Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House
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Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House

3.71 of 5 stars 3.71  ·  rating details  ·  727 ratings  ·  162 reviews
Originally published in 1868-when it was attacked as an indecent book authored by a traitorous eavesdropper-Behind the Scenes is the story of Elizabeth Keckley, who began her life as a slave and became a privileged witness to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Keckley bought her freedom at the age of thirty-seven and set up a successful dressmaking business in Washington,...more
ebook, 192 pages
Published July 26th 2005 by Penguin Books (first published January 1st 1868)
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KOMET
This slim book, written by Elizabeth Keckley, onetime modiste of Mary Todd Lincoln during her husband's tenure in the White House, and subsequently her confidante, is a testament to a most remarkable woman. Keckley, who was born a slave in Virginia in 1818, generally speaks very openly about her early life, including the beatings she had suffered at the hands of her master and a friend of her master's family, who sought, in their eyes, to humble her spirit. What I found remarkable is that when b...more
Sherwood Smith
How I wish a good scholar would flesh out this fascinating memoir written by a former slave who bought her own freedom and ended up as dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln. The anecdotes reported in this slim history have the ring of truth, and Lincoln and his family glimmer to life in them.

Keckley gets by her slavery years at a brisk pace, without lingering on the beatings, rape, etc. Far more detail is given to the circumstances of her obtaining her freedom, but the main subject of this memoir is M...more
Amanda
I bought this book when I went to the Lincoln Museum and home in Springfield, IL. I picked it up because - as you might be able to tell - I'm very interested in women's side of history.

This was written by Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and the dressmaker and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln. It is part slave narrative, and partly a history of the Lincoln family.

Keckley's stories of her time in slavery are upsetting, and there is a great deal she left out which I'm sure were important in her hi...more
Linda Robinson
That this book was saved from obscurity is a miracle in itself, and Ms. Keckley's life is another. The cover art informs the reader what writing will be revealed inside. Keckley's gaze is clear, fierce and magnificent. Her writing is the same, and I am grateful that the book is alive still. The author bought her freedom and secured her place in history with a steadfast heart and ferocious spirit. Her story survives and inspires.
Kristin
Thought I was a bit surprised to find that Keckley's main focus is not her thirty years as a slave, but rather her time in the service of Mary Todd Lincoln, I was far more surprised at how very readable this book is. Even 100 years later, the book reads as quickly as a gossip novel should, and I found it quite an enjoyable read, though at times I questioned Keckley's avoidance of personally painful topics. Keckley has a personable voice that sheds light on one of the United States' most provocat...more
Lisa Rogers
Elizabeth Keckley made dresses for Mary Todd Lincoln when she was in the White House. Keckley was a former slave. She wrote this memoir largely to shed light on the character of Mrs. Lincoln who, at the time, was embroiled in a scandal involving misappropriation of gov't money to buy personal items. Keckley's writing is very elegant and formal; I haven't researched the book as yet to know if she had help in writing it, as she was uneducated and the language is surprising, given her background. N...more
Rita
As I read this autobiography written by a former slave, Elizabeth Keckley--later a free black and business woman and dressmaker to Mary Todd Lincoln--I wondered how she was able to get her book published in 1868. Then I noticed on the verso page that the original was published due to "an act of Congress, in the year 1868" and realized that her writing was considered important enough as a primary source that Congress felt it worthy of publication. And indeed it is. Truly it is mesmerizing! Her re...more
Louise
I read the Schomburg Library edition which includes a Forward by Louis Henry Gates, a note on behalf of the Schomburg Library, an Introduction by James Olney and an Appendix of letters by Mary Todd Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckley's voice shines through all these more famous and more learned people.

Keckley's writing is brought down by the extra material. One of the introductory essays (by a scholar who writes of the importance of the work) says that her description of the day her father was sent away...more
April Lashbrook
I read this because I couldn't get through Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, which was a book group selection one month, and others had read this one as well, and told me that this book was the source for much of the other. It was fascinating--and I'm sure very noteworthy that she wrote it when she did, given what she wrote about--her physical and sexual abuse as a slave and the embarrassments of Mrs. Lincoln. I was left unsure if Lizzie realized how much ML had taken advantage of her, but maybe that's...more
Becky Loader
Hmmm. After reading "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker," I had to read Mrs. Keckley's actual book. I have to admit I am skeptical.

First, Mrs. Keckley was born a slave, and in her early life, she experienced all the horrors that came with that terrible status. She did not have a formal education, and she earned the money to purchase her (and her son's) freedom. Her sewing skills were superlative, and her skill at making dresses made her a very popular seamstress for many upper-class women.

