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 enslaved by 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 enslaved laborers. Later in life, she gave contradictory information about her parents, claiming variously that her mother was an enslaved woman 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.”
The earliest-known record relating to her comes from Saint John’s Church, in Richmond, where, on May 17, 1846, “Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew,” was baptized. It was extremely unusual for the wealthy and socially prominent white members of this congregation to have enslaved people baptized or married in their church. Other people enslaved by the Van Lew family were baptized at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, indicating that the widowed Mrs. Van Lew, like her daughter Elizabeth, singled out Mary for special treatment. A few years after Mary was baptized, Elizabeth Van Lew took her to the North—probably either to Princeton, New Jersey, or Philadelphia—to be educated.
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 Jersey, to Monrovia, Liberia. She was apparently unhappy in Liberia, because Van Lew arranged with the American Colonization Society for her return, citing Richards’s displeasure. She sailed back to America in early 1860, landing in Baltimore, Maryland, before returning to Richmond.
Return to Richmond
Virginia law in this period forbade any Black people who left Virginia seeking an education from returning. Richards skirted these prohibitions in ways that immediately attracted attention. On August 21, 1860, the Richmond Whig reported “Mary Jones, alias Mary Jane Henley a likely mulatto girl, about twenty years of age, arrested for being without free papers, was committed for nine days. She was sent to the North about nine years ago, by a highly respectable lady of this city, for the purpose of receiving a thorough education, after completing which she went to Liberia.” The article asserted, “The laws of Virginia positively prohibit the return to this State of any free negro who has lived in a free State,” yet Richards remained in Richmond. This may have been because her freedom was likely de facto, not de jure—both Virginia law and stipulations in John Van Lew’s will made it difficult for the Van Lew family to free any of their enslaved people. If this was indeed the case, Richards likely experienced both the protection of and continued subjection to the Van Lew family. On August 30, at the end of her jail term, the Whig ran another item, provocatively entitled “A Free Slave.” This article describes her as “a dark mulatto girl, who gave her name as Mary Jane Henry, but whose real name is Mary J. Richards.” In addition to reporting that a summons had been issued against Mrs. Van Lew “for permitting her slave to go at large,” this article repeated Richards’s claims of being “highly educated” and having served as a teacher in Liberia, leading the Whig writer to conclude “a strange place, by the way, for a slave to go or come from.”
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 legally as enslaved property after enjoying liberty during her years outside of Virginia, the assumption by white authorities that she was enslaved would prove especially efficacious in the coming years, allowing her to penetrate places where a—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, thevoted to from the Union. Nothing else is known about their relationship.
Civil War Activities
Although a substantial network of pro-Union agents operated in, 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 Black and enslaved people 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.
Regardless of whether the Van Lew women were legally able to free her prior to the Civil War, Bowserwith the fall of the Confederacy in April 1865, as did millions of other African Americans. She was probably twenty-three or twenty-four years old. Whatever her relationship to Wilson Bowser might have been, their marriage apparently ended prior to the , because although he remained in Richmond, she reverted to using the name Mary Richards and did not thereafter refer to herself as Mary Bowser or Mrs. Wilson Bowser. Her commitment to the cause of freedom, however, continued. Freedmen’s Bureau records show that within days of the fall of Richmond, Mary Jane Richards was working as a teacher to former formerly enslaved people within the city.
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 Black people regarded as having contributed to the. 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.
The Anglo African, a Black newspaper published in New York, described Richmonia Richards as “very sarcastic and at times quite humorous.” The article details the speaker’s travels to Liberia and her wartime activities; it also includes her condemnation of how Union soldiers stationed in Richmond after the fall of the Confederacy harassed African Americans and her tart criticism of northern Black people, whom she felt were overly concerned with fashion and social status rather than education and social service. Richards clearly altered some details of her biography in this talk, playing to rhetorical conventions and calculating what would elicit the most powerful response from her audience. The Brooklyn Eagle, a white newspaper, compared Richmonia R. St. Pierre to the prominent white abolitionist speaker Anna Dickinson. This article also describes the speaker’s education and travels to Liberia, but focuses more prominently on her life in Richmond during the war. It includes details of how the speaker and an unnamed white woman (likely Van Lew) initiated exchanges with Union soldiers being held prisoner and their involvement in the famous escape of Union soldiers from. It also details her work as a teacher with the Freedmen’s Bureau and her assertion that even that organization discriminated against Black people. According to the Eagle, the speaker forthrightly asserted that Black people should be given the right to vote and that in the wake of emancipation there was still a need for “justice” to achieve equal treatment for Black people in the North and the South. Both articles reveal how she tailored rhetorical strategies to particular audiences and how she challenged listeners to support the cause of equal rights as an extension of the efforts that had won the Civil War and abolished slavery.
Once again using the name Mary J. Richards, she traveled to various locations in Virginia and Florida in the ensuing years, working as a teacher of newly freed Black people. Early in 1867, she founded a freedmen’s school in Saint Mary’s, Georgia. While teaching there in March 1867, she had a chance meeting with Harriet Beecher Stowe, Stowe’s brother Charles Beecher, and Crammond Kennedy, a Freedmen’s Bureau official. Descriptions of this encounter in Beecher’s journal and in a letter from Kennedy published in the Freedmen’s Record provide further evidence of how Richards portrayed her experiences in Richmond and Liberia to different audiences.
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 Black people 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 theand 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
Reconstructing the details of Bowser’s life has proven especially challenging for historians because of the lack of reliable sources and the persistence of false claims. In her book Southern Lady, Yankee Spy, Varon describes Bowser as “the most fabled—and most elusive” of the African American participants purported to have been part of Richmond’s Union underground, concluding that “no hard documentary evidence” indicates that a person enslaved by Van Lew had infiltrated the Confederate White House as a spy. But Bowser’s case exemplifies the arduous yet ultimately rewarding process by which historians learn about the past: in a 2013, Varon cited subsequent discoveries of historical sources that confirm the long-rumored details of Bowser’s wartime espionage.
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 the formerly enslaved.
In 2002, a story that appeared on PBS’s NOW with Bill Moyers and NPR’s Morning Edition suggested that Bowser kept a diary, which was inadvertently discarded in the 1950s by a descendant of the Bowser family. There is no way to confirm or disprove whether such a diary existed; however, given the danger inherent in a Black woman’s recording her anti-Confederate activities in Richmond during the Civil War, along with the documented evidence that by the war’s end Mary no longer identified as a Bowser and eventually left Virginia and remarried, it seems highly unlikely she left a diary with any Bowser descendant.
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 enslaved woman-turned-spy.