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For Teachers: Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Tea and secrets

JASMIN K. WILLIAMS Special to the AmNews | 3/1/2012, 3:38 p.m.
There was much more to this house servant than just serving tea. She was one...
For Teachers: Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Tea and secrets

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For Teachers: Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Tea and secrets

photo

For Teachers: Mary Elizabeth Bowser: Tea and secrets

There was much more to this house servant than just serving tea. She was one of the Union's most important spies during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew engaged in an ingenious and elaborate spy mission during the Civil War, giving crucial information to the Union Army.

Details of Bowser's life are sketchy, but it is believed she was born into slavery around 1839 in Richmond, Va. She was owned by John Van Lew. Upon his death, his daughter Elizabeth freed all of her father's slaves. Bowser was kept on as a paid servant. Van Lew sent her to Philadelphia to attend the Quaker School for Negroes in the 1850s. Upon her return to Richmond, Mary married William Bowser, a free Black man, and continued to work for the Van Lews.

Van Lew was a staunch abolitionist and Union supporter. She used her family's wealth and prominence to help facilitate her plan but came under fire from her neighbors and other Confederate supporters. She started by taking food and medicine to captured Union soldiers held at Libby Prison. To divert attention from her very serious mission, she took on a slovenly, slightly crazy persona, which earned her the nickname "Crazy Bet." It was also around this time that she developed a scheme to help the Union soldiers by spying on the Confederate Army, but she needed help. What better place to pull this off than right at the source, in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and who better to help her than the seemingly dimwitted Bowser?

"Crazy Bet" helped captured Union soldiers escape. She hid coded messages in their shoes and in hollowed-out eggshells. She hid escaped prisoners in a secret room in her family's mansion.

For her part, Bowser became "Ellen Bond," an able-bodied but not-too-bright servant. She went to work in the Davis home, serving at functions hosted by Davis' wife, Varina. The Davis family liked "Ellen's" work and hired her full time, believing that she was nothing more than an illiterate servant, as most slaves were. It was an assumption based on prejudice, and it proved to be a gross mistake.

In the course of doing her job, the smart and cunning Bowser was able to gain invaluable information. She overheard conversations between Davis and his advisers and military officers about troop strategies and planned movement. She was able to read letters and other documents that were left out in plain sight in the president's private study. Unbeknownst to her employers, Bowser had a photographic memory and could recall everything she read, saw and heard, word for word. By the time Davis realized there was a leak in his house, it was too late to do anything about it, as crucial information had already been leaked.

Bowser passed what she had learned to Van Lew during visits to the Van Lew farm and to Thomas McNiven, a baker who made deliveries to the Davis house. Before McNiven's death in 1904, he told his daughter about these meetings.