Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born in Richmond, Virginia, as a slave to John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant. Upon Van Lew's death in 1843, his wife and son and daughter freed his slaves. They also bought everyone in the slave's family in order to set them free as well. However, like most former slaves, Mary remained a free woman and servant in the Van Lew household. She stayed with the family until the late 1850s. The matriarch of the family, Elizabeth Van Lew, became increasingly aware that Mary Elizabeth had exceptional intelligence. Being a staunch abolitionist and Quaker, she sent Mary to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia to be educated.
Life after schooling
Mary Elizabeth returned from Philadelphia after graduating so that she could marry Wilson Bowser, a free black man. The ceremony was held on April 16, 1861, just four days after Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter, thereby initiating the Civil War. Even though it was a marriage between two former slaves, most of the wedding party and parishioners of the church were white. The couple lived outside of Richmond, Virginia. There is no record of any children. Even after her marriage, Mary Elizabeth stayed in close contact with the Van Lew family. Naturally growing up in the Van Lew household and receiving a Quaker education at their grace, resulted in their sharing of intellectual and political views. Despite her abolitionist sentiments, Elizabeth Van Lew was a prominent figure in the Richmond political scene. She was able to work with Mary Bowser in one of the greatest feats of espionage in the Civil War.
Life as a spy
Elizabeth Van Lew was the tool used to integrate Mary Elizabeth Bowser into the espionage business. Van Lew had strong ties to the Union and used this to her advantage. She would use an alter-personae which was always distracted and muttered when she spoke in order for people to think she was unbalanced and therefore not someone to take seriously. She was given the nickname "Crazy Bet". Van Lew was instrumental in establishing a spy system in the Confederate capital. She would regularly visit the Libby Prison with food and medicine, and helped escapees of all kinds, hiding them in a secret room in her mansion. However her biggest accomplishment in espionage was utilizing Mary Elizabeth Bowser.
Because of Bowser's intelligence and photographic memory, Van Lew decided to make Bowser a spy to infiltrate the confederacy. In order to get access to top-secret information, Bowser became "Ellen Bond", a slow-thinking, but able, servant. Van Lew, through the help of friends of the Union, was able to have "Ellen Bond" work at functions held by Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. Bowser was eventually hired full-time and worked in the Davis household until just before the end of the war. At the Davis house Bowser worked as a servant, cleaning and serving meals. Because of the racism that existed then, the slaves were trained to act and seem invisible. Usually not noticed at all. Bowser was able to get incredible amounts of information simply by doing her work. The assumption was that slaves could not read or write, nor understand the complex political conversations being held. However, due to Bowser's education and keen perception, she was able to read and remember any papers that were left around in Jefferson Davis' study and report the information to the other spies. She would also spy on conversations and relay back to Van Lew all that was going on in Davis' house.
There was another spy that Bowser would work in coalition with, named Thomas McNiven. He was a baker in Richmond and would make deliveries to the Davis household. Bowser would relay the information to McNiven who had a team of people come in and out of his bakery to dispatch the related information. According to McNiven, Bowser was the source of the most crucial information because as he wrote in his journal, "she was working right in the Davis home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President's desk, she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis home to drop information." (quoted in Waitt, Thomas McNiven Papers.)
End of the espionage
Jefferson Davis had become aware that there was a leak in his house, but for a while he did not realize it was Bowser. Thomas McNiven was found out to be a spy and soon suspicion fell on Bowser. She chose to flee in January 1865, but she did not go quietly. Her last act as a spy was an attempt to burn down the Confederate White House. She was not successful. After the war ended, the federal government destroyed any records of evidence of espionage in order to protect those involved, including those of McNiven and Bowser. Therefore, the extent of information gathered by Bowser is unknown. A significant amount made its way to General Ulysses S. Grant and influenced his decisions from 1863-1864.
There was enough information for Bowser to write a journal chronicling her wartime efforts. The journal, too, is lost to us today because her family members mistakenly discarded it in 1952. The Bowser family rarely discussed their work because of the postwar climate in Richmond and attitudes towards Union sympathizers. There is no record of Mary Bowser's post-war life and no date of death. Bowser is one of many African-American female spies who worked for the Union during the Civil War, yet her works are hardly known to us today. The U.S. government honored Bowser for her work in the Civil War with an induction into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
Popular culture representations
Lois M. Leveen published "A Black Spy in the Confederate White House," which details Mary's pre-war life, her espionage, and her life in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Leveen is also the author The Secrets of Mary Bowser, of a novel based on Bowser's life.
Bowser's acts of espionage are also detailed in the play Lady Patriot written by actor/writer/director Ted Lange. The play was produced by Mary Lange and premiered at the Hudson Backstage Theatre in Santa Monica, California. Chrystee Pharris, best known for her role of Simone on NBC's Passions, played the role of Bowser. The ensemble cast also included Zuri Alexander (Mary Bower), Lou Beatty Jr. (Old Robert), Dr. Gordon Goodman (Jefferson Davis), Anne Johnstonbrown (Varina Davis), Paul Messinger (Judah P. Benjamin), Robert Pine (Mrs. Slydell), and Connie Ventress (Elizabeth Van Lew).
- Leveen, Lois (June 27, 2013). "The Spy Photo That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me". The Atlantic.
- Van Lew, Elizabeth (2001). David D. Ryan, ed. A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of "Crazy Bet" Van Lew.
- "A Black Spy in the Confederate White House," The New York Times, June 21, 2012.
- Interview with Author Louis Leveen about her book on Mary Bowser