Sep. 4, 2023

A World of Secrets, Lies, and Espionage

The Van Lew Mansion in Richmond, Virginia no longer stands.
HGO’s world-premiere opera, set to open the company’s 2023-24 season, mixes history with artistic interpretation.

“Will the real story ever be told? Will the truth I carry be buried here forever?”

Those words come from the Act I quintet of upcoming HGO world premiere opera Intelligence, created by composer Jake Heggie, librettist Gene Scheer, and director/choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and inspired by historic events. It’s a double-scene in which two separate actions play out simultaneously: Wilson Bowser, an enslaved man working in Elizabeth Van Lew’s pro-Union spy ring, buries Elizabeth’s journal to protect it from growing suspicions; and Travis, a Confederate Home Guard, buries the body of a Union soldier he murdered, after interrogating him in vain about Elizabeth’s efforts to help the North. The quintet flows seamlessly into the breathtaking Act I finale in which Mary Jane Bowser, enslaved by the Van Lew family and working undercover in the Confederate White House, sets fire to the Jefferson Davis mansion as a distraction so that urgent intelligence can get to the North.

We’ve entered a world of secrets, lies, and espionage. Can “the real story ever be told” if the truth has been obscured by a century of lost and purposefully destroyed documentation? Can “the real story ever be told” if the little documentation that has survived was written to tell a specifically curated and intentionally incomplete narrative? The story told in Gene’s gripping libretto fills those gaps from the historical record with an artistic interpretation, only one of endless ways to tell this story. Amid the many years of research Gene did with co-creators Jake and Jawole, he took a trip to Richmond, Virginia, in 2019 to walk the sites where Elizabeth and Mary Jane once walked, meet with scholars, and take in the magnitude of this overlooked story. In May 2023, HGO took a group of 10 patrons to Washington, D.C., and Richmond for a similar exploration of the true story behind our season opener. In our case as well as in Gene’s, we left with possibly more questions than answers.

Separating out some of the factual plot points of the opera can be simple enough. Take the scene above, for example: Elizabeth Van Lew did keep her journal buried to protect its sensitive information from prying eyes. She kept it buried as a matter of course, though, not as a dramatic response to a near-miss with her suspicious sister-in-law, as represented in the opera. The remnants of her diary are now held in the archives collection of the New York Public Library, damaged from their extended time underground. There was indeed a fire at the Confederate White House: the Richmond Examiner reported on January 21, 1864, “Between the hours of 10 and 11 o’clock on Tuesday night a most diabolical attempt was made by an incendiary to destroy the house of President Davis.” The reporter goes on to accuse the enslaved servants in the household who, he says, may “know something of the matter.” The Davises’ enslaved butler, Henry Mosely, escaped to the North that night, as he does in the opera. Did Mary Jane Bowser start the fire? Almost certainly not, but it does make for a great scene on the stage.

Other plot points are more difficult to discern in the historical record. During our educational trip’s tour of the Confederate White House, the docent—who knew in advance that we were specifically interested in Mary Jane and Elizabeth because of our opera—said that though there is indication Mary Jane entered the building on one occasion, there is no primary-source evidence that Mary Jane worked long-term in the Davis mansion. But the opera’s action centers Mary Jane in that building, placed as an undercover spy, rifling through letters and troop movements. One of our dear friends on the tour came up to me as we continued down the historic hallway, the same hallway our opera claims was roamed by Mary Jane, but which the historian in front of us had said we have no evidence for: “Jeremy, I thought this opera was a true story?” At dinner that night, we talked about the gaps in the historical record. “We have no primary source evidence for this” is a semantic difference from “we know this did not happen,” but it is an important difference in the artistic telling of a true story.


“How about the truth? Now!”

Mary Jane demands of Elizabeth in the opera’s final scene, discovering the lies Elizabeth’s been telling her about her mother.


We know that Mary Jane rarely, if ever, went by Mary Jane Bowser.

