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
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    May 2012, 496 pages

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Two Unlikely Spies: Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew

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 ...

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