Mary Bowser, Confederate White House Spy

Even now, it’s hard to get a clear description of Mary Bowser, who greatly aided the North by spying on the Confederate White House during the Civil War. Maybe that’s because she wanted it that way.

Here is the closest we can come to facts about her life. Mary Bowser (AKA Richards) was born a slave to the Van Lew family in Richmond, VA, and later freed by Elizabeth Van Lew, heiress to the family fortune. Van Lew sent Bowser to school in the North and later as a missionary to Liberia, a nation of free blacks. Upon her return to the U.S., she lived in Van Lew’s household as a servant and was eventually hired out to work in the Confederate White House.

Successful Spy Network

Van Lew disguised her activities by presenting herself as mentally ill—“Crazy Bet,” they called her. She had a very successful spy network of a dozen men and women who were both white and black. Even though Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina knew that there was a spy in their midst, they never suspected Bowser, who appeared as an illiterate, dumb servant. After all, very few black men in the South could read and write, even less likely a woman.

Van Lew said, “Most generally our reliable news is gathered from negroes, and they certainly show wisdom, discretion, and prudence which is wonderful.”

Teacher of Former Slaves

After the Civil War, Mary Bowser quickly went to work educating formerly enslaved people for the Freedmen’s Bureau; her only known correspondence was from this period of her life. During this time, she single-handedly taught a hundred Sunday school pupils as well as 70 day students and 12 adult night students. Two years later, after meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, she disappeared entirely from the historical record.

Here is a link to a historical novel about Bowser.

Here is a link to a historical novel about Van Lew.

Great American Women of Susan B.’s Era

Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree.

During Women’s History Month we will use this space to celebrate several great American women who were comrades of Susan B. Anthony. (Click here for an earlier blog post on Women’s History Month.)

Though Miss Anthony did not know all of them, each one came from her era and worked to make us a more equitable and just nation. We have far to go to complete the reforms they championed, but knowing of their work can help us go and do likewise whenever we have a chance.

 

Today we remember Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte as one of these great American women.  She traced her desire to study medicine to an experience at the age of eight. Young Susan LaFlesche kept vigil at the bedside of a Native woman while waiting for a (white) doctor who promised to come, but never arrived. The patient died. In those dark moments, Susan realized that Natives needed doctors devoted to their care. Rather than lament the lack, she became one.

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One More River to Cross at Underground Railroad Heritage Area

 

When fleeing slaves from the southern U.S. reached Niagara Falls, they knew they had one more river to cross. But what a river it was with its roiling cataract. The new Underground Railroad Heritage Area in Niagara Falls, NY. chronicles some of the notable African-Americans who escaped across the river and helped others to make their way to freedom.

Recently I had the privilege of touring the new museum. For those unfamiliar with the term, “Underground Railroad” refers to a series of places where escaping slaves could receive shelter and assistance after leaving the South. Following the North Star, they headed for the northern U.S., where slavery was outlawed.

However, after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, bounty hunters could recapture slaves in the north and return them to bondage. For this reason, it was far better for these fugitives to go all the way to Canada. When they reached Niagara Falls, they had one more river to cross.

Anthony Involvement in the Underground Railraoad

The Anthony family approved of this civil disobedience of helping slaves escape. They hosted many antislavery dinners at their farm home in Rochester, and three of their children (Susan, D.R., and Merritt) campaigned against slavery with speeches, petition campaigns, and physical warfare. Among the family’s closest friends were Undergound Railroad “conductors” (owners of safe houses) Amy and Isaac Post and Frederick Douglass.

Active or Passive Escapees?

Sometimes conductors used the code word “parcel” for a fugitive needing assistance. This term erroneously suggests that freedom seekers were passive goods carried away from slavery by other (usually white) people’s initiatives. The term gives little credit to the courage and intelligence exhibited by fleeing slaves themselves. (I strove for the correct balance in The Truth About Daniel, when I wrote about the escape of Randall Burton on Martha’s Vineyard.)

The Underground Railroad Heritage Area tips the racial balance by showing black abolitionists at work, united in the effort to help freedom seekers cross their last barrier  to freedom, the Niagara River.. A daring feat, to say the least. More next time.

