Mary Richards's exact birthdate and birthplace are not known. A ship manifest dated December 24, 1855, gives her age as fourteen, so she was likely born in 1841 in or near Richmond. Nothing definitive is known about her family, and no known evidence explains her use of the surname Richards before and after the Civil War. She may have been born the property of John and Eliza Van Lew's extended family, which included cousins with the last name Richards, or perhaps she was the child of one or more of the Richards family's slaves. Later in life, she gave contradictory information about her parents, claiming variously that her mother was a slave owned by the Van Lews; that "her father was a mixture of the Cuban-Spaniard and Negro" and her mother was white; and that she "never knew who her parents were."
It was Van Lew's intent that once educated, the girl, then using the name Mary Jane Richards, would become a missionary in Africa. In December 1855, at age fourteen, according to the manifest, she sailed with a group of missionaries from Sandy Hook, New York, to Monrovia, Liberia. She was apparently unhappy in Liberia, for Van Lew arranged with the American Colonization Society for her return, citing Richards's displeasure. Early in 1860 she sailed back to America, landing in Baltimore, Maryland, before returning to Richmond.
Return to Richmond
These brief articles reveal that even before the war, Richards was adept at disguising her identity when she felt it would be useful to shield herself from official scrutiny. While the teenager might have been frustrated by being treated as legally a slave after enjoying liberty during her years outside of Virginia, the assumption by white authorities that she was a slave would prove especially efficacious in the coming years, allowing her to penetrate places where a free black—or a pro-Union white—likely could not go.
The only other document relating to Richards's activities on returning to Richmond comes from Saint John's Church, the records of which state that on April 16, 1861, Wilson Bowser and Mary, "(colored) servants to Mrs. E. L. Van Lew," were married there. The timing of the wedding is striking: the next day, the Virginia Convention voted to secede from the Union. Nothing else is known about their relationship.
Civil War Activities
Although a substantial network of pro-Union agents operated in Richmond during the Civil War, its activities were by necessity surreptitious and thus difficult for historians to document. Historians have corroborated pro-Union activities that included smuggling information to and from Union military leaders positioned outside the city, providing supplies to Union soldiers held prisoner within the Confederate capital, aiding prisoners to escape, and disrupting Confederate military and government operations. As the historian Elizabeth R. Varon notes in Southern Lady, Yankee Spy (2003), her biography of Van Lew, free blacks and slaves were integral participants in the pro-Union underground, although the precise contributions of individual African Americans remain difficult to discern.
In the years immediately following the Civil War, Bowser recounted her own espionage, variously claiming to have "clandestinely entered in the Rebel Senate while [it was] in secret session"; helped capture Confederate officers and contraband tobacco in Fredericksburg; aided Union soldiers being held prisoner; and met with "the Provost Marshal" appointed by Union forces following the fall of Richmond—as well as spying within the Confederate White House.
In September 1865, she traveled north once more, giving a series of talks about her antebellum and wartime experiences. Although it was still unusual for women to give public speeches, she was perhaps inspired by a small number of women who earned both political influence and professional fees by taking to the lecture circuit. Richards used different pseudonyms as a lecturer, likely an indication of how dangerous she perceived life to continue to be for any blacks regarded as having contributed to the Confederate defeat. Thus far, two separate lectures have been documented, the first given at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Manhattan on September 11, using the name Richmonia Richards, and the other given a week or two later at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Bridge Street in Brooklyn, using the name Richmonia R. St. Pierre. (It is possible that she gave other lectures in the North after the Civil War, but her use of different pseudonyms at each of the two known lectures underscores the challenge of unearthing evidence of other speeches she gave.) Newspaper accounts of each event provide brief and sometimes contradictory biographical sketches.
While running the school in Saint Mary's, Richards sent a series of letters to Gilbert L. Eberhart, the superintendent of education for the Georgia Freedmen's Bureau. These are the only known surviving pieces of her correspondence. They describe her struggles as the sole teacher to seventy day students, a dozen adult night students, and 100 Sunday school students, working with few books or other supplies, and often without being paid the salary promised by the bureau. As eager as blacks in rural areas like Saint Mary's were to secure education for themselves and their children, they had few resources to support a school, often relying on inconsistent donations from northerners. But the biggest challenge was the threat of violence faced by students and teachers alike. "I wish there was some law here, or some protection," she wrote to Eberhart, describing local whites who exhibited a "sinister expression about the eye, and the quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil … with a little whiskey in them, they dare do anything." She references "secret societies" of hostile whites, anticipating the violence the Ku Klux Klan and other groups would perpetrate in the coming years.
