A local Richmond newspaper wrote a profile of Van Lew when she was near death. The article describes a formerly enslaved woman who worked for the family, had been educated in the Northeast and sent to Liberia then returned to Richmond. That woman was later placed by the Van Lews as a domestic worker in the Confederate White House, according to the article, though it’s unclear whether Van Lew relayed all this on her deathbed. What specific secrets did she overhear? What documents did she read? It’s unclear. Years later, Van Lew’s niece identified the woman in the article as Mary Richards Bowser.
Secrecy and public vagary are essential to spycraft, said the writer Leveen, who is working on a biography of Richards and who wrote “The Secrets of Mary Bowser,” a fictionalized account of Richards’ life.
“We can’t say, ‘These are the battle plans Mary smuggled out of the Confederate White House,’” said Leveen. “It’s not like in a Hollywood movie. But I have no doubt Mary was instrumental in helping to undermine the Confederacy.”
For her part, Richards — who by the time she began teaching in Freedmen’s schools had dropped her married name and, apparently, her husband — gave a series of talks in New York City after the war in 1865. She used pseudonyms when presenting, Leveen said, such as Richmonia Richards. In those presentations, covered by the local press, she talked about her time in Liberia and her wartime exploits, taking care of Union prisoners in a Confederate prison in Richmond, and some forms of espionage in the Confederate White House. But she was apparently short on details, something that has frustrated historians.
Today is Juneteenth, so here’s a story about a black woman who infiltrated the Confederate White House during the Civil War. She was part of a spy ring of free and enslaved black folks that helped bring down the Confederacy. I wrote about her for @ajc
— Rosalind Bentley (@RozRBentley) June 19, 2019