For most of her life, she was Mary Jane Richards. The use of Bowser comes from her marriage to Wilson Bowser, recorded at St. John’s Church on April 16, 1861. We also know that Mary Jane was baptized at St. John’s Church on May 17, 1846, when she was approximately 6 years old. One of the leading scholars on Mary Jane’s life, Dr. Lois Leveen, wrote for the Encyclopedia Virginia, “It was extremely unusual for the wealthy and socially prominent white members of this congregation to have enslaved people baptized or married in their church. Other people enslaved by the Van Lew family were baptized at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, indicating that the widowed Mrs. Van Lew, like her daughter Elizabeth, singled out Mary for special treatment.”

We know that Mary Jane was sent to the North to be educated in the early 1850s. She learned to read and write, and she was then sent to Liberia as a missionary for the American Colonization Society in December 1854. We know she was unhappy in Liberia, writing to Elizabeth through an intermediary asking to return to Richmond, which she did in March 1860. And, most important to this story, we know that Mary Jane, upon returning to the U.S., became a key contributor to the pro-Union spy ring operating in Richmond.

An entry in Elizabeth’s diary reads, “When I open my eyes in the morning, I say to the servant, ‘What news, Mary?’ and my caterer never fails!” After the war, Mary Jane worked as a teacher for the Freedmen’s Bureau; she gave two public speeches in New York in September 1865, under the aliases “Richmonia Richards” and “Richmonia R. St. Pierre.” Reporting on one of her addresses, The Anglo African newspaper wrote, “She went into President Davis’s house while he was absent, seeking for washing, and while there was conducted into a private office by one of the clerks, when she opened the drawers of a cabinet and scrutinized the papers.”

We know that Elizabeth and Mary Jane’s espionage was of great significance to the Union cause: General Grant and General Sharpe both attested to the quantity and quality, Sharpe going as far after the war as to petition Congress to appropriate $15,000 to Elizabeth Van Lew—predictably, just to the white leader of the spy ring—because she developed “a system of correspondence in cipher by which specific information asked for by the General [Grant] was obtained.” As President, Grant’s first trip to Richmond after the war included spending an entire afternoon with Elizabeth on her front porch. He appointed her postmaster general of Richmond, one of the most politically significant positions of the time, responsible for organizing rallies and political conventions, collecting money for a party’s treasury, and controlling the dissemination of political information. One can assume that he would not have done all this for her had her espionage not been among the most valuable and consequential.

The lore that Mary Jane was planted long-term in the Confederate White House stems from two early reports. On July 27, 1900, two months before Elizabeth’s death, the Richmond and Manchester Evening Leader reported that Elizabeth Van Lew, on her deathbed, described an unnamed “maid, of more than usual intelligence,” whom she had sent to be educated in the North and placed in the Confederate White House. In 1910, researcher and reporter William Beymer received a telegram from a correspondent, “Have got the name of Slave who worked in Jefferson Davis house.” The name was supplied by Annie Van Lew Hall, Elizabeth’s niece, and in June 1911, Beymer wrote in an extended article on Elizabeth for Harper’s Monthly, “This young woman, whose name was Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was now sent for; she came, and for a time was coached and trained for her mission; then, in consummation of Miss Van Lew’s scheming, she was installed as a waitress in the White House of the Confederacy.”

These early reports are based on the hearsay of Elizabeth’s niece who was under 10 years old during these events. Without additional corroborating evidence, and with primary sources undermining details from Annie’s memory, historians have been prompted to doubt the accuracy of the 1900 and 1911 articles, upon which so much of Mary Jane’s lore has been based.


“What is in the ashes? They don’t want you to ask. They don’t want you to know.”

Lucinda, the mysterious spirit of Mary Jane’s deceased mother, sings a striking line following the fire at the Confederate White House, perhaps suggesting that accepted historical narratives are not always what they seem.


There is no hard evidence or primary source to corroborate the claim that Elizabeth Van Lew had installed a spy as an enslaved servant in the Confederate White House.

