November 9, 2018

The Ring

by Uncivil

Background show artwork for Uncivil

Two brilliant women—one black, one white—assemble a spy ring in the rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia that eventually attempts a ‘mission impossible’ inside the military planning rooms of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. 


CK: When Sarah Grant was growing up… she heard stories… 




Stories about incredible tales of Civil War espionage that had taken place in her great-grandmother’s mansion…


 A mansion full of secrets, like hidden doors and books full of codes...


SG: The first thing I ever heard about was the hidey-hole. My great-grandmother as a nine-year-old, eight-year-old perhaps, snuck around, followed her aunt up to the third floor and found her going into this passage and  saw the men who were hiding in there. And then, of course, lots of questions followed…


CK: The men hiding in her great-grandma’s walls were Union soldiers that had recently been sprung out of a Richmond jail with the help of a powerful Spy Ring…. 


This spy ring was responsible for all kinds of losses, embarrassing losses for the confederates. 


For example, they were said to have leaked out battle plans in invisible ink. 


But perhaps their most audacious act came from a woman at the center of this ring….


A woman who did something that helped the North so much... She was posthumously inducted in the military intelligence hall of fame. 


She was an incredible figure but if you ask people on the's almost impossible to find anyone who’s heard of her.


Mack : Have you ever heard of a woman named Mary Bowser?

 Dude: No.


M : Never?

 Dude: I don’t believe so.


CK: We aren’t taught her story in the public schools. We don’t even have a single picture of her… 


Dude: What did you say her name was?? Bowser? 

M: Mary Bowser.


Girl: it sounds like one of my grandmama’s friends. It’s like an old black lady?  Haha… 


CK: Part of the reason you’ve probably never heard of Mary Bowser is that she was a Black woman during the civil war…which is also part of what made her such an effective spy.


Mack: So a lot of people say she basically did more for the union army cause than the union army did themselves...  


Girl: Get it sis! Good for you, girl. That sounds about right when it comes to black women. Like yeah. It sounds like she did like what every black woman does.




That after years of living freely... Mary Bowser willingly gave up that freedom... To walk back into the grips of human bondage.




CK: I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika and today I welcome a fresh voice to Uncivil’s microphones, Khadijah Costley White, a writer and professor in the department of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University. 


Hey Khadijah!




KW: Hey Chenjerai, it is so great to be here. Especially to talk about this woman. 


CK: Yea, naw, it’s real cool to have you here. So, I mean, like what actually got you interested in Mary Bowser?


KW: Well, ya know, so much of the way we talk about war, and the way we think about it, is about what happens on the battlefield. 


CK: Right.


KW: But the story of Mary Bowser is really about how much of the fight happened in so many other places…


CK: Mm. Yeah. No that’s true.


KW: So.  If you’re a black woman in the 19th century, or basically anyone who is not a white man, the fight is in the house, it’s in the market, in the fields, wherever you do your work, in every single interaction that you have...So today we're going to look at how Mary Bowser turned those spaces into her battlefield. 


CK: Alright. Let’s do this. I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.


KW: And I’m Khadijah Costley White, and this… is Uncivil, from Gimlet Media.


CK: Where we ransack American history


KW: And find that for most of history, Anonymous was a woman.




KW: Mary Bowser and her partner in crime, worked closely together as spies. 


But we wanted to find out how did these two women, a white wealthy woman in Virginia, and a black woman who used to be her slave, start to work together? 


It wasn't easy to find some of this information, so... we sought out some help...


DBSR: My name is Dionne Bowser-Simmons-Richardson and I am the great, great, great, great niece of Mary Elizabeth Bowser. 


KW: Dionne’s a teacher in Richmond, and she’s read a lot about Mary. 


But before that she had other sources:


DBSR: Probably the earliest that I heard of her was when I entered college. I would hear stories from my mother and my uncle. Um… that's really how I came to know Mary.


KW: And what Dionne learned was… Mary was born into a life of slavery.


The family that enslaved her, the Van Lews, were wealthy business owners in Richmond, Virginia. And their mansion was sort of a happening spot. 


