Reader’s Forum — Vicki Karant

A Review of  The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Vicki KarantLois Leveen has crafted a compelling novel, reconstructing the probable path that Mary Bowser took on her road to becoming a spy in the “Gray House”, the Confederate home of Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina during the American Civil War.  We learn early on that Mary knew that “a slave best keep her talents hidden, feigned ignorance being the greatest intelligence in the topsy-turvy house of bondage.”

By the age of eleven, in Richmond, Virginia, Mary could memorize overheard conversations when company came to visit her slave masters.  Mary was in possession of that most valuable commodity: information, the author observed.  Those around Mary recognized her to be extremely intelligent.  Upon her emancipation by the daughter of her slave owners, Mary’s mother stated to her daughter that she would live a different, special life “not just from mine but from most colored folks.”

Miss Bet, who released Mary from slavery, became her patron, taking her to Philadelphia for a classic, if segregated, education that included math, literature and Latin.  Mary’s years in Philly also introduced her to the world of northern racism where one might be able to go to a department store if one was black but not the opera.  Mary joined the Female Anti-Slavery Society and sewing circle.  There she encountered the snobbishness of lifelong freed blacks who did not understand the realities of slaves’ lives while still working for abolition.  She met Quakers who believed in freeing the slaves but could only allow blacks to sit on separate benches during worship meetings.

Life in Philadelphia enabled Mary to participate in the abolition movement, introducing her to activists.  She attended meetings where the great speakers of the day expounded on the need to end slavery.  More importantly, Mary’s best friend’s family ran a stop on the Underground Railroad.  Mary worked with them in the years before she completed her education.

Upon completion of her schooling and due to the death of her mother and the impending Civil War, Mary returned to Richmond to be with her aging father.  Known as an Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverabolitionist and a risk taker, Mary was approached by a man posing as a slave trader.  In reality he was working to undermine the Confederacy.  He was fully aware of Mary’s sophisticated education and uncanny memory.  When a job appeared in the “Gray House” to be the servant to the wife of the president of the Confederacy, Mary took on the task.

In the years before recording and listening devices, before social media and cable news, Mary used her memorization skills to provide information to the north by being a quietly observant spy.  Her education, both formal and informal, gave her the courage to risk her personal life in the cause of enabling the Union to prevail. She contributed heroically to the cause of abolition.

Dr. Vicki Karant is a retired Social Studies teacher and supervisor.  She has advocated among her students and colleagues, urging the need to vote.  She is committed to expanding the right to vote to independents in primary elections.

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Reader’s Forum — Jenn Bullock

Ind PA at National Conference

Independent Voting National Conference of Independents 2017 with Nichele Richardson, Stephen Bouikidis, Barb Patrizzi, Melida Davila, and Jenn Bullock of Independent Pennsylvanians

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

Racism in the 1800’s, and beyond.

What it means to be free in the 1800’s, and beyond.

It’s complicated, for Mary Bowser: a smart, inquisitive, courageous black gal turned spy.

Lois Leveen’s The Secrets of Mary Bowser does such a powerful, cutting job at expressing the contradictory, complicated, painful face of racism and classism, southern-style and northern-style.

I so appreciate her willingness to expose the condescension of the progressive white abolitionist movement in her portrayal of Miss Bet, who is Mary’s white savior and who has the white savior complex, not recognizing her own racism.

Mary expresses that there is a certain kind of freedom as a slave in Virginia because she was with beloved family and the race arrangement is known, and experiences a certain kind of bondage in Philadelphia with the class structure:  keeping some free blacks in another sort of chains with limited economic and educational opportunities, while the so-called middle class blacks put on airs to separate themselves from the lowly Negros.

But what I find most powerful, particularly as a white progressive Philadelphian in the new millennium, is Leveen’s unapologetic exposure of northern racism.  Mary, excitedly thinking she could ride the omnibus when she first arrives in free Philadelphia, is kicked off and called nigger.   Mary wonders how could a place so different from Virginia as the city of brotherly love make her feel the same, and even worse than the south.   Then, It took my breath away when her new black associates in Philadelphia challenged Mary, asking what she missed about slavery and the south:   “Who could miss slavery?”  Mary said.  “Only, at least in Richmond, slavery’s the reason why we’re treated so bad.  What’s the reason here?” (p92).

McNeely and Co

An Omnibus features prominently in this 1860 lithograph by William H. Rease of G. H. McNeely

Today, with leadership of Black Lives Matter and Me Too and 43% people identifying as independent while the two major parties maintain control of our democracy, it’s still complicated.   I am so proud to be an activist with Independentvoting.org, and play a role as coordinator of the Pennsylvania affiliate, Independent Pennsylvanians. My work to make elections fair and open in Philadelphia, petitioning on the same streets Mary walked many years ago, with a multi ethnic group of activists is very important to me.

