Mary Elizabeth Bowser, also known as Mary Jane Richards, also known as Mary Jane Richards Denman, was a former slave who operated as a Union spy during the Civil War. There is a lot of disagreement on her full name, so I’m just going to call her Mary.
She was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia on John Van Lew’s plantation in 1839. We don’t really know anything about her parents or her childhood because she was born a slave in Richmond, Virginia in 1839.
The first record directly related to her is her baptism, as “Mary Jane” at St. John’s Church in Richmond, VA on May 17, 1846. Mary Jane’s baptism at the Van Lew family church, rather than at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church where the other Van Lew slaves were baptized is interesting. It may mean that she held a special place with the Van Lew family.
John Van Lew died in 1843 and following his death his daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, and her widowed mother freed the slaves that the family owned, and Van Lew used the money from her father’s death—$10,000 (about $200,000 in today’s currency)—to buy and free the relatives of the slaves that her family had owned. Mary was one of those slaves.
Many of the freed slaves chose to stay with the Van Lew family, since it was 1843 and they couldn’t just go pick up some shifts at the local big box store. Those that did stay were paid for their service.
Mary chose to stay, whether because of the promise of pay, or because she was four,
we don’t really know, but in 1855 a noticeably bright Mary is sent to school in Philadelphia by Elizabeth Van Lew. Some sources say it was to a Quaker school, others said that it couldn’t be confirmed which school she went to.
When Mary graduated in 1860 tensions were heating up between the north and the south and Mary moved back to Richmond. There she meets and is briefly married to a free man named Wilson Bowser. Only his surname was recorded in the church register, neither first name was.
At this point Mary is still working for Elizabeth Van Lew, and one day Elizabeth says to her: “Look, I know that the Civil War just started, and as an unmarried, land owning, southern woman in Richmond, VA in 1861 I seem like an unlikely participant, but I want to tell you that I am in fact the leader of an elaborate Union spy ring that has already infiltrated the Confederate Capitol, and I want you on my spy squad!”
And Mary’s like: “Well, I have to think abou-YES, I’M ABSOLUTELY IN!
So, Mary heads to the “Confederate White House” in Richmond, VA to pose as a servant. To further her cause, Van Lew recommended Mary for a position in Jefferson Davis’ household, where Mary would become a prominent Union spy. Household members and guests assumed that she was an illiterate slave and therefore spoke openly in front of her about battle strategies and often left important papers lying about that Mary would read. The information was quickly passed to Union informants.
Mary would come relay everything back to Elizabeth Van Lew’s spy ring. We’re talking troop movements, strategies, everything.
Mary does this on and off for about 4 years before the Confederates realize that Mary is the leak. She does escape the Confederate White House.
In those 4 years she is able to relay critical information and is vital to the Confederacy’s loss.
When the Civil War ended, a lot of records detailing Union spy efforts were burned so that no butt hurt confederate sympathizer could seek retaliation! Unfortunately, that means details of Mary’s post war life are largely unknown.
We do know that when the war was over Mary worked as a teacher to former slaves in Richmond.
Around the summer of 1867, she took another husband, a white man named John Denman, and began using the name “Mrs. John T. Denman”; she continued to identify herself as Mary Jane Denman after their relationship ended.
Using the name Mary J. Richards, she founded a freedmen’s school in St. Marys, Georgia, and taught both children and adults herself.
Mary, like most formerly enslaved people, struggled financially and physically to create a life in freedom. She repeatedly spoke and wrote about the violent racism of Southern and Northern whites. Racial intolerance likely put an enormous strain on her relationship with John Denman; during their brief marriage, the couple lived in Georgia, an exceptionally hostile place for interracial couples at that time.
Her only surviving correspondence with Van Lew, written five years after the war, shows that emancipation didn’t beget opportunity: the woman who worked surreptitiously to end slavery couldn’t secure sustained employment in freedom.
After that correspondence nothing is known about Mary’s life, or death. It is not known when or where she died.
But she has been immortalized, even if the stories are embellished, repeatedly in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Where she is in popular culture
A novel by Lois M. Leveen, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on Mary’s life.
