two friends. Upon learning that her family’s intimate life was exposed, Mary refused contact with Elizabeth including her gift of the quilt she made from Mary’s dress scraps. Unable to revive her business, the dressmaker sank into poverty. The meager pension she received when her only son was killed in the war wasn’t enough.

Keckley Quilt, Susan Bercu, painting, detail from diorama

Mary was overwhelmed by grief, her lowered standard of living and  isolation from friends. Robert, alarmed about her erratic state of mind, unduly influenced a panel of judges to commit her to a private mental institution. Although she was lucid enough to secure a wife and husband legal team who obtained her release and had her declared sane, history would not absolve her of the crazy label. After years of pressuring the unsympathetic Congress to create a widow’s pension, it finally came through. It was too late. Mary died on July 16, 1882, at her beloved sister Elizabeth’s home in Springfield.

“Mary and Elizabeth Gift Shop” Diorama 15 in. wide x 23 in. high x 8 in. deep

The museum gift shop displays  mementos that augment the story of Elizabeth Keckley and Mary Lincoln. Some of the gutta-percha ambrotype cases containing albumen prints of loved ones included a lock of hair and a written sentiment. Except for the photocopies of the two letters, I created all the original art. The diorama structure is cardboard painted with acrylic. Many drawings and paintings were scanned, so only photocopies are placed on the diorama. All three-dimensional items including the photo frames are cardboard painted with acrylics. 

Photo Cases, left to right,  Mary Lincoln, Eddie Lincoln

Photo Case (cover),  Housewife (Pocket Sewing Kit for Soldier)

Susan Bercu, painted cardboard with drawings of portrait photos, details from diorama

Diorama Details

Top background, left and right

  • Mary Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley (pencil)

Objects, top to bottom/left to right

  • Mary’s mourning brooch of carved onyx disks with black enamel and yellow gold  (painted cardboard)

  • Mary’s blood-stained white silk fan  (painted cardboard)

  • Lincoln and son Thomas (Tad) photo case (painted cardboard/pencil portrait)

  • Edward (Eddie) Lincoln (died at age four) photo case. Inscription from his tombstone: “Bright is the home to him now given. For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” (painted cardboard/ pencil portrait)

  • Elizabeth Keckley photo case (painted cardboard/ pencil portrait)

  • Mary Lincoln photo case (painted cardboard/pencil portrait)

  • Quilt sewn by Elizabeth Keckley.  “Liberty”, embroidered in the quilt’s center, is meaningful because of Elizabeth’s slave origin. (painting)

  • Letter, reproductions, left to right, Mary to Abraham; Mary to Elizabeth (Lizzie)

  • Housewife (pocket sewing kit for soldiers)  (painted cardboard

  • Mary’s white linen gold embroidered gloves, worn at first Inaugural Ball, 1861. Mary bought gloves in bulk at a discount for herself and her husband since they would shake hands with as many as 1,000 visitors in a single day at a time when hands were unclean. (painted cardboard)

  • Pocket Watch, 18K solid gold, inscribed, “To Miss Mary Todd—A Token of my Everlasting Devotion and Affection, Abe Lincoln” (painted cardboard)

  • Exhibit label (pencil)

Bonus Strange Fact

Hidden Message Watchmaker and Northern sympathizer Jonathan Dillon secretly scratched a message inside Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch when it came to him for repair. When the Smithsonian announced acquisition of the watch in 1958, a Dillon descendant notified the museum of the rumored inscription. The museum opened it and found a message scratched inside, “Jonathan Dillon April 13, 1861 Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon April 13, 1861 Washington” and  “thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.”

Secret Notes Scratched Inside Abraham Lincoln’s Watch  photo, Smithsonian Museum

Bloody Strange Facts of  Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris

The Wounded Major  Several people declined the Lincolns’ invitation to Ford’s Theater before Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancé Clara Harris, a favorite of Mary, accepted. When the Major tried to stop the attack, he was slashed by John Wilkes Booth’s sword. Clara tried to comfort Mary who screamed, “Oh! My husband’s blood!” In fact, it was the Major’s blood on Clara’s gown and Mary’s fan. The President did not bleed externally.

The Murder  Clara and Henry married and moved to Germany where Henry, who had a history of depression, became increasingly deranged until in 1883, he fatally shot his wife.He stabbed himself several times before servants intervened. Their three children were spared. Henry spent his final days in a German asylum for the criminally insane.

The Bloody Gown  Clara’s blood-soaked gown was stored in a closet in the Harris family home in Albany, New York. When she and a house guest believed they heard ghosts laughing, Clara had the closet bricked-in. In 1910, 45 years after Lincoln’s assassination, the Rathbones’ son Henry, then a US Representative, dismantled the closet and burned the entombed dress, saying it had cursed his family.   

©2019 Susan Bercu  All Rights Reserved

Videos, Photos of Dioramas  ©2019 Ken Smith All Rights Reserved

No use or reproduction of any content without permission of Susan Bercu

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