Her associati...more
Gina Basham
First, to respond to some reviews I've read. This is not historical fiction. It is a first person account of events and experiences written from the author's perspective.

Fascinating. There were so many things I learned about Mary Todd Lincoln that I never knew. I had heard, or read, about her being a little less than stable but to read evidence of it was gripping. I was not surprised by the devotion of Lincoln to his wife. That has been documented by many. The extravagant lifestyle of the women...more
 Gigi Ann
I started reading the novel "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" by Jennifer Chiaverini, and began wondering what parts of the book were facts, and what parts were fiction. Therefore, I decided to lay that book aside for now, and read this book, "Behind The Scenes" an autobiography memoir by Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, the dressmaker of Mrs. Lincoln.

I always enjoy reading autobiographies, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading Mrs. Keckley's account of her life as a slave and dressmaker. I didn't enjoy how she w...more
Ruth
After reading the new book, Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker, I was interested in what resources the author had used since the book was historical fiction. It turns out that in 1868, the dressmaker herself had published her memoirs. It was interesting to see how the memoirs became a part of the new book.

It was interesting to have a glimpse of Mrs. Lincoln since it is usually her famous husband that one reads about. In looking up this book to see if our library system had it, I also discovered that they...more
Judie
Elizabeth Keckley wrote BEHIND THE SCENES OR, THIRTY YEARS A SLAVE, AND FOUR YEARS IN THE WHITE HOUSE in 1868. While the book received a great deal of attention when it was published, both she and the book were largely forgotten until the recent publication of MRS. LINCOLN’S DRESSMAKER by Jennifer Chiaverini in which she both bases and quotes much of her book.
In short, this book is about Mrs. Keckley’s life from her birth as a slave through her years as a seamstress and entrepreneur to her rel...more
Anita
Outstanding book, I'd recommend it to anyone interested in unmanipulated historical facts. Keckley is a woman of standards and morals - there's no sensationalism or exploitation of her unique position in Lincoln's White House. It's very interesting to read a bit about the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her husband (it's not the focus, but we do get some peeks) and about Mrs. Lincoln's circumstances and mindset (through her own letters) after leaving the White House. I can see why thi...more
Janet
This memoir is less about Mrs. Keckley's life in bondage than her relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln for whom she seems to have had deep affection. Her first hand recollections of Mrs. Lincoln' s destitution after the assassination is well worth the read. Surprisingly well written, it details the raw deal the widow Lincoln received from a war torn, divided nation. Interestingly, this book was censored when it was first published. No doubt because it exposed the humiliation the martyred presiden...more
Becky
If you are interested in US History or fashion before, during and after the US Civil War you will likely find the book of interest. However, while it is the memoirs of Elizabeth Keckley, she really just wrote about snippets from her life. Oh how I wish she had written her full memoirs. I think her full memoirs would have read more like a story and would have been more enjoyable. Regardless, the woman was remarkable and admirable. She had an interesting life and the snippets she shares of her lif...more
Monica!
This isn't exactly a great book, but it's absolutely fascinating. The author whips past her "thirty years a slave," and spends the majority of the book delving into her relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln. While perhaps questionably factually accurate (she was, after all, writing this for cash, and nothing brings in more money than a scandal) it's definitely a unique look at Lincoln's White House, and for a book that's a century and a half old, you'll be shocked at how quickly it reads.
Sara
I wish Mrs. Keckley had written more about her early life and her rise, with her son, up and out of slavery.

If Elizabeth Keckley was sincere in trying to shed light on Mrs. Lincoln's personality and motivations, in order for people to think more compassionately of her, that doesn't really come out in this book. Indeed, it seems Elizabeth threw Mrs. L. under the carriage in an effort to profit somehow from this relationship, which to that point had been marked by unrealistic demands on the part o...more
Pat Jennings
Because of it's historical value, this book is a marvel. Written by a self taught former slave, Elizabeth Keckley gives a true account of her dressmaking for Mary Todd Lincoln and also the making of a close friendship. Mary Todd Lincoln was fraught with many losses, death of children, war environ, husband and self always on the hot seat and then ultimately the murder of her beloved Abraham. The Congress and new president did not treat Ms. Lincoln well nor did the newspapers of the day. This book...more
Suzanne
The longer title, Behind the Scenes or 30 Years a Slave and 4 Years in the White House, is a more detailed picture of this autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley. And while this does describe the woman’s background, it is not an accurate portrayal of what you will find in this book. Written in 1868, Mrs. Keckley does discuss her past as a slave, but she rushes through her history. She argues that there is happiness as well as horror in the life of a slave, and while she was clearly abused by some of...more
pickfordm
I was inspired to read Ms. Keckley's memoirs (which has a different title in my edition...) by the movie "Lincoln" and the Off Broadway play "A Civil War Christmas." In both of these, she seemed to be such an intelligent, strong woman. Then, The NY Times published an article about the fact that Ms. Keckley suddenly was everywhere and mentioned this book. I ordered it at once.

