The Secrets of Mary Jane …Somebody

She was born Mary Richards, or Mary Jane Richards. Or Mary Elizabeth. She married and became Mary Bowser/Mrs. Wilson Bowser. Also Mrs. John T. Denman and/or Mary J.R. Gavin. Sometimes she used the name Mary Jane Henry or Richmonia Richards. Maybe Ellen Bond, although that has been disputed. Maybe this is her photograph, although that has been disputed.

Grainy photo Mary Bowser
Mary Bowser, but which one? Photo from Wikipedia and Pinterest.

If you were an educated black servant in the slave-owning state of Virginia in 1861, little would be known about you. Your words would not have been written down and what was written about you by others, even the wealthy abolitionist friend whose family you served, would be filtered through their lenses. Scraps of information remembered later by family members who were children when they saw you would come to be taken as fact, whether true or not. Grainy photos replicated might be mislabelled, speculations treated as accurate, oral embellishments become history. All truth would be distorted, like seeing through a glass darkly. This would be especially true if you were a Union spy in the Confederate White House.

What Historians Got Right

A prominent Richmond family baptized Mary Jane in 1846, listing her as a “colored child belonging to the Van Lews.” Religious records, such as baptisms and church marriages, were scrupulous about accuracy and remain key sources for names, dates, and facts. Mary Jane had been given her freedom, along with the other black slaves belonging to the Van Lew family, in the 1840s. Those that continued to work with the family were paid servants, even as other Virginia households kept their slaves, likely annoyed with their free-thinking neighbors. Elizabeth Van Lew, the “eccentric spinster” daughter of abolitionists, sent Mary Jane to New Jersey to be educated and afterwards to Liberia. When she returned to Virginia, she was arrested and jailed for being free, educated, and black, and released back into the Van Lew’s custody only when designated as a “slave.”

Elizabeth was herself a Union sympathizer when Virginia voted to secede in 1861 and its favorite son, Robert E. Lee, became commander of the Confederate forces. Dismayed as the houses around her replaced their American flags with Confederate ones, she stayed in Richmond and became a prominent spy on behalf of the Union army. (Eventually recognized by President Grant and ultimately inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.) Elizabeth arranged to have Mary Jane work for President Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina, in what was termed the Confederate White House. As a servant, Mary Jane had access to the President’s office and could overhear military information, which she passed along.

These things are known, documented in Elizabeth’s letters and pieced together and meticulously catalogued by historians in their noble professions. I am no historian, merely interested in stories and repeating what I see across the wide basin of facts in the Internet. Those stories contradict each other.

Mary Jane dusting the Confederate battle plans. Art by Jason Porath in Rejected Princesses, a book which turned out to be on my shelf.

As I had just started listening to the audiobook of Jennifer Chiaverini’s Spymistress, I became fascinated with the details around servant Mary Jane, who also seemed an interesting character to highlight for Black History Month. Determined to put a spotlight on both these women’s contributions to American/Union history, I started poking around. It quickly got interesting.

Fake News

It turns out I already had two books at home that featured Mary Bowser, including this wonderful catalogue of Heroines, Hellions & Heretics by animator Jason Porath. He claimed Mary Jane set fire to the basement in the Confederate White House as she escaped, fearing to be captured. He also said that Mary Jane’s trip to Liberia was only for a missionary mission, that she would hang a red shirt on a clothesline when she had messages, and that she wrote secret memoirs, later thrown out in 1952. Other books omitted the fire-setting and claimed Mary Jane was sent to Liberia to be set free permanently but that the black woman returned unhappy. A play called Lady Patriot was written by of all people, Ted Lange, of Love Boat fame. (Mr. Lange has apparently written a dozen well-researched plays, even though most of his bios only list his 1970-80s TV credits.) Some details in these examples didn’t always add up.

NPR and Bill Moyers profiled the servant, mentioning her diary and using the photo as illustration. Other historians said the diary had no basis in fact. A Virginian from the time, Thomas McNiven, claimed that Mary Jane had a photographic memory and that went into the record. The Van Lews were listed as Quakers; they were Presbyterians. Mary Jane was a waitress in the Confederate White House or a personal maid to Varina Davis or a seamstress. Mary Jane did it all. Or none.

Harper’s story of Elizabeth Van Lew, June 1911, based part on memory and part of embellishments by Van Lew’s niece, Anna, years later.