I look forward to finishing the book this week and to the call Sunday.  I will hold close Mary Bowser’s courage and the author’s wonderful rendition of her life.

Jennifer Bullock  is the coordinator of Independent Pennsylvanians.

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 ***

Mary Bowser’s Secrets Are Ours

A Review by Frank Fear

Reading engages you. You start and stop, reflect, make notes, ponder, and visualize, interacting with the text all the while, slowly and progressively.

That experience intensifies when reading historical fiction. You imagine what it was like “back then,” speculate what you might have done, and ponder what the story means in contemporary terms.

Historical transposition was my specialty while reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser. The academic in me enjoyed learning about an important historical figure. But vocation, I soon found, was trumped by something more powerful.

I’ve known hundreds of ‘Mary Bowser’s’ in my life. None of them was as bold in character or as important in history, but they did important things, still.  

Some ‘Mary Bowsers’ turned their backs on privileged positions with institutional accouterments. Others fought from within—as Mary did—as ‘guerillas of the bureaucracy.’

All of them jettisoned chains that had once entrapped them. They stopped playing the role of ‘made-up self’—a self that ‘assumed the position’ and parroted ‘the party line.’ And they all experienced that’ moment: “Enough!” “No more!”

Mary’s ‘secrets’ are theirs, too—and ours—in a collective sense. That’s because social activists share much in common, irrespective of time, place, or issue.

Reaching that conclusion made it possible to align Mary’s story (see text quotes that follow) with stories I’ve heard over the years.

*****************

At the start, Mary and others thought their evolution wouldn’t be difficult.

“I been a slave wishing for freedom my whole life. Being a free woman play-acting as Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverslavery can’t be harder than that.” (p. 48)

But they soon found it wasn’t easy—even after discovering they had companions on this new journey.

“I knew Miss Bet was playing a necessary part in front of our fellow passengers, that she was reminding me of the need for me to play my part as well. But her words stung me hard. As we took our seats, my head hung heavy with loneliness.” (p. 55)

Life quickly turned on its head.

“All my childhood, we in the house were allied in constant conspiracy with Miss Bet. I learned from watching Mama and the rest to smile and nod at her, but then roll eyes and mimic her words once her back was turned…. Now here I was in the North, and about the first thing I had to do was defend her, and to a colored woman.” (p. 66)

It was easy to be angry at this, angry at that, and—especially—angry at self.

“I was angry at that weasel-faced woman for sending me back to that bench, angry at the Quakers for having such a bench at all, angry at the elderly colored man for sitting on that bench for five decades or more…. But I was most angry at myself, for forgetting what Mama and Papa taught me, the thing that guided every moment of my life in Richmond…. I berated myself for not remembering their most important lesson.” (p. 116)

It would have been SO much easier if the targets of angst were always up to no-good. They weren’t, though. They were flawed, though. They’d talk about the real world as if they really knew something about it. But what they offered came mostly from privilege, not practice.

“The slavery I was born into…was very different.” (p. 126)

So how did Mary and my colleagues respond to hogwash? They learned to parse words carefully, that’s what. Speaking out/acting up less was better than speaking out/acting up more—even when egged on.

(Theodore to Mary)

“Your audacity that evening was quite impressive. I was longing to say something to that lot of pompous fops myself.’” (p. 138)

“They’re as predictable as parrots, repeating the same dull phrase over and over.” (p. 144)

“You are as fresh and unspoiled as the first breeze of spring coming through the window of a house that’s been shut up all winter.” (p. 148)

Political viability required cultivating the art of ‘picking one’s spots.’

Yes, the old life was easier. This new life, on the other hand, was chock full of unknowns, risks, and dangers.

“The first time I ever saw McNiven, I’d feared what threat he might be, to Mr. Jones and to me. Now because of him, I’d been in the greatest true peril I ever knew—but he’d had as much to do with getting me out of it as with putting me into it.” (p. 179)

Rather than wilt under pressure, though, they drew strength from peril—strength that was apparent in language. Expressed lyrically, their words were uplifting, grounded in values and lathered with principles.

