American spy Mary Bowser (c. 1839–?), a freed slave, worked as a Union spy in the Confederate White House during the Civil War and educated former slaves afterward.
Born into slavery in approximately 1839, Mary Bowser experienced a childhood of upheaval, but the opportunity to attend school inspired a belief that there could be more to life than servitude. Bowser was the property of John Van Lew, a merchant in Richmond, Virginia. As a young girl, she endured the breakup of her family when Van Lew sold her relatives to other slaveholders. Fortunately, Van Lew's wife, Eliza, and daughter, Elizabeth, favored Bowser from an early age. On May 17, 1846, the young girl was baptized in St. John's Episcopal Church, the famed Richmond church where American founding father Patrick Henry delivered his “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. It was very rare for slaves to be baptized in St. John's, and Bowser was the only slave the Van Lews ever brought there. According to some accounts, after John Van Lew died, Elizabeth and Eliza Van Lew freed Bowser and their other slaves; another source suggests the Van Lews granted them de facto freedom but not legal emancipation.
Unlike most black Southerners born into slavery at the time, Bowser learned to read and write, again benefitting from the unusual attention shown her by her owners. When she was of age, Elizabeth Van Lew sent Bowser to school in the North, perhaps to Philadelphia or Princeton, New Jersey, and likely paid for her education. In 1855, Van Lew arranged for Bowser to join a missionary group in Liberia, a new West African republic made up of freed former American slaves. A ship's manifest from December of 1855 lists her as a passenger, aged 14, under the name Mary Jane Richards. Bowser was unhappy in Liberia, however, and this fact was the subject of letters exchanged between Van Lew and an official with the American Colonization Society, which helped freed slaves move to Africa. She returned to the United States in early 1860, landing in Baltimore.
By spring 1860, Bowser was back in Richmond, once again working in the Van Lew household. That August, she was arrested and charged with claiming to be a free person of color but not carrying a certificate of freedom. The arrest put her in great danger because some blacks arrested without papers were auctioned back into slavery. To free her, Eliza Van Lew told the judge that Bowser was her slave, insisted on having her returned, and paid a $10 fine.
On April 16, 1861, Bowser married Wilson Bowser, a free black man who worked as a servant in the Van Lew household, at St. John's Church in Richmond. They married at a fateful time for the United States, and especially for black Americans. Four days earlier, on April 12, forces rebelling against the Union had attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in the first battle of the U.S. Civil War. The day after the Bowsers’ marriage, April 17, Virginia voted to join several other Southern states in seceding from the Union. Richmond soon became the capital of the Confederate States of America.
Both Van Lew and Bowser soon found ways to secretly work against the Confederacy. Van Lew, true to her abolitionist beliefs, formed a spy ring for the Union cause, and she recruited Bowser to join. To provide cover for themselves, both Bowser and Van Lew became skilled at deception. Van Lew's gifts of food and medicine to Union soldiers in Richmond's Libby Prison made her deeply unpopular in Confederate-era Richmond society. To deflect people's scorn, she pretended to be mentally ill, talking to herself as she walked the city's streets and earning the nickname “Crazy Bet.”
Meanwhile, Van Lew found Bowser part-time work at events held by Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ wife, Varina Davis. On the job, she was productive while pretending to be simple-minded. Mrs. Davis, impressed with her work, hired Bowser full-time to work as a cook and nanny in her family's Richmond home, dubbed the White House of the Confederacy.
While in the Davis household, Bowser spied on the Confederate president. Jefferson Davis and his aides, underestimating the intelligence of their black servants, often spoke about military and government matters while Bowser served them dinner. Davis, assuming that none of his servants could read, also left official papers around the house.
Van Lew passed Bowser's information on to Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Butler, using a variety of hiding places, among them a servant's shoes, a false bottom in a food tray, and hollowed eggshells. “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war,” Grant told Van Lew, according to Paul Martin in Secret Heroes. In the Van Lew family's oral history, recounted in Karen Abbott's Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, Bowser's husband Wilson relayed some of the information to Union soldiers by rowing up a river.
