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WOMAN SPY. Mary Elizabeth Bowser, freed slave, worked as a Union spy, including some time right inside President Jefferson Davis' household. Fascinating story of achievement and bravery, CLICK
NAME: Mary Elizabeth Bowser
DATE OF BIRTH: 1839?
PLACE OF BIRTH: Richmond, Virginia
FAMILY BACKGROUND: 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). Accounts record the Van Lew women buying members of their slaves' families from other owners, when they found out they were going to be sold, and then freeing them. Another former slave named Nelson went North with Mary after the Civil War; some sources believe this was her father.
EDUCATION: 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.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: 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.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser, in 1861, was a highly regarded, free African-American woman disguised as a slave. She began acting as a spy for the Union Army. With a position at the Confederate White House, Bowser became the highest placed and most imperative espionage agent in the Civil War.