SG: They had many……  garden parties and…. parlor exhibitions and… concerts and…. all kinds of things. 


CK: This is Sarah Grant again, she’s actually a direct descendant of the Van Lews.


SG: Edgar Allan Poe came and apparently, he read his poetry while demonstrating um…  the effects of static electricity and scared everybody out of their wits. 


CK: In 1843, the patriarch of the Van Lew family dies… and his daughter Elizabeth, largely takes control of the family’s mansion, farm, and slaves. 


But the thing about Elizabeth was.... over the years she had secretly become an abolitionist.


SG: And Elizabeth went beyond that, she not only freed her slaves, but she sent her favorite Mary Bowser to Philadelphia to be educated.


CK: And when she was done with her schooling, Elizabeth paid for her to travel to Liberia for missionary work. And when it turned out Mary didn’t love Liberia…  Elizabeth paid for her return travel to Richmond.


KW: She even tried to put Mary in first class. But it didn’t work out. 


CK: This was of course a really weird way to treat a former slave. 


And we don't actually know why Elizabeth paid so much attention to Mary, but it could have something to do with the timing of when Mary was born. 


She was born right around the time that Elizabeth’s faced a huge personal loss. She had recently gotten engaged, only to have her fiancee suddenly come down with yellow fever.


SG:   And yes, I guess he died. I don't know anything about him, but there is a locket that she had and it's a blue enamel locket on gold. And she kept a lock of his hair, with her all of her life, and she never married... 


CK:     Are you holding that locket right now?


SG:   I am.   SO… That was a big tragedy that started her life, her adult life. And maybe she needed Mary for comfort.


KW:  So we don't know why Elizabeth became so interested in Mary… 


But, that behavior continued as Mary grew older. 


When Mary got engaged, Elizabeth helped her find a place for her wedding… 


And not just any place...


SG: Mary was married in the all-white church, the Episcopal Church next door. And that was pretty eyebrow-raising.


CK: Why was that?

 SG: Well because it was an all-white church in Richmond, Virginia, and Mary was not white. And so she and her beloved Wilson Bowser were married there.


CK: And it was just around this time - that very same week actually - that the Civil War broke out. 


Both Elizabeth and Mary considered themselves abolitionists, but the War opened up an opportunity to take things to the next level.  


So soon enough…. They became involved with a spy ring with accomplices embedded in positions all over the city… all with one mission: to take down the confederacy. 




CK: On the battlefield, most generals used scouts on horseback to provide intel about the strength and location of enemy troops. 


But what the women in Richmond realized was this: if they could get into the planning rooms and parlors of the Confederacy, they might be able to get that intel to the generals before the battles even started. 


KW: Mary and Elizabeth quickly learned that one of their greatest skills… was coming up with ways of smuggling secret messages to the union front. 


One of Elizabeth’s most famous techniques…


Was hiding little rolled up notes in EGGS.


SG: She would hollow out the egg and carry a basket of eggs to and from the farm with one hollow egg.


KW: That egg would get sold to someone who would transport it to a Union general.


SG:   And I don't think that was ever discovered in any way or ever suspected. It was a pretty effective method.


CK:  Wow.


SG:  That was just one of their methods…There were a lot of them. There was also the baker….


KW: According to some accounts, the baker would hide messages among his breads and cakes.


SG: So they would pass messages through him because everybody went to the baker every day for what they needed.


CK: There was also the book technique.


SG: She would use a pin, a straight pin and prick certain letters as she read through the book, from page one, and she would develop a message that way, one letter at a time. And then she would send the book with her brother when he went North or with someone else, to get it across to the Union forces.  


CK : So what they would receive on their end was a book...with certain letters just gently pricked?

 SG: Yeah, so they could just hold the page up to the light and see what letters had been illuminated….


CK: Elizabeth kept inventing more and more clever ways


SG: She never seemed to run out of ideas.


CK: She knew she had to keep innovating, if she didn’t the confederates might catch on. 


