Mary Bowser: A Slave Shows the Way

Lois Leveen. Photo by Joshi RadinLois Leveen. Photo by Joshi Radin
By Lois Leveen '90

My dissertation examined “spatial constructions of identity”—how the design and occupation of domestic space served to enforce or contest ideas about race, gender, and class in American literature and culture. By chance, I came across a few brief paragraphs about a woman named Mary Bowser in A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America, by Darlene Clark Hine RI ’04. Born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia, Bowser was sent north by Bet Van Lew, the “headstrong” daughter of the family who owned her, to be educated. But Mary returned to
 Richmond on the eve of
the Civil War, becoming a Union spy by pretending to be a slave in the Confederate White House, as part of an espionage ring coordinated by Van Lew.

This brief description of Bowser’s astounding bravery raised many questions for me. What experiences in freedom would persuade her to return to slavery, risking her life in a war that she could not be sure would bring emancipation? What was the emotional cost for an educated African American of pretending to be an illiterate slave? How did this rare interracial alliance between Bowser and Van Lew affect both women?

My graduate work was in literary studies—so to answer these questions, I relied on the training I acquired when I was an undergraduate history and literature concentrator. As a senior, I took a seminar on urban history in which students were required to integrate their original research using primary sources with analyses by other historians. I soon found myself sitting in the Schlesinger Library, poring over documents related to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The experience gave me a deep appreciation for how assiduously historians must work, especially when excavating the stories of women who dwelled on the economic and cultural margins. That initial foray into the Schlesinger honed research skills that served me well once I discovered Mary Bowser.

Few historical documents directly related to Bowser are known to exist. But with a researcher’s love of the hunt, I tracked down studies by historians that gave me a deep understanding of the lives of enslaved African Americans in urban, industrialized Richmond (which were quite different from what we associate with plantation slavery); the vibrant free-black community in antebellum Philadelphia; the differences that arose among anti-slavery activists of both races; and the pro-Union underground that operated in the Confederate capital throughout the war. Building on this background, I undertook original research, uncovering and interpreting historical documents to help me imagine what Mary’s life might have been like. The result is The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel based on her story.

Turning historical research into literary fiction has been both a consummate experience for an erstwhile history and literature concentrator and somewhat of a challenge to my historian’s sensibilities. Although I make clear in an author’s note at the end of the novel how much of the book is my invention, I’m wary of readers’ mistaking fiction for biography. This fear is compounded by the fact that many purportedly nonfictional accounts of Bowser’s life include inaccurate and/or undocumented claims about her (ironically, as a novelist I’ve undertaken more original research than the authors of these nonfictional accounts have). But two people helped assuage my concerns.

The first is Mary herself. My research yielded traces of her post–Civil War life in unexpected places—northern newspapers reporting on talks she gave in Manhattan and Brooklyn after the war, using a series of pseudonyms; Charles Beecher’s diary, in which he describes how he and his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe happened to meet the former spy in 1867, when she was running a Freedmen’s School in St. Mary’s, Georgia; and letters Mary wrote to the superintendent of Georgia’s Freedmen’s Schools. In each of these sources, Mary alters, omits, or invents “facts” about her life.

As frustrating as her inconsistencies are to a historian, they make sense in the context of her experiences. For both slaves and spies, survival depends on a calculated duplicity—slaves were told they were property, yet surreptitiously struggled to retain their humanity; spies purport to be loyal, or at least neutral, while surreptitiously aiding the enemy. Mary spoke and wrote about the racist violence that threatened southern blacks even after the Civil War. Her own efforts to “fictionalize” her biography seem rooted in the need to protect herself, and to craft rhetoric that would compel her varied audiences to understand the continued vulnerability of newly freed African Americans.

The second person I credit with blessing my audacious authoring of a novel based on Mary Bowser’s life is Darlene Clark Hine. Hine is considered one of the foremothers of African American women’s history, something reflected in both her research and her mentorship. We met after my novel was published, when she came to hear me speak about Bowser at the Pritzker Military Library in Chicago. She told me that she holds The Secrets of Mary Bowser up for her graduate students as an example of how to share scholarly research with audiences beyond academia. What better evidence of the value and impact of archival research—even for those who never have a chance to step inside the archives?

LOIS LEVEEN '90 lives in Portland, Oregon. A former faculty member at UCLA and Reed College, she gives talks about race, writing, and history at universities, museums, and libraries. She is working on Juliet's Nurse, a novel revisting class, gender, and motherhood in Shakespeare's play. Her website is


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