Photo by John Melville Bishop
Little is known about the life of former slave Mary Bowser, but it has been suggested that she worked as a servant in the Jefferson Davis household during the Civil War and reported back to spy-ring operator and Richmond abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew. In May, author Lois Leveen published The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a historical novel based on Bowser's life in Richmond.
RM: When did you first discover Mary Bowser's story, and why did you decide to write a book about it?
LL: I was in graduate school reading a book of women's history. [It was] about a 300-page book, and in those 300 pages, there were three paragraphs about Bet Van Lew and Mary Bowser. My head kind of exploded. The story just seemed so amazing to me. I wanted to know more. As it turns out, there's a fair bit known about Bet Van Lew, but very little about Mary Bowser, so that was the point where I realized this wasn't going to be a biography, it was going to be a work of fiction.
RM: Did you visit Richmond during your research?
LL: I did visit Richmond, and in fact I remember distinctly I thought this was this big secret story that I was working on, and I was staying in a bed-and-breakfast somewhere on Church Hill. The person who runs [it] asked me, "What brings you to town?" and I said, "I'm writing a book about somebody who lived in Richmond," and she said, "Is it Bet Van Lew?" and I thought, "Oh, my God, everybody knows this story." [Laughs.]
RM: Do you remember the name of the bed-and-breakfast?
LL: I don't. It was somewhere right on Church Hill because I was so excited to be within walking distance of St. John's Church. … St. John's Church is the only direct documentation, or about the only direct documentation, certainly the only one I had at that point, of Mary Bowser's life in Richmond, which was that she was baptized and married at St. John's Church, both of which were incredibly unusual for either a free black person and certainly for a slave. This was a time that even the other Van Lew family slaves were not baptized at that church, so she was clearly special in some way even from childhood on.
RM: You mentioned that a lot of the documentation on Bowser's life was destroyed or discarded. How did you fill in the blanks?
LL: There's a really great book about the city of Richmond by Gregg Kimball called American City, Southern Place, and that was very helpful for understanding the social history, understanding how people moved around the city, where would a tailor or a shoemaker or a barber be and things like that. Bet Van Lew's Civil War diary had already been published when I started working on the book, so I had that to use, but it's kind of bombastic, in that it is really proclamations as opposed to recording daily events in the way that one wishes she had been. Although she doesn't use Mary's full name, there is a mention of Mary in the diary that I thought really validated the rumor about Mary's role in the spy ring. And then later on, [University of Virginia history professor] Elizabeth Varon's biography of Bet, which is called Southern Lady, Yankee Spy. That was really tremendous, although at that point I'd already drafted some of the novel. Part of what was fascinating and gave me chills is that there were things that I had made up that had turned out were true or close to true based on Elizabeth's research. I mean, she really set out to do a research-based project. My project is for people who are not going to read nonfiction but who want to read a great story. So that was kind of chilling to realize that I had guessed some things correctly. And then there were other things that I came to find out that were true about Mary Bowser that were not part of the novel, and I've let myself go with that because it is an imagined story.
RM: Who wrote the biography of Elizabeth Van Lew?
LL: A woman named Elizabeth Varon. She's a professor of history at the University of Virginia. She's written a biography of Bet Van Lew, which is meticulously researched. Although as it turns out, there's stuff that she didn't know about. I have a piece coming out in the New York Times in the next couple weeks that talks about, as it turns out, the woman we remember as Mary Bowser did a speaking tour in New York after the war. There's a New York Times announcement of a woman, she used the name Richmonia Richards as her touring name, but it's the same woman, and she ends up teaching after the war. She's teaching in Georgia, and she, purely by accident, or I guess I should say kismet, meets Harriet Beecher Stowe. An unplanned meeting between these two women who both had these absolutely amazing roles in the Civil War. People say that Abraham Lincoln, when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he says ‘You're the little lady who started this big war.' Who knows if he ever really said it, but it is kind of amazing to think of the power she had to win public support for abolition and what it must have been like to be a fly on the wall during that meeting.