For instance, she’d been using this trick of smuggling messages to Union prisoners of War in Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison. Elizabeth would visit the prisoners, pretending to be bringing them food, in a warming dish… 


SG: There was a false bottom in the dish where hot water was supposed to go to keep the food warm. And the bottom of the dish slid out so that you could put the hot water in there or, in her case, secret messages.


CK: And she did this for a while… until one day, something just felt ‘off’ to her. 


SG: She had quite the spidey-sense…


So as usual, she visited the prison with her offering of food, but instead of putting messages in the false bottom...


SG: she decided to put hot water in the warming dish. And sure enough, the guard questioned what she had in the dish and opened up the bottom and scalded his hands.




KW: All around Elizabeth and Mary, hundreds of thousands of people are dying, but their messages are getting out, and their intel is being snapped up by Union generals and being put to use right away. 


CK: And then one day, they stumble across the ultimate opportunity. 


KW: Find out what it was… after the break.




CK: Welcome back, this is Uncivil. So, at some point, during the war, Elizabeth Van Lew, this spy for the Union army living as a high society lady in Richmond… finds out some news.  


SG: I think she was looking in the newspaper and saw a notice from Varina Davis who was the first lady of the Confederacy. She was Jefferson Davis's wife. 


CK: That’s Sarah Grant again, Elizabeth’s descendant.


SG: And Varina was looking for some good help. She just couldn't find good help. And so Elizabeth stopped by and had tea with Varina, and she said, "Listen, I have a really wonderful upstairs maid. She's refined. She knows how to do things. She doesn't make mistakes. She's not very bright, but she'll work as a servant for you." And Varina said, "Wonderful. Send her over." 




CK: That maid that Elizabeth was suggesting for Jefferson Davis's wife was of course her partner in crime, Mary Bowser…


CK: So I’m just thinkin’, like, this plan that Elizabeth came up with was brilliant, but it required Mary to actually execute that, like she had to go into Jefferson Davis’s house. And I’m just like, Khadijah, I’m just wondering, what is that moment like where your white friend is like, “ I have an idea. Uhh, you go back into slavery.” Right? Like—


KW: Yeah. I think that’s clear violation of the ground rules of having a white friend. You can’t ask me to go back to slavery.


CK: Right, yeah, you can’t, it’s like, you don’t get to say the n-word, right?


KW: Mm hm. Ya know, the other rule is you can’t touch my hair.


Ck: Right, def can’t touch the hair. And then I feel like you can’t ask me to go back into slavery. 


KW: Nope nope, slavery is off-limits. That’s just, just, how it works. But ya know what Chenjerai?


CK: What’s that?


KWL: This could have been Mary’s idea. I mean, she’d gone up north, she’d seen freedom, and she’d come back home and saw slavery.

CW: You’re right it coulda been her idea. People underestimate black women. Ha ha. Like she coulda planned that.


KW: Yeah!


DBSR: You think about the extent to which she had to go through in order to do this task, I'll call it…


KW: That’s Dionne Bowser Richardson, Mary’s descendant again.


DBSR: I can't even put myself in that situation-- to be degraded, to be talked down upon, to, um, be treated less than human….. I don't know if I would have that strength. Hopefully, I would but I don't know if I could at that time. And you have to think about the time.


KW:  Yeah. I mean, what do you think she was ... I mean, what was she risking doing this, doing what she did?


DBSR:  Oh, she's definitely risking her life. Definitely. I'm sure if she had been caught she would have been killed immediately. But she wanted to make a difference. 


KW: Mary, she said she’d do it.




KW: She began to pack her things, readying herself for this mission. 


You could imagine, she would have to make sure that her tone of voice was soft and sounded deferential like that of a servant. 


She would have had to adjust her posture and maybe even the way she walked. 


She would have had to remember that she couldn't react when her rights were violated.


 As a slave she had no rights. And when she was ready... she took a deep breath....and walked into the slave quarters of the Confederate White House.




KW: Each day, she serves food. Clears plates. And tries whenever she can to look at documents that might be out on tables. Maps. Plans. 


DBSR: I picture her serving. I picture her standing over them as they're sitting at a table, maybe eating dinner or just sitting back smoking and having a cup of coffee and she’s serving them, but listening….Ummmm... remembering the conversations, who said what, what were they going to do next.