Some of the juicy details from these accounts are corroborated by historical documents, so I can’t really blame those who repeat all of the bits, mixing the “fact facts” with the “interesting speculations.” The fire-setting isn’t supported by any facts other than that many people tried to burn down the Confederate White House. The photographic memory also may be an old man’s fanciful notion as Van Lew herself never mentions it. One prominent scholar, Professor Lois Leveen, seems to have dedicated quite a few years to sorting the truth from fiction, authoring a novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser. Her articles in The Atlantic and TIME highlighted the difficulties of getting things right.

Photo Mary Bowser original 1900
Mary Bowser, not the spy, photo at the Library of Virginia.

Why They Can’t Get it Right

Leveen writes, for example, in “The Spy Photo that Fooled NPR,” that the Mary Bowser photo used by historians, journalists, and bloggers (like me) was not of the Confederate spy. In her continued research to create a full biography of Mary Jane Richards, Leveen came across details that suggested Bowser had married once more and gone to the West Indies in 1867. But the well-known photo was of dress much later than that. Leveen dug and dug until she eventually unearthed the original daguerrotype. It was clearly labelled, from a photographer’s studio in 1900; it was Mary Bowser. It was not the spy Mary Bowser. (The Internet also tells me of another Mary Jane Bowser, white, died at 93 in Ohio this year. I’m sure she also had a fascinating life.)

Documenters have to rely on documents. Everyone else relies on the documenters. But what if the person being documented is (a) trying to hide; (b) didn’t write things down either because she was trying to hide or didn’t have anyone to write to; (c) wrote things down which were not kept because she wasn’t a wealthy famous abolitionist; or (d) was considered a non-person. History, like the fossil record, reflects only the bones dissolved in stone. It doesn’t describe colors or textures of the time, and it’s limited only to what survived. We don’t know the whole truth, although even the glimpses are fascinating.

Going to Liberia

Take the trip to Liberia. Maybe Mary Jane was sent as a missionary or maybe she was sent by the Van Lews to have a better permanent life, away from the constant danger of capture and enslavement. Liberia was a settlement on the west coast of Africa “acquired” by the American Colonization Society in the 1820s as a place to send both freedmen and slaves. That was one solution to the slavery problem proposed at the time: send them back “home.” Never mind that home wasn’t from that part of Africa, or that the African coast wasn’t familiar to those whose families had lived in the New World for generations. It was barely habitable; of 4500+ emigrants sent in the 1820s, only 1819 were still alive in 1843.

Not to mention that other people–the Kru and Grebo tribes–already lived there and weren’t so happy about the immigrants. Not to mention that these immigrants, some quite well-educated, were all accustomed to cities and houses rather than jungle and swamps. The Americo-Liberian settlers, as they came to call themselves, shockingly or predictably, depending on whether you are a cynic or naive, began to act as colonizers and enslavers. They treated the “indigenous people”–i.e. the natives whose land they settled on–as inferior and did what all our ancestors seemed to do with indigenous people. It must seem the height of irony that the Americo-Liberians excluded the African tribesman from schools, positions of power, intermarriage, even in some cases subjugating them as they and their parents had been enslaved.

Decades later, as Liberia fended off the white European colonizers who snatched up other lands, the country devolved into its own civil wars, installed brutal dictators like Charles Taylor, and struggled to live up to its optimistic name. Mary Jane’s account of why she returned from Liberia isn’t told in her own words. The fact alone that she went and came back reflects the troubled legacy of sending missionaries or emigrants there in the first place.

Further Among the Facts: Getting Arrested for Education

What about the part where Mary Jane is arrested upon returning to Virginia? What does that fascinating tidbit reveal? Laws in Virginia 1860 forbid slaves from congregating in groups, whether for education or other reason. There were laws against whites educating their slaves and “vagrancy” laws forbidding slaves from walking the streets without papers. When Mary Jane came back from Liberia in August 1860, a local paper reported on the arrest of:

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.

Richmond Whig, August 1860

She was in jail nine days, while Elizabeth Van Lew was cited (paid a fine) for allowing “her slave to go at large.” So, was Mary Jane Richards arrested for being educated, for walking freely without an owner, or for coming back after being free? For being a free and educated person of the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time? All of the above.