Jefferson’s wife Varina Davis, upon hearing those claims toward the end of her life, denied ever having brought on someone connected to Elizabeth—but of course she would, wouldn’t she? The guide on our tour of the Davis mansion confirmed there is no primary source indicating that Mary Jane worked long-term in the building, but she did point out the room likely referenced by Mary Jane in her 1865 speech in New York. Our guide also made an interesting comment: some of the facts she could relate to us as having primary sources, she could not have related to us ten years ago, as those sources were only recently discovered.

Perhaps she was referring to new documents and letters uncovered in 2019, including a letter from Mary Jane to Elizabeth written in 1870. Prior to that discovery, the latest known correspondence from Mary Jane was an 1867 letter she wrote to her employer, the Freedmen’s Bureau, saying she was closing her school in Georgia and moving to the West Indies with a husband by the last name of Garvin. Her 1870 letter, however, was from within the United States, and was signed M.J. Denman. Cowan’s Auctions, in possession of the letters, asked scholar Dr. Lois Leveen to corroborate that this was indeed Mary Jane Richards using a last name previously unassociated with her. Leveen wrote of this process, “This led me to the original letter from Mrs. John T. Denman, which references the writer’s experience teaching in the same Freedmen’s school in St. Marys, Georgia, where I knew Richards-cum-Garvin taught. And it is composed in the same handwriting as both the 1870 letter to Bet [Van Lew] and the earlier correspondence signed Mary J. R. Richards and Mary J R Garvin that detailed the wartime spying. M. J. Denman was indeed the same person.”

Before Gene’s trip to Richmond, I wrote an email to him in May 2019: “I also came across this group of letters from the Van Lew estate, post-war. It’s Lot 76 at Cowan’s, and the gentlemen at the National Park Service [whom Gene was scheduled to meet with later that summer] have corroborated its legitimacy.  Some interesting information in the lot description, about Mary Jane ‘Denman’ and her letters to Elizabeth post-war; this lot contains a letter from Mary Jane three years later than her previously last-known letter.”

A mere four years ago, and taking place during the research for this opera, an entirely new and previously unknown chapter of Mary Jane’s life had been unearthed. Could historians later discover more evidence that expands our understanding of and provides more details about Mary Jane’s role in the Civil War? Referring to the difficulty of tracing Mary Jane’s life, Leveen wrote, “African Americans and women of all races living a century and a half ago are especially hard to track because they were less likely to hold property, more likely to change their names upon emancipation or marriage, and constantly subject to systemic discrimination that erased evidence of their daily existence.” In addition to those societal realities, Leveen said, “it often seemed that, the more research I did, the less I knew for certain. My scrutiny of 19th-century letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles revealed that Mary often intentionally altered details of her life story depending on the audience she was speaking or writing to.” It doesn’t help either that, after the war, Elizabeth Van Lew destroyed as much documentation as she could find in order to protect her life in Richmond.

What does this tell us about history, what we accept to be true, and who has the privilege to mold the narratives they want to be told and remembered?


The HGO group that traveled to Richmond visited the site where the Van Lew home once stood.

We know that Mary Jane was born enslaved to the Van Lew family, that she was singled out for special treatment, that she was educated to read and write, that she was a crucial member of the pro-Union spy ring in Richmond, and that she did, on at least one occasion, enter the Confederate White House and read through Jefferson Davis’s papers.

In our opera, Mary Jane is planted as a spy directly into the Confederate White House. Given what we know from primary sources, and considering what is not corroborated with primary sources, is it that much of a stretch to imagine that Mary Jane had a longer tenure in the Confederate White House? That, in order to supply General Sharpe with new intelligence “three times a week,” Elizabeth had someone on the inside, and that someone could have been Mary Jane?

The final scene of the opera implies another conclusion, which I won’t describe here—again, an artistic interpretation of known data points, concerning the relationship between Mary Jane Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew. That conclusion is even less likely to have evidence for it unearthed in the future, but it remains, simply, a possibility.

But what is true about Mary Jane, in reality and in our opera, cannot be taken away: she is one of the most important figures in American history.



about the author
Jeremy Johnson
Jeremy Johnson is the Dramaturg & Associate Director of New Works for Houston Grand Opera.