Mary Bowser

American spy
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AugustSeptemberOctoberNovemberDecember20210500
date of birth
1841
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3/24/2007
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Mary Jane Richards, also known as Mary Jane Richards Denman, Mary Jane Richards Garvin and possibly Mary Bowser, was a Union spy during the Civil War. She was enslaved from birth in Richmond, Virginia, but was effectively freed as a young child in 1834 when her owner, John Van Lew, died and his daughter, the abolitionist Elizabeth "Bet" Van Lew, took ownership of all his slaves and subsequently freed them all (though not legally, as emancipation of slaves was forbidden). Bet Van Lew then had Richards sent to school. When the Civil War broke out, Van Lew recruited her to serve as a spy and helper for the Union cause. She relayed information she heard to Van Lew, who in turn communicated it to Union leadership. Richards was only one of a spy ring run by Van Lew, although Van Lew considered Richards her most important source. Richards is often referred to as Mary Bowser. She was married to a Wilson Bowser during the Civil War, but there is no record of her using this name. There is little biographical information about her in general. A 1911 article about her in Harper's Monthly, which was based in part on the faulty memory of Bet Van Lew's niece, popularized Richards' story, and was the source of much of the ensuing lore around Richards, including a 1987 TV movie, A Special Friendship. The Harper's article included details that are not known to be accurate, such as that Richards had worked undercover directly in the Confederate White House, that she had a photographic memory, and that she tried to set fire to the Confederate White House at the end of the war; and other details that are clearly false, such as that her name was "Mary Elizabeth Bowser".
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Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Elizabeth Bowser
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