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.

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