SG: She had an eidetic memory. So she could look at any document or survey any scene and memorize it for the rest of her life.


CK: And if gathering the information wasn’t dangerous enough, Mary then had to figure out how to send the intel back to Elizabeth. 


SG: She would write it down in notes and sew it into seams or gathers in dresses and then she’d carry it off to the seamstress….


CK: And to let Elizabeth know that a message was ready...


SG: She would go home and hang a red shirt on the line, which was visible from Elizabeth's house on the hill. So Elizabeth would see the red shirt, and she would go to the seamstress and get the message.


CK: Wow.


SG:  Yeah.  Mary Bowser probably contributed more to the Union cause in that espionage in the Union cause than anybody else. 


CK: Mary was getting so much information out of the Confederate White House... That apparently Jefferson Davis himself began grumbling about it. 


In one instance he complains that it seems his plans were getting into the hands of the enemy troops faster than they were getting to his own troops. 


CK:  I think we heard this story that after the war, a general had boasted that the team could cut fresh flowers from Van Lew's garden in the morning and have them on Grant's desk by the late afternoon, like, that's how-


SG:  That might have been a little bit of hyperbole, but she was effective, I know that.


CK:   Maybe by the evening.


SG: Yeah. She was good.




KW: And how was Mary so good? Well, it was partly her incredible memory, partly her courage, and partly… Davis’ own assumptions about what Mary was capable of. It likely never occurred to him that a Black woman was intelligent enough to be a spy.


SG: She was almost invisible in a way. In that regard, how could a woman possibly do these brilliant things and pull this off? That disguised her for a long time. 


KW: This was a weakness of the Confederacy...  One of those hidden places in which wars are actually fought and won. Jefferson Davis couldn’t see Mary for what she was, but Mary - saw everything. She saw through public image and authority of Confederate leaders to their real motivations…


Their habits and their blind spots… 


Like many oppressed people she saw how they saw her, and played the role to a T, quietly fading into the background as she set fire to their plans.  




DBSR: I just don't know how she even had a decent night's sleep. I would be looking over my shoulder at every moment, and I'm sure she did.


DBSR: She was living a double life, because she couldn't be herself.  She probably had few friends, if any. The only friend, Ms. Van Lew. Not many people that she could trust other than probably her husband. Everything is kept secret. You only have one or two people that you can really rely on. You're not sure if you're going to live or not, whether you're going to get caught... and those thoughts constantly running through your mind all the time. It can take its toll.




DBSR: Because anything could've ya know led them to believe that, "Uh-oh, she might be a spy. We need to watch her a little bit closer."  


KW: Yeah, even mistakenly reading a grocery list out loud or something like that in the kitchen. 


DBSR: Yeah, yeah, or just mistakenly thumbing through some papers or a map or whatever. Ya know um… Anyone could've walked in at anytime and questioned what she was doing.  


CK: And eventually… someone did. Too much information was getting out of the Confederate White House, so suddenly the household was on high alert. 


Everyone was under scrutiny, and the Spy Ring realized they had to get Mary out. 


DBSR: Far as I know, that she was assisted in getting out. I believe she was ... story goes she was put in a wagon and.. uh…. they covered her with, uh…. with… I guess ...


KW: You can say it.


DBSR: I don't want to say, but she …


KW: Manure, is that what you were going to say?


DBSR:  Yeah, with manure. Head to toe covered, which is -- I can't ... I just can't fathom the whole situation, but that again, it shows her strength. And she was led out and um… was able to escape. 


CK: Some time later, in April of 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant storms into Richmond… takes the city, and General Robert E. Lee eventually surrenders. 

A few weeks after that, Varina and Jefferson Davis flee for their lives.


And as for Elizabeth: 


SG: When the war ended, When the Union marched into Richmond, Elizabeth couldn't get outside fast enough to run the stars and stripes up her flagpole to fly above her house. And as it was one of the highest places in the city, it was very visible, but troops were sent to protect her, and General Grant did come and have tea with her.


