Espionage in the Executive Mansion
During the Civil War, Richmond became home to a clandestine network of blockade runners, black market smugglers, and spies that transported goods, people, and secrets between enemy lines. Most notable among these networks was the Union spy ring led by Elizabeth Van Lew, a member of a wealthy Northern family that had integrated themselves into Richmond’s high society. The Van Lew spy network consisted of at least twelve individuals, both Black and White, who aided the Union cause from the Confederate capital.
Van Lew’s network has been linked to prison breaks and U.S. Army raids, and on at least one occasion, the infiltration of the executive mansion of the Confederacy by a young woman named Mary Jane Richards.
Mary Jane Richards
(AKA “Mary Bowser" “Richmonia Richards,”
“Mary Jones” "Mary J.R. Garvin")
Mary Jane Richards has been known by many names and her story has become a legend, often leaving more questions than answers. What we do know about Mary Jane Richards paints the picture of an extraordinary woman who spent much of her early life existing between the extremes of freedom and enslavement, as she navigated the strict racial hierarchies and laws of Richmond, Virginia.
Mary was born ca. 1840, in Richmond, as a legally enslaved child belonging to the Van Lew family. Accounts from those who met Mary later in life describe her as claiming to have had a White mother and a Black father, though she herself had also said her parents were unknown to her in a public speech she gave under the alias “Richmonia Richards” shortly after the war. Whether this was a deliberate act to conceal her true identity is unknown.
In that same speech, Mary said that despite the legal status of her birth, she was brought up to know herself as a free person within the Van Lew household. This exceptional treatment seems to have extended into Mary’s public life as well. Records indicate that in 1846, a young girl named Mary was baptized by the Van Lew family at the prestigious site of St. John’s Church, an act which would have been highly unusual for a mixed-race child at the time.
By the early 1850s, Mary was sent north to Princeton, New Jersey, to be educated, most likely at a school for African American students run by Betsy Stockton a free back Presbyterian and former missionary. Following her education, In 1856, Elizabeth Van Lew arranged for Mary to travel overseas to Liberia as part of a mission trip organized by the American Colonization Society, where she became a teacher and missionary. After a brief but unhappy stay overseas Mary returned to the United States.
By 1860, Mary was back in Richmond, seemingly being listed as “Mary Jones” in census records of the Van Lew household. According to the Richmond Whig, it was under this alias that Mary was arrested on August 20, 1860. Mary was put in jail for “claiming to be a free person of color” walking on her own without papers. Mary remained in incarceration until September 10, 1860, when the Van Lew family secured Mary’s release by paying a $10 fine for letting an enslaved person go at large.
Records indicate that Mary was wed to a man named Wilson Bowser on April 16, 1861, also at St. John’s Church. Marriages between enslaved people in Virginia were illegal at the time, further muddling the clarification on Mary’s legal status in Richmond.
As the war consumed Richmond, Mary’s relationship with the Van Lew family drew her into their expanding world of espionage through which she would engage in her most famous acts and earn her reputation as a spy
On at least one occasion, Mary infiltrated the executive mansion of the Confederacy by posing as a washing woman, where she gained access to Jefferson Davis’ private office and was able to search through his documents and papers. Mary also claimed to have gone undercover in the Confederate Senate during a secret session concerning a sweeping conscription bill.
Following the war, Mary traveled to the North, where she gave lectures under the alias of Richmonia Richards, through which she recounted her career as a spy and advocated for the advancement of Black Americans. Mary went on to become a teacher and founded a freedman’s school in St. Mary’s, Georgia.