She Was Born Into Slavery, Was a Spy and Is Celebrated as a Hero—But We're Missing the Point of the 'Mary Bowser' StoryRoundup
tags: slavery, Confederacy, Spies, Jefferson Davis
Lois Leveen is the author of the novels The Secrets of Mary Bowser and Juliet’s Nurse. She is at work on a book-length biography of Mary Richards Denman. Her latest research on Denman’s life appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The telegram sizzled with promise. “Have got the name of Slave who worked in Jefferson Davis house,” it declared.
The “Slave” in question was actually a Union spy who infiltrated the Confederate president’s household, obtaining intelligence no white espionage agent could. William Beymer, the recipient of the 1910 telegram, was preparing an article for Harper’s magazine in which the slave-turned-spy would at last be publicly identified. After the war, this black woman’s contributions had faded to rumor — while Bet Van Lew, the white Virginian who was her former owner and a fellow spy, had been commended (and financially rewarded) by the federal government. But there was a problem: the name the sender of the telegram had uncovered, “Mary Elizabeth Bowser,” was inaccurate.
As a result, the article would obscure rather than secure her place in history.
The person who supplied the erroneous name was Van Lew’s niece. Pressed for details about the espionage in the Confederate White House, the niece could provide none, noting that she was a young child during the war, never privy to clandestine information. The ensuing five decades must have further clouded her memory, as nearly all the biographical details she provided about “Mary Elizabeth Bowser” were incorrect. But Beymer, focusing on Van Lew in his Harper‘s article, relied unquestioningly on the niece’s account. (The telegram and notes from the niece’s interview are held at the Briscoe Center for American History).
Today, as growing interest in African American and women’s history has brought increased attention to “Mary Bowser,” what circulates often remains distorted at best, and patently false at worst.
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