Feature image: The Van Lew Mansion
IT’S A TALE of a black undercover agent as true — and as compelling — as the one made famous in BlacKkKlansman (2018). But it happened over 100 years earlier, during the American Civil War — a reminder of how little we are taught about the significant roles African Americans (and women) played in one of the most formative events in our history.
Mary was born into slavery in Virginia sometime around 1840. After being freed and sent north to be educated, she returned to Richmond on the eve of the Civil War. Posing as a slave, she infiltrated the Confederate White House as part of a pro-Union spy ring organized by Bet Van Lew, the white woman whose family had owned her. The intelligence they gathered proved so valuable that it earned praise from Generals Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Butler, and George Sharpe. But the black woman whose heroic feats depended on her ability to hide in plain sight left little evidence of herself behind. Now newfound correspondence reveals what happened to her after the war ended, exposing the unexpected ways she negotiated the fraught realities of race in America during Reconstruction. And it also reveals the truth-is-stranger-than-Hollywood surprises involved in uncovering African American women’s history.
I first learned of Mary Bowser from Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson’s A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America (1998). This groundbreaking survey of African American women’s history devotes a scant few paragraphs to Mary’s role in the interracial spy ring, without a single footnoted source. Intrigued by this inspirational figure whose resistance helped shape the course of American history, I spent years tracking leads, poring over archival materials, scrutinizing what other historians have written about her, and discovering new documents. Yet it often seemed that, the more research I did, the less I knew for certain. My scrutiny of 19th-century letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles revealed that Mary often intentionally altered details of her life story depending on the audience she was speaking or writing to. A widely circulated photograph allegedly of her actually turned out to be of another Mary Bowser born decades later (this photograph continues to be erroneously reposted online, resulting in what may be the most awkward caption on Wikipedia). Even attributing the spying to “Mary Bowser” — a name provided to a reporter by Bet Van Lew’s niece in 1910, nearly half a century after the Civil War — proves complicated because in no surviving document does she refer to herself by that surname, instead choosing to use at least half a dozen other names over the course of her life.
Eventually, I documented enough to write a short article sharing verifiable details about her childhood, her time as a missionary in Liberia, her Civil War exploits, and her brief stint teaching newly emancipated African Americans at Freedmen’s Bureau schools after the war. I also wrote The Secrets of Mary Bowser (2012), a novel in which I imagined what the historical record seemed incapable of revealing: the emotional life of this important woman. It is both validating and frustrating that, today, an internet search for “Mary Bowser” returns ample, although often heavily embellished or even flagrantly inaccurate, claims about her. This plethora of posts evidences the growing interest in African American history and women’s history. But the only way to truly celebrate the accomplishments of people of color and women of all races is through rigorously researched, historically accurate information. Although we understandably wish for accounts of historical figures and events that contest the white-men-are-the-only-ones-who-did-what-mattered version of history, we need to resist outlandish assertions masquerading as facts. As both a historian and a novelist, I am committed to helping people understand the distinction between fact and fiction — for example, writing an entry for the Encyclopedia of Virginia calling out false or unsubstantiated claims about Mary, many of which — along with that photograph — continue to circulate online.
So when I received an email last November from Emily Payne, a specialist in American history at Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio, describing a newly discovered letter from 1870 that she believed might have been written by Mary to Bet, her former owner and fellow spy, I was simultaneously curious and dubious. Bet’s life is far better documented than Mary’s, yet no correspondence between them had ever been found. In all her surviving writings about the spy ring, Bet mentions Mary only once, in a journal entry praising her ability to gather “reliable” intelligence with “wisdom, discretion and prudence.” What Mary thought of Bet has always remained obscure, available only through a few scattered secondhand accounts of how, in the period immediately following the war, she sometimes praised and sometimes contemned, without ever naming, the white family who controlled so much of her early life. Could this newfound letter reveal more about what was surely a complicated interracial alliance? Or was the existence of such a document, undiscovered for 150 years, simply too good to be true?