It’s hard enough to wrap your mind around slavery in the first place. It becomes harder to piece through all the little bureaucracies that had to be created to maintain such a system. What if somehow they try to learn something? What if they are somehow legally freed by those crazy owners? What if they go somewhere free and want to come back? Laws become bizarre, like the prohibitions in the Bible against eating shellfish. They seem quaint now, but under such auspices, no wonder someone would use a different name whenever questioned. It must not have been difficult to pretend to be dumb, even if you were well-educated, even if you were returning from a mission to teach other “natives.” After all, you were hardly considered a person anyway.

Those are the tidbits and details that seem to reveal a lot to me, regardless of whether Mary Jane Richards Bowser Henley Gavin Denman ever posed for a photograph or not. Her experience as a person, whether spy or family servant, tells us plenty about what 1860 was like, even if she didn’t set fire to the Confederate White House.

And now, in addition to these biographies of Mary Jane Richards and Elizabeth Van Lew, I will have to track down a good history of Liberia. I hope I can find one where the documenter actually went and looked at the documents.

No One Is Happy With the Oscars

We seem to be so grouchy about our entertainment. There was so much grousing about the 92 Academy Award nominees and the awards show itself, you’d think the entire world was forced to take a spelling test and file their taxes at the same time. There’s not enough diversity in the nominees. There’s too much diversity in the production numbers. There’s too much politics in the acceptance speeches. Don’t like that host. Don’t like not having a host. The ceremony is too long. They shouldn’t have cut off the speech from THAT person… The Academy Awards seems like a microcosm of our American politics. No one likes the process or the outcome, except for the ones we agree with.

Thoroughly NonAmerican and Violent

In the interests of full disclosure, I did not see Parasite, which won Best Picture. It also won Best International Film (note the change in language from the old “Best Foreign Film”), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. This was the first time the Best International film also won this distinction and the first time the Best Picture was in a non-English language. Seems especially ironic in a country immersed in a war over whether to expel everyone not from ‘Murica.

Best Picture winner, Parasite, official photo from Madman Films.
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A Woman’s Place Is…In Space

Astronaut Christina Koch printing tissue
Astronaut Christina Koch growing a new kidney (?who knows?) Photo at

Growing organs in microgravity was the experiment that hooked me. Apparently, they’re experimenting on the space station with 3D printers that grow human organs, like hearts, in zero gravity. The difficulty with growing organs on earth is that soft tissue (“biomaterial”) tends to collapse while it’s being printed, unable to hold a shape and turning to mush before it’s completed. In space, the replicated tissue can hold its shape long enough for cells to growth more tightly together in a culture, eventually becoming strong enough to return to earth’s gravity. That’s the theory, anyway.

I learned about this while digging further into the amazing experiments performed by Astronaut Christina Koch, who just completed a record 328 days in space. As the NY Times reported today, she came home safely after a near-year on the international space station. She also completed three all-female spacewalks.

However, it’s the number and breadth of experiments she conducted that may make the most difference to future generations of spacefarers. After all, if we’re going to check out the interstellar neighborhood, we’re going to need to know how to eat real food, practice medicine, and put out fires. You know, domestic affairs. Who better to do all that than Christina Koch, given the old saying that a woman’s place is in the home.

Do You Think that Spacesuit Makes You Look Fat?

The faces of the early space pioneers were all male, of course, selected from the military, which excluded the likes of notable female pilots Amelia Earhart and Harriet Quimby from its ranks. Actually, to be fair, this bias was in the American space program, since Valentina Tereshkova of the USSR was the first woman in space way back in 1963, only two years after the first American man had gone up.

As the American program shifted from moon landings to space shuttles, NASA finally broadened their entry class in 1978 to include women. Sally Ride, a Stanford physicist, was selected to be the first woman aboard the Challenger in 1983, specializing in working with the robotics arm that deployed satellites. Many of us are young enough to remember the “Ride, Sally Ride!” T-shirts and bumper stickers that advertised pride in such an achievement. Dr. Ride, for her part, remained stoic and smiling during the blizzard of press questions that focused repeatedly on her gender rather than her work, one inane question after another:

Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?
Will you become a mother?
Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?

Questions asked of Dr. Sally Ride, first American woman in space

After Sally Ride left NASA, she continued her physics work at both Stanford and UC San Diego, founded a company that fostered opportunities for young women to work in the sciences, and wrote a number of books aimed at encouraging children especially girls towards space. I note with interest that she worked with optics at UCSD, which is where and what my Favorite Son is studying, and that she also had a degree in English because Shakespeare, what else? Clearly, she studied the Right Stuff.