“We hear folks speaking of compromise, and containing slavery, and preserving the Union. But what is to be compromised, contained, or preserved, for the husband who has a wife in slavery, the mother who has a daughter in slavery, the brother or sister, the child a father?” (p. 198)

“John Brown dies this morning. But Dangerfield Newby is already dead. John Brown did a great thing in the name of justice. But Dangerfield Newby did as great a thing in the name of love. John Brown is an exemplar to many in the struggle to end slavery. But Dangerfield Newby is a hero of our own. It is his death we must mourn, must honor, and must be ready to die ourselves, if need be.” (p. 201) 

This new life was about convictions—convictions shared with kindred spirits, including people they never dreamed would become allies.

“When I first met McNiven, I couldn’t have imagined I’d take pride or comfort in knowing he meant for us to ally together. But back then I couldn’t guessed I’d ever connive to travel back across the Mason and Dixon’s line, either.” (p. 213)

Those associates stood tall, always in opposition to others’ backpedaling and intransigence.

“Compromises. Congress would continue carrying on with its compromises…. Decades and decades of them, and every one made to protect slaveholding.” (p. 229)

How inspiring! It confirmed that ‘the cause’ was right, proper, and just.

“The thing that seeps so sweet and warm it makes you feel like every day is the first day of spring.” (p. 241)

Exuberance was necessary, too. The fight wouldn’t end quickly, no ‘sixty-day war’ (p. 284) would it be. Persistence was required, especially when defeat seemed imminent.

What then?

“I wasn’t about to give up so easily. After all, Mama raised me on a steady regimen of stealth and surreption, especially when it came to doing right by those in need.” (p. 266)

“…Mr. Ralph Emerson’s Essays. I had read them years before, in Philadelphia…. Mr. Emerson’s theme of following one’s moral purpose rather than succumbing to the weight of social convention was inspirational.” (p. 268).

Flowery prose wasn’t enough, though. Skills and capacity were. Getting progressively better at playing one’s role was required to counter “their” ingenuity.

“Sketched on the bottom of the missive was the oddest-looking maritime conveyance I’d ever seen. She had no sails, and most of the hull sat below the squiggly marks meant to show the waterline…. The Virginia was an iron-clad monster of the sea.” (p. 298)

And they did just that.

“A balloon big enough to life men into the air and carry them over the battle lines, so they may observe the Confederate defenses.” (p. 317)

Going to that next level of proficiency often came after a ‘hot button’ was pushed. It fueled anger. The use of duplicitous language was one trigger:

“We do not fight for slavery…. We fight for the right of States to govern themselves.” (p. 311)

Self-serving assertions were another:

“Everything will return to how it was.” (p. 318)

But the worst moments came …

…when they aided what they were fighting against…

“Papa was likely…making bayonet stocks for Confederates to use to impale the very men who were fighting to make him…free.” (p. 334)

…when they recognized that the fight was about many things, not just one…

 “What was smallpox but another form of suffering in a world full of pain and misery? ….Colored or white, the infectious corpses of the smallpox dead met the same ignominious end—the incinerator….” (pp. 343, 346)

…when they realized this fight was unending.

“I realized how vulnerable negroes were, even in their own houses in the North…. Freedom from slavery, maybe, but clearly not freedom from harm.” (pp. 363, 364)

In the face of all that, how far would they go for ‘the cause’? Not as far as you might speculate. Ethics prevail.

“What you describe is a despicable act, and if it occurred as you say, there is no excuse for it. But there is no excuse for us to behave their way, either.” (p. 395)

*****************

Do Independents have a role to play in these dynamics? You bet.

Unencumbered by strictures that otherwise constrain, Independents are society’s best hope for championing ‘the cause,’ that is, serving the public good. There is no higher calling in America’s politics.

Mary understood that.

You do, too.

Many others will.

“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.” Eugene O’Neill

(Cited by L. Leveen, Reader’s Guide, #12, The Secrets of Mary Bowser)

 

frank-fear

Frank A. Fear is professor emeritus, Michigan State University, where he served as a faculty member for thirty-year years and worked in various administrative positions for nearly twenty years. Find him on Twitter @frankfear and on Tumblr, “For the Public Good”.  Frank also writes about issues that intersect sport and society. You can read him at The Sports Column.

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Politics for the People

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser

 ***

Reader’s Forum–Melissa Meyer and Ramon Pena

If you have not started reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser, perhaps the Memorial Day Weekend gives you an opportunity to take this rich and rewarding journey.

Below are comments from two Politics for the People members who have just started reading the book.

MELISSA MEYER

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I’ve listened on audio tape to a very small piece of Lois Leveen’s book and her depiction of the life and work of Mary Bowser.

The beauty of Ms. Leveen’s  prose about an ordinary Sunday juxtaposed against the horror and inhumanity of slavery….  To read about the ordinary lives of African Americans loving each other, is a joy…. even as their joyous times are cut short under the control of their slave masters. Ms. Leveen takes you into a moment of history without teaching, but inviting you in.  Thank you!

