Author: Lois Leveen

author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser (HarperCollins, 2012)
ENTRY

Mary Richards Bowser (fl. 1846–1867)

Mary Richards Bowser was born into slavery and later became a missionary to Liberia, a Union spy in the Confederate White House during the American Civil War (1861–1865), and a teacher at freedmen’s schools. As a child, she was owned by the Van Lew family of Richmond; Elizabeth Van Lew, who had arranged for her to be educated in the North and provided her with de facto freedom prior to the war, ran a pro-Union intelligence ring in which Bowser played an important role. After the war, Bowser gave a series of talks in New York about her wartime espionage and worked with the Freedmen’s Bureau as a teacher, first in Virginia and then in Florida and Georgia. She last appears in the historical record in 1867, when she wrote a letter describing her plans to join her new husband “in the West Indies.” Whether she did is not known. Despite Bowser’s accomplishments, many claims regarding her, even those made in purportedly nonfiction accounts, are untrue or remain unsubstantiated. Originally known as Mary Richards, the slave-turned-spy used at least two different married names and several pseudonyms throughout her life. She also made contradictory claims about herself, frequently embellishing, altering, or omitting biographical details to appeal to particular audiences. Her biography exemplifies the challenges historians continue to face in uncovering the experiences of individuals whose race, class, and gender limited the way their lives were documented.