Friday, April 25, 2014
Friday, April 18, 2014
During a sesquicentennial year, battles and generals of the Civil War continue to get most of the attention. In the past I felt some of the heroic women deserved their own story, and I have blogged about a female soldier and Dr. Mary Walker. This time I'll continue with an almost totally unknown spy by the name of Mary Bowser. Her birth date is unknown, but it's believed that she was born in 1839. She was born a slave to John Van Lew in Richmond, Virginia. Upon his death in 1843, Van Lew's wife freed the slaves, but it was in name only due to the terms of his will.
Van Lew's daughter, Elizabeth, became the head of the household in the 1850s. She was aware of Mary's intelligence and sent her North to be formally educated. Mary became a missionary to Africa, and returned to Virginia to marry Wilson Bowser, a free black man. Shortly afterward, the Civil War broke out.
Elizabeth Van Lew was part of a major spy network in Richmond, and she frequently resorted to a routine that gave her the appearance that she was crazy, earning her the nickname "Crazy Bet." She briefly appears in my novel Honor & Glory. Her greatest achievement though was using Mary Bowser as a spy.
Not only was Mary highly educated, but she had a photographic memory. She assumed the role of a slow-thinking, dull-witted servant. Van Lew managed to get her to serve at social functions held by Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Eventually, she was hired full time and worked in the Davis household, serving meals. Because of Mary's education and memory, she was able to work invisibly, reading any papers.
She relayed the information to a baker by the name of Thomas McNiven who made deliveries. In his recollections that he relayed to his daughter, he only used Mary's first name. He mentioned her photographic memory and that she could repeat everything she saw on the President's desk "word for word." Mary's full name wasn't revealed until 1911 in Harper's Monthly Magazine by Elizabeth Van Lew's niece.
Her [Elizabeth Van Lew] method of reaching President Davis in his least-guarded moments is evidence of her genius as a spy and a leader of spies. The Van Lews had owned a negro girl of unusual intelligence; several years before the war she had been given her freedom... this young woman was Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was now sent for; she came, and for a time was coached and trained for her mission; then... she was installed as a waitress in the White House of the Confederacy.
There are no records as to what happened to Mary after the war, but in 1995, the United States Army finally recognized her contribution and inducted her into U.S. Army Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. I won't post the photo commonly believed to have been Mary Bowser because it's a hoax. While the woman's name was Mary Bowser, she wasn't the same Mary Bowser, who had served as a spy during the Civil War.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
I sometimes study and take mental notes of the way a writer describes what a character smells. But more often than not, I have to admit that I skim over these words to move onto the action. At the same time, I understand the power of scent to evoke memory. In my experience, when I am assailed with a scent that takes me back to a particular time and place in my life, it's a physical feeling as much as a cognitive recognition of a moment in my history. Here are a few that stand out for me.
This may well be my first scent memory. I am a little girl and I'm standing in someone's yard. I have the impression of tall trees, possibly cedars or pine, a high wooden brown privacy fence, patches of sun and shade, and this strong odor. For years I didn't know what this smell was, but if I'd catch a whiff of it, I was standing in that garden, again. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with boxwood's vaguely sweet but mostly skunk-like bitter qualities.
My mother introduced my sister and I to "smelly goods" early on. Perfume and cologne were an integral part of getting dressed up. Talcum powder (whether it was baby, Bismoline or the scented kind in a circular container with a big colorful puff) was liberally applied after a bath (especially in the summertime). One of Mom's signature scents was Yardley's English lavender. The soap was so strong you could smell the lavender through the cardboard box. Heavenly. Recently I read that lavender is supposedly an aphrodisiac for men. Which made me laugh to myself because it only evokes home and childhood for me. Then, again, also on the list were pumpkin pie and cinnamon. . . Okaaay. I think we're getting a little Oedipal here, and that's a topic that's not part of my essay.
Yes, I realize most people think beach and suntan oil. For me, this scent is all about Christmas. This scent transports me back to being in elementary school and helping to make coconut snap cookies. Brown sugar, Brer Rabbit molasses, butter and canned coconut. The "batter" mixture was so thick, it could stop the beaters on the electric mixer. So this often required prolonged, manual hand mixing. I felt so privileged and grown up to be helping to make one of my favorite cookies. It never occurred to me that it was the amount of labor involved that prompted my mother to put me and Dad to work. When I changed my diet about six years ago, I started to cook with coconut oil. I throw some in with vegetables or use it on the rare occasions when I fry or saute something. There's always some left on the spoon, so I stick in my mouth. Tasting and smelling coconut oil is a simulateous sensation. And I'm back in the kitchen at Christmastime.
The smell of mint tea reminds me of summer days at my Grandmother's house. It was an old brick row house with a nice sized back yard (for the city). Grandma had a green thumb, and so apparently, did my Grandfather. They grew tomatoes, flowers and rhododendrons. We used to forage for johnny jump ups and the spearmint leaves that grew wild in the grass or the flower beds. We'd bring handfuls of mint to my grandmother. She'd put them in a glass pitcher, pour boiling water over them and add sugar. I can still picture sitting at the kitchen table with its grey and white swirly formica top, impatiently waiting for the steeping tea leaves to turn the water a pale yellow.
I call this one "ocean" with quotes because it's that salty smell that we always started to smell in the car on the way to the beach. (We were later informed wasn't really the ocean per say, it was actually the sewage in the water). What a way to demote a favorite childhood scent that evoked the whole vacation experience.
This one is about being 14 and on my first trip to England. I stayed with a penpal in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and her family's home was a city rowhouse and their oldest daughter's bedroom had recently been painted (or redecorated, as they described it). The odor of the paint stayed with me for years after. It still takes me back to England and the Ince house.
Again, a smell that I readily identify with a time and a place and didn't know the source of the scent until years later. This one is from my dorm room, sophomore year at Muhlenberg college in Allentown. My roommate, Rachel was addicted to her peppermint chewing gum. The smell sends me right back to that room, and I can picture all the details – the floral pattern on my comforter, my posters on the walls - (and hear Rachel snapping her gum while she sits at her desk, studying).