Melissa Meyer is the Coordinator of International Programs at the East Side Institute in New York City.

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RAMON PENA

ANTI-CORRUPTION-3

I am enjoying this book although still halfway through.

Two things that I love about Mary is that she always listened as a child. By listening she was becoming educated to the politics of that time. She even continued doing this as an adult.

I also loved her relationship with her father. He loved her dearly and she loved him back. The book is full of these father daughter moments. Thanks Lois Leveen for giving the readers a different kind of story about slavery.

Ramon Pena is a long time independent activist and lives in New Jersey.

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Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk CoverHappy Memorial Day Reading

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Reader’s Forum — Steve Hough

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I enjoyed reading Lois Leveen’s historical novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser. While being based on a true life figure, Mary’s story is as incredible as if it had been total fiction. As I had no knowledge of Mary Bowser before, the book affected me on several levels beyond the enjoyment of reading a well-crafted novel.

Much of what has been written about the Civil War chronicles events from a military perspective, but not being a student of such things, I am not surprised I had never heard of Mary Bowser. However, for those who do study military campaigns, intelligence gathering would be an integral part of the story. A former slave, having been freed and educated in Philadelphia, voluntarily returning to Richmond, pretending to be a slave is remarkable. To then become a servant and spy in the Confederate White House is unimaginable. But then, I also had never heard of Katherine Johnson before the movie Hidden Figures was released.

Another surprise was how my visualization of slavery and the antebellum South had been limited to atrocities occurring in the bowels of slave ships, the brutality of Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverplantation life, and the perils faced by those who attempted to escape and by those who aided them. Mary’s experience as an urban house slave of a well-to-do merchant may have been vastly different than those on plantations, but her bondage was nonetheless cruel and inhumane.

I live in the South. I first moved from Southwest Missouri to Florida as a teenager after my parents divorced. That was 1968.  I only lived here for two and a half years before returning to Missouri to finish high school. After joining the Army and living abroad, then moving to California for a few years, I returned in 1987. Much has changed since 1968, but much has remained the same.

Just as Mary experienced segregation and discrimination as a free young lady in Philadelphia, vestiges of the past still afflict many today. Perhaps most prominently, the Jim Crow era manifested the lingering toxic attitudes displayed by whites in the South, however many people of color all across the country are adversely affected by our shared history and an institution abolished long ago.

While we can point to a plethora of anecdotal evidence on a daily basis, comparative data confirms this. Everything from disparities in wealth, quality of education, employment opportunities, and incarceration rates, points to an ongoing struggle for true equality. Our economic and political model imposes arbitrary limits on the resources available across the broad spectrum of society, and a pecking order exists within the context of competition favoring some more than others. While the struggle is not exclusive to communities of color, one cannot help but believe our history plays a role in amplifying the disparities.

That history, and its impact, is still a point of contention and continued debate. From a call for reparations to simply seeking to remove monuments to the Confederacy from prominent public spaces, the ghosts of our past still haunt us.

Steve Hough is a lifelong independent and became an activist for political reform after retiring as an accountant. He is the director of Florida Fair and Open Primaries.

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Reader’s Forum—Steve Guarin

The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen

A review by Steve Guarin

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I, and most everybody else, never heard of Mary Bowser. I never learned of her in school. In fact I was well into adulthood before I even learned of the name and all I knew of her, was that she had something to do with spying on the Confederates. It wasn’t until I read the book about Mary, written by Lois Leveen that Mary Bowser became a person. Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk CoverShe was a rarity among black people due to the fact that she was well educated. She was a rarity among all people. She did what she saw as right even though it was hard, even dangerous.

There are many scenes of danger, but the one that sticks with me, is when Mary killed a man. This man was a real danger to Mary and the daughter of her former owner, Elizabeth Van Lew. This man caused Mary to act in an unusual and desperate manner. Mary was able to quietly come up in back of him and smash his head in with rock. At this point the fear and rage that came with living under the terrible conditions of slavery caused her to go berserk. She hit the man over and over, and though I was surprised I also felt that Mary was justified.

Ms. Leveen created Mary Bowser with a full story to tell. Unfortunately written history wanted to do without Mary Bowser. The chroniclers of doings and goings on in our yesteryear’s, especially during the 1800s, left very spotty reports about the black man’s or women’s doings. In a very important part of the story, Mary was serving, literally, in the capital of the Confederacy as the (slave) servant of the President of the united secessionist states. Was this so? Because I had been taught nothing about Mary, I had to look it up. Thank God that in this age we have Google, for if we didn’t I still wouldn’t know the she really did work in Jefferson Davis’ house.

