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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Susan B.’s 200th

It is good to see Susan B. venerated on her birthday, especially since many regarded her as troublesome during her lifetime. I wonder how troubled she would be by some of the current causes that have tried to co-opt her support posthumously.

Susan B. Anthony and Daniel Read Anthony

Though I have not been blogging recently, my interest in Susan never flags. My focus since 2012 has broadened to include the context of her family. Her biography and letters both demonstrate how important they were to her in forming her views on universal human rights.

Today’s Google slideshow honoring Susan B.’s 200th mentioned the significance of her family’s Sunday antislavery dinners. They even noted her brother Merritt’s involvement with crusader John Brown in Kansas. However, Google failed to mention her other abolitionist brother Daniel, whose influence on Kansas society and on Susan was much greater. This assures me that my work on Daniel in my Dauntless Series is still plowing new ground.

Series devoted to the Anthonys

My first historical novel in the Dauntless Series on Daniel’s family, The Truth About Daniel, was published in 2017. On this 200th anniversary, I’m working on Books Two and Three. In the second novel, Susan’s abolitionist activities and reform methods both inspire her Kansas family and critique it. It examines the Civil War from three important viewpoints from that of:

  • a slave,
  • an abolitionist,
  • and a family attacked by abolitionists.

Book Two features the many ways women were affected by the war. This is a theme that historians often fail to notice in their focus on soldiers, battles, generals, and bloodshed. I like to think that Susan, who was always living and writing herstory, would approve of my approach.

I’m taking a publishing hiatus before publishing more of the series. In the meantime, if you are looking for an easy-read biography of Susan please get my book Susan B. Anthony And Justice For All. It’s based on the biography that she authorized during her lifetime, and it’s available on Amazon and Kindle. And stay tuned for my next novel where she makes cameo appearances.

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.

 

 

Daniel Anthony’s Abolitionist Activities

two 19th c men and two women, smoky sky, and burned out building

The abolitionist activities of Daniel Anthony wrought destruction on Missouri’s western border

“Well mercy me!” as they might have exclaimed in the 19th century. It seems I never published the post explaining why Daniel Anthony’s abolitionist activities were controversial. So let’s play catch-up. The photo above, from a mural in Pleasant Hill, Missouri, should give you a clue.

When Susan B. Anthony was four, her brother Daniel Read Anthony was born on August 22, 1824. The family called him “D.R.” to distinguish him from Susan’s father, whose name was also Daniel. Brother and sister grew up to be ardent abolitionists.

Jayhawkers’ abolitionist activities against bushwhackers

Before the Civil War, while Susan was hosting speaking tours for the New York State Antislavery Society, D.R. joined Jennison’s Jayhawkers on the Kansas-Missouri border. Together, they sparked fear in slaveholders’ hearts by laying waste to farms and liberating their slaves. Some blamed the Jayhawkers’ raids for inciting rage in Quantrill and his band, who attacked Lawrence.

After the jayhawkers raided Missouri slaveholders, they would free people in bondage and also “liberate” livestock. That is why midwesterners either hated or revered the jayhawkers, depending on politics of the onlooker.

The Border War between Kansas and Missouri involved Southern sympathizers (“bushwhackers,” usually from Missouri) tampering with Kansas elections. Bushwhackers were typically young plantation residents who made guerilla raids and retreated to the safety of their homes. The purpose of the abolitionists’ activities was to rout them out by attacking the homes where the bushwhackers received provisions and protection.

The Kansas Seventh

Later, when the Civil War began, D.R. helped Charles Jennison organize a Union cavalry unit called the Kansas Seventh. They were so thorough in burning out bushwhackers that only the chimneys survived, nicknamed “Jennison’s tombstones.”

As hated as he was by some for the border raids, D.R. was also called “The Moses of Kansas” for the number of African-Americans he liberated. Sometimes as many as a hundred slaves followed the Seventh across the Kansas border into freedom.

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. Visit “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 in 1820 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 and siblings

Susan B. Anthony’s siblings, like her parents, were all for suffrage. They supported the right of every American citizen to vote, regardless of sex or race. (See my previous post about her parents.)

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All for Suffrage, Part 1

Susan B. Anthony’s family members were all for women’s 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. Susan had a strong support system for her reform work.

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