Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley

Mrs. Elizabeth Keckley was fashion stylist to the stars of Washington DC in the mid-1800s. As dressmaker and companion of Mary Todd Lincoln, she worked in the White House during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.

Mrs-Elizabeth-Keckley-1861-wikicommonsBut Elizabeth Keckley was not born into American high society. Well, in a way she was. She was born in 1818 in Dunwiddie County, Virginia. Her father was Col. Armistead Burwell, owner of the plantation. Her mother was Agnes, one of the plantation slaves. So Lizzy, as she was known, was born into slavery.

Agnes was born on the Burwell plantation in 1786. Her mother’s name was Kate.  An accomplished seamstress, Agnes made clothes for the entire household. She also could read and write. She taught her daughter her skills.

Early years of Elizabeth Hobbs

Some time after Elizabeth’s birth, Agnes married George Pleasant Hobbs, a slave on a neighbouring plantation. When Elizabeth was 7, Hobbs was allowed to live on the Burwell plantation with her mother and her. But soon after he was forced to move, maybe to Kentucky or Tennessee. He never saw his family again. All three being literate, and allowed to correspond, they kept in touch by letter. Elizabeth believed George Hobbs was her biological father. Only shortly before Agnes died did she tell her daughter the truth of her parentage.

Hillsborough NC historical plaque

When Elizabeth was 14, she was sent to the Hillsborough NC household of the Burwell’s eldest son Robert, a Presbyterian minister. There she was forced into a sexual relationship with Alexander McKenzie Kirkland, a friend of Rev. Burwell. She had a son by him about 1838. She named the baby George.

Elizabeth returned to Virginia in 1842, to the household of Armistead’s daughter Anne and her husband Hugh Alfred Garland. Armistead Burwell had died in 1841. His widow Mary now lived at the Garlands, as did Elizabeth’s mother Aggy.

St. Louis, Missouri

In 1847 they all moved to St Louis, Missouri. Hugh Garland, a lawyer, was in financial trouble and hoped the move would improve his situation. He acted for the slave holders in the landmark Missouri case Dred Scott v. Sanford. Elizabeth kept his household afloat with the money she made making dresses for St. Louis society ladies.

In St. Louis, Elizabeth renewed an acquaintance with James Keckley from Virginia. He said he was free. They married. There is little about him in the autobiography she later wrote: “I lived with him eight years, let charity draw around him a mantle of silence.” She kept his surname, however.

While deciding whether to marry Keckley, she asked Hugh Garland if she could buy freedom for herself and her son. She did not want to have more children born into slavery. The price was $1,200 Garland said, knowing she had little chance of saving that amount of money.

Family tree of Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley family tree
Tap to enlarge. ON connection may be Maj. L. Burwell’s great-grandfather Edmund S Burwell.

Then Hugh Garland died in October 1854. Armistead Burwell Jr., a Vicksburg MS lawyer and Unionist, came to sort out his brother-in-law’s estate. He convinced his sister Anne to honour the agreement Elizabeth had reached with Hugh.

But raising $1,200 was still a huge problem. She decided to go to New York and fund-raise among anti-slavery groups there. Anne told her she could go if six white men would guarantee to cover the Garland “loss” should she not return. Five men agreed. Not enough.

Hearing of her distress, one of Elizabeth’s St. Louis clients stepped in. Mrs. Le Bourgois said she still owed Elizabeth money for dresses she’d made. Others also paid their “debts” or loaned Elizabeth money. So Elizabeth got the money she needed and, in November 1855, her emancipation papers.

She stayed in St. Louis another five years, working as a seamstress until she paid back those who had loaned her money. In 1857 her mother Agnes, who had gone to Armistead Jr.’s home in Vicksburg, died.

