Mary Bowser and Elizabeth “Bet” Van Lew were real people who spied on behalf of the Union. About one-third of white Virginians believed their state should remain in the Union rather than seceding, although few of them went as far as Bet did to thwart the Confederate cause. Ulysses S. Grant later wrote to Bet: “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.” Mary Bowser was at the heart of that information gathering. In her Civil War diary, Bet wrote, “When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’ and my caterer never fails!” (caterer originally meant "one who serves the household," a forerunner to the modern meaning of one who provides fine fare at a catered reception).
Very little specific information is known about Mary Bowser. She was baptized at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond on May 17, 1846, and married there on April 16, 1861. It was extremely unusual for black people to be baptized or married in this church, which served Richmond's elite white community, indicating that the Van Lews treated her differently from other slaves or free black servants. Historical accounts indicate that Mary was educated either in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania or in Princeton, New Jersey. Few other details about her can be proven.
Read my latest research on the real Mary Bowser in Encyclopedia Virginia (Warning for lovers of the novel: you'll learn that the real Mary's life was not the same as what's in the novel, for reasons I discuss below)
My first article about Mary Bowser's life, "The Black Slave in the Confederate White House," can be read in the New York Times. You'll see that two more years of research have revealed a lot more than we knew when I wrote this in 2012.
How True is The Secrets of Mary Bowser?
How true is The Secrets of Mary Bowser?
This is a work of fiction — not a biography. Nevertheless, many scenes in the novel draw on real incidents and involve real people, including leaders in the black community in Philadelphia as well as prominent white Unionists and Confederates in Richmond. As a former college professor, I've read and taught many works written by black Americans during the nineteenth century. As someone who loves historical research, I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out what Mary and the people she met would wear, eat, read, and do. It's a great pleasure to share the historical background through the eyes of such a compelling character.
At times I purposefully altered factual details for the sake of the story, such as omitting the existence of Bet’s younger sister, and creating a family connection between Wilson Bowser and David Bustill Bowser, who were both real people but as far as I know were not related. Although Thomas McNiven claimed to be central to the Union spy ring in Richmond, as a novelist, I gave him more credit than I would as a historian! Despite these intentional changes, I made every effort to be historically accurate and to present events and language that were plausible for the era.
As much as I enjoyed researching the period, people, and places depicted, the most exciting part of the writing involved imagining what cannot be found through research: the thoughts, motivations, and daily actions of the characters, especially Mary Bowser. She was truly an American hero, and I hope my interpretation goes a small way toward making up for the loss of her story as she would have told it.
One of the most amazing experience I've had as a novelist was speaking at the Museum of the Confederacy with Elizabeth Varon, author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy, a scholarly biography of Bet. We spoke about fact and conjecture in the work of historians and in the work of historical novelists. You can watch the program online through C-SPAN's American History TV
Learn More About Civil War-era Richmond
Here are some articles I've written for The New York Times about Richmond. You may be surprised to learn about what life was like for free and enslaved blacks before and during the Civil War, and about how dependent the Confederate government was on black labor.