A Review of The Secrets of Mary Bowser
Lois 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 abolitionist 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.