Oct. 13, 2023

The History Behind Intelligence: Where to Learn More

Jamie Barton as Elizabeth Van LEw and Janai Brugger as Mary Jane Bowser in Intelligence. Photo Credit: Michael Bishop

HGO’s new opera Intelligence, created by Jake Heggie, Gene Scheer, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, is best described as an artistic interpretation of history—an operatic recounting of what we know about the lives and heroic actions of the two women at the center of its story, Mary Jane Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew. But what we know as fact today is different from what we knew a decade ago, and likely also different from what we’ll know a decade from now. Interested in learning more? Here are a few good places to start:

“A Black Union Spy in Richmond: Who Was Mary Jane Richards?”

Nathan Hall is a Park Ranger at Richmond National Battlefield Park and the Maggie Walker National Historic Site who holds a master’s degree in history from Louisiana State University. In this fascinating YouTube video from 2020, he gives a “virtual bus tour” of Richmond, Virginia, visiting sites significant to the town’s Civil War espionage network, seeking clues about Mary Jane Bowser’s life, and trying to distinguish fact from myth. 

“A Black Spy in the Confederate White House”

“Mary Bowser, born into slavery in Virginia sometime around 1840, was, alternately, a missionary to Liberia, a Freedmen’s school teacher—and, most amazingly, a Union spy in the Confederate White House,” writes scholar Lois Leveen in a 2012 New York Times piece that drove a surge of interest in Mary Jane and Elizabeth’s story of espionage—and inspired an unidentified Smithsonian docent to suggest the idea for Intelligence to Jake Heggie.

“She Was Born Into Slavery, Was a Spy and Is Celebrated as a Hero—But We're Missing the Point of the 'Mary Bowser' Story”

Dr. Leveen’s scholarship on Mary Jane Bowser is ongoing. In 2019 she wrote an article for Time detailing how “the underground’s efforts primarily involved aiding Union soldiers crowded into Richmond’s makeshift prisons with food, medicine and opportunities to escape,” lamenting the spread of misinformation about Mary Jane’s life from supposedly nonfiction sources, and pointing to her own carefully researched entry on Mary Jane for the Encyclopedia Virginia

“The Vanishing Black Woman Spy Reappears”

When a letter from Mary Jane to Elizabeth turned up in Cowan’s Auctions in 2019, it was a significant moment for anyone interested in Mary Jane and Elizabeth’s story. The letter was written in 1870, three years after their last known correspondence. The auction house asked Dr. Leveen to authenticate it. In this deep dive published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the scholar documents the difficult and meticulous process she undertook to prove the letter was real.  

about the author
Catherine Matusow
Catherine Matusow is Director of Communications at Houston Grand Opera.