NASA Class 8

NASA astronauts in training
Part of NASA’s 1978 Astronaut Class 8, the first to include women. Photo from NASA Archives.

The entire NASA astronaut class 8, the first to include women, was full of notables. Pictured next to Ride from the left are Judith Resnik, Anna Lee Fisher, Kathryn Sullivan, and Margaret Rhea Seddon. Seddon was the payload commander on Columbia in 1993, receiving recognition for conducting the most successful Spacelab mission at the time for work on medical research to determine how human physiology would fare in space. Kathryn Sullivan was the first woman to walk in space. Anna Fisher worked on tailoring spacesuits to fit women and returned to space after giving birth, becoming the first mother in space. Judith Resnik was with Christa McAuliffe and the other five astronauts on the Challenger, which tragically exploded after liftoff twenty years ago last month.

All of these pioneers continued to pave the way for others. While women spacewalking became increasingly as routine as men, it was still a long time before two were able to venture out together. It was only last October when Christina Koch and Jessica Meir completed the first all-women spacewalk, first in part because, until then, NASA only had one spacesuit that fit women. What they did wasn’t especially unusual, only that it took until 2019 for enough women to be in the NASA graduating classes (50%) and available on the station to create a worthy milestone.

Astronaut’s Weir and Koch posing before their all-female space walk October 2019. Photo at

Some Mad Scientist!

Dr. Christina Koch’s bio is pretty amazing even before you get to the part about the record in space or the spacewalks. She had earned her three degrees, Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering and Physics and a Master’s in Electrical Engineering, by the age of 24, and had already graduated from NASA’s Academy along the way. She spent three and a half years as a Research Associate in the Arctic and Antarctic (take that Sheldon Cooper!), a prime opportunity to acclimate to months seeing the same faces, surviving without the sun or fresh food.

The isolation, absence of family and friends, and lack of new sensory inputs are all conditions that you must find a strategy to thrive within.[14]

Christina Koch on surviving in the Antarctic, from Wikipedia

When she finally got that opportunity up on the International Space Station, she made the most out of it. If you slide through her “scrapbook” on NASA’s website, you marvel at experiment after experiment. Monitoring the autonomous robots (watching for hints of self-awareness or the Singularity). Studying how fire behaves in space. Conducting experiments to improve kidney stones. Growing new organs, as mentioned above. Working with the Cold Atom labs. Looking at the efficiency of capillary systems compared with standard air and water filtration systems, to see if improved fluid dynamics would also help desalination and water filtration back on earth.

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Martian, you can almost hear Matt Damon’s voice:

So in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I’m going to have to science the sh*t out of this.

Botanist Mark Watney in The Martian.
Were the outfits supposed to match the plants? The Lost in Space hydroponic garden. Photo at

Botanizing the Heck Out of Mustard Greens

Then, there are the mustard greens. Remember Antarctica? Months without fresh shipments of food? Fresh vegetables are a critical part of human diet, with leafy greens delivering critical vitamins, fiber, and …well…taste. Even I’d enjoy kale if all I’d had for months was extruded protein paste. The NASA experiments reminded me strongly of Lost in Space and their hydroponic gardens, forever being cultivated on the sandy climate of the CBS soundstage.

Maybe it was annoying that the women of space were relegated to the food, while the men were always fixing metal things, but being in charge of food (and water) might arguably be considered the critical job. Christina Koch conducting all those mustard greens experiments put her at the center of the action. As a lead scientist and one of the designers of the Vegetable Production System on the station, puts it:

…Astronauts tend to lose weight. We think that this weight loss is due to menu fatigue, and so we postulate that adding fresh produce to the diet could help with that. 

Giola Massa, principal investigator for Veggie, the NASA plant production system

These plants are grown in pillows rather than soil, watered with a syringe daily, and exposed to red-blue light combinations to see how that affects the harvest. While you may not crave mustard greens yourself, you can imagine how a leaf might seem mighty appealing after months of eating things out of freeze-dried packages.

Astronaut Koch growing mustard greens
Queen of the Mizuna mustard greens, Dr. Christina Koch. Photo at

The next moon mission is planned for 2024, which will be a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of our scientific history, even though it is still years away. Last year, NASA announced that the next set of missions will be named Artemis, twin to the Apollo missions that started their journeys in the 1960s. Perfect to be named after the goddess of the moon! The plan is to land women and men on the surface. I noted with glee that the picture of the prototype spacesuit for extravehicular activity (EVA)–male or female–was worn by astronaut Kristine Davis.

