Mary Bowser

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Mary Elizabeth Bowser[1] (originally Mary Jane Richards, 1846 – 1867) was a Union spy during the Civil War.[2] She was an American former slave and worked in connection with Elizabeth Van Lew.[3]

Early years[edit]

Mary Richards was born near Richmond, Virginia, and was enslaved from birth by Eliza Baker and John Van Lew or their extended family.[4][5][6]

The first record of Richards is her baptism, as "Mary Jane" at St. John's Church in Richmond, on May 17, 1846.[3] Baptizing Richards at the Van Lew family church, rather than at Richmond's First African Baptist Church, where the other Van Lew slaves were baptized, indicates that Baker took special notice of Richards.[2] Baker's daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, soon did the same by sending Richards north to school in Princeton, New Jersey, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[2][3]

In 1855, Richards went to Liberia, West Africa, to join a missionary community, as arranged by Elizabeth Van Lew. By spring of 1860, Richards had returned to Richmond.[2][3][7][8]

On April 16, 1861, Mary Richards wed Wilson Bowser. The ceremony took place just four days after Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter, the first battle of the Civil War.[3]

The American Civil War[edit]

When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, "What news, Mary?" and my caterer never fails! Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion and prudence, which is wonderful.

— Elizabeth Van Lew, diary entry dated May 14, 1864

From a position as a servant to Jefferson Davis's family in the Confederate White House, Mary Bowser served an important role in the spy ring organized by Elizabeth Van Lew.[2] It is possible that Union military leaders such as Alfred Terry, Edward Ord, and Colonel S H Roberts benefited from Bowser's work.[5] Although exactly what intelligence Bowser collected is as yet unknown, the value of Van Lew's ring was noted by Generals Benjamin Butler, Ulysses S. Grant, and George H. Sharpe.[3]

Postwar life[edit]

Even just a few days after the fall of Richmond, Bowser worked as teacher to former slaves in the city.[2]

Bowser gave at least two lectures in the North in 1865 about her education, travel to Liberia, and wartime exploits.[2] In September, a reporter claimed that speaker Bowser and Anna Dickinson "might, indeed, easily be mistaken for twin sisters," likely referring to the strangeness of a woman speaking about political issues to a group.[9] She protected her identity by using pseudonyms at both lectures, calling herself Richmonia Richards at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Manhattan on September 11 and Richmonia R. St. Pierre a week or two later at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Bridge Street in Brooklyn.[2] It is possible that more information about Bowser may be found by searching 19th-century Northern black papers for mention of more of her lectures.[5]

Again using the name Mary J. Richards, she founded a freedmen's school in Saint Marys, Georgia, in early 1867.[2] Her school served day students, adult night students, and Sunday school students, all taught by herself.[3]

In a June 1867 letter to the superintendent of education for the Georgia Freedmen's Bureau, she requested that he now refer to her as Mary J. R. Garvin.[2] Though a later letter may imply that she intended to join her new husband in the West Indies after St. Mary's school closed, it has not yet been confirmed.[5] After that date, there is no further record of Garvin.[9]

Untrue or unsubstantiated claims[edit]

A photograph formerly assumed to be of Mary Richards Bowser. The photo was taken of a different Mary Bowser in 1900, thirty-three years after the last known record of Mary Richards Bowser.[9]

A number of claims made about Bowser are unsubstantiated, or even untrue. Many are embellishments of a June 1911 Harper's Monthly article, the first known publication of Bowser's name.[3][10] Unfortunately, a number of modern publications have republished such claims, despite their intention to be non-fiction.[2][11][12][13][14][15][16]

  • No evidence exists that Van Lew or Bowser identified as Quaker, as is sometimes claimed. It is not known where Bowser attended school.[2]
  • Bowser is said to have a photographic memory in a document called, "Recollections of Thomas McNiven and his activities in Richmond during the American Civil War." The document's accuracy is doubted by historians including Elizabeth R. Varon, author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, a biography of Van Lew.[2]
  • Bowser used numerous pseudonyms, but the name "Ellen Bond" has not yet been verified as one of them.[2]
  • Bowser did not likely attempt to set fire to the Confederate White House and flee Richmond in early 1865, as she was still there in April 1865 educating newly freed slaves.[2][3]
  • Though it has been said that Bowser wrote a journal chronicling her wartime efforts and that it was inadvertently discarded in the 1950s,[17] the existence of such a journal cannot be confirmed.[2]
  • A photograph of another woman by the name of Mary Bowser has been incorrectly associated with the spy Mary Richards Bowser.[9]

