Tony Cliff
Tony Cliff

5 Facts About Civil War Spy Mary Bowser

Tony Cliff
Tony Cliff

Mary Bowser is one of the most fascinating figures of the Civil War. A free black woman (though her freedom might not have been recognized in Virginia), she took a job as a servant for Jefferson Davis to serve as a spy in the Confederate White House, working with the famous spymaster Elizabeth van Lew. Mary pretended to be illiterate when, in fact, she could not only read but may have had a photographic memory. (Some scholars, however, believe that she might not have had a photographic memory but was just good at remembering things.) Whatever the case, for years, everything she saw and read in the Confederate White House was fed to Union generals. Below are five facts you may not know about the remarkable Mary Bowser, adapted from Spy on History: Mary Bowser and the Civil War Spy Ring.

1. SHE WAS BORN A SLAVE.

Mary was born into slavery sometime in 1839 or 1841. John van Lew, a Virginia businessman, was her owner; after he died in 1843, his daughter, Elizabeth—who had become an abolitionist after receiving a Quaker education—helped free Mary. Later, van Lew would recruit Bowser for her spy ring.

2. IT WAS ILLEGAL FOR HER TO KNOW HOW TO READ.

Around the time she was freed, Elizabeth sent a young Mary north to be educated. It was a crime to teach blacks to read in the state of Virginia, punishable by prison sentence or fine. Years later, Mary made a deliberate choice to pretend to be a servant again to help end slavery for others. Given her background, it was an act of incredible bravery.

3. SHE LIVED IN LIBERIA ...

Some time after Mary was educated, she moved to Liberia to teach and to do missionary work. At the time, free slaves were settling Liberia, so it wasn't uncommon for someone like Mary to go—but Mary did it before she was even 20 years old! The timeline of Mary’s life is unclear, but she worked in Africa for approximately five years.

4. … BUT SHE RETURNED TO VIRGINIA AND GOT MARRIED.

Mary and Wilson Bowser tied the knot just a few days after the Civil War started. The young couple only got to spend a short time together before Mary took her place as a spy in the Confederate White House. Elizabeth van Lew, who was the head of an extensive spy ring, learned the Davis household needed another servant. Elizabeth recruited Mary and helped her get the job.

5. SHE WAS A SOURCE OF CONSTANT FRUSTRATION FOR JEFFERSON DAVIS.

Confederate leaders could tell there was a mole in the highest reaches of the Confederacy, but nobody ever figured out it was Mary. In his letters, Jefferson Davis complains that his mental state is collapsing under the strain of not being able to find the spy. At one point, he wrote to Confederate General GJ Rains that “no printed paper could be kept secret.”

After the war, Mary taught ex-slaves to read, but beyond that, much of her history is lost to us. Some of this is because the Union and van Lew herself destroyed many of the records of spies in the South, knowing that after the war, Southern officers would have access to the files, and so the spies could suffer reprisal.

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geography
Interactive Map Shows Where Your House Would Have Been 750 Million Years Ago
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Your neighborhood traveled a long way over several hundred million years to reach the spot it occupies today. To trace that journey over the ages, check out Ancient Earth, an interactive digital map spotted by Co.Design.

Ancient Earth, a collaboration between engineer and Google alum Ian Webster and Paleomap Project creator C.R. Scotese, contains geographical information for the past 750 million years. Start at the beginning and you'll see unrecognizable blobs of land. As you progress through the ages, the land mass Pangaea gradually breaks apart to form the world map we're all familiar with.

To make the transition even more personal, you can enter your street address to see where it would have been located in each period. Five hundred million years ago, for example, New York City was a small island in the southern hemisphere isolated from any major land mass. Around the same time, London was still a part of Pangaea, and it was practically on top of the South Pole. You can use the arrows on your keyboard to flip through the eras or jump from event to event, like the first appearance of multicellular life or the dinosaur extinction.

As you can see from the visualization, Pangaea didn't break into the seven continents seamlessly. Many of the long-gone continents that formed in the process even have names.

[h/t Co.Design]

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The Body
11 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.

1. THE ANCIENT EGYPTIANS CALLED IT THE "WORM" OF THE BOWEL.

The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."

2. THE APPENDIX SHOWS UP IN LEONARDO DA VINCI’S DRAWINGS.

The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.

3. IT'S ABOUT THE SIZE OF A PINKY FINGER.

The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.

4. CHARLES DARWIN THOUGHT IT WAS A VESTIGIAL ORGAN …

The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.

5. … BUT THE APPENDIX PROBABLY EVOLVED TO HELP IMMUNE FUNCTION.

The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.

6. ABOUT 7 PERCENT OF AMERICANS WILL GET APPENDICITIS DURING THEIR LIFETIMES.

For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.

7. APPENDECTOMIES ARE ALMOST 100 PERCENT EFFECTIVE FOR TREATING APPENDICITIS.

Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.

8. AN INFECTED APPENDIX DOESN’T ACTUALLY BURST.

You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.

9. SURGEONS CAN REMOVE AN APPENDIX THROUGH A TINY INCISION.

In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.

10. AN APPENDIX ONCE POSTPONED A ROYAL CORONATION.

When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.

11. THE WORLD'S LONGEST APPENDIX MEASURED MORE THAN 10 INCHES.

On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."

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