Curious but cautious, I sat at my computer scrutinizing images of the 1870 letter taken with Payne’s cell phone, side by side with digital copies of what, until now, historians believed was Mary’s only surviving correspondence. Written to the superintendent of instruction for the Georgia Freedmen’s Bureau while Mary was teaching at a Freedmen’s school there after the war, these letters provide the most direct documentation we have of her life. In them, she declares her commitment to serving her fellow African Americans, recounting how eagerly newly emancipated blacks want to learn and how poverty and discrimination impeded them from attending school regularly. She also confides her concerns about the threat of white violence, especially from former Confederates whom she suspected of forming “secret societies” (she was right to be worried: these societies would quickly evolve into Georgia’s earliest manifestation of the Ku Klux Klan). And she provides tantalizing references to her wartime espionage in Richmond. Most of these letters are signed Mary J. R. Richards or M. J. R. Richards, a surname she used off and on throughout her life. But the last of them, from June 1867, she signs Mary J. R. Garvin, announcing that she is newly married, that her husband has gone to the West Indies, and that she is closing the school — after which no historian could find any verifiable trace of her.
I — the first word in the first sentence of the 1870 letter — is written in Mary’s unmistakable, idiosyncratic style. But though the handwriting immediately appeared to be a match, the contents did not. Dated October 31, 1870, and sent from “30 Bedford” in New York, the letter is signed M. J. Denman — a name unlike any of the variations Mary was known to use. Could she have been widowed or divorced, then married yet again? Or might she have taken this last name for some other reason? The letter makes no mention of enslavement, espionage, or even race. Yet I was struck by its opening address to “My Dear Miss Bet.” In 1870, a woman writing a letter would address a friend as “My Dear Bet,” and an acquaintance as “Miss Van Lew.” The use of “My Dear Miss Bet” seems like a holdover from slavery. Would a free black woman show such a level of deference to her former owner? In my novel, I had explored this idea in a scene set before the war in which Mary, newly arrived in the North, mentions “Miss Bet,” only to be teased by another African American for unnecessary obeisance to a white Southerner. Why would the real Mary have continued the practice five years after the war was over?
Elizabeth Varon, a professor of history at the University of Virginia and the author of Southern Lady, Yankee Spy (2003), the definitive biography of Bet Van Lew, has noted that the work of biographers is “rooted in documentary evidence but also requires flights of imagination.” The most rigorous historians use evidence-based conjecture to construct plausible narratives about the past, knowing that the evidence available to us is often incomplete or contradictory. On my first reading of the letter, I sought solid evidence about its writer while also imagining plausible possibilities. In her book, Varon relates that Bet had Mary educated in the North before arranging for her to travel to Liberia in 1855 to serve as a missionary. An article about the ship on which she sailed gave her name as “Mary Jane Richards,” noting that she “came from Princeton” and was 14 years old. In the 1870 letter, M. J. Denman mentions that she is “a woman now of thirty years of age,” staying in New York with a family she knew from her schooldays in Princeton, making it plausible that she was indeed the slave-turned-spy. If so — something I would need to prove — the letter offers striking details about the financial and emotional challenges she faced, long after the physical danger of espionage ended. And it reveals her complex feelings regarding the white woman whose life was so entangled with her own.
Although we like to celebrate the end of slavery as one the greatest triumphs in American history, Reconstruction actually offered little redress for those who had been enslaved. For most newly emancipated African Americans, enjoyment of their hard-won freedom was tempered by dire economic circumstances, by firmly entrenched (and ever-evolving) American practices of racism, and by frequent attempts by the very whites who had once owned them to exert continued control over their lives. Nothing M. J. Denman writes in this letter indicates her own race, nor does she comment on race relations in any way. But throughout the letter, Denman seems to be resisting Bet’s control while asserting her own determination to secure stable ways to support herself.
“I suppose you are somewhat displeased with me,” she begins, indicating her expectation that Bet would judge her harshly for not accepting Bet’s “kind offer” that Denman come to Richmond to live at Bet’s expense. Explaining that she used the money Bet sent for her travel to instead pay off some debts and buy a much-needed article of clothing, Denman entreats Bet to “withdraw your displeasure.” Having spent Bet’s money in these necessary but unauthorized ways, she resolves to earn her own support hereafter. Declaring that “it would be unwomanly for me to become so dependent on anyone,” she vows that, “as long as I can get an existence for myself I must try,” detailing her plans to do sewing for hire and to attend school to train as a teacher.