 

 

New Underground Railroad Exhibit at Niagara Falls

A whole new source of information on the Underground Railroad is opening next weekend in Niagara Falls, starting May 4. I’m excited because it will offer more in-depth background for my historical novels in The Dauntless Series, featuring abolitionists Daniel Read Anthony and his sister Susan.

Here’s the scoop on the new museum:

Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center

825 Depot Avenue W.
Niagara Falls, NY 14305

Why is this new museum important?

States bordering Canada, particularly in the East, were the last frontier for enslaved people seeking freedom before the Civil War. Niagara Falls, NY, just across the river from Canada, admitted many freedom seekers traveling through New York State. I am familiar with many such stories that took place near my home in Rochester, and always wondered what happened to those travelers after they left here.

Gala Opening

The opening weekend includes a gala on Friday, a dinner on Saturday, and community day (for the general public) on Sunday. Thereafter it will assume a regular schedule.Read all about it here.

Their website offers some intriguing and detailed stories about an organized group of African-American waiters who risked their lives and businesses to help enslaved people to cross the border. Click on the tab “Underground Railroad Sites” to read about these individuals and some of the places where those escapes occurred.

For those of us who love the grandeur of the falls at Niagara, it’s just one more reason to visit this well-known northern city. Hope to see you there!

The Anthony Connection

Daniel and Susan B. Anthony lived in Rochester, about 60 miles from the famous falls at Niagara. Each of them, but especially Daniel, lent a hand to escaping fugitives. It would not have been unusual for either of them to visit Niagara Falls, since it was already a well-known tourist attraction during their time. Already my mind is conjuring up images of them speaking to a waiter and setting foot on one of the paths that led to river crossings.

Historic Rochesterian Burns Up the West

Historic Rochesterian Daniel Read Anthony, brother of Susan B., wielded both fire and bullets to bring about the end of slavery in the Wild West. Pictured behind me is the city of Leavenworth, Kansas around 1860, where Daniel emigrated after selling insurance in Rochester, New York for several years.

Throughout his life, Daniel also supported his sister’s more peaceful but equally radical attempts to bring about equal rights for women.

How did his convictions mesh with Susan’s? And what methods did he use? Learn all about it at this upcoming talk:

Powerpoint presentation by Jeanne Gehret

The Truth About Daniel: Susan B. Anthony’s Forgotten Brother

Saturday, April 21, 1-2:30

Rochester Public Library, Central (Rundel) branch

South Avenue

Sponsored by Rochester’s Rich History Series

 

 

Happy Birthday, Susan B. Anthony!

I encourage every American woman to pause on  February 15 to say happy birthday to Susan B. Anthony. This remarkable woman was born in1820 in Adams, Massachusetts, and grew up to lead a cohort of women to advocate for rights that we often take for granted today.

When she was a girl, there were only seven professions Continue reading

All for Suffrage, part 2

Susan B. Anthony’s five siblings, like her parents, were all for suffrage. They supported the right of every American Continue reading

All for Suffrage, Part 1

Susan B. Anthony’s family members were all for suffrage, each in his or her own way. Some supported voting rights by actually casting ballots, while others supported campaigns for African-Americans and women to vote. She had Continue reading

Agitators Prevailed

The story of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass packed a full house tonight, the opening of “The Agitators.” Rochester’s famous reformers really showed their mettle at this fine play at GEVA Theater. Actors Madeleine Lambert and Cedric Mays delivered the pair’s famous arguments with conviction and humor against a massive timeline that resembled the double arches of the Frederick Douglass-Susan B. Anthony Bridge in Rochester.

“Agitation is the spark of all change”

This is one of my favorite quotes from the play, and served as the theme to portray the lifelong friendship between these reformers. Especially moving were the scenes where the pair toured Frederick’s burned-out home; where they fought over the enfranchisement of black men before women; and where he begged Susan not to hold a women’s rights convention in a southern state where black women were not welcome.

Personally, I enjoyed the proslavery mob scene and the final vignette about Ida Wells, which both figured prominently in my book Susan B. Anthony And Justice For All.

Want to read more about these two revolutionaries? Get your own copy of this easy read that portrays Susan’s entire life. Great for students, too!

This week in History: John Brown at Harpers Ferry

John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry shook the Anthony family’s roots when on this day in 1859 he broke into a federal arsenal in Virginia and was captured.

Lucy and Daniel Anthony had raised Continue reading