I unreservedly recommend this book.  It is a very creative story about the happenings during the most interesting time in this country’s history. Action, adventure, a little romance, and morality banging their heads together.

Steve Guarin lives in the Bronx.  He is retired and an activist with the New York City Independence Clubs.

 

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Reader’s Forum — Harry Kresky

Lois Leveen’s historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, tells the inspiring story of a young woman born into slavery in Richmond VA who became a spy for the Union with access to the papers and conversations of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The book portrays many aspects of America before and during the civil war: the cruelty of slavery; the courage of African-Americans who fought against it; the conflicted P1100330relationship between African-Americans (slave and free) active in the struggle and white abolitionists; the agonizingly slow, but inexorable defeat of the Confederacy.

It is also a story about human development. Mary Bowser’s parents, forced to live apart as slaves with different masters, instilled in their daughter a determination to be free, the importance of focusing and working towards that goal, and the need to become worldlier.  She had the good fortune to be bought and freed by an anti-slavery member of the family that owned her and, at her sponsor’s urging (and with the full support of her parents), moved to Philadelphia where she was able to study at a school for freed African-Americans.  And, of course, that meant leaving her parents behind in Richmond.

Mary Bowser proved to be the top student in her class, an avid learner outside of school, and an astute judge of character and analyst of social and political dynamics.  Whether her accomplishments are attributed to genetics, opportunity or luck (likely all of them), Bowser’s story demonstrates the importance of being able to live in a more cosmopolitan environment and interact with many different kinds of people, white and black, kind and not so kind.

And the responsibility on all of us to relate to people as who they can become.

Harry Kresky is counsel to IndependentVoting.org and one of the country’s leading experts on nonpartisan primary reform and the legal issues facing independent voters. He is also a poet (poems for friends).

 

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Mary Bowser’s Photo?

While reading The Secrets of Mary Bowser, I wondered if there was a picture of Mary Bowser. It was during the Civil War that photography made its way much more deeply into American life and culture. Well, there is a photo of Mary Bowser, BUT…  Read Lois Leveen’s article from The Atlantic to find out about the photo and mystery unfurled.

The Spy Photo That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me

A story of a mistaken identity reveals a lot about the history of black women in America, the challenges of understanding the past, and who we are today.

By: Lois Leveen                                                                                              June 27, 2013

 

Atlantic Mary Bowser image

Wikimedia Commons

It’s a blurry image. But in some ways that makes it the perfect portrait of Mary Bowser, an African American woman who became a Union spy during the Civil War by posing as a slave in the Confederate White House. What better representation of a spy who hid in plain sight than a photograph whose subject stares straight at the viewer yet whose features remain largely indecipherable? Small wonder the photograph has been circulated by NPR, Wikipedia, libraries, history projects, and in my book, The Secrets of Mary Bowser. There’s only one problem: The woman in the photograph was no Union spy. How did we get it so wrong?

Mary Bowser left behind a sparse historical trail. One early clue comes from a 1900, Richmond, Virginia, newspaper story about a white Union spy named Elizabeth Van Lew. In the story, the reporter included the tantalizing detail that before the war, Van Lew freed one of her family’s slaves and sent her North to be educated. The young woman later returned to Richmond and was placed in the Confederate White House as part of Van Lew’s spy ring. Van Lew’s own Civil War-era diary describes her reliance on an African American referred to only as Mary, who was a key source for Van Lew’s intelligence network. Nearly half a century after the war, Van Lew’s niece identified the black woman as Mary Bowser, a revelation included in a June 1911 article in Harper’s Monthly.

Numerous books and articles repeated the tale of Bowser’s espionage, often embellished and without any verifiable sources. The advent of the Internet made it especially easy for the story to circulate, and a growing interest in black history and women’s history provided a steady audience for pieces about Bowser. Online pieces about Bowser could easily include an illustration — if one could be found.

The story of the mistaken Mary Bowser reveals how an interest in history, especially women’s history and black history, can blind us to how much about the past remains unknowable.

 

As far as I can determine, the photograph began circulating in 2002, when Morning Edition ran a story about Bowser, and NPR included the photograph on their website, with a caption crediting it to “James A. Chambers, U.S. Army Deputy, Office of the Chief, Military Intelligence.” A radio network might seem an unlikely venue for circulating a photograph, but NPR webpages are rife with images supporting each radio story, a fact that exemplifies the extent to which the Internet has made accessing and distributing visual content not only easy but seemingly necessary. (Try to find a popular, public-facing web page without any visuals.) 