How Bowser's work at the Davis household ended is uncertain. According to Abbott, early in 1865, Bowser worried that the Davises now suspected her of stealing secrets; to keep the woman safe, Van Lew smuggled her to the North in a wagon. Other, less reliable accounts suggest that Bowser disappeared in January of 1865 after trying and failing to set fire to the Davis house. It is also possible that she did not flee Richmond at all, because the Freedmen's Bureau, the federal office that aided former slaves, recorded her as opening a school for freed slaves in Richmond soon after the war ended in April 1865. Bowser's marriage to Wilson Bowser likely ended shortly after the war, because she began using the name Mary Jane Richards at that point.
In September of 1865, Bowser appears to have lectured about her experiences in Liberia and Richmond at two churches in New York City, disguising her identity by using the pseudonyms Richmonia Richards and Richmonia R. St. Pierre. (She presumably derived Richmonia from Richmond, while Richards was the name she used as a Liberian missionary.) A New York City newspaper, the Anglo African, reported on one of these talks and described her as “very sarcastic” and “quite humorous,” according to Leveen, this time writing in the New York Times. In her public speeches, Bowser argued for equal rights, justice, and extending the vote to blacks. She also asserted that Union soldiers in Richmond had treated freed blacks poorly and that even the Freedmen's Bureau discriminated against them. She closed by admonishing northern blacks to pay attention to education, rather than fashion.
Early in 1867, Bowser founded a school for former slaves in St. Mary's, Georgia. There, in March of 1867, she met Harriet Beecher Stowe, the novelist whose book Uncle Tom's Cabin had helped turn northern Americans against slavery, as well as Stowe's brother, the Reverend Charles Beecher. According to Beecher's diary, Bowser impressed them with her stories of working as a missionary and as a Richmond spy for Grant's army. In the only known description of her appearance, Beecher noted in his diary (as quoted by Leveen) that Bowser called to mind a roman goddess: “a Juno, done in somber marble,” he wrote, “her features regular and expressive, her eyes exceedingly bright and sharp, her form and movements the perfection of grace.”
The only surviving examples of Bowser's writing appear to be her 1867 correspondence with the superintendent of education for Georgia's Freedmen's Bureau, to which she signed the name Mary Richards. One letter refers to her past detective work and her time in Richmond, which helps confirm her identity. Bowser reported that she taught 70 students during the day, 12 at night, and 100 in Sunday school, and she despaired over whether she could be an effective teacher to so many. In one letter, she also shared some of the motivation for her both espionage and teaching. “I felt that I had the advantage over the majority of my race both in Blood and Intelligence, and that it was my duty if possible to work where I am most needed,” she wrote (as quoted by Leveen in the New York Times).
In another letter, Bowser correctly forecasted the terror that black Southerners would face in years to come, especially after Reconstruction. “I wish there was some law here, or some protection,” she wrote (as quoted by Leveen). “I know the southerners pretty well … having been in the service so long as a detective that I still find myself scrutinizing them closely. There is … that sinister expression about the eye, and the quiet but bitterly expressed feeling that I know portends evil.”
In June of 1867, Bowser wrote that she had married and taken the name Mary J.R. Garvin. In July, she wrote that she would leave the school to move to the West Indies with her new husband. No trace of her after she left the Georgia school in 1867 has been found in the historical record.
All known accounts of Bowser's life contain significant gaps, due to the limitations in the manner in which the lives of women, the poor, and people of color were documented and valued. Many mysteries about Bowser remain, including the date and place of her death. Her gravestone at Richmond's Woodland Cemetery lists a birth year of 1840, and no death year is noted. Many accounts of her life contain inaccuracies or unconfirmed information. Historians doubt claims that she had a photographic memory or used the name Ellen Bond while working in the Davis household. A purported photograph of her, published by many sources, is actually of a different Mary Bowser and was taken in 1900.
In 1995, Bowser was inducted into the U.S. Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame. She “succeeded in a highly dangerous mission to the great benefit of the Union effort,” read the commemoration delivered at the ceremony (as quoted by Martin in Secret Heroes). “She was one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.”
Abbott, Karen, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, HarperCollins, 2014.
Leveen, Lois, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, HarperCollins, 2012.
Martin, Paul, Secret Heroes: Everyday Americans Who Shaped Our World, HarperCollins, 2012.
Atlantic Unbound, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/ (June, 2013), Lois Leveen, “The Spy Photo That Fooled NPR, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, and Me.”
New York Times Disunion blog, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com (December 8, 2016), Lois Leveen, “A Black Spy in the Confederate White House.”❑