Financial self-sufficiency was not the only kind of independence she sought. Although we can’t know what living arrangements Bet had proposed (or presumed) for Denman if she returned to Richmond, Denman, describing herself as “very quiet” and “rather peculiar,” proclaims, “I could not stay in the room with anyone else it would worry me to death.” But she expresses more than an ordinary predilection for privacy. Having “reconsidered the past,” she reminds Bet that “during my stay there before […] I was often the source of trouble.” It is not clear what sort of trouble she is referring to — trouble within Bet’s family? Trouble with those outside the Van Lew household? Trouble between Bet and Denman? Trouble over actual wrongdoing on Denman’s part? Or trouble because Denman refused to comport herself as Bet or others expected? What is clear is that Bet’s behavior troubled Denman herself, who recalls that “you often reminded me of all your kindness to me.” Such condescending reminders of Bet’s beneficence — and of her own past need to rely upon Bet — are now intolerable to Denman, who declares, “If I ever came to your house and you ever told me of what you had done for me I should wish myself anywhere else except there.”
Separated by a century and a half, with only this single letter to go by, it’s difficult to determine the complex emotional tenor of their relationship. Once again referring deferentially to her correspondent, Denman acknowledges her appreciation while resisting any sense of shame or subordination that might come with perpetual indebtedness: “Now Miss Bet if I could do anything to show you my gratitude I would do it, but that is impossible.” Whether Denman genuinely thinks the debt too great, or merely that the benefactor is too insatiable in her demand to be thanked, we cannot say. Either way, Denman clearly wishes to be relieved of this obligation once and for all. Yet she still needs Bet, in an especially personal and profound way. Toward the end of the letter, she implores, “I hope you will not loose sight of me, as I cannot bear the thought that no one is interested in my weal or woe.” This passage evidences both Denman’s general sense of social and emotional isolation and her specific hope that Bet truly cares what happens to her.
The letter also suggests that she truly cares about Bet. Confiding that she has become a Catholic, she writes, “God bless you,” subtly inverting the indebtedness resulting from Bet’s past aid to her by calling for divine care for Bet. Even more striking is how she closes the letter, wishing Bet, “Good night, my dear friend,” and signing, “Yours affectionately, M. J. Denman.” Throughout The Secrets of Mary Bowser, I imagined the evolving relationship between Mary and Bet — two women separated by more than 20 years of age, by race, by social conventions, and by the stark fact that one of them was part of the family that legally owned the other, yet ultimately united in risking their lives to defeat the Confederacy. In the scene in the novel in which she is greeted by Bet upon her return to Richmond before the start of the Civil War, Mary sums up the relationship in terms of what it is not: “Bet wasn’t quite family, wasn’t quite friend.” But Denman does consider Bet to be a friend, one for whom she expresses affection and a hope that her affection will continue to be reciprocated. What might this mean if Denman was indeed Mary?
In and of itself, the letter offers no definitive evidence that it was written by the slave-turned-spy. But it suggested several leads to pursue — nearly all of which turned out to be dead ends. Census records offered no glimpse of someone who might be M. J. Denman. Neither did New York City directories. Nor did the student records of the Normal College of the City of New York (since renamed Hunter College), which in 1870 began offering a free education to females of all races wishing to become teachers, and thus was likely the place Denman refers to when discussing her intention to enroll in school. Census records and directories revealed three families living at 30 Bedford Street in Manhattan around 1870: one was black, two were white (census records list only whites living at 30 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn). But I couldn’t trace any of the African Americans at 30 Bedford Street to any previous residence in Princeton. Although the letter implies an ongoing correspondence between Denman and Bet, the archive holding Bet Van Lew’s papers doesn’t include materials related to any Denman.