When my publisher, HarperCollins, asked for images to include in my novel, I dutifully sent the picture purportedly of Bowser. With photographs of Van Lew, Jefferson Davis, and other Civil War figures easy to find, it seemed only fair to feature a picture of Bowser herself. Cautiously, I captioned the image as “rumored to be of Mary Bowser.” Ultimately, I couldn’t resist the urge to show what Bowser looked like, even though elements of the photograph had always troubled me.

As historian and expert on internet hoaxes T. Mills Kelly warns, we should be skeptical about any Internet source that fills a gap in the historical record too neatly. What was the likelihood that a woman for whom we have no birth or death dates, who used several aliases throughout her life, and who lived during the earliest decades of photography, happened to leave a clearly documented studio portrait?

 

My doubts about the image grew when I unearthed several post-war sources corroborating Bowser’s participation in the Richmond espionage ring. One of these documents indicates that in June of 1867, the slave-turned-spy, then using the surname Garvin, left the U.S. for the West Indies; after that date, she disappears from the historical record. But both the dress the figure in the photograph wears and the chair next to which she stands appear to be from a much later period. Could the only surviving portrait of Bowser really have been taken years, perhaps decades, after the woman herself otherwise seems to have vanished?

Diligence, doubt, and dumb luck — the great triumvirate of historical research — finally led me to an answer. In 2011, I’d contacted both NPR librarian Kee Malesky and the military office listed in NPR’s original caption for the photograph, but neither could provide any information about the image. Despite this seeming dead end, I kept seeking the original, and in January of 2013, I mentioned the mysterious provenance of the photograph to Paul Grasmehr, reference coordinator at the Pritzker Military Library. He put me in touch with Lori S. Tagg, command historian for the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, which inducted Bowser in 1995. Tagg searched their records and determined that “the Bowser photo most likely came from … the Virginia State Library Pictures Collection.”

This lead didn’t initially seem promising. Now known as the Library of Virginia, this institution contains no reference in its catalog to an image of Bowser. But when I contacted Dana Puga in their Prints and Photographs Collection, she confirmed that the famed photograph was indeed on file in the library, “in the form of a cabinet card from the Petersburg Studio [of] C. R. Rees.”

Quick research (on the Internet, I confess!) revealed that C. R. Rees took his first picture — a daguerreotype — around 1850. Cabinet cards began to be produced in the 1860s, suggesting a slim possibility that Mary Bowser might have posed for one. But C.R. Rees didn’t open a studio in Petersburg, Virginia, until around 1880, making it unlikely any image captured there was of my spy. Luckily, a few months later a speaking engagement at the Museum of the Confederacy brought me to Richmond, Virginia, where I could at last view the elusive original.

 

This is the moment a historian lives for — cradling a rare primary source in hand. And it was just as informative as I’d hoped. On the back of the cabinet card was written the name Mary Bowser, and the name was repeated on the attached mailing envelope, along with a street address in Petersburg.

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Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia

So could this be my spy after all? The answer became clear when I turned the cabinet card over:

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Image courtesy of the Library of Virginia

There, staring straight at the camera, was Mary Bowser, her features easily recognizable — unlike the blurry version found online. Just as clear was the date the image was created: 1900. A better match for the clothing and furniture, but not for the spy, who by the turn into the twentieth century would have been about sixty years old. The image is of Mary Bowser … just not the Mary Bowser we’ve been claiming her to be.Having my suspicions about the photograph’s authenticity confirmed left me more frustrated than vindicated. It doesn’t take any advanced training to look at a clearly dated artifact and ascertain whether it could reasonably relate to a figure whose active moment in history occurred decades earlier. Whoever cropped the image to the form in which it recurs online removed a critical piece of historical evidence. But the ease with which NPR, US Army Intelligence, and I have all participated in the mistaken circulation of this image also reveals how much our expectations of history are products of the way we live in the 21st century.

As a current exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art reminds us, the Civil War was more or less contemporaneous with the advent of photography, resulting in an unprecedentedly visual experience of the conflict, even for Americans who never ventured anywhere near a battlefield. The subsequent century and a half of technological advances in capturing and reproducing images have so substantially increased our expectation — our demand — for reliable, historic visual sources that it can be difficult for us to understand how ahistoric this desire is. But in Mary Bowser’s own era, individuals didn’t have our expectations of visual certainty. They were far less likely to know what someone, even a public figure, looked like, as contemporary descriptions of Bowser reveal.

A reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle who attended a lecture the former spy gave in September of 1865 described her as so “strongly resembling” the prominent abolitionist speaker Anna Dickinson that “they might, indeed, easily be mistaken for twin sisters.” Given that Anna Dickinson was white, this description suggests that the speaker was light enough to pass. Yet when Mary first returned to Richmond in 1860, she was arrested for going out without a pass, indicating that she was visually recognizable as “colored” and therefore assumed on sight either to be a slave in need of a pass or a free black in need of proof of her legal status. And when she happened to meet Charles Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1867, Beecher described her as “a Juno, done in somber marble … Her complexion was a deep brunette, her features regular, and expressive, her eyes exceedingly bright and sharp.

“How are we to understand these contradictory sources? In an era in which photography was still in its infancy, it was rare to have a detailed sense of what someone beyond your immediate acquaintance looked like. The allusion to Anna Dickinson likely made sense to readers of the Eagle not as a specific physical description of the former intelligence agent but simply as a marker for the still unusual spectacle of a female speaker addressing an audience on political issues of the day. Although by our standards it might be regarded as an inaccurate comparison, the Eagle‘s description filled an expectation specific to its era, just as the photo purportedly of Bowser filled an expectation specific to our own era.

Bowser’s story evidences the wonderful truth that Americans of all backgrounds contributed to our history. But the enormous holes in what we have of her biography remind us that gender, race, and class also shaped how millions of Americans went unrecorded in what we rely on as the historical record, because they were restricted from holding property, voting, leaving wills, or being accurately recorded in censuses. Wanting to commemorate an African American woman who played such a dramatic part in the Civil War is laudable. Expecting to have a photograph of her was borderline ludicrous. (Consider that even what seems to most Americans today like basic information about the Civil War, the number of military deaths during the conflict, remains a matter of estimation and conjecture.)

The story of the mistaken Mary Bowser reveals how an interest in history, especially women’s history and black history, can blind us to how much about the past remains unknowable. The paradox of the information age is that our unprecedented access to information feeds an expectation that every search will yield plentiful — and accurate — results. But the type of evidence that our 21st-century sensibilities most desire may be the least likely to exist.Uncovering the past is arduous work: Compare the ease with which an Internet search turns up the falsely labeled, cropped image of Mary Bowser with the number of sources I persistently contacted over a period of several years before locating the original cabinet card. Alas, in the age of the Internet, it may prove nearly impossible to curtail the use of that image as an avatar for the elusive slave-turned-spy, despite the definitive proof that it isn’t her.

Probing how our own desires shape our understanding of history can be revelatory. If a genie granted me the ability to learn any three things about Bowser, I wouldn’t choose what she looked like — it’s not nearly as important as understanding the choices she made that led to her extraordinary espionage, the dangers she faced in that position, or how she understood her own role in the struggle to end chattel slavery. But in telling her story, I admit I still find it hard not to want to offer a visual image, to present her in the way that is so quick, and so ubiquitous, today.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORLois Leveen

LOIS LEVEEN is a historian and the author of the novels The Secrets of Mary Bowser and Juliet’s Nurse.    

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Our Politics for the People

Conference Call 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser

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Reader’s Forum–Dr. Jessie Fields

Thoughts on the novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser and the Civil War from Dr. Jessie Fields

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The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen is a sensitive historical novel that highlights the participation of African Americans enslaved and free, in the abolition of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy. Mary Bowser was an enslaved young woman who was freed, lived in Philadelphia where she went to school, studied, read widely and was courted by but ultimately rejected the wealthy scion of a free black Philadelphia family. Mary returned to Richmond to care for her ill father and to work for emancipation. She posed as a slave in the Confederate White House and passed valuable information to the Union.

The novel is divided into three sections called books, Book One and Book Three take place in Richmond, Book Two in Philadelphia.

Mary’s mother, is the enslaved Minerva, a name that refers to the ancient Roman goddess of wisdom and the arts, and to the Greek goddess Athena. During the years before slavery was ended by gradual emancipation in New York she was separated from her family and brought by the Van Lews to Virginia. Minerva teaches Mary to make riddles which includes lessons in being quick witted and observant. The ultimate riddle that Mary lives is her work as a spy communicating information in code straight from the desk of Jefferson Davis to General U. S. Grant and the Union Army. But Mary is not simply a spy for the preservation of the Union, she conveys or holds back information to ensure that the war is not ended without ending slavery.

One of the many features of the novel that deeply moved me was the portrayal of Mary’s family and how though enslaved they manage to make a home in Richmond, their relationship to each other is one of enduring closeness and deep love.  Her parents sacrificed greatly to allow their daughter to be free and she was determined to do all she could to end slavery.

