Two Unlikely Spies: Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew: Background information when reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser

by Lois Leveen

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen
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    May 2012, 496 pages

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Two Unlikely Spies: Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew

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Lois Leveen's debut novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on the real-life story of Mary Bowser, a woman born into slavery in 1839 in Richmond, Virginia to John Van Lew, a merchant. After Van Lew passed away, his daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, freed his slaves and paid for Mary Bowser to get an education. She also helped procure a servant job for Mary in President Jefferson Davis's Confederate White House.

Mary Bowser According to NPR's article entitled, "The Spy Who Served Me," when the two women spent time together, they weren't simply "exchanging recipes." They were, in fact, spies:

"Crazy Bet" was the spymaster and Mary Bowser was one of her best agents - part of a spy ring - white, black, slave and free - made up of servants, farmers, seamstresses, storekeepers, undercover Scottish abolitionists - working in plain sight in the South for the North.

Elizabeth Van Lew As the educated Mary Bowser dusted and served in the Confederate White House, she used her photographic memory to record military documents she found on the president's desk and conversations she overheard in the dining room.

Daily tasks could hide secrets - in a basket of eggs one empty shell filled with military plans; a serving tray loaded with food and messages concealed in its false bottom; wet laundry hung up in code. For example, a white shirt beside an upside-down pair of pants meant "Gen. Hill moving troops to the west.

After the Civil War was over, Elizabeth Van Lew was congratulated for her work by General Ulysses S. Grant, and she was considered an integral part of the Union's war efforts. Mary Bowser's involvement, however, was kept quiet. "[Her] story remained mostly untold, even in her family... But Mary's story survived anyway. It was retold by black researchers and recalled in the memoirs of others involved in the spy ring. In 1995, 130 years after the War Between the States ended, Mary Bowser was admitted to the U.S. Army Intelligence Hall of Fame."

This article is from the June 28, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.

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