The suits fit, finally. The women are walking, growing, piloting, and sciencing the bejeezus out of everything. I can barely wait until that first one, whether it’s Davis, Koch, Weir, or any one of a number of intrepid, smarty-pants women, takes that first step out there.

Then, a woman’s place will be on the moon.

The Devil You Know Is Not Better

Removing Boalt name from building
UnBoalting. Photo by Roxanne Makasjian at

I read with some slight dismay that Berkeley’s Law School has decided to remove Boalt from its name. I went to Berkeley, although not to law school, but as an alumnus of the university, I feel snobbishly attached to anything related to it. These are the hallowed dusty buildings of my youth. The massive 750-person freshman Economics lectures in Wheeler auditorium; a classmate had narcolepsy so my roommate and I would share notes with her in case she missed some key point about downward-sloping demand curves. The steep climb up the hill to get to classes from Dwinelle to LeConte. The opaque glass in the English department offices that rattled when you tapped timidly on it to meet a professor for officer hours. I have fond and vivid memories of the place. Anything that changes those images seems sacrilege.

This is why we hold onto things, long past the time for better judgment.

Wheeler Auditorium Berkeley
My roommate and I would take notes for a friend whose narcolepsy made Econ 101 lectures problematic. Wheeler Auditorium, photo by Allen Zeng for the Daily Californian.

The world is a strange place. If you read the news to stay in touch with what’s going on, it’s a blizzard of cognitive dissonance. There’s an impeachment trial where the primary discussion today is whether they should bother looking at evidence or witnesses. An outbreak from a virus in China that’s rerouting air traffic. Death of a famous sports personality; Britain leaving the E.U. The news often feels like the world is sliding sideways. Someone told me the other day that they found it overwhelming, depressing.

On the other hand, much as I want to stay a citizen of the world, I remind myself (and ourselves, gentle reader) that not all these things affect me personally. I didn’t know the sports personality personally. I don’t live in Britain. I didn’t travel to China and don’t hang out with people who do. If the impeachment trial went the way I’d prefer, would the resulting people in power quickly enact legislation that would really help me? Or would things continue in their slow, inexorable, one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, one step back way? Must I feel so overwhelmed by change?

There’s a saying:

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Hold on to what you have, even if it’s awful, because among all these scary things out there, something might be worse. It’s an insidious thought, especially because the things that are the worst, which frighten you most, are designed to make you keep them. You may even become nostalgic about keeping them. Instead of gathering facts that might help you make more informed choices.

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Why They Play the Game

Spoiler Alert… Today’s post is about football (American football, yes, I see you, non-US friends)…If you refuse to read posts about football on principle because of CTE, the outrageous amounts of money involved, or excess testosterone, I appreciate your perspective. But, sorry mate, My Team is GOING TO THE SHOW! I need to talk about it.

Red, White, and Gold is coming. Photo from Sporting News.

I do like me some sports, so much so that I wrote a book about ’em, and I do like my teams, especially when the team works together, has intelligent leadership, and has fun. I can’t help but think about this approach as business model, ’cause I’m an MBA and organizational behavior coupled with analytics is in my DNA. After all, it says “statistics” right there at the top of my site, plastered across the California hills.

Thirty Runs

A curious thing happened after the Niners completed their 27-10 drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings in the playoffs. One player after another started mentioning how many times the ball was run. Not just the coach or the running backs, but the tight end (who catches passes and blocks) and the defense:

I think 47 rushes is pretty good, right? I think we had close to 200 on 47 rushes. …Playing against six techniques with the linebackers on the inside, it’s pretty easy to get those combo blocks up to them.

George Kittle, tight end (offense)

That was the biggest thing for us this week is trying to get 30 runs. We had like 40 or something, 47. We knew if we did that we’d win.

Nick Bosa, defensive end

It’s one thing for the coach to come out after the fact and mention that their goal was thirty runs. It’s another for all the players to have known that was the collective goal as well. Perhaps it’s easy in retrospect to claim that the Niners are a running team because their two playoff games were rather lopsidedly run-based. However, none of the rushers would be considered exceptional (until last week), and we fans were nervous throughout the season about the “run by committee” approach. We’d love to have a true star running back (a la Derrick Henry of Tennessee) or a quarterback with a bit of mobility (like Patrick Mahomes).

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