Washington DC

In 1860, Elizabeth and George moved to Washington DC. At first she taught dressmaking, then set up her own shop. Her contacts in St. Louis proved useful, and she gained a reputation as Washington’s preeminent dressmaker. Mary Todd Lincoln became a client. Eventually Mrs. Lincoln asked Elizabeth to work exclusively for her.

George-KirklandAnne Garland and her children returned to Virginia in 1861, no longer welcome in St. Louis due to their Confederacy sympathies. Her son Col. Hugh Garland Jr. was killed in the Battle of Franklin TN in 1864. He was Commander of the 1st Missouri Infantry.

Elizabeth’s son George, Hugh Jr.’s cousin, also fought and died in the Civil War. He enlisted under the surname Kirkland in the (white) 1st Missouri Volunteers of the Union Army. Pvt. Kirkland died in the Battle of Wilson Creek August 10, 1861. (Read more about him.)

Lincoln White House and after

Amazon link for Behind the Scenes
Tap for Amazon link

Mrs. Keckley spent the war years at the White House with the Lincoln family. In 1866 she published her autobiography, entitled Behind the Scenes, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. It shocked Washington society, and angered Mary Lincoln. Mrs. Keckley meant it as a defence of the impoverished and increasingly criticized former First Lady. But the book was seen as airing private matters and trading on connections. Her social standing, and dressmaking business, plummeted.

Elizabeth moved to Ohio in 1892 where she became head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University. She was then 74. She returned to Washington where she died at the age of 89. Examples of her dressmaking – including the gown Mrs. Lincoln wore for her husband’s 2nd inauguration – are in museum collections. So too is a quilt she made from scraps of the silks and satins she’d used in making those gowns. (More on Mrs. Keckley’s design style.)


Distant cousins, maybe

If my Canadian Burwell family is related to the Virginia Burwells, then Elizabeth Keckley is my 8th cousin 4 times removed. That makes Armistead Burwell and his whole slaveholding family my cousins as well. Mrs. Keckley reconciled that somehow. She didn’t sugarcoat her years in slavery, but she remained in contact with Anne Garland to the end of her life.

Whether or not we are related, it’s interesting. Within the immediate family of Armistead Burwell, you find those who were enslaved and those who enslaved them. Those who worked for slavery and those who worked against it. Soldiers in the Union Army and in the Confederate Army. America in a nutshell maybe.

The White House Historical Association gives more details on Mrs. Keckley’s life and that of the Burwells. George Kirkland’s photo is from Petersburg Preservation. Below are links to a biography of Mrs. Keckley and a historical novel about George Hobbs Kirkland, both by Jennifer Fleischner.

Padstow May Day
May Day by Harry Batt 1961, Padstow Museum

Now imagine a still night, the last of April, the first of May. Starlight above the chimney pots. Moon on the harbour. Moonlight shadows of houses on opposite slate walls. At about two in the morning the song begins. Here are the words.

With a merry ring and with the joyful spring,
For summer is a-come unto day
How happy are those little birds which so merrily do sing
In the merry morning of May.

Then the men go round to the big houses of the town singing below the windows a variety of verses –

‘Arise up Mr. Babyn I know you well afine
You have a shilling in your purse and I wish it were in mine.’

And then on to a house where a young girl lives –

‘Arise up Miss Lobb all in your smock of silk
And all your body under as white as any milk.’

Morning light shines on the water and the green-grey houses. Out on the quay comes the Hobby-horse – it used to be taken for a drink to a pool a mile away from the town. It is a man in a weird mask, painted red and black and white, and he wears a huge hooped skirt made of black tarpaulin which he is meant to lift up, rushing at the ladies to put it over one of their heads. The skirt used to have soot in it. A man dances with the Hobby-horse carrying a club. Suddenly, at about 11.30 in the morning, there is a pause. The Hobby-horse bows down to the ground. The attendant lays his club on its head and the day song begins, a dirge-like strain.

‘Oh where is St. George? Oh, where is he, O?
He’s down in his long boat. All on the salt sea, O.’

