Guest Post: Help Unearth the Secrets of Mary Richards Bowser

We’ve just published our entry on Mary Richards Bowser. Born into slavery, Bowser played an important role in the pro-Union spy ring that Elizabeth Van Lew ran in Richmond during the American Civil WarLois Leveen, the author of the entry, has unearthed a tremendous amount of new information on Bowser—but it is likely that more documents related to Mary Richards Bowser are yet to be discovered by historians. To facilitate this process, Leveen has written a guest post that provides scholars and students with suggested areas for further research.
If they gave gold medals for historic research, I’d have won one for becoming the world’s leading expert on the Mary Richards Bowser. But unlike most gold medalists, I’m hoping someone else will break my record, by unearthing new information about this extraordinary woman who was born into slavery but became a Union spy in the Confederate White House.
As important and inspirational as Bowser is, very few details of her life can be substantiated. In the age of instantaneous internet searches, it’s easy to forget that accurate history depends on hours of rigorous research to identify and analyze primary source documents. Despite the generations of historians who’ve studied slavery and the Civil War, the case of Mary Bowser reminds us that race, class, and gender limited the ways in which millions of Americans have been included in sources like voter rolls or tax records that historians rely on to learn about the past. But equally frustrating is the way in which Bowser has been mythologized, with unsubstantiated claims about her repeated in print and online publications, even in seemingly scholarly accounts.
(In what is perhaps the Historian Olympics equivalent of a potential doping scandal, I must admit that I’ve perhaps contributed to the obscuring of Bowser’s biography by authoring The Secrets of Mary Bowser, a novel which imagines her experiences growing up in Virginia, being educated in the North, and returning to participate in the pro-Union underground that operated in Richmond during the Civil War. Although this fictional account deviates from Bowser’s real-life experiences, it offers readers insight how blacks and whites lived in Richmond and Philadelphia in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s.)
As a teacher and historian, I’m committed to sharing the history behind the novel, and to helping others undertook new research about Bowser. The new Encyclopedia Virginia entry on Mary Richards Bowser provides the most detailed account of her life, including dispelling false or unsubstantiated claims about her. But documentation regarding Bowser continues to emerge. Having spent more than a decade researching her life, I’ve compiled a list of areas for further research. And I hereby invite scholars and students interested in doing original research on her to pursue any of the following. (The list will make most sense after you read the full entry about Bowser first).

  • Relation to the Richards family: No known evidence explains Mary’s use of the surname Richards before and after the Civil War. She may have been born the property of Van Lew’s extended family, which included cousins with the last name Richards, or perhaps she was the child or grandchild of one or more of the Richards’ slaves—or perhaps her father was a white Van Lew relation with that name (although there is no extant evidence that her father was white). Wills, tax assessments, correspondence, journals, or bills of sale may survive among the Richards’ family papers containing information relevant to a slave named Mary.
  • Connection to Union military leaders: The Brooklyn Eagle reported on September 25, 1865 that Mary Richards Bowser, then using the pseudonym Richmonia St. Pierre, presented “letters of recommendation from Generals [Alfred] Terry, [E. O.] Ord, and [Colonel] S H Roberts.” It also reported that immediately after the fall of Richmond, she provided information to “the Provost Marshal,” likely either Brigadier General Marsena R. Patrick, Major Atherton H. Stevens, Jr., Lieutenant Colonel John Coughlin, or Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Manning. This is the first evidence that these Union military leaders had direct knowledge of her intelligence work. The official or personal correspondence of these Union officers may yield further information about an agent using the name Mary Richards, Mary Bowser, or perhaps St. Pierre.
  • Appearances on the Northern lecture circuit: It is quite possible that Mary gave other lectures in the North after the Civil War, or that additional newspapers reported on the two lectures she is known to have given. Although her use of different pseudonyms at each of the two known lectures underscores the challenge of identifying other speeches given by her under as-yet-unknown names or in as-yet-undiscovered locations, searching nineteenth-century newspapers, especially Northern black papers, may reveal more evidence of her appearances on the lecture circuit. Extant records from the black churches at which she spoke (Abyssinian Baptist Church, then located on Waverly Place near Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, and the African Methodist Episcopal Church then located on Bridge Street near Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn), including personal diaries of their pastors, might also include details about the events.
  • Postwar marriage and possible emigration: Nothing is yet known about her second husband except for his surname of Garvin, and his presence in Georgia in early 1867 (the two were probably married in April or May, most likely in Savannah). Aside from her June 1867 correspondence, no evidence has been found regarding whether Mary Richards Bowser Garvin joined her husband in Havana or elsewhere in the West Indies, or whether he returned to settle somewhere within the United States with her. Research in this area would be especially useful to understanding how Bowser represented her own Civil War activities in the decades that followed.

If you uncover new information, please let me know at research[at]loisleveen[dot]com—I promise to hum you a tune appropriate to your triumph—and to update the Encyclopedia entry accordingly.
IMAGE: The Van Lew home in Richmond, where Mary Richards Bowser might have spent part of her childhood (Virginia Historical Society)


2 thoughts

  1. I am currently writing a historical article for our local Church Hill (Richmond, VA) newsletter about Van Lew and Bowser. One bit of information you did not mention was about the Style Weekly article that mentions a local researcher had found Bowser’s grave here in Richmond but will not disclose it? Have you researched that further? I would love to get a death year for her. Please PM me, thanks!

  2. Eric,
    I doubt that there is a grave in Richmond for the Mary Bowser who was a slave-turned-spy. If you read the Encyclopedia Virginia entry, you’ll learn that Mary Richards had stopped using the last name Bowser, and had left Richmond, by the mid 1860s. The entry, and the article “The Spy Photo That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me: A story of a mistaken identity reveals a lot about the history of black women in America, the challenges of understanding the past, and who we are today,” which you can find on indicate that other African American women named Mary Bowser also lived in the area, and if there is a grave, it likely belongs to one of them.


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