Mary Bowser, slave of John Van Lew

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Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Birthplace: Richmond, VA, USA
Immediate Family:

Wife of William (Wilson?) Bowser

Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Mary Bowser, slave of John Van Lew

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born into slavery and owned by John Van Lew John Van Lew. Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born as a slave to owner John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant. His daughter, Elizabeth, and her mother freed her father's slaves after his death in 1843 or 1851 (sources differ). Mary remained with the Van Lew family after she was freed and worked as a paid servant. Elizabeth sent Mary to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia in the late 1850s. After graduating, Mary returned to Richmond and married William or Wilson Bowser, a free Black man, on April 16, 1861 -- just days before the Civil War began. The ceremony was highly unusual because the church parishioners were primarily white. They settled down just outside Richmond, and Mary continued to work in the Van Lew house.

After the war began, Elizabeth Van Lew asked Mary to help her in the elaborate spying system she had established in the Confederate capitol. Despite Elizabeth being a staunch abolitionist and loyal to the Union, she was a prominent member of Richmond because of her father's wealth and status. But her views and actions (attending to Union soldiers at Libby Prison with food and medicine, in particular) earned her the enmity of her community. Elizabeth used this to her advantage -- taking on a slightly crazy, muttering, slovenly personae that earned her the nickname "Crazy Bet" -- to cover up her serious efforts to help the Union. In addition to the industrious spying and aiding Union prisoners (while also gleaning information from the captives), Elizabeth also helped escaped prisoners by hiding them in a secret room in her mansion. She wrote her information in cipher code, hid the messages in the soles of servants' shoes or hollowed egg shells, then had the notes relayed to Union officers through several helpers and agents.

Mary had considerable intelligence, as well as some acting skills. In order to get access to top-secret information, Mary became "Ellen Bond," a dim-witted, also slightly crazy, but able servant. Elizabeth had a friend take Mary along to help at functions held by Varina Davis, the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Mary proved herself well and was eventually taken on full-time, working in the Confederate White House until just before the end of the war. Of course, they assumed she was a slave.

With the racial prejudice of the day, the assumption that slaves were illiterate and not intelligent, and the way slave servants were trained to seem invisible, Mary was able to glean considerable information simply by doing her job. While serving meals and cleaning up after, she overhead conversations about troop strategy and movement between the president and his advisors and military officers. Being literate, she was able to read letters and documents that were left out in the president's private study. She memorized everything word for word. Apparently President Davis came to realize there was a leak in the house, but did not suspect Mary until late in the war.

Mary passed her information to either Elizabeth, whom she met occasionally at night near the Van Lew farm just outside Richmond, or Thomas McNiven, a reputable Richmond baker. Toward the end of the war, suspicion finally did fall on Mary, although it is not known how or why. She fled in January 1865, but she attempted one last act as a Union spy and sympathizer. She tried to burn down the Confederate Capitol, but was unsuccessful.

In 1995, the U.S. government honored Mary Elizabeth Bowser for her efforts by inducting her in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

profile photo: Photo provided by James A. Chambers U.S. Army Deputy, Office of the Chief, Military Intelligence


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Mary Bowser, slave of John Van Lew's Timeline

Richmond, VA, USA