Then up jumps the Hobby-horse, loud shriek the girls, louder sings the crowd and wilder grows the dance –

With a merry ring and with the joyful spring
For summer is a-come unto day
How happy are those little birds which so merrily do sing
In the merry morning of May

John Betjeman, First and Last Loves (1952), A Cornish Anthology, Alfred Leslie Rowse ed. 1968 pp 265-6

Oss_Oss_Wee_Oss_Bryan-Ledgard-2007-wikicommonsIn Padstow, on Cornwall’s north coast, the Obby Oss festival for May Day hasn’t changed much since the poet Sir John Betjeman wrote this. And it hadn’t changed much in the decades, centuries maybe, before.

The chant: “Oss Oss Wee Oss!” And the song, all night and all day:

“Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is a-come unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.”

Oss Oss Wee Oss

In the morning, the obby osses come out from their “stables” and they swoop and swirl through the town, each with its own band, and its followers. Red ribbons for the Old Oss, blue for the Blue Ribbon Oss. Their parades take different routes, at different times of the day. They meet up in the evening at the May Pole in the centre of town. The osses dance and their adherents mingle.

Blue-oss-Padstow_Mayday_2009_3_-_geograph.org_.uk_-Andy-F wikicommons
Blue Ribbon Oss stable, Padstow Institute

Every year for who knows how long. Except for this and last year. The Obby Oss festival was cancelled due to the Covid pandemic. It is not an event intended to attract tourists, But it is a huge and unique spectacle so, of course, they do come. So its absence must be an economic blow to the town. But much more than that: it’s a blow to the community itself. Its history, relationships – its communitas – is celebrated every year around the pubs, the houses and the May Pole.

I went there in the early 1990s. We were welcomed, but it was nicely made clear that outsiders were expected to behave themselves and keep out of the way. This event is for locals. And what an event it is! See it once, and it sticks with you. Every May Day, the song bubbles up in your brain: “Unite and unite and let us all unite, For summer is a-come unto day…”

The Harbour Inn, former stable for Blue Ribbon Oss

Doc Rowe is a collector of community traditions and “outsider” who has been going to May Day every year since the 1960s. He told me how it acts even in reckoning time:

“If you’re here at Christmas, people get highly charged and emotional. Passionate. They’ll say, oh, only 18 weeks to May Day. I see it as the central pulse of the place. Other key events, like birthdays, weddings, funerals – they’re are all linked to May Day. So people say, well, let me think now, May Day was on the so-and-so, so it must have been such-and-such.

Golden-Lion-Padstow_Mayday_2009_4_-_geograph.org_.uk_-Andy-F wikicommons
The Golden Lion, stable of the Old Oss

“Whatever you’re talking about historically, or chronologically anyway, during the year, you more often than not find a Padstow person will start talking about May Day as the pivot. How many days, how many weeks, how many hours away from May Day it happened.”

So, with May Day being that central to the very being of Padstow, you can understand what Sir John Betjeman also said in his essay:

I knew someone who was next to a Padstow man in the trenches in the 1914 war. On the night before May Day, the Padstow man became so excited he couldn’t keep still. The old ‘obby ‘oss was mounting in his blood and his mates had to hold him back from jumping over the top and dancing about in No-man’s-land.

oss oss wee oss sweater FB Padstow Old Cornwall SocietyThe hobby horses didn’t stop for two World Wars. Nor did they for the 1918 influenza pandemic. At the end of this May Day, I hope that the final words of the May Song can come true for next year. Oss Oss Wee Oss!

“Now fare you well and bid you all good cheer,
For summer is a-come unto day,
We call no more unto your house before another year,
In the merry morning of May.”

The Padstow Museum has much more on the history of May Day. You can also check out the Doc Rowe Archives. Below is a 1953 Alan Lomax doc on May Day. Watch more recent videos of it on YouTube and you’ll see some changes, yes, but more similarities.