Anyone who has done genealogical research knows that records are filled with flaws: errors by census enumerators or recording clerks; informal marriages or adoptions or transfers of property for which there never were civil records; births, weddings, deaths, and other events for which records have gone missing — these things leave gaping holes in what we can substantiate. African Americans and women of all races living a century and a half ago are especially hard to track because they were less likely to hold property, more likely to change their names upon emancipation or marriage, and constantly subject to systemic discrimination that erased evidence of their daily existence. But Denman’s age, her mention of attending school in Princeton, her multifarious feelings for Bet, and, admittedly, my own desire to believe that this letter offers us deeper insight into the elusive woman whose life I’ve spent so much time researching, convinced me to keep hunting.
Returning to the records of the Georgia Freedmen’s Bureau, I searched for correspondence regarding anyone named Denman. I discovered a letter written in September 1868 by the new superintendent of instruction to Mrs. John T. Denman of Savannah, replying to her recent inquiry about securing a teaching position. This led me to the original letter from Mrs. John T. Denman, which references the writer’s experience teaching in the same Freedmen’s school in St. Marys, Georgia, where I knew Richards-cum-Garvin taught. And it is composed in the same handwriting as both the 1870 letter to Bet and the earlier correspondence signed Mary J. R. Richards and Mary J R Garvin that detailed the wartime spying. M. J. Denman was indeed the same person.
But as certain as we can now be that Denman’s 1870 letter is from the slave-turned-spy, as much as it tells us about her mixed feelings for the white woman who was by turns her owner, her benefactor, and her comrade in life-risking espionage, the fact that Denman, Garvin, Richards, and Bowser were the same person opens up new mysteries. And probing those mysteries reveals yet more surprises about her, and about her attitude toward white America.
I should here warn the reader that, if you’ve found the name changes, dates, and other details challenging to keep track of up to this point, things are about to get even more confounding and astounding. This is partly the nature of historical research in general and partly the specific result of Mary’s use of deception as a form of self-preservation. This skill, which she must have honed as a spy, subsequently served as a means for surviving in a racist society after the war.
Other documents in the Freedmen’s Bureau archive reveal that, using the name Mrs. John T. Denman, Mary had reopened the St. Marys school in August 1867, less than two months after she wrote of her marriage to Garvin and his departure for the West Indies. Had there really been such a marriage? If so, how had it dissolved so quickly? If not, why had she prevaricated? When and why had she taken on the role of Mrs. John T. Denman?
Searches for Denman, Garvin, or Richards in marriage records yielded nothing. Yet, in the 1868 letter to the superintendent of instruction signed Mrs. John T. Denman, she asks specifically for a teaching position in or near Atlanta because her husband, serving in Company F of the 16th Infantry, is stationed there. She even implores the superintendent to meet with her husband, who she promises will plead her case for employment. Regardless of whether there was ever a man named Garvin or what her relationship to such a man might have been, surely her desire to have a Freedmen’s Bureau official meet with John T. Denman indicates that he was very much a part of her life at that time.
One might conjecture from the forlorn passages of M. J. Denman’s 1870 letter to Bet that she was a widow struggling to make her way alone in the world. But John T. Denman was still alive in 1870. After being discharged from the army in August 1869, he married a woman in Alabama named Margaret Fancher in March 1870, living with her until his death in Birmingham in 1929. John T. Denman had served as a Union soldier during the Civil War, making Margaret Denman eligible for a Civil War widow’s pension. The evidence filed with the federal government in support of her pension claim includes a statement that neither John nor Margaret had ever been married to anyone else.
It’s possible that, in 1929, the newly widowed Margaret Denman was unaware of or intentionally hiding an earlier marriage between John and Mary. But it’s more likely that there was never an official wedding involving Mary and John Denman. Most enslaved African Americans were denied the right to civil or religious marriage. For some, the formality of an official marriage was a significant right to exercise after emancipation. Others shied away from institutions that were part of the racialized power structure, preferring to keep their personal lives private. Mary’s Civil War espionage reminds us that the skills that African Americans used to survive during slavery proved excellent training for a spy: enslaved people had to learn to live surreptitiously, doing what was forbidden, avoiding as best they could what others demanded of them, and resisting monitoring and detection by those they couldn’t trust. As a former spy, Mary remained particularly evasive, which may explain her absence, under any of the names known for her, from census or similar records. But when it comes to marriage, her position was especially complicated.
