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Elizabeth Keckley and Jefferson Davis’s Dress

Here’s one that, until very recently, would have had be called “Cemetery Mixtape: Unmarked.”

Elizabeth Keckley (or Keckly) was born a slave, bought her freedom as an adult, and became a modiste (dressmaker) for Mary Todd Lincoln throughout her years in the White House, eventually becoming a confidante of both Mrs. Lincoln and the President. Her whole life story is wonderfully told in her 1868 autobiography, Behind the Scenes.

The fair’s newsletter, VOICE OF THE FAIR, describes the wax Davis-in-a-Dress figure. Today it’s a bit problematic for reasons that wouldn’t have occurred to them in 1865.

While her time with the Lincolns and the book have made her a relatively well-known historical figure, it’s not as well remembered that, before coming to work for the Lincolns, she had also worked briefly as a live-in modiste for the family of Jefferson Davis, just before he left the senate to become president of the Confederacy. Mrs. Davis even tried to persuade Elizabeth to come back South with them!

In 1865, as the war wound down, Davis was captured by Union Soldiers while trying to escape to Mexico. Reports in the press were that he was disguised as a woman when he was captured, and artists quickly got to work depicting him in petticoats. Though he wasn’t dressed QUITE as feminine as the artists made him out to be, in this episode we examine several first-hand accounts that make it clear that, though he may not have intended it that way, he was disguised as an old woman, wearing his wife’s waterproof cloak and shawl, and referred to as an old woman by Mrs. Davis. In the episode, we look at some first hand accounts confirming that the legend was, at least, closer to true than Davis wanted to admit.

At the time of the capture, Secretary of War Stanton seems to have decided not to let facts get in the way of a good story – he locked the waterproof cloak and shawl in storage, and seems to have sent out a dress from Mrs. Davis’s trunk to be put on display.

The first display came a month later, when Chicago hosted The Great Northwestern Sanitary Fair, which became something of a victory lap for the war, hosting several generals and showcasing relics and munitions (see the recent post on Mysterious Chicago). Prominently displayed as a wax figure of Davis – in one of Mrs. Davis’s dresses.

The fact that the dress draped on the figure was one of Mrs. Davis’s was one known only because Elizabeth Keckley, who happened to be at the fair, wrote in her autobiography that she recognized it as one she had made for her five years earlier. In speaking of this, she said that she caused quite an uproar in the fair hall, but the story always had to be taken with a grain of salt – she’d said that it happened in winter (the fair was in June), and newspapers at the time didn’t mention the uproar.

Or, anyway, I thought they didn’t. Though they didn’t get her name quite right, the Voice of the Fair newsletter, which has now been digitized, mentioned it in passing:

 

An excerpt from VOICE OF THE FAIR confirming Keckley’s account., though they got her name wrong.

 

So, they didn’t get her name right – but she did report that she had to rush out of the building, and it’s easy to imagine that perhaps the reporter simply didn’t have a chance to speak with her.

Keckley’s grave was considered “lost” for many years – originally buried at Columbian Harmony Cemetery, the cemetery was considered full a few years after she died. Though it was mentioned frequently when it was in use – usually either from a notable black person being buried there or someone robbing the graves – after about 1918 it seems to vanish from newspapers until 1960, when a developer bought the land and had the bodies moved.

The tombstones didn’t travel with the bodies – some ended up in a “riprap” separating the Potomac River from land, and others are probably simply lost. The new cemetery where the bodies were taken, National Harmony, replaced them with simple plaques that lie flush with the ground. Elizabeth didn’t have one for years – it’s generally assumed that her plot at Columbian was unmarked, and it was said for years that the new cemetery simply didn’t know which plot was hers. But a historian dug through the records a few years ago, and found that there actually WAS a plot for her, and a new plaque with her picture was finally added. The Washington Post told the story and covered the unveiling of her long-overdue monument.

Given the extent to which the cemetery was forgotten by 1960, it’s possible that Keckley DID have a headstone, and people simply didn’t realize it. For all we know, one of the stones pictured in these shots of Columbian Harmony below could be hers!

Columbian Harmony Cemetery in April, 1960. Smithsonian.
Columbian Harmony, 1960. From the Smithsonian

 

EPISODE CREDITS:

Kalina McCreery – Mrs. Davis

John Kajander – Jefferson Davis

Ronica Davis – Elizabeth Keckley

John Piotrowski – “Voice of the Fair”

MUSIC

This month’s song is “Elizabeth Waltz,” written and recorded for this episode by Chicago’s own FRECKLEBOMB! Check out their cover of “Pale September,” my favorite Fiona Apple song.