I agree with many of the comments on this page. She is a good writer and an intelligent and articulate woman, and her life...more
Vivian
Enter a time capsule into the household of Abraham Lincoln. Elizabeth Keckley, a modiste to Mary Todd Lincoln, shares observations of the household and conversations overheard. In publishing this work her intent was to turn public favor towards the widowed Mrs. Lincoln. It was to Mrs. Keckley that Mrs. Lincoln turned for assistance in selling her wardrobe in hopes of raising funds on which to live.

Elizabeth was a remarkable woman. She was an only child, born into slavery to slave parents who liv...more
Karen
After seeing the 2012 film Lincoln, I picked up this book because I wanted to know more about Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress / confidante Elizabeth Keckley. Also, there is novel about Keckley being released this month (January 2013), and I wanted to read this key document prior to reading the novel. Keckley's life story, with an emphasis on her interactions with Mrs. Lincoln, did not dissapoint.

Keckley starts with an explanation that her book is not an attack on Mrs. Lincoln but an explan...more
Lisa Jones
Behind the Scenes or, Thirty years a slave, and Four Years in the White House is an autobiography by Elizabeth Keckley that chronicles both her years as a slave in the South and her years as a dressmaker and confidante for Mary Todd Lincoln during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Her memoir begins with her birth as a slave in Virginia and moves to buying her freedom from her master to the beginnings of her business as a dressmaker to her famous role as confidante of Mrs. Lincoln from the first pres...more
Becky
This is an excellent work that, before Librivox, I’d been previously unaware. Keckley led such an amazing life. Her relations with whites are fascinating. In her younger years she was terribly abused by her owners, who several times beat her within an inch of her life, and was later raped by a whiteman by whom she became pregnant. While she doesn’t dwell long on this time, because it was so painful to recollect, she does bravely call out society for tolerating this type of behavior to young impo...more
Laura
This is the kind of text that makes the exercise of assigning stars feel ... well, silly. Keckley has written her life story, from being born into slavery, through her time as dressmaker/confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln, and beyond the President's assassination. She includes letters, contracts, and other historical documents, built into her story. What an incredible resource. I am NOT a Civil War buff, not at all, but I saw this character depicted in "Lincoln" and was curious enough to seek this...more
Dana
I picked up Elizabeth Keckley's book, "Behind the Scenes" at the Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois about a week ago. I love shopping for books when I travel, and this book was mentioned in Jennifer Chiaverini's "Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker" which I recently read. In fact, after reading "Behind the Scenes", I see where Ms Chiaverini got a lot of her material for her work of historical fictions!

This is the "original" book about Mrs. Lincoln's dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley. It was...more
Patrick
I really liked this first-person slice of history. Ms. Keckley's story and voice gives us a peek inside the White-house; life in Washington, DC during the Lincoln Presidency; and a personal profile of Mary Todd Lincoln herself. Though the book was intended to be written in order to evoke sympathy for Mrs. Lincoln and her plight of facing an "embarrassing" financial situation after the President was assassinated, I can see where it would be received as scandalous in its time. The details and desc...more
The Reading Countess
Call me a Lincoln-aficionado. He, and all of his world, has always fascinated me. And so when I struck upon this (free) online edition of Elizabeth Keckley's life story, I had to read it.

Let me first say that this is a fascinating tale. Hearing from the horse's mouth the misery of living as a slave (never seeing your father but twice a year, birthing a son borne out of rape, being beaten soundly...) makes history spring alive. The years in the White House were particularly fascinating, and her a...more
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Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (February 1818 –May 1907) was a former slave turned successful seamstress who is most notably known as being Mary Todd Lincoln's personal modiste and confidante, and the author of her autobiography, Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Mrs. Keckley utilized her intelligence, keen business acumen, and sewing and design skills to arran...more
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Behind the Scenes A View of Lincoln

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“An act may be wrong, but unless the ruling power recognizes the wrong, it is useless to hope for a correction of it.” 0 likes
“What a sublime picture was this! A ruler of a mighty nation going to the pages of the Bible with simple Christian earnestness for comfort and courage, and finding both in the darkest hours of a nation’s calamity. Ponder it, O ye scoffers at God’s Holy Word, and then hang your heads for very shame!” 0 likes
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