CK:  What do you think he had heard about this woman?

SG:  Oh, I think he felt that he knew her. He knew where the information was coming from, and I think he was extremely grateful and impressed.


CK: And as a sort of “thank you gift,” when Grant becomes president


SG: he appointed her to post-mistress of Richmond, which lasted eight years.


KW: This was a fairly rare job for a woman to have in those years. She ends up integrating the post-office, which is a shock to many people in Richmond. She hires one of Mary’s in-laws. And Elizabeth lives to the age of 81… making it all the way to the 20th century.


CK: She was widely considered a traitor in Richmond.


CK: And as for that fancy mansion of hers? 


SG: The house is gone...The villagers with their pitchforks and torches were very happy to tear that place down as soon as they acquired it. And that's what they did. 


KW: No actual torches - but people who didn’t agree with Elizabeth did raze the building to the ground.


CK: She was buried in a grave that went unmarked until a Yankee soldier that she helped escape from prison fixed that. Paul Revere, the grandson of the other Paul Revere, traveled down to Shockoe cemetery and rolled a giant boulder over her grave so that the locals couldn’t move it. 100% solid Boston puddingstone --it’s still there.


SG:  It's a sad tale, in a way. It's a heartening tale and it's certainly to be admired, but I'm sorry that she wound up so sad and alone. It wasn't right.


KW: And as for Mary Bowser, after the war, she became a teacher. She also toured the country, giving lectures on what she pulled off as a spy.  But you can see the erosion of her story starting, even when she was alive. 


At one point she gave a talk at an AME church in New York, along with the famous theologian, Henry Ward Beecher. While the talk was billed as “The Adventures of a Government Female Spy” … the newspaper recapping it was already downplaying it. The headline read simply:  “Addresses by a Colored Lady and Henry Ward Beecher. 




KW: Shortly after, Mary Bowser pretty much disappears from the historical record-- And today, not even a picture of her remains…


KW: But the Confederate White House in Richmond where Mary risked so much? Well, that’s still standing….in the city where Dionne still lives today.


KW: Have you ever been there, in the Confederate White House?


DBSR: No, no, no.


KW: Ha ha. Is there a reason you haven't been there? 


DBSR: Um, it kind of brings up a lot of emotions. Um…  It was a terrible time for blacks to be treated that way. For her to give up herself and say, "I'm gonna go back and be treated this way.", you know, it makes me feel angry.


KW: But Dionne finds other ways to keep Mary’s memory alive




DBSR: Maybe that's why I went into the field that I did. I'm not sure. So many of us on the Bowser side that has done the same thing, which is education.


KW: Yeah, I was going to ask about that, because she was a teacher. I was wondering if that ran in the family.


DBSR: Oh my goodness. I am a…I’m a fifth generation teacher. 


KW: Wow.


DBSR: There's so many of us, from principals to school board members. Uh, so ya know. We really do hold education high, and that may have come and extended from Mary, just the importance of education, the importance of knowing how to read and write, so…I definitely see the influence.


KW: Yeah. It's powerful when you put it that way. I hadn't really thought about the fact that she used her abilities to read and write to basically save the Union and to save all of us. That's pretty incredible when you put it that way. I hadn't thought about it that way. 




CK: Uncivil is executive produced by Jack Hitt. 


We’re produced by Wallace Mack and Bobby Lord. 


Editing by Lulu Miller. Special thanks to our co-host Khadijah Costley White.


Our show is mixed by Bobby Lord. The music for Uncivil was composed by Bobby Lord and Matthew Boll in collaboration with Ann Caldwell & The Magnolia Singers.  Additional music this episode by Haley Shaw. 

 This episode was fact checked by Julie Beer. Our secret weapon is Christopher Peak.
 Special thanks to Angela Bowser, Barrington Bowser, George Bowser, Geraldine Bowser, and Gillian Bowser….


Uncivil is a production of Gimlet Media. Our website is Uncivil.Show. To stay up to date with what Uncivil is doing next, join our Facebook group.

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 I’m Chenjerai Kumanyika.