The 2013 play Lady Patriot, by Ted Lange, is about Mary and her acts of espionage. The play was produced by Mary Lange and premiered at the Hudson Backstage
Theatre in Santa Monica, California. Mary Bowser was played by Chrystee Pharris.
A 1987 made-for-TV movie, A Special Friendship, was loosely based on Mary and Elizabeth Van Lew’s activities.
The heroine of the 2017 novel An Extraordinary Union by Alyssa Cole is based in part on Mary.
Her mythology, or unsubstantiated claims
In addition to the misuse of the name “Bowser,” a number of claims made in purportedly nonfiction accounts about Mary are unsubstantiated, or even untrue.
Many are embellishments of a June 1911 Harper’s Monthly article, the first known publication of the erroneous Bowser’s name.
A number of modern media sources, including NOW with Bill Moyers, NPR and The Washington Post, have republished these false or disputed claims.
- No evidence exists that Van Lew or Mary identified as Quaker, or that either one attended a Quaker school, as is sometimes claimed. It is not known where Mary attended school.
- It is not known whether Mary infiltrated the Confederate White House as a permanent servant, or one that only came when they needed extra help, although she did on at least one occasion enter the house to look for documents.
- Although she used numerous pseudonyms, the name “Ellen Bond” was not one of them.
- Richards did not likely attempt to set fire to the Confederate White House and flee Richmond in early 1865, as she was still in Richmond in April 1865 educating newly freed slaves.
- She was not smuggled out of the city to Philadelphia in a cartload of manure during the war.
- A photograph formerly assumed to be of Mary. The photo was taken of a different Mary Bowser in 1900, thirty-three years after the last known record of Mary Richards Bowser/Mary Richards Denman. The woman in the photograph would likely have not been born or been only a very young child during the Civil War.
We do know, that as a Black woman, in the 1800s she risked her life every day by spying on the Confederacy and helping Elizabeth Van Lew’s spy ring.
Regardless of what was embellished and what wasn’t, which we will probably never know the truth of, Mary was inducted into the US Army Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, on June 30, 1995 for her help in winning the Civil War.
Della Hayden Raney (Jackson)
Della Raney was born in Suffolk, Virginia in 1912, and was one of twelve children.
She graduated from Durham Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing, in NC in 1937. She worked at Lincoln hospital until she is finally able to join the Army.
Her first application into the Army Nurses Corps on 1940 was rejected due to her race,
It isn’t until 1941 before the Army would start allowing black women to enlist. Nurse Raney would be the first one in April of that year.
Back then, nurses need the American Red Cross to endorse them for service into the Army.
Della Raney wrote about this experience she had later in her life. She talked about how strong her commitment was for helping people and that she didn’t give up in trying to join the Army. She explained how difficult it was for graduates of black nursing schools to receive that red cross endorsement. She wrote to the director of the red cross herself and made her case. In reply to her letter, she received a red cross membership.
When the Army first began allowing women to enlist, they limited the number of African American women that could serve at one time. Eventually they lift that quota, but the demand for bodies was also high during the WWII, so…
President Truman finally signed the Executive Order in 1948 which desegregated the military. It is still another 16 years before the end of the Jim Crow laws, so they were fighting an uphill battle the entire way.
The Army established segregated hospitals in both Louisiana and North Carolina, which is where these first trailblazers were stationed. She was stationed at FT Bragg NC and subsequently became the chief nurse there and made history as the first black woman to do so.
Then a year later in1942, Nurse Raney was assigned to lead five other black nurses stationed at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama as a 1LT. She was the first chief nurse assigned to the Air Field, home of the famous Tuskegee Airmen where they completed their advanced pilot training.
In 1944 she was assigned as the Chief Nurse in Fort Huachuca, Arizona. She was promoted to captain the next year and then Major the year after that. She served at camp Beale in CA, and then served a tour in Japan.
Earning the highest rank any black nurse had seen at that time, she retired in 1978.
To put it in perspective, there were around 500 black nurses serving in the Army Nurse Corps which totaled 50,000.
Della Raney died in 1987 and she is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery. Then in 2012, both the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) and The Tuskegee Airmen Scholarship Foundation (TASF) established a scholarship in her name.