RM: And it's documented that Richmonia Richards was the same woman as Mary Bowser?
LL: Yeah, because it's clear that Mary Bowser sometimes goes by the name Mary Richards. She may have given talks in other cities that we just haven't found documentation of, but I found the New York Times announcement saying, "Very interesting talk to be given by this woman," and then I found a piece in a black newspaper called the Anglo-African that was actually published in New York. A reporter of theirs went to the event, and he wrote up his take on this interesting lecture that he's just heard, and you can tell that the facts overlap enough that it's got to be the same person.
RM: Other than Elizabeth's diary, Varon's biography of her and the documentation of Mary being baptized and married at St. John's, is there any other documentation that you were working with?
LL: I've got a Ph.D, so I'm totally a research hound. One of the wonders of doing this work in the 21st century is that a lot of Richmond's Civil War-era newspapers have been digitized. You can look at the Richmond city directory from 1860, so I can figure out where in the city a particular thing would be. I used a lot of those kinds of primary resources and other people's journals and diaries during the war. Obviously, Mary Chesnut, whose Civil War diary is over 1,000 pages. Her husband was a senator. Using a lot of that for the background research. There's a great deal of research that goes into this, although it is not supposed to read like a research text, it's just supposed to read like a great story.
RM: Did you find any writing left behind by Mary? Any diaries in her own voice?
LL: The only thing I've found, which I've only recently come across, are letters that she wrote. This is beyond the scope of what's in the novel, but I recently found some letters that she wrote when she was working in Georgia after the war teaching in a Freedmen's school. What I got was PDFs emailed from somebody who's doing research for me in the archives at Harvard, but it's in her own handwriting. So I can say I've seen her handwriting, but it's not the period the book is about, nor was it a source for the book.
RM: How did you find Mary's voice in the dialogue sections?
LL: Her voice is the central voice that is telling the story, although as a novelist you have to get every voice right, so anybody she talks to has to sound like they're who they are. I think part of what helped is, when I read the history book that first got me started on her, I was working on my Ph. D in African-American literature, so I've read lots of slave narratives, lots of speeches, novels, essays, poetry by blacks who are living in that time period. In some ways, all of that goes into that voice, even things that are not necessarily from that time period but give me a good sense of vernacular voice.
RM: What were the most surprising things you found out about Mary?
LL: I can tell you that there's a huge thing that isn't in the novel, which is that the real Mary had spent time in Liberia as a missionary. And that's mind-blowing, although not that strange because actually, Virginians were very involved in the American Colonization Society. But it was going to make this a different story, and I wanted this to be a story about America and this American trajectory, and that was going to change the whole dynamic of the book and make it harder for readers to keep their focus on the trajectory that this story can really speak to.
RM: How much of Mary's relationship with her dad did you gather from history, and how much was your own interpretation?
LL: There is no documentation that I know of that tells us who her parents were, so that's all made up. Although again, some of it is based on reading or transposing other things. Richard Wright, the mid-20th century author who is probably best known as the author of Native Son, he wrote about growing up, and basically he writes about his mother trying to figure out how to teach him how to survive in the face of racism and segregation. He writes about his mother trying to raise him in a world where there is so much that's going to happen to him that he can't control. In the first scene with Mary's father in the book, he hits her because she talks about the Van Lew house as being her house. I love her father as a character, and I hate when he hits her, and I always worry what people will think because that's the first time they meet that character, but I wanted to get at just what that toll was. Every parent wants to be able to protect their child, and what is it like to not have that and how do you convey that in something that's a character in a scene?
RM: What are some of the inherent challenges of writing historical fiction?
LL: Hands down, the biggest challenge is that we already know how the story ends. Spoiler alert! The Union wins. Spoiler alert! Emancipation Proclamation. Hands down, the challenge is, where does the tension come from for readers when they already know how the story ends? How do you make this something where there are questions in the air? I'm not the first person to have to deal with that in terms of historical fiction, but that's the biggest challenge. This challenge that comes out in lots of different ways is, how do you make it your character's story? Many people have written many pages about the Civil War, and how do you bring that into a particular character's point of view?