On April 16, 1861, one year after her return to Richmond from Liberia and one day before Virginia delegates voted to secede from the Union, “Wilson Bowser and Mary, colored servants to Mrs. E L Van Lew” — Bet’s mother — were married at St. John’s on Richmond’s Church Hill. This is the same Episcopal church where, in 1775, Patrick Henry had urged his fellow colonists to war with England by declaring, “Give me liberty or give me death.” It remained a wealthy, white congregation on the eve of the Civil War, an unusual place for African Americans to be welcomed for sacred rites. Yet Bet’s family had previously brought Mary to St. John’s to be baptized in 1846, before she was sent to Princeton to be educated. Mary’s two appearances in the church records indicate that the Van Lews treated her differently than other enslaved or free blacks. But the marriage record tells us nothing about her short-lived relationship with Wilson Bowser. By the time the war ended in April 1865, she was again using the name Miss Mary Richards. Aside from Bet’s niece’s 1910 interview with the reporter, no other documents tie Mary to Wilson Bowser, even though he continued to live in Richmond after the war.
Regardless of whether Mary considered herself to have been married to — or divorced from — Bowser by the time she was living in Georgia in 1867, a legal marriage to John T. Denman would have been nearly impossible. Denman was white, and interracial marriage remained illegal in Georgia during the years they lived there, even as all the other states in the Deep South began to allow such unions. It might surprise us that a woman born into slavery, who remained deeply suspicious of the whites among whom she lived, would choose to enter into a romantic relationship with a white man. But Mary’s dedication to racial justice gave her a nuanced understanding of interracial alliances. Her wartime espionage evidences both her courageous dedication to defeating white racists and her carefully calculated reliance on white allies to achieve this goal. Openly identifying as Mrs. John T. Denman in postbellum Georgia was an act of bravery, as surely as secretly spying for the Union in the Confederate capital had been. Whatever the legal status of their relationship, in that place and time an interracial couple would have been subjected to enormous social pressures, perhaps even harassment, threats, or violence. Although I have located additional documents related to her work as a teacher during this period, I have yet to discover anything that hints at Mary’s feelings for John T. Denman or what her experience in a consensual interracial relationship was like. We can only imagine the emotional toll of trying to maintain that relationship within Georgia’s white supremacist society.
In The Secrets of Mary Bowser, I gave Mary what I wish she truly had: doting parents, a devoted husband who is fully supportive of her intelligence work, and a savvy and sensitive best friend with whom she navigates adolescence and early adulthood. In real life, she may never have known any of those things. Enslaved people persistently struggled to create the best and most loving lives they could. But even under what whites touted as the “kindest” manifestations of slavery, black families were perilously vulnerable, as Mary’s own life shows. Though the Van Lews singled her out from childhood for special treatment by bringing her to their own church to be baptized and sending her north to be educated, their benevolence did not include preserving her connections to her own family. That is a devastating price to pay for freedom. Her 1870 letter to Bet confirms that the repercussions of this loss continued to echo for Mary long after the war, leaving her without any semblance of family and community on whom she could consistently rely. Her espionage contributed to the abolition of slavery in this country, yet the legacy of slavery still burdened her. And in myriad ways, it still burdens all of us.
I keep returning to a single line in Mary’s 1870 letter: “I hope you will not loose sight of me, as I cannot bear the thought that no one is interested in my weal or woe.” Today, as we pay long-overdue attention to black history and women’s history, there is more interest than ever in celebrating Mary’s bravery and in understanding her as a person as well as a patriot. I’m grateful that what I’ve uncovered in the past few months will allow me to do what previously I thought was impossible: write a book-length biography of her. As alone as Mary may have felt during her lifetime, she is still speaking to us a century and a half later. And, still searching for every trace we can find, we are eager to keep sight of her and to learn from all that she has to say.
Lois Leveen is the author of the novels Juliet’s Nurse (2014) and The Secrets of Mary Bowser (2012). Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and on NPR.