Popular culture representations[edit]

A novel by Lois M. Leveen, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on Bowser's life.[18][19]

Bowser's acts of espionage are also detailed in the play Lady Patriot written by Ted Lange. The play was produced by Mary Lange and premiered at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Santa Monica, California. Chrystee Pharris, best known for her role of Simone on NBC's Passions, played the role of Bowser. The ensemble cast also included Zuri Alexander (Mary Bowser), Lou Beatty Jr. (Old Robert), Dr. Gordon Goodman (Jefferson Davis), Anne Johnstonbrown (Varina Davis), Paul Messinger (Judah P. Benjamin), Robert Pine (Mr. Slydell), and Connie Ventress (Elizabeth Van Lew).[20]

A 1987 made-for-TV movie, A Special Friendship, was loosely based on Bowser and Van Lew's activities.[21][22]

The heroine of An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole is based in part on Mary Bowser.[23]

An episode of Uncivil was about Mary Bowser.[24]


Mary Elizabeth Bowser has been honored by the U.S. government with an induction into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, for her work in the war.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sizer, Lyde Cullen, "Bowser, Mary Elizabeth (1839? - ?), Union spy during the Civil War...," Hutchins Center, Harvard University. Retrieved 2018-01-13.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Leveen, Lois. "Bowser, Mary Richards (1846–1867)". Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved 2016-07-04.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Leveen, Lois (June 21, 2012). "A Black Spy in the Confederate Black House". The New York Times. Retrieved 2016-07-04.
  4. ^ "Van Lew, Elizabeth L. (1818–1900)". Retrieved 2016-07-16.
  5. ^ a b c d "Guest Post: Help Unearth the Secrets of Mary Richards Bowser | Encyclopedia Virginia, The Blog". Retrieved 2016-07-04.
  6. ^ Varon, Elizabeth R.; Leveen, Lois (2013-04-06). "A Spy in the Confederate White House". Retrieved 2016-07-18.
  7. ^ Varon, Elizabeth R. (2003-10-02). Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190286521.
  8. ^ Tyler-McGraw, Marie (2009-11-30). An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Liberia. Univ of North Carolina Press. p. 98. ISBN 9780807867785.
  9. ^ a b c d Leveen, Lois (June 27, 2013). "The Spy Photo That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me". The Atlantic.
  10. ^ Beymer, William Gilmore (1911-06-01). "Miss Van Lew". Harper's Magazine. ISSN 0017-789X. Retrieved 2016-07-17.
  11. ^ Colman, Penny (1992-01-01). Spies!: Women in the Civil War. Betterway Books. ISBN 9781558702677.
  12. ^ Forbes, Ella (1998-01-01). African American Women During the Civil War. Routledge. ISBN 9780815331155.
  13. ^ Kane, Harnett Thomas (1954-01-01). Spies for the Blue and Gray. Hanover House.
  14. ^ Lebsock, Suzanne (1987-01-01). Virginia women, 1600-1945: "A share of honour". Virginia State Library. ISBN 9780884901396.
  15. ^ "NOW with Bill Moyers. Transcript. April 19, 2002 | PBS". Retrieved 2016-07-18.
  16. ^ "The Spy Who Served Me". NPR. April 19, 2002. Retrieved 2016-07-04.
  17. ^ Van Lew, Elizabeth (2001). David D. Ryan (ed.). A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of "Crazy Bet" Van Lew.
  18. ^ Leveen, Lois (2012-05-15). The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Harper Collins. ISBN 9780062107916.
  19. ^ Leveen, Lois (2013-01-18). "Lois Leveen: Civil War Spy & Freed Slave Mary Bowser". Pritzker Military Museum & Library. Retrieved 2016-07-07.
  20. ^ Lange, Ted (2013-09-16). Lady Patriot. Trafford Publishing. ISBN 9781490713151.
  21. ^ "Baltimore Afro-American - Google News Archive Search". March 21, 1987. Retrieved 2016-07-06.
  22. ^ Cook, Fielder (1987-03-31), A Special Friendship, retrieved 2016-07-06
  23. ^ "240. Extraordinary Optimism Through History: An Interview with Alyssa Cole - Smart Bitches, Trashy Books". Smart Bitches, Trashy Books. Retrieved 2017-04-05.
  24. ^
  25. ^ "Ms. Mary Elizabeth Bowser" (PDF). Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2016-07-05.