During the time of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis and Varina Davis had one child born and they had a child die. If you were working in somebody's house and a child was born or a child died, those are big things, but I needed to think about how do those things become part of Mary's story? Just mentioning them, that's when it feels like the info dump. Like, "I'm writing historical fiction, but I have to just tell you some information here." How do you work that into story so that it's not an information dump? What is Mary doing in her story at the moment that this child is born or at the moment that this child dies so that you see that event as part of her story, even though obviously it's really part of Varina Davis' story or Jefferson Davis' story?
RM: When writing the novel, what did you place more value on, staying true to the history or telling a good story?
LL: I wouldn't do anything that I knew was definitely anachronistic, like it couldn't happen in that time period. I went crazy over stuff like that, like where would there have been a telegraph or if somebody is sending something in the mail, do they deliver mail to your house? Or did you have to go to the post office to pick it up? I tried to get all of those details to always be period accurate, and yet I definitely changed things that I knew I was changing. I knew when I started to write the book that Bet Van Lew was one of three children. In my story, there wasn't a need for her sister. Her brother has to be there for particular reasons, but her sister doesn't. So I knew I was leaving out that character.
And there are two men in the novel — one named Wilson Bowser, one named David Bustill Bowser — they're both real people, and I worked from what I knew about each of them in terms of what I write in the novel. I created the fact that they're cousins. Totally made that up. And that's something that I say at the end of the book. I definitely understood that I was writing a novel, and I had to work on the level of story, and I would say that story came first, but I also would either try to own up to anything that I did that was a big change or at least try to make it as accurate to the period as possible.
RM: Where did you take the most liberties with the historical record?
LL: Definitely things like, you had a sister? You don't have a sister anymore. [Laughs.] And that nobody has any idea what Mary Bowser actually did during that time in terms of what information she might have brought to the Union. It's very hard to know what information the entire spy ring brought because Bet Van Lew basically got all of the correspondence involving her and her spy ring destroyed after the war ended. So none of the specifics are known. Again, for a biographer, that stinks. For a novelist, fantastic! I get to make everything up. I get to put my protagonist at the heart of some big things because no novelist ever wants to resist that opportunity.
The Emancipation Proclamation isn't issued until 1863. The war starts in 1861. If the war had ended earlier, who knows what would've happened with slavery. I use that to have an exciting moment in the story where Mary has some information that really is true. Robert E. Lee knows Richmond is surrounded, and everybody is afraid that the city is going to fall, and he does this hilarious thing where he just starts marching troops back and forth, back and forth, to make it look like he has more troops there than he does. For whatever reason, the Union falls for it. I take that fact, I take the fact about, the Emancipation Proclamation hasn't been issued yet, and like any author, I cannot resist putting my character in the middle of it.
So Mary knows about what Robert E. Lee is doing. She's worried because her interest is not in putting down the Confederate rebellion, her interest is in ending slavery. So she withholds information to prolong the war. Did she do that? I have no idea. I completely made that up. So that's a place where you want story and tension for the reader even though we ultimately do know how the war ends.
RM: There is some question about whether Mary even was a spy at all. Why do you think she was?
LL: In Elizabeth Varon's biography of Bet Van Lew, she talks about other free blacks who were involved in the spy ring. There is a mention in Bet Van Lew's diary in November 1864 where she says, "I wake in the morning and I say to my caterer, what news Mary? And my caterer never fails. Often that information comes from Negros and they show a discretion which is remarkable."
Not until the 1900s, when Bet Van Lew is dying, is there a newspaper story that says that she had this maid working in the Confederate White House. It's not until 1910 that somebody asks Bet Van Lew's niece, "Who was that maid?" And she says, "Her name was Mary Bowser." … There were lots of African-Americans, whether they were enslaved or free, who were part of the struggle for freedom and part of the Civil War whose stories are lost to history. Again, it would have been a happier day if I had found Mary's own words, but those don't exist, so this is the best way to make sure she isn't lost to history.