 In Philadelphia Mary boards with an illiterate mother and daughter who refuse her offer to help them learn to read, she observes the poverty of many of the free black population, as well as the racism of the north where blacks were segregated, denied access to any except the most menial jobs, evicted from public vehicles, and were not accorded equal citizenship rights. Mary observes all this from her perspective of having lived in slavery and having family still enslaved. Eventually she becomes a key member of the Philadelphia underground anti-slavery network centered around the establishment of Alexander Jones, the undertaker and father of her closest friend Hattie. Mr. Jones funeral business is a stop on the Underground Railroad, with escaped slaves transported in coffins.

Wilson Bowser who Mary marries was a driver on the Underground Railroad from Richmond to Philadelphia, and he enlisted, as many African American men did, in the United States Colored Troops. The enlistment of free blacks and slaves was key to the Union victory in the Civil War. Also enslaved men, women and children contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy by leaving the plantations as soon as Union troops arrived.

Mary overhears many conversations in the Confederate White House (nicknamed the Gray House). Including conversations between Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina Davis who Mary and others name Queen Varina and the Confederate secretary of war, Judah Benjamin, who is from Louisiana and to whom Varina mangles the French Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Coverexpression tant pis. Mary names Benjamin “Aunt pis”. In one conversation between Varina Davis and Judah Benjamin on the likelihood that Queen Victoria will side with the Confederacy in the Civil War Varina says , “Britain needs us as much as we need her. Why, without Confederate cotton, what use are English mills?” Benjamin responds, “You might say the same for the New England mills, yet the Yankees make war with us.

They go on to discuss Lincoln’s offer to the border states of financial compensation for each slave in exchange for gradual emancipation. This proposal never ended up passing into law. Varina Davis defends the argument of the Confederacy that they were fighting not for slavery but for states’ rights to govern themselves. Benjamin responds, “You are correct. We do not fight for slavery. Neither does Lincoln (fight to end it). We fight to win, and so does he. But he is willing to sacrifice slavery in the process, while we are not.”

Mary took this conversation as substantiation of her mission to make the preservation of the Union contingent on emancipation from slavery. Slavery was the fatal flaw of the nation that cut violently into the soul of the country. Four score and seven years after the American Revolution it took a Civil War to end it.

Dr. Jessie Fields is a physician practising in Harlem, a leader in the New York City Independence Clubs, and a board member of the All Stars Project and Open Primaries.

 

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Our Politics for the People

Conference Call 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Will Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

With Author Lois Leveen

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Reader’s Forum–Joan DeCollibus on Mary Bowser and her Mother, Minerva

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I just finished reading Lois Leveen’s story about Mary Bowser, a Virginia slave who was freed in her teenage years and went on to school in Philadelphia and became active in the Underground Railroad. While the story focuses on Mary and her journey out of slavery, on Mother’s Day weekend, I am thinking of her mom, Minerva.

Minerva raised Mary in a slave household where they lived together, serving the Van Lew family. Minerva’s husband and Mary’s dad worked for and lived with another slaver. They were only allowed to see each other on Sunday’s. Minerva raised her daughter with care in their slave household, always protecting her from the dangers of slavery and teaching her everything she could so that Mary could steer clear of trouble with the Van Lew’s.

Upon the death of her father, Elizabeth Van Lew, an ardent abolitionist, inherited money, enough to buy the household slaves from her mother which she does. While Minerva and Mary are freed by Elizabeth, we are disappointed to learn that she can not buy Mary’s father’s freedom.

Elizabeth hatches a plan to educate Mary in Philadelphia. Mary’s mom stays on at the Van Lew household to be near her husband.

I was struck by the courage it must have taken Minerva to let her daughter go on to Philadelphia alone. Mary was going off to a city on her own at a time when she could have easily been enslaved again by any white person who claimed she was their runaway. Mary, as ever courageous as her mother, actually shielded Minerva from the greater dangers that she was exposed to as she was secretly working as an abolitionist spy.
If her mother had only known! I am sure she would have been worried to the core while also being very proud of the daughter she raised.

Today, growing up black in America continues to be a threat to young people who are routinely rounded up and harassed by the authorities. On Mother’s Day, my heart goes out to every mother raising kids in a world where their lives are undervalued and they face racism at every turn.

Joan DeCollibus, an independent, living in Manhattan, is the owner of Ruffina.nyc, where she designs and produces clothing and accessories for little dogs and their humans.

***

Our Politics for the People

Conference Call 

Sunday, June 3rd at 7 pm EST.

Will Explore

The Secrets of Mary Bowser

With Author Lois Leveen

 Secrets of Mary Bowser Bk Cover

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