In a letter dated June 1, 1867, she informed Eberhart that she had married, asking him to address her thereafter as Mary J. R. Garvin. She said little about her new husband other than that he had gone to Havana, Cuba. By the end of June, she had been officially directed to close the school, and in her final surviving letter to Eberhart, dated June 27, 1867, she asks for payment of the full salary owed her for her five months in Georgia so that she can leave the area, her husband being "in the West Indies." Whether she joined him there, or whether he returned and they settled somewhere in the United States is unknown. Historians have found no evidence of what she did after leaving the school in Saint Mary's. She was about twenty-six years old at the time.
False or Unsubstantiated Claims
Nevertheless, many claims regarding Bowser are untrue or remain unsubstantiated. "Recollections of Thomas McNiven and his activities in Richmond during the American Civil War," a document held by the Library of Virginia, is often cited as a source of information about Bowser. The document claims that Van Lew's "colored girl Mary … had a photographic mind" and passed information directly to McNiven. Although this document purports to be the first-person reminiscences of a key participant in Richmond's pro-Union intelligence ring, the narrative was passed down orally through several generations before being typed up and made public in 1952. Many historians, including Varon, doubt its accuracy.
Additional questionable claims circulate online and in some print publications. No evidence exists indicating that either the Van Lews or Bowser identified as Quaker, nor is there evidence that Bowser was educated at a Quaker school, as is often claimed. (The Van Lews belonged to an Episcopal church in Richmond, and the only document stating a religion for Bowser lists her as a Presbyterian.) In addition, although Bowser used several pseudonyms before, during, and after the war, no reliable source indicates that she ever went by the name Ellen Bond, or that she attempted to set fire to the Confederate White House before fleeing Richmond early in 1865. She was certainly in Richmond at the end of April 1865, already working to educate newly liberated slaves.
Finally, an article published in June 2013 in the Atlantic online by Lois Leveen, author of the novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser, revealed that the primary document most associated with Bowser—a photograph purportedly of her—depicts another woman entirely, also named Mary Bowser but born several decades later. This image continues to circulate with claims that it is of the slave-turned-spy.
ca. 1841 - Mary Jane Richards is likely born into slavery near Richmond.
May 17, 1846 - "Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew" is baptized in Saint John's Church, in Richmond.
Late 1840s or early 1850s - Elizabeth Van Lew takes Mary Jane Richards to the North, probably to Princeton, New Jersey, or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to be educated.
December 24, 1855 - Mary Jane Richards travels by ship from Sandy Hook, New York, to Monrovia, Liberia.
August 1860 - Mary Richards is "arrested for being without free papers" and "committed for nine days." At the end of her jail term, she is released to Elizabeth Van Lew, against whom a summons was issued "for permitting her slave to go at large."
September 1861 - Elizabeth Van Lew, as a key player in Richmond's Unionist underground, begins providing funds and related assistance for the bribing of Confederate prison guards in order to let Union prisoners escape from Libby Prison and other Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. Van Lew keeps up these activities throughout the war.
May 14, 1864 - Elizabeth Van Lew writes in her diary, in reference to Mary Bowser, "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."
September 25, 1865 - The Brooklyn Eagle reports on a speaker who gave a public talk at the AME Church on Bridge Street in Brooklyn, New York, under the name Richmonia R. St. Pierre. The speaker is Mary Bowser.
June 27, 1867 - Mary J. R. Garvin sends her final letter to Gilbert L. Eberhart, indicating she is leaving Saint Mary's, Georgia, possibly to travel to Havana, Cuba. No information about her later life is known.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Leveen, L. Mary Richards Bowser (fl. 1846–1867). (2014, August 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Bowser_Mary_Richards_fl_1846-1867.
- MLA Citation:
Leveen, Lois. "Mary Richards Bowser (fl. 1846–1867)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Aug. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: